22 Nov 2012

Some reflections on old wines

An experience that I had yesterday, during a tasting of wines from Chinon (Loire Valley) has lead me to reflect a bit on the question of the ageing of wine, its role and implications, but also its limits.

For those of you not especially totally tuned in to the wonderful world of wine, I should explain that Chinon is a French wine appellation (ie a designated wine-producing area with its specific territory and production rules) that lies on the south side of the river Loire, along the banks of one of this river's affluents, the Vienne. This is about 40 kilometers south and west of the city of Tours. But these thoughts, although triggered off by yesterday's experience when tasting some older (and younger) wines from Chinon, is not really about Chinon as an appellation, as I think that I could have had a very similar experience with wines from many other places.

It is also worth noting that the red wines of Chinon (there is also a little white, made with chenin blanc) are virtually 100% cabernet franc in terms of their grape variety, even if cabernet sauvignon (which is an offspring of cabernet franc anyway) is authorised in the appellation to the tune of 10% maximum. Cabernet franc, which originated in the basque region of south-west France before migrating up along the Atlantic coastline, first to Bordeaux and then up the Loire via the port of Nantes, is reputed for the longevity of its wines. And indeed I tasted, earlier this year some excellent examples of very old cabernet franc wines, going back to the 19th century, from the neighbouring appellation of Bourgueil on the north bank of the Loire. So yes, these wines can age very well.

The oldest vintage of Chinon tasted was a 1959 Clos de l'Echo from Couly-Dutheil : quite a disappointment, like most of the other older vintages from various producers.

The "old" vintages of Chinon that I tasted yesterday were not as old as many of those I tasted, back in May in Bourgueil. They ranged between 1959 and 2004. You may note that I use the word "old" between inverted commas here. This is simply because the word is nearly impossible to define. What is "old"? And one could ask the question of a wine as of a human being. I suppose it means "older than the average". In that case it's definition would depend upon where the line of "average" is situated. In the case of wine, and particularly wines from Chinon, these are usually drunk nowadays before they have reached the age of five years. Hence any Chinon over, say, seven years old, could be qualified as being "old" for our purposes here. This tasting indeed showed a majority of wines from vintages between 2005 and 2011.

One of the signs of a great wine is its capacity to age gracefully. One could say the same of a human being, and this is not the only direct comparaison that I will make between these two entities. Wine is unstable, chemically and physically ; by which I mean that it evolves in time in terms of its colours, aromas and flavours. Somebody used to drinking young red wines, for example, may be quite disconcerted when faced for the first time with the contents of a bottle that has been resting in a cellar for 20 or more years. The colour has moved from purple to brick-red or maybe even brown. The aromas are no longer reminiscent of fresh fruit, but are much harder to define and possibly closer to jam, cigars, pencil shavings, leaves on the ground in the autumn and all kinds of stuff. And the flavours will seem softer, more mellow, maybe a tad sharp at the edges as the acidity shows through, but rarely aggressive, and with a texture that is smoother, like an old piece of furniture that has, ingrained, the patina given by time and polishing.

So what happened in this tasting of older bottles of Chinon? Well, in a nutshell, I was very disappointed by them all. They appeared weak and thin, with acidity well on top of all the others flavours that I was expecting. Some seem oxydized in an excessive manner, or with vaguely unpleasant metallic whiffs on the nose. Several were also still quite hard and austere. What they all lacked was depth, volume, fruit (even sublimated by time) and the mellowness one expects from senior citizens. Tasting from older to younger, I had to wait until I got to a couple of wines from the very fine 1990 vintage to taste something that I really liked (both were from the excellent producer Charles Joguet). And even after then, coming closer to our present moment, there were another series of very weak and uninteresting wines until I got to the 2005 vintage. In all, I tasted 11 wines from different producers of Chinon dating from between 1959 and 2004, and I only felt that I would enjoy drinking two of them! And these wines had been selected by various sommeliers and other wine retailers as having represented, for each of them, the most memorable bottle of Chinon they had experienced. What could explain this let-down?

You do not have to leave your bottles of Chinon to age in their orignal (and often trogloditic) caves, like those in this photo, but it will probably prolong their active life.

Firstly, of course, individual tastes vary enormously : one person's meat is another's poison and so on. Then we do not know at what age these bottles had been tasted by the person who selected them : past joys may not always last that well. But the main reason, I suspect, is that these bottles had been transported recently from their producers' cellars to Paris and not been given sufficient time to rest before being offered for tasting. When I tasted many older, much older, vintages of wines from Bourgueil from a single producer in that appellation (which is very close to Chinon and uses the same grape), I did so, with some friends, in his cellars from which the bottles had never been moved. I think that therein lies the difference : you do not shake up old wine with impunity, any more than you would inflict such treatment on old people. They (old wines and old people) can be marvellous, profound, graceful, wise, whatever; but they are physically fragile. And if you do inflict such treatment on them, it is essentiam that they have sufficient time to recuperate before testing (I mean the wines). Of all the many great tasting experiences that I have had with old wine, nearly all have been with bottles that have either never moved from their place of birth, or else have been resting in a cool cellar for many years and were tasted without having been carried further than from cellar to table in the same house, and with some care. For example, I recently drank the last bottle remaining in my cellar of a 1985 from the Chinon producer that I mentioned earlier, Charles Joguet, and it was utterly beautiful : incredibly youthful in the purity of its fruit flavours, yet softened by the years until it just melted in the mouth. It was sublime. Yet I can say that about none of the older wines tasted yesterday in a Paris restaurant, and I can only put this down to recent transport and insufficient rest. 

Francois Rabelais, a native of Chinon, is probably laughing in his grave and saying: "shut up and drink up".

By the way, the younger wines of Chinon I tasted afterwards were fine, and I will be writing about them shortly. This could well signify that you can shake up youth a bit more than you can age.