Aged vs Ancient

Dinner with Mark O‘Connell his wife and six guests
Kansas City, Missouri
6th September 2008

Over the past six years I have enjoyed many great wines in Mark’s company both in Australia and the United States, however when he unveiled the theme of “Aged Vs Ancient” I became determined to accurately record the event through detailed tasting notes. This is something I haven’t undertaken for many years, preferring to register the great highlights of my wine drinking life through palate experience, with most of the great wines indelibly etched in my memory, however as years pass the technical elements of their individual characters becomes blurred with the pleasure of the company enjoyed at the time and the unique settings.

With this dinner were some of the oldest and rarest wines I believe I will ever have the opportunity to taste, so I committed to write detailed notes and offer my apologies to my fellow guests for not being as involved in the table discussions as I otherwise would have been.

1996 Perrier Jouet (magnum) Fleur de Champagne

Vibrant efforvecence and fresh hot bread yeastiness, delicate clean palate of great length & finesse.

1959 Perrier Jouet extra brut

Colour: Green with slightly tawny edges.
Bouquet: Maderised yeastiness and stale bread aroma.
Palate: Almost no perceived Co2, deeply aged Chardonnay still showing richness on palate with a fresh, round and slightly maderised finish without harshness.

1928 Perrier Jouet

C: Clear deep & unpolished gold, with dark green hue.
B: Delicate, slightly maderised yeast and yesterdays burned toast and maple syrup hints on bouquet.
P: Fresh, soft grapefruit characters define clean Chardonnay character and sprinkles of ‘Pixie dust’ on the tongue show some sparkle remains, leading to a clean, long and crisp finish showing enormous finesse, power & balance.

FOOD: grueyer puffs, home-made fungi pate, tomato tartin

For this bracket the ancient 1928 certainly shone like a beacon. It will likely remain the most remarkable aged Sparkling wine I will ever consume – the wine of the night!

*Both corks were quite different with the ’59 being tainted in colour and slightly mouldy, but both appeared to be composite Champagne corks which bring to question when did cork suppliers commence layering the disks, and what glues did they utilise? I’m sure the 1928 would have to have been animal based glue.

1983 Lillydale Chardonnay

C: Clear green splashes of tawny.
B: Slightly caramelized fruit with lovely citrus overtones leading hints of fresh fig.
P: Fresh citrus and slightly viscous mid palate and a long clean fine acid finish, at this stage of development perhaps a little simple against the other wines.

1986 Beaune Clos de Mouches Blanc

C: Deep green with a (unpolished) gold hue.
B: Slightly ‘burned fruit’ marmalade and musty earth, with finer esters of ‘juicy fruit’.
P: Rich and earthy fruit with slightly maderised character giving a balanced piquant depth to a long finish.

1949 Beaune Clos de Mouches Blanc (Druohin)

C: Clear deep green/gold with slight tawny edges.
B: Spicy cumquat & clean grapefruit.
P: Soft rich fruit with delicate earthy nuances finishing with lingering complex and sweet fruit over a tingling acid finish. This wine will develop for many years yet.

FOOD: Lamb rieulette rolled in spinach leaves on a bed of wilted fresh greens

Again the most ancient wine was the highlight, it’s clarity of fruit untarnished, the fine complexities and length of palate was stunning.

1989 Drouhin Charmes Chambertin

C: Clear dark Burgundy with translucent edges.
B: Earth and violets with clean ‘Cherry’ Pinot characters.
P: Clean vibrant Strawberry verging on dark Cherry with a velvety texture coating a spicy and very complex length of fine tannins and acid.

1929 R.Boyer (Maurice Drouhin winemaker) Chames Chambertin

C: Clear deep Burgundy with tawny edges.
B: Wet leaves on freshly turned soil, sweet dark stewed cherries.
P: A delicate fruit entry leads to a ‘salty’ acid structure middle with an excellent ‘Cherry’ Pinot fruit finish of remarkable length.

