A few weeks ago Geoff Kelly, a senior wine judge, with over 30-years experience and a well-respected wine consultant concentrating on wine evaluation, arranged and hosted a library tasting of old wines. Among these wines were the major draw cards of a 1953 Chateau Margaux and a 1953 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal Reserva Especial among others.
When I first arrived at the tasting Geoff jokingly asked if I was younger than all the wines in the lineup. And I was. For 9 of the twelve on offer at least. There were even a few that were older than my parents. Obviously tastings like this don’t come around every day.
With only 30 seats available, the spots filled up quickly. Some of the seats were for winemakers from the Wairarapa who, due to the predictably unpredictable Wellington weather, were stuck on the wrong side of the Rimutakas. The guy beside me remarked that they should have known and come up the night before. I tend to agree, all things considered.
Our host commented on how pleased he was that winemakers were even interested in a tasting of weird, old wines as they’re largely conditioned towards young, pretty wines. If that’s true then I, like winemakers and most of the general population, would count myself as someone who gravitates towards the young, the pretty and the fruity. Mostly because that’s what I have easy access to, it’s what forms the basis of my experience. This tasting would change all that for me. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed many of the wines.
This tasting was to be an exercise in discovering a wine’s virtues. When tasting young wines there’s a tendency for people to focus on the faults. With old wines, faults are a given. There are naturally occurring ‘flaws’ that occur with age, but the real challenge is trying to look past those slightly marked exteriors to find the beauty in the wine. Looking back at my notes I was successfully able to do this with most of the wines. All but one.
Part of attending a Geoff tasting is that you’ll be asked to name your top, second and bottom wine of the night. Due to the calibre of the wines on the night, the term bottom was adjusted to least. A softer and more appropriate term. To add to the challenge we were also asked to hazard a guess as to the wine’s origin. The challenge was all in good fun, of course.
The wines are listed in the order they were tasted.
1976 Chateau Montrose, St Estephe Deuxieme Cru, Bordeaux
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc
$18.25 on release, $172 NZD current average price
This wine was intentionally placed as the first wine in the flight as it illustrated the ability for an old wine to show some beauty. This wine is nicely structured, marrying oak and fruit with a lovely body. However, it had a far more exciting bouquet having retained some of its cassis while also having developed characters of cedar box, earthy forest floor and mint. On the palate the fruit has started to fade with a hint of acidity that has started to dial up with age. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at the wine’s age as I would have thought it was younger – it’s still drinking nicely.
1983 Mount Mary Cabernets, Yarra Valley, Victoria
46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot
Bought on release, it was “expensive”, $302 NZD current average price
The fruit on this second wine is still very present. It’s fresher than the first with a touch of berries. Mixed with it is a spicy herbal quality that verges on medicinal. The palate has more fruit, but it’s predominantly notes of old, wet leaves. The beauty of this wine is the soft body, the velvety tannins and a nice hit of acid.
Someone in the group accused the wine of being the only one to taste New Worldly. Another found eucalyptus; I wasn’t able to track it down. It’s comments like these that make tasting in a group so fun. As the wines in this tasting were being arranged this wine was seen to be so like the first that they had to be placed side-by-side in the line-up.
1962 Chateau Margaux, Margaux Premier Cru, Bordeaux
Bought from a 1980s auction, $621 NZD current average price
This wine was unfortunately suffering from TCA, trichloroanisole or cork taint. One half of the room was able to find redeeming qualities in the wine. Others labelled it as scalped or buggered. Whether the cork got in the way of the wine or not, it turns out, was very much about the palate and the sensitivity of the taster. For those who were so vehemently against the TCA the objections got rather boring.
The fruit was lean, that’s undeniable. What is there is reminiscent of old, rotten cherries and dried fruit. With the fruit driven underground, what remains is more developed aromas of chocolate, cedar box and tobacco leaf. It’s sharp and tangy, but for my palate, it’s not entirely unpleasant.
1955 Bodegas Bilbainas Vieja Reserva, Rioja
<$5 on release, there is no current average price
For me, this wine was overwhelmingly doughy. My characterisation of doughy was redefined as grapefruit tinged with blue mould when the wine was discussed. It turns out this is the key character of maturing tempranillo. This helps clarify what was a rather muddled experience.
There’s attractive red fruit and florals on the wine, but it’s largely being masked by the doughy, blue mould. The wine is thin and there’s not so much in the way of the richness that’s seen on the previous wines. However, it does have a juice-like quality that makes it an enjoyable drop.
