A rare old treat
Once in a very great while, a special occasion and a special circumstance come together to inspire the opening of a great, aged wine.
So it was for us last week. The circumstance: An overly generous gift from a wine-loving friend, who some months ago quietly and unexpectedly sent us a treasured bottle of 1982 Chateau Margaux. The occasion: Well, Christmas dinner. That, and a sense that this wonderful bottle would be wasted if I tried to keep it indefinitely in a less-than-ideal cellar.
It was a memorable wine-enthusiast experience, enough so that I hoped you would enjoy hearing about it today, as a brief exception to my usual rule of reporting on affordable, currently available wines. Let's consider it a chapter in our mutual wine-education book, answering the question, "What happens to a great wine when it's properly matured under excellent wine-cellar conditions?"
The ritual of opening an older wine begins a few days before opening, as you carefully retrieve the bottle from its horizontal storage in the cellar or wine rack and turn it upright, allowing any loose sediment a short time to settle to the bottom of the bottle.
Actually, close examination against the light revealed that there was surprisingly little sediment in this bottle, which prompted a decision not to "decant" the wine (pour it carefully into a decanter or pitcher). Decanting may be necessary with older wines to get the clear liquid away from the murky sediment, but that wasn't the case here. The other usual reason for decanting - to expose immature wines to oxygen (or "breathing") to help develop their flavor - is a bad idea for older wines, as they may already be "fragile" and might deteriorate quickly after opening.
The next challenge in getting to an older wine is the cork, which may have become dry and crumbly with age. I was prepared with both a standard "waiter's corkscrew" with a long screw and an "Ah So" type two-pronged puller, which can sometimes be useful if a cork breaks partway out.
Happily, this cork was in good condition. Peeling off the capsule revealed a relatively clean bottle neck and cork end dusted with a small amount of reddish-brown powder that was easily removed with a damp paper towel. The cork seemed just a bit soft at the end but retained its integrity and came out easily without cracking or breaking. Typical of top Bordeaux and other wines intended for cellaring, it was exceptionally long - a full 2 inches - and showed dark purple wine stains almost (but not quite) all the way to the end.
A quick sniff brought good news: There was no musty "cork taint" and none of the telltale Sherrylike scent of an oxided, over-aged wine; just a quick forecast of the appetizing fruity, earthy, toasty notes of a well-aged, mature red. No need for further delay: We poured out generous portions, filling our good-size glasses only partway to allow plenty of room for swirling and sniffing; clinked, smiled, and enjoyed.
Very dark in color, almost black, it showed a clear edge with little sign of the "browning" and "bricking" that betrays an elderly wine. Some primary blackcurrant fruit aromas remained, giving further evidence that the wine is still in its prime, although the "tertiary" aromas of bottle age are taking over as you would expect 21 years after the vintage. Initially, those aromas show as "torrefied" notes of dark toast, black coffee and tanned leather, playing a ground bass under the delicious "sweet red fruit" character of aged Cabernet. A soft burr of tannins remains, although fully resolved and just on the edge of perception as a textural element.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this wine was the way that it opened, evolved, and then gradually faded in the glass over the course of the evening. Initially showing as described above, it seemed to gain complexity and interest for the first 30 minutes or so, prompting a sort of game as one of us would identify and call out another emerging aroma or flavor: Licorice! No, fennel seed! Thyme! Tarragon! And then a lovely, ethereal scent of dried rose petals ... no, roses and cloves, like an old-fashioned rose potpourri.
Then a hint of something like sesame oil appeared, and as the complex sesame scent gradually segued from there into something more like peanut butter and the delicate roses and spice gently slid into fragrant but simple black pepper, we realized that this short, glorious experience was passing its peak. As we passed the one-hour mark, the sweet fruit started to fade into tangy acidity, and the smooth tannins became more evident in an increasingly "chewy" texture. After 90 minutes, it was still a pleasant drink, but its glory is gone; and at the two-hour point, all the fruit has fled, leaving only a roasted husk.
Good times don't last forever, and neither do great wines ... but what an experience it was.
RANDOM THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS:
FOOD MATCH: For the record, we served the wine with a small, one-bone standing-rib roast (organic, grass-fed beef, no mad-cow worries here). It was a classic match for Bordeaux, but to be realistic, a wine of this special nature is best enjoyed all by itself, taking center stage for an a capella aria with no supporting players needed.
LET'S BE CRASS: How much is this stuff worth? It's really not good manners to ask this question about a gift, and I really didn't want to know before we pulled the cork and disposed of the bottle's contents in the only appropriate way. But from a wine enthusiast's standpoint, it's worth noting how "collectible" wines increase in value over time; so after it was too late to call the bottle back and hustle it off to auction, I clicked to Wine-Searcher.com and found ... gasp! ... that a bottle of 1982 Chateau Margaux in good condition today is likely to command a retail price in the range of $450 to $700. Not bad for a wine that cost about $50 on its release in 1984 (the equivalent of about $80 in 2002 dollars).
