Late last week, a group of wine lovers gathered at Regional Wine and Spirit for a rare tasting of 36-year-old wines. Our host for the evening was Geoff Kelly, the wines were from his private wine library.
On offer were 12 wines all from the 1976 vintage, we had wines from France, Australia, New Zealand and California. Geoff prepared some notes of invitation to the tasting and notes of each of the wines themselves. These acted as an aid to orient yourself if you were unfamiliar with the wines of the late Seventies. Very useful for someone like myself as in 1976, I wasn’t even born yet.
All 12 wines were served at once in 30 mL pours. The wines were to be sniffed, sipped and tasted blind allowing for tasters to compare and revisit the wines. It also allowed for tasters to decide on their top two and single lowest rated wine without knowing the price. Geoff pointed out that the most expensive wines on show were valued at 17 times the price of the cheapest.
After some quiet contemplation and tasting among the group Geoff brought us all back together, attempting to draw out what we thought we knew about the wines, what the dominant grapes were and which were the group favourites.
My approach was to sniff and sip the wines a first time, make some notes, get a feel for each one and a feel for the wines as a group. On my second pass I attempted to refine my notes. By my third pass I was confirming my impressions, especially checking those scribbles I’d made on the ones I liked best and those I liked a little less.
What I was most surprised about is that all of the wines had some of their character intact. There were none that were positively undrinkable.
The first wine we tasted was awarded my number two placement. A pleasant wine with jammy notes of burnt cherry, star anise and spice. This very dry wine had healthy tannins and a puckering acidity. The group correctly guessed the wine belonged to the Cabernet Sauvignon family of varieties.
Wine one: 1976 Chateau Lanessan, Bordeaux France
Cabernet Sauvignon 75%, Merlot 20%, Cabernet Franc 5%, 24-months in old oak.
Wine two was put to the bottom of my list, it was an aggressive, masculine number with sharp notes of mouldy spiced wood and tobacco. Some people questioned whether the wine was corked. Again, the majority correctly guessed Cab and family for the variety. Selling for $4.82 at the time, this would have been a pricier wine as most Kiwi wines in the day sold for $2 or less.
Wine two: 1976 McWilliams Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Recognisably fermented in American oak.
This I rated as my second from bottom. There were vague notes of red fruit and oak, boiled candy and rotting vegetation. The flavours and aromas that really stood out were or sulphur and skunk. What saved it from being labelled my least favourite was the silky texture of the wine. The group incorrectly believed this one to be a Pinot Noir.
Wine three: 1976 Redman Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, South Australia, Australia
‘In the 60s the wines excelled.’
Wine four opened with really simple oak and plummy notes. On the second pass it started to reveal some more sweetly perfumed and floral notes. I even found some sticky medjool dates. Another incorrect guess from the group, who thought this one was a Pinotage.
Wine four: 1976 Nobilo Cabernet Sauvignon, Kumeu, auckland district, New Zealand
Believed to have been fermented in French oak.
An enjoyable wine for number five, still rather fragrant with cherry sweetness on the tongue and lingering star anise. There was a soapy texture, usually found in a high pH wine. One taster remarked on the presence of pencil shavings. Geoff explained that when New World wine writers identify pencil shavings in the wine, what they’re really experiencing is cedar wood as lead is odourless and when sharpening a pencil it’s the cedar, that pencils used to be made of, you smell. A split guess for wine five as either a Cab family or a Grenache, the former group were spot on.
Wine five: 1976 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Bordeaux, France
Cabernet Sauvignon 70%, Merlot 25%, Cabernet Franc 5%, 18-22 months in French oak, 50% new.
Half way through the pack, the sixth wine was dominated by oak and tobacco, it was as though the wine was tucked away in a cigar box all these years. There were soft floral notes but these were soft and delicate. A correctly identified Cab and family variety.
Wine six: 1976 Jaboulet Cote Rotie Les Jumelles, Northern Rhone Valley, France
This was the chameleon of the group for me. Wine seven changed every time I met it in the glass. Some of my scribbles highlight a floral nose and a sweet tongue, aromas of fresh cut cherry tomatoes and dark cherry, flavours of lingering liquorice and spice. I awarded this my bronze medal. The group said Syrah/Shiraz, the group was wrong.
Wine seven: 1976 Rutherford Hill Zinfandel, Napa Valley, California, USA
A smooth, clean wine number eight. I got delicate hints of fruit: berries and plums with a lot of sweet and toasty aromas. The group labelled this one a Cab and family variety. There was a minority group who correctly identified this as a Pinot Noir.
Wine eight: 1976 Jadot Aloxe-Corton, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France
On my first pass of wine nine, I got rose petals and garden clippings. There was a sharp acidity with a taste of stewed cherries. I overheard another taster murmur something about dried fruit and suddenly the wine opened up to reveal a Christmas pudding. There were a few wine industry folk in attendance, this was their top wine. The majority of tasters believed this to be a Pinot Noir, close, but no cigar.
Wine nine: 1976 Nobilo Pinotage, Kumeu, Auckland district, New Zealand
I was alone in claiming this as my favourite wine. It was weighty and silky with a lot of fruit and sweetness still present. I was getting creamy butterscotch at the front, on a second and third pass I got jammy strawberries, licorice and spice. From Geoff’s notes, “this is by far the most expensive wine in the tasting, than and now. It’s currently on offer in the UK for $NZ250”. The majority of three correctly identified this one as Pinot Noir.
Wine ten: 1976 Leroy Corton, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France
Now we get to Geoff’s top wine of the evening (his second pick was number ten, he declined to mark any as a bottom wine). This was the most popular wine on the night, a favourite for many, not only Geoff. My notes don’t reflect those of many of the group on this one. I found an inoffensive, soft wine with notes of oak, mushrooms and an unidentified spice. The spice wasn’t pinpointed by any others, apart from our host who named it as cinnamon. A failed guess, this one was put forward as a Syrah/Shiraz.
Wine eleven: 1976 Jaboulet Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Cedres, Southern Rhone Valley, France
I found most of the fruit had gone from the twelfth wine, leaving in its wake a strong, savoury wine with lots of dusty oak and a hint of spice and licorice. The group was split as to whether this was the Cab and family or a Syrah/Shiraz, those who guessed the latter were correct.
Wine twelve: 1976 Chateau Tahbilk Shiraz, Central Victoria, Australia
They still have some of the oldest shiraz/syrah vines in the world, and the fruit from these makes the famed 1860 Shiraz.