On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.

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I met my heroes: Tasting Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage with European Fine Wines

You know how people say you should never meet your heroes because they might be all show but no personality?

Well, they were wrong.

Nothing of the sort happened at a tasting of wines from Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage organised by European Fine Wines last week, where I once and for all found myself face-to-bottle with some of the wines I revere the most: Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc and Yquem. (Full disclosure: all of the wine at the tasting, for journalists and clients of EF Wines, was paid for by EF Wines.)

When Vim from the 12×75 blog (where I’m a contributing editor) arranged for me to attend, I wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of this opportunity (I even skipped a WSET class for the experience).

You see, I’ve been stalking these wines for years but have fallen short in my efforts to try them. Other priorities in life seem always to demand my money: rent, clothing, food, trips back to Canada to see my long-suffering family.

Until now.

So there we all were on the night, squeezing into dining rooms in London’s Nozomi restaurant, hugging glasses of Bollinger’s La Grande Année 2002 to start (the loan non-Bordelais wine) and clumsily scooping up sushi with chopsticks.

Note to self: Used chopsticks should not be stashed in the inside pocket of a suit jacket.

I must have been one of the most awkward-looking people there. In one hand I held a glass; in another, a notebook, pen and chopsticks, all of which required juggling every few moments depending on what I was doing. Sniffing and swirling one moment, scribbling in my pad another, then capturing a piece of sashimi when possible.

The wines on offer, covering the appellations of Pomerol, St Emilion, Graves and Sauternes, were a who’s who of some of the best chateaux in all of Bordeaux – without venturing into obscene price ranges.

The vintage in question – 1998 – was one that favoured merlot, so the outcome here is the St Emilions and Pomerols should perform better than their left bank counterparts. That said, vineyards in Graves (one of my favourite appellations), specifically Pessac-Leognan, fared better than those in the Médoc.

We started off with La Petite Eglise, the second wine of Clos l’Eglise in Pomerol. It was wonderful in its own right but lacking somehow. Once we moved up to Chateau l’Eglise Clinet’s grand vin, the thing lacking in the second wine became apparent – the flagship’s opulence. It just oozed ripe black fruits, integrated oak and great minerality.

And so the night went on and I winged my way blissfully through the wines, scribbling woeful notes and trying to post #7wordwinereviews to Twitter. Vim’s efforts were much more efficient than mine, to say the least.

Next up was the Haut-Brion and, I must confess, I went back for two more tries of this: the first poured from bottle and the second from decanter.

Many thought this wine, along with the Chateau Pape Clement, was hard, reserved, unready to be loved.

But out of the decanter it was much more alive, having shrugged off its tannic robe and revealed more fruit and personality. It expressed a hint of oak and cedar, boiled sweets and something medicinal.

The final four wines gained a great deal of praise and were the favourites for many. Chateau L’Evangile had aromas of a burnt match with fragrant fruit that was reminiscent of perfume.

But the one everybody raved about was the Cheateau Cheval Blanc. It was showing well, being expressive and fragrant, and judging by the number of people lining up for seconds, couldn’t have put a foot wrong.

It was the Chateau d’Yquem I was perhaps most excited to drink and, even though 1998 wasn’t necessarily its greatest vintage, it was still divine. Viscous and expressing aromas of honey, peaches and pears, I could have sipped this all night.

Afterward we tumbled into a Lebanese restaurant across the street for some food, which was wonderful, and we paired it with a wine from the Bekaa Valley, famous for its reds.

This was a blend of Bordeaux grapes and a splash of syrah. This was lively and fruity plus a little tannic; definitely a well-made wine we all enjoyed. At £40 per bottle it wasn’t cheap, but before you accuse the restaurant of applying a heavy markup to something that would normally cost about £9, I should say I spotted the 2008 vintage at Highbury Vinters recently for £27.50.