‘The idea that older wine is better has been around since Homer’s time’

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During a March dinner for collectors at Château Lafite Rothschild, I found myself in the happy situation of comparing the fabulous 1959 with an ethereal 1914 that still had elegance, freshness, and a bouquet that leapt out of the glass. At 60 and 105 years old respectively, both surely qualified as old.

Then, just before Bordeaux’s en primeur tastings, Château Smith Haut Lafitte generously poured a vertical of reds whose vintages ended in the number 8, starting with1878. The savoury, spicy 1928 – a famously powerful, tannic vintage – was the tasting’s star; the fading, tea-like 141-year-old 1878,from a year when Disraeli was prime minister, existed primarily as wisps of bouquet.

Both events set me to thinking about why wines 50-100 years old or more hold such tantalising allure for some wine lovers – me included – even if they frequently disappoint. Surely part of the appeal is the idea you’re sampling something very rare and precious, which can, in fact, cloud your perceptions and make you lose your power of discrimination. The first old wine I tasted, an 1832 Rhône, mesmerised me until I realised it actually tasted like balsamic vinegar.

If the wine is alive and kicking, though, its sensory pleasures always wow me. Time in the bottle lets the chemical elements evolve and form more complex compounds. In reds, colours fade, tannins soften and aromas and massive flavours of fruit and wood become subtle and layered. You trade bold fruit for far more interesting nuances of tobacco, leather, cedar box, miso, shaved truffles, tar, dried leaves and more that unroll on your tongue. Many people don’t like these flavours and prefer the juicy, plump berry-fruit flavours of young wines. Modern winemaking has adapted to the point where many reds now seem approachable almost from the beginning, even when they have the concentration to age, too. Case in point: the 2018 Bordeaux barrel samples that seemed so supple and sexy you could almost swallow them with pleasure.

Serena Sutcliffe MW once told me very old wines are ‘an acquired taste’. I’ve learned you have to re-adjust your palate to appreciate old wines, just as you listen differently to a 10-year-old than you do to your grandmother.

Still, wine is one of the only foods that can improve with ageing, and we tend to give more points to those we think will last and improve for decades. The idea that older wine is better has been around since Homer’s time. But for me the biggest pleasure in old wines goes beyond taste and smell to a wider context of emotion and history. They’re liquid time capsules, one of the few opportunities we have to taste the past and travel backwards into another era.

There’s a Sleeping Beauty syndrome appeal, too: the idea that the wines have been forgotten, then reawakened. Last year, I tasted a tangy, dry sercial Madeira from 1846 that had been hidden in the attic of a New Jersey museum. That was the year Sonoma started a rebellion against Mexico and proclaimed the Bear Flag Republic of California.

As I sipped the Smith Haut Lafitte 1878, though, I thought about what a gamble an old wine is. The risk/reward ratio is tilted heavily toward risk. Will it still be pleasurable to drink– or not? Wine is fragile, and a lot can go wrong during its life in bottle, protected only by tannin, alcohol, and a piece of tree bark –and especially if it’s not stored at the correct temperature or it’s exposed to light.

Maybe the uncertainty of not knowing if a wine will taste like murky brown soup and smell like shoe polish, or be absolutely fabulous, gives the whole experience a frisson of mystery. It reminds me of listening to an opera singer past her prime, not quite sure she’s going to be able to hit that high note, and feeling a kind of giddy relief if she does.

In this instant gratification era, many consider age in wine an overrated virtue. Not me. Like people, old wines are not going to last forever, which is why drinking them teaches us not just about the arc of a wine’s life, but also something about our own.

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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