As Americans we are fascinated with the old and the ancient. Perhaps because we are so young a country ourselves, with few and scattered historic sites and even less truly ancient ones. This fascination is what keeps museums open, what keeps tourists wandering the streets of cities like Saint Augustine and Santa Fe. It keeps certain books on the shelves of our stores and keeps many movies playing in our theaters. Most notably and recently, Indiana Jones. One of the great heros of American cinema, an adventurous boy who became a professor of archeology. A field which allowed him to travel to faraway lands, befriend exotic people and risk his life fighting to procure old, dusty artifacts that had been sequestered in the darkened corners of tombs and catacombs for centuries. In reality, archeology is not quite as exciting and glamorous as Spielberg and Lucas would have us believe. It is in fact a lot less leather jackets and fedoras, swashbuckling fights and being chased by Nazis through jungles and much more sweat and dirt stained t-shirts, painfully meticulous digging and precise grid-systems. So what can one do to satisfy the desire to convene with the old? How can a normal man or woman have the same feeling that Indian Jones had when he finally held the holy grail in his hands at the end of The Last Crusade? (without the effect of the cave in which he had entered collapsing around him and almost killing him) Buy an old bottle of wine and pop it open with some friends that will appreciate it.
Old wine can be incredibly expensive, and even
more difficult to find. It is always a crap shoot as you never know if the
wine inside the bottle is going to be any good, which adds to the fun I think.
You also rarely know how the bottle was stored during its long life, which
is very important to how the bottle is going to taste. There are only a few
areas of the world that make wine that is age worthy. The most famous being
Bordeaux followed by Burgundy. There are a few other areas of France and a
few in Italy. California wine, almost exclusively from Napa, at its best and
most expensive can be put away for a few decades. As always its best to find
a good wine store and speak with the employees when looking to buy an older
I began a tradition a few years ago of drinking a bottle from my birth year, 1978 on my birthday. I'm lucky enough to have been born in a good vintage for many areas of the world. My first few tries turned out horribly, but I kept trying. The first time I found a cheap bottle of Pinot Noir from California, there was pretty much not a chance in hell that it would still be good, and... It wasn't. The second time it was a Rhone wine, an area where 1978 was a stellar year. Still... Undrinkable. But I didn't even care, for me holding these bottles that were dust stained and weathered, with their beautiful, browning labels, was enough. The act of opening the bottle and getting the first whiff of air that had been trapped inside for decades, to me was like pushing back a boulder to reveal an ancient Egyptian tomb.
For my mother's 60th birthday I convinced my brothers and father to chip in to help me buy her a bottle of 60 year old Sauternes. This sought after dessert wine from Bordeaux is known to age beautifully in good years, as some sweet wines are known to do. It turned out to be one of the most exquisite bottles I've ever tasted. Everyone at the party was impressed, even those that didn't drink wine. The Sauternes had been perfectly preserved in all of its vibrancy, still bursting forth with luscious sweet fruit, still bright with lip smacking acidity. It seemed to all like a good omen that my mother was not so old either.
This year, for my 30th, I decided to try again.
The one area that in my opinion offers not only the most affordable old bottles
but also the ones with the best chance of actually being drinkable, is Rioja.
This area of Spain is known for holding its wines for longer than anywhere
else in the wine making world, before release. Grand Reserva Riojas must be
aged for a minimum of five years before being released, 2 in the barrel and
3 in the bottle. This aging, in a strange way makes the wine age better. It
is almost an inoculation against the ravages of time. The wines are elegant
and delicate but with a certain rustic power. I had tasted 1978 Riojas before,
and they were wonderful.
For this special birthday, I chose a Lopez de Heredia wine. One of my favorite wineries, I had had the pleasure of attending a luncheon held by them in New York a few years backs and tasted through several of their older wines. I knew they were good. They have a few different lines, but I chose the Bosconia on the recommendation of one of my wine guys at the time. I purchased the bottle before my birthday, knowing that I would be in Japan on the actual day and wouldn't be drinking it until I got back. I got back and it just didn't seem like the right time, I held onto it. I waited and waited. I was waiting for the perfect meal, the perfect opportunity. Before I knew it 2008 was drawing to a close and I still hadn't opened it. I realized that the opportunity was not going to present itself, that I had to make it happen. I bought a couple packs of Trader Joe's rack of lamb and set out to make my as yet not famous Lamb a la Provencale. I told Derek to invite one of his best friends over, Adam, a fellow who appreciated good wine, and was always an entertaining guest. We set out to make the perfect night.
We drank a few martinis as I finished up the preparations for dinner. When the lamb was almost done the moment came. I grabbed my favorite wine key and began whittling away the wax seal. I pressed the corkscrew into the cork, uh-oh, it's a bit soft. That's okay, it's to be expected. I gently turned the key until I felt it was deep enough inside and carefully coaxed the cork loose. Damnit, it broke. Also to be expected with old corks, but all is not lost, I am a professional. I manage to use the key to pull the last bit of cork out and placed it with the rest of the crumbled cork on the table.
I poured myself a small taste and looked at it. A bit brown around the edges... Normal... Still has a deep ruby center. I raised the glass to my nose and took it in. 1978, the air, the earth, everything. It was dank, but this would dissipate, it smelled of leather and dirt, the fruit was still a bit hidden, but it was there. It would make itself more and more apparent as the bottle was poured. Beyond the fruit there was a whisper of spearmint and dill which I often get in Rioja. It brought the glass to my lips and tasted. Beautiful. Certainly on its last legs, certainly old, but still absolutely lovely. I looked up at Derek and Adam, awaiting my judgment anxiously. I just nodded and smiled, afraid that if I opened my mouth I would lose some of this initial taste that I wanted to cherish. I smiled at Derek who seemed to take on a different appearance. For a moment his beard seemed to lengthen, his hair grayed and his polyester suit faded into the robe of a Templar knight. He smiled softly at me and bowed his head, "You chose wisely."