FOOD: Lamb and fresh vegetables

Given the huge difference in age the 1929 could carry the flag in this bracket, however not as significantly as other courses.

1963 Penfolds Bin 428 Coonawarra Cabernet

C: Deep Burgundy with clear, tawny-red edges.
B: Bright ‘jammy’ Blackberry with bramble and soft soil influences.
P: Delicate Cassis fruit lead a soft mid-palate slightly thin in body with a wonderfully fine, long tannin carrying hints of fresh blackberry. The lighter overall palate weight is typical of older Coonawarra red wines as they were picked less ripe and carry less alcohol than current versions.

1961 Leoville Las Cases

C: Dark magenta/black with tawny edges.
B: Deep chalky Cassis with slight acetate overlay & lean slightly leafy notes.
P: Damp earthiness with muddy characters to a thin but obvious blackberry fruit with a long fine tannin finish.

1870 Château Leoville
#1 Ullage to low shoulder

C: Clear amber, dark tea like colour.
B: Warm saddle leather leading to damp Acacia seed, with clean ethereal overtones.
P: Soft, spicy tobacco with musty light tannins and faint yet elegant fruit.

This wine caused much discussion as to whether it was drinkable, many thought it as too faint and musty to be enjoyed. I disagreed thinking that such an ancient product had simply slipped into a different palate experience and remained without detectable faults.
To quell discussion and to my amazement a second bottle appeared as comparison.

#2 Ullage low neck

C: Dark Burgundy with deep tawny green edges.
B: Damp earth and dark cherry/ bramble with lovely cassis esters overlayed with noticeable acetic characters.
P: Rich, forward fruit leading to a mid-weight palate of Blackberry fruit characters with a lean, slightly acetic finish.

Most around the table preferred this example and it certainly had better colour, fruit and palate weight than the first bottle. Unfortunately for me, I have a complete aversion to acetic acid character however faint, and find it dominates my perceptions and have difficulty in swallowing wine with this fault. This explains my lack of appreciation of too many Australian Pinot Noirs from ‘Big Names’ as they are often overworked and acetic through their endeavour to create a depth of fruit and tannins that are not naturally present.

I was by myself on this one, being unable to convince most present of the virtues of #1, however my logic was that this was perhaps the truest sample of the vintage as both bottles had been re-corked in the early seventies (often done every 25yrs or so in all ancient wines by the houses themselves, and topped up at that time).

FOOD: Cheese platter

This bracket of wines was momentous. The Penfolds Coonawarra ’63 held well against the Leoville ’61 however, the fact that both of the 1870 samples were drinkable, elevates these wines into a category of their own. I concluded my assessment by thoughts that since 1969 there were probably more human beings having walked on the moon, than consumed wines of this age around a dinner table.

1971 Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen Trockenbeerenauslese

C: Green, reddish amber blush.
B: Esters of perfume with a hard, slightly chemical note.
P: Medicinal characters dominate soft Riesling fruit with a mid length finish.

1921 Schloss Bockelheimer Kupfergrube Trockenbeerenauslese

C: Dark liquorice/green
B: Clean essence of lean Riesling fruit.
P: Explosive fruit on mid-palate supported by a fresh linear acidity to a long and lingering citrus finish.

FOOD: Mixed poached fruit on wholemeal pastry basket

Again there was no question that ancient was better than aged. The table discussion then ranged around why? It has long been my belief that great examples of very aged wines were virtually undrinkable in their youth by today’s standards of acceptable tannin and acid levels.

My cellar experiences support this with my collection of several Australian wines from the early 1950’s that were progressively consumed during the past 35yrs. One 1954 wine remained excessively tannic to be considered “too young” until consumed early this year (2008) when the aggressive tannins had finally softened to reveal excellent deeply flavoured fruit characters.

For those collectors of current vintages, the opportunities to taste greatly aged wine has been severely curtailed through current demand for excessive ripeness levels and soft finish wines championed by the Corporations and the wine media alike. Perhaps it’s time for winemakers to return to legitimate styles to allow great cellar aging to be achieved.