That being said, I don't particularly recommend treating wine as a commodity for investment. Fine wine is a volatile market, and the product is fragile; a summer power failure - or a shift in the market's tastes - can wipe out the value of your portfolio in a hurry. If you want to collect, I suggest treating it strictly as an investment in enjoyment, and buy it to drink, not to sell.
Still, if you want to compare retail and auction prices, and - if you're feeling very flush - find vendors for 1982 Chateau Margaux, try this link at Wine-Searcher.com:
WEB LINK: The Chateau Margaux Website, which uses Flash and is best viewed with a high-speed connection, describes the winery and its history in both French and English.
WHAT'S YOUR RARE WINE EXPERIENCE?
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Now, for today's tasting report, let's return to the real world, for a wrap-up of three good, affordable and relatively easy-to-find wines that we too to a friend's house to share at a Boxing Day party the day after Christmas:
St. Urbans-Hof 2002 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett ($14.99)
This pale, straw-color wine from the Mosel is clear as water. Its appetizing aromas blend musky melon and a distinct citric whiff of tangerine. Light, fresh-fruit sweetness is well balanced by piercing acidity, with a slight prickly petillance on the tongue. Crisp tangerine-mandarin flavors linger in a very long finish. Excellent wine, good with food, and a low (8.5%) level of alcohol makes for a pleasantly light aperitif. U.S. importer: HB Wine Merchants, NYC. (Dec. 26, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with before-dinner munchies ranging from chilled shrimp to a tasty selection of cheeses and pates.
VALUE: Very good value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Fine now, but no hurry to drink it, as quality Rieslings are among the most ageworth whites, and will reward years of careful cellaring with increased complexity and flavor interest.
WEB LINK: The winery Website is online in German and English. English pages begin at
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Locate vendors for St. Urbans-Hof on Wine-Searcher.com:
Chateau Cambon la Pelouse 2000 Haut-Medoc ($15.99)
This excellent, approachable 2000 Bordeaux is very dark ruby in color, almost black in the glass. Blackberry aromas add a pleasant leathery note. Ripe and accessible flavors suggest that it contains a good-size dollop of Merlot, and indeed, the winery Website reveals that the blend is 50 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. Full and ripe in flavor, black fruit is well balanced by crisp acidity and smooth tannins. Open and accessible, drinking well now but probably not a long-term ager. U.S. importer: Ex Cellars Wine Agencies Inc., Solvang, Calif. (Dec. 26, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with British-style meat pies; would marry well with just about any red meat.
VALUE: Very good bargain, competitive with Bordeaux at a significantly higher price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Merlot-based Bordeaux generally matures more quickly than Cabernet-dominant blends, and this one is drinking well now; but it should cellar well for at least five more years
WEB LINK: The winery Website is available in French and English, with the English-language pages beginning here:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Locate vendors for Chateau Cambon la Pelouse on Wine-Searcher.com:
Seppelt Rutherglen Grand Tokay DP57
The dessert wine that Australians call "Tokay" (or sometimes "Liqueur Tokay") is actually made from the Muscadelle grape of Bordeaux, fashioned in the strong, fortified style of a Tawny Port. This excellent Tokay from Seppelt is a fine example, a clear, bright mahogany-colored wine, showing rich and heady stone-fruit aromas with brown-sugar notes. Full-bodied and very sweet, dried fruit and spice, caramel and toffee come together with "grippy" acidity in a memorable dessert wine that's smooth, mellow and warming. U.S. importer: A gift from a friend, hand-carried from Australia. (Dec. 26, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Delicious for sipping by itself, but it made a good match with plum pudding and figgy pudding, and a remarkable match with chocolate-covered toffee.
VALUE: Look for it in the range of $15 to $20 for a half-bottle in the U.S.
WHEN TO DRINK: Dessert wines of this type are drinkable upon release but will last in the cellar for many years.
WEB LINK: Seppelt describes all its Muscat dessert wines, including DP57, at
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Locate vendors for Seppelt Tokay on Wine-Searcher.com:
California Wine Club
It's not too late to send some festive holiday cheer! The California Wine Club is a fun and unique way to celebrate the New Year. Since 1990 club owners Bruce and Pam Boring have been hand-selecting award-winning wines from California's best "mom & pop" wineries: Wines not found in local stores!
Each month includes two bottles of hard-to-find wine and an informative 8-page newsletter, Uncorked. $32.95/month plus shipping. Send as many months as you wish! Visit their website for special discounts on gifts of 3, 6, 9 and 12 months.
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Nat Decants: The Wrath of Grapes
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth: How much will you spend?
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: Your holiday wines
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Introducing Burgundy: Pouilly-Fuisse (Dec. 26, 2003)
Norton hears a what? (Dec. 24, 2003)
Stocking stuffing wines (Dec. 22, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Aromatic pork loin (Dec. 23, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Dec. 29, 2003