Noah May on Wine: The Allure of Age
It has been suggested that one reason people choose to spend enormous amounts of energy and significant fortunes fretting over old bottles of wine, before pulling corks and carefully decanting with great reverence, is that wine is the only palatable thing that follows a life cycle that’s reflective of our own. This might sound a little eccentric at first, but on closer review, you may be drawn to the stark parallels.
Wine is alive. It is organic, and exists in flux. Great wines generally start out luminous and full of possibility, before traveling along a trajectory that ends with inevitable decay and finally, vinegar. How long and how glorious this arc may be comes down to the wine (I don’t suggest decades ageing your Frascati!), and the conditions of storage, but for the best examples, we can think in decades and at times, centuries.
We humans hate to consider questions of mortality, but let’s face it, we’re all susceptible to a similar fate. We will all shuffle off our coil at some point, the only question is how bright our star will shine, at what point will its embers entrance the most.
Somewhere along said trajectory, there may be moments – perfect junctures – where time and the right conditions lead to an expanding sense of complexity. We mortals and our vinous counterparts become more compelling, if anything more luminous and memorable, as we age.
Tasting a bottle of young Grand Cru Burgundy can be an extraordinary experience, but nothing like the experience of opening a well-stored bottle of the same wine that’s entering its third or fourth decade, when the wine’s secondary and tertiary characteristics begin to show, it takes on the ephemeral flavours that push these wines into five and six figures in auction rooms around the world.
I liken this to thinking of my children who are four and six. They are glorious. I wouldn’t change a single cell in their bodies, and relish these years and their youthful excitement at everything. That said, in time, they will age, and I’m sure, become more interesting. More layered and wise to the world and all its pleasures and flaws. They will grow into themselves, and I imagine at thirty or forty, there will be depths to them that I can only dream of now.
So what are we talking about, flavour-wise, when thinking about great old wines? This question has almost endless answers. Here, I’ll refer to a striking wine as an example – tasted recently, it will never be forgotten. The wine is a legend, “a Churchill of a wine” as was once described by Michael Broadbent MW, founder of Christie’s Wine Department.
This was a wine that until recently had eluded me, but last year, at Christie’s we sold a superb collection of rarities, and one bottle of this great wine was offered up as a tasting sample. Mouton Rothschild 1945 – the victory vintage. This is a wine that regularly features in “10 greatest ever wines” lists, and rarely achieves less than perfect 100-point scores from a range of critics; it is a wine that defies categorisation and transcends reasonable expectation of what fermented grape juice might represent.
The wine was made at the end of the war and came from what was actually a fairly challenging vintage, where spring frosts decimated many vines, so yields were atypically low and production fairly limited. Alas, I never had the opportunity to taste the wine in youth (not many still around today will have), but I would wager that the intensity of character, which came from this unbalanced vintage, would have been difficult to understand in youth. I suspect it would have seemed out-of-kilter, unknowable and overly decadent if anything. In the ensuing seven decades, all manner of magic and mystery has occurred in cellar and bottle, to leave this mid-decade septuagenarian dazzling in its appeal.
The wine was tasted after a two hour decant, a step that was risky (old wines can be fragile). No worries were needed here – the wine felt like weeklong decant wouldn’t have troubled it, so vibrant and multifarious was this wine, after hours left unfurling in decanter. The youthful notes of blackberry, ripe black cherry and cedar have now given way to black olive, leather, wild herbs, lavender and woodsmoke. Valrhona chocolate vies with aged meat and rose petal.
My descriptors may sound excessive, but if so, it is only because this wine had everything, was multitudinous, a culmination of decades of slow alchemy in bottle, leading to a wine the like of which will never be made again. On the rare occasions one has the opportunity to open such bottles, the experience must be celebrated, for never does Galileo’s statement that that “wine is sunlight, held together by water” seem more fitting.