1961 Close Rene, Pomerol
70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Malbec >$5 on release, there is no current average price
There’s a slightly deeper shade to this wine, although it’s rather pale due to age. The nose is faint; with patience, you’re rewarded with aromas of mushroom. The tannins on the palate are still very prominent, although drying and chalky in nature. The palate also helps to expose the wine’s identity with a clear plummy (albeit browning plums) flavour.
1972 Lakes Folly Cabernet Sauvignon, Hunter Valley, NSW
100% Cabernet Sauvignon $6 on release
The wine is orangey red in colour, while most of the others showed shades of browny red. It’s a rather meaty wine with tar, leather and tobacco as the dominant aromas and flavours. There’s not much in the way of fruit on either the nose or the palate. The palate is smooth and very pleasant while being slightly soapy. I would like to coin a phrase used by another at the tasting: this is ‘not a great wine, but it is a fantastic wine experience’.
1985 Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Medalla Real, Chile
Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a trace of Cabernet Franc $14 on release
Holy green capsicums! Everywhere I looked I found green capsicum. The prominence of the fruit is striking in comparison to the other wines. It’s still very fragrant and aromatic. When I get beyond the green capsicums there is a touch of spice and forest floor. The tannins are grippy, and the acid that comes with age is starting to show. All of this helps to make for a very distinctive wine. The extremity of the green capsicums pushed the whole wine down for me. Although capsicums typically denotes a wine to be physiologically unripe the supporting touches of raspberries and the nicely developed cigar box flavours counteracts this claim. The wine is not physiologically unripe, it’s just a wine that carries such a quality.
1986 Chateau Margaux, Margaux Premier Cru, Bordeaux
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, and a trace of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot $80-ish on release, $839 NZD current average price
Based on the colour alone this wine must come from youngest cluster of wine. The chap across from me made the guess that this was a Margaux from the 80s as it was showing too much Parker influence due to the simply huge tannins. Humorous and accurate. The wine carries with it not only a youthful colouring, but clear fruit and oak tannins. Cassis is there, along with a herbal and leafy character. My notes have this characterised as a puzzling wine as it’s too old to drink so young.
1960 Chateau Margaux, Margaux Premier Cru, Bordeaux
Bought at auction in 1980s, $843 NZD current average price
This is a charming wine with a smoky, cigar box character that has it vying for the top wine of the flight for me. There’s a rich, silky mouthfeel. The velvety nature is wonderful with a touch of spice, cedar and fruit on the palate along with notes of autumnal leaves. There’s a subtlety to this wine that makes it entirely endearing.
1953 Chateau Margaux, Margaux Premier Cru, Bordeaux
Bought at an auction in the 1980s, $2,330 NZD current average price
In preparing for the tasting, Geoff scoured old books and the internet for information on each wine. When it came to this one, our notes say, ‘what a reminder of the inadequacies of earlier generations of wine writing … so full of rambling romance, and so devoid of facts, as to be downright depressing now’. So there wasn’t much in the way of what went into making this wine.
Throughout the evening Geoff encouraged everyone to look for the positives. When tasting old wine the perceived negatives are all too obvious, so why make them the emphasis? In the interest of highlighting the positives I can find some generic red fruits along with nice notes of sultana. This is only detectable once you get past the wine being heavily oxidised. The wine is entirely brown and quite harsh on the palate. There were still some interesting aspects, but it was relegated to my least enjoyed wine of the night.
1953 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal Reserva Especial, Rioja
100% Tempranillo <$5 on release, $190 NZD current average price
The colour on this wine is going towards orange. There’s still clear red berry and red fruit character on this wine. It tastes very clearly of whiskey and coke bottle gummies, both of which point towards vanilla from the American oak barriques ageing. It’s an interesting wine that I just keep coming back to. The wine is showing a naturally high acidity. As part of the introduction we were told to look for a Burgundian and a Bordeaux-style Rioja, this would be the Burgundian of the two. I would love to have another glass of this or maybe a whole bottle. This one was my second of the night, which gives further kudos to my top wine.
1971 Dom Gouroux Grands-Echezeaux, Burgundy
The wines were arranged to illustrate a pattern or a definite sequence. Therefore, the final wine is unsurprisingly the single Burgundian red in the line-up. And as the only Burgundian red, this is a distinctive wine with its delicate florality and the tannins that are still popping out. The wine is still strikingly aromatic. The wine is very minty, there’s a clear tooth-pastey quality. Complexly layered, the wine continually reveals things to mix with the mint, including cedar and mint.