Delicate intimations of decay

The wine was brown – undeniably dark brown, and also somewhat muddy from suspended fine sediment – lightening to a pale olive green rim. Not a great start, but shut your eyes and the aromas enticed wonderfully: some truffle and mushoom, forest undergrowth and gaminess, even delicate hints of bruised strawberry. The complex flavours came through with great freshness, with finesse as well as force. Tannin and acid subtly informed the whole – contributing to the serene, lovely, glowing harmony that a fine mature burgundy can offer.

Oh, and the wine was 90 years old, adding half a century to the age of the oldest burgundy I’d had until then.

The place was the Wine Theatre at the Johannesburg Wine Show in unlovely Midrand. The occasion was a tasting organised for the show by Joerg Pfuetzner – perhaps the country’s leading and most enthusiastic impresario of extraordinary tastings of fine and rare wines (and one of its greatest drinkers of them) . This Joburg Wine Show tasting celebrated a century of wine, via the vintages ending in a 9 (all of them good), from the infant 1999 (represented by Roeder Cristal champagne) back to venerable 1909 (Armagnac Vaghi from Baron de Signonac, bottled in the 1980s). It was a result of the imaginative vision of the Show’s John Woodward, and above all of Pfuetzner’s skill and hard work in selecting and sourcing a viable tasting line-up. And of a great of money spent, notably with specialist dealers in London.

The burgundy that for me was a genuine highlight – and was a revelation of wine’s vitality and greatness for the dozen of us privileged to be present at the tasting – came from the great Corton vineyards of the Côte d’Or. It was bottled for the St Petersburg Hotel in Paris (the vigneron unknown), and embodied the sunshine of the excellent 1919 vintage. One’s mind goes fuzzy trying to comprehend that just a year before the grapes were picked to turn into the wine in our glasses, the carnage of the First World War was finally coming to an end. The bottle had been recorked in London in 2001, incidentally, which explains the shiny newness of the wax seal in the pic.

This blog is name-dropping indeed. The other wines we tasted were as follows:

  • Château Cos d’Estournel St-Estèphe 1929
  • Massandra Gurzuf Rose Muscat 1939
  • La Tour Blanche Sauternes 1949
  • Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva 1959
  • Baron Thenard Le Montrachet 1969
  • Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 1979
  • Kanonkop Pinotage 1989

Old wine is not to everyone’s taste, of course. The reasonable position is that, given the difficulty of being sure of catching a wine at its peak of quality potential, it is better to drink it on the way up rather than missing the best by drinking it once it has started the inevitable downward trajectory. The unreasonable position, however, is what the perverse favour: for some there is a particular joy in the faded subtlety, the refined grace, and even in the delicate hints of decay in a fine wine that is undeniably old, wine that has lost much of the vigour of youth (which can seem so brash!) and replaced it with something that is much much rarer.

The 1979 German riesling and the 1969 white burgundy here, for example, had lost a lot of the force that one could easily recognise as “fruit” and easily brand as delicious. For me (I confess, although I am one of the perverse lovers of old wine) the burgundy was just a trifle too bony on the palate, with the flesh having faded and left the preserving acidity a little exposed. I got immense satisfaction, however, from luxuriating in the bouquet of the wine. It is, of course, something else that could be regarded as associatedly perverse: that the aromas of wine can give so much pleasure that a less profound experience of taste matters rather little.

The Riesling had, like the burgundy, hints of mushroom (for want of better description, though one can use “Firn” for the German wine) that not everyone would – nor do I claim that they should – feel as a compensation for the lack of overt peach, apricot and citrus fruit. It was a most beautiful wine, with great harmony, the acidity in perfect balance, the sugar sweetness by now almost negligible in obvious effect on the harmony of the whole; the flavour as complex and satisfying as the structure.

There’s no space here to deal with all the wines in anything like the detail they deserve. The 1929 bordeaux was also in very good condition – still with hints of sweet fruit, though for me the tannins were a little assertive. The 1959 Rioja was also proudly tannic, an excellent, virile wine – lively, tense, fresh. Some withered leaves, sous-bois, but also reminiscences of red berry and the sweet toffee notes that are common in mature Rioja. I’d be happy to bet on getting much pleasure from this wine in 20 years (well, I would, if I were confident of any plesures in 20 years).

The Massandra wine is very similar in style to a local Muscadel, and recognisably so – sweet, raisin-grapey and rosy-floral – though the fresh delicacy in which the richness was wrapped would be hard to match. On the local note: sadly, the Kanonkop Pinotage 1989 (which Joerg had included with no sense of condescension, but believing from experience that this wine could stand happily in this assembly).had suffered from oxidation. In the two hours that elapsed sinced we’d opened and tried it had something of a miraculous recovery, but came across as older and more maderised than it
should have, while more than hinting at its high quality. It was, perhaps, necessary to have one bottle at this tasting to illustrate the truism that there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine: we were fortunate that most of our bottles did not betray their reputations.

To finish, and to accompany the picture of Joerg draining the last drops after the tasting in the emptiness of the hall, once the Show’s visitors had long since left: Château La Tour Blanche 1949. La Tour Blanche (despite its kitsch label!) is one of the finest of the Sauternes properties and this bottle showed why – it was Joerg’s favourite wine of the evening and, he says, probably the best Sauternes he has ever drunk: A deepish gold with a green shimmer presaged a wine of vibrant  freshness and great presence – it could easily have been 40 years younger; enlivened with perfectly poised acidity (and noticeable tannin), the flavours came in wave after lengthy wave.

Sometimes we are happily reminded that if wine is not art, at its best it is nonetheless one of the great humanist records.

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