Tasting Old Wines

1985 bordeaux and burgundyMy friend, Ann Noble, creator of The Wine Aroma Wheel, would wince to hear me describe the wines from dinner the other night.

But sometimes, when luck allows you to enjoy wines indescribably delicious, you have to venture beyond the bounds of precise language and risk ridicule. Because, while the flavors were indescribable, we humans keep trying to communicate anyway.

This party would be an opportunity to serve a few bottles from those years when I was in the wine business and occasionally bought wines to age. The main course was duck ragu made from All About Braising by Molly Stevens with a few additions afforded by the refrigerator contents: 2 small bulbs of fennel, more herbs, baby turnips with the greens stirred into the ragu just before serving, and instead of a can of tomatoes, a quart of our homemade tomato sauce made from Golden Jubilee tomatoes.

Then we’d have a cheese platter of 3 sheep cheeses from Garden Variety Cheese: Beau’s Blend (sheep and cow milk), Moonflower, and Black-Eyed Susan. These we had thanks to the Adopt-A-Ewe program Rebecca King, the cheesemaker created last year to help support her flock through the dry, non-milking season.

Here’s how I chose which wines to serve: 1. whatever I could find. 2. An inability to decide what might be best with the food. The storage room where the wines live is chock-a-block with stuff. I looked in the easiest-to-reach box and pulled out a Burgundy (1985 Auxey Duresse from Mme. L. Guidot) and a Bordeaux (1985 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse le Lalande, a Pauillac).
There were arguments for either wine with the menu. But there was no way to tell what these 25-year-old wines would taste like (unless you have the extremely good fortune to drink old wines regularly) and if they would be any good (my storage conditions are less than ideal). Therefore, backups were required. The same box produced a 1981 Simi Cabernet Reserve and a 2000 Russian River, Dutton Ranch, Pinot Noir from Sebastopol Vineyards. The Simi showed evidence of having pushed its cork at some point; the tissue-paper swaddling had a touch of dried wine on it. And I have zero memory of how I got hold of the Sebastopol Vineyards’ wine.

After decanting both wines, I sloshed the dregs of each into a wineglass to get a first look and sniff. Looking at the Burgundy’s color, a velvet-y, brown-garnet, I worried that the wine might not be any good. The nose was reticent at first, not lifting out of the glass to greet us. But the Pichon Lalande! The only possible reaction was “Oh my god!” The wine had a deep, robust color, and simply amazed us with its scent.

At this point in a wine’s life, it seems to me appropriate to use the term “vinous” to describe aroma and taste. It means, in essence, that the components that might once have been described separately when the wine was young, for instance scents of cherries and licorice or characteristics such as tannin levels and acidy, have blended together during its long bottle aging into a seamless whole.

Both wines were mind-bendingly delicious to drink. As it aired, the Burgundy grew in power and complexity but never lost its rounded grace. And it passed the table test: the bottle was empty when we stood up from dinner.

And the Pichon? An intense, muscular, powerful wine that maintained its balance with confident elegance. Only a small sip remained at the end of dinner. Which was best? Who cares.

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About Penni

Over 30 years as a food and wine professional, writer, and editor.

Cookbook author including:
'The Tra Vigne Cookbook' for Michael Chiarello,
'The Basque Kitchen' for Gerald Hirigoyen
and 'BurgerBar' for Hubert Keller.

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