120 YEAR OLD WINE
There is an ancient Jewish greeting, “May you live to 120”. This arises from the fear that the Angel of Death, on hearing one’s age, will decide that person is old enough and will take his or her soul. To avoid this one deducts one’s age from 120 and gives the difference as the number of years yet to live. So, if you ask a 40 year old his age his reply will be “I have 80 years to go”.
Imagine, then, my amazement when I found wines which were older even than 120 years! Had they successfully cheated the Grim Reaper?
During the summer of 2012 my wife and I were invited by friends in the little French village of Troo to see their home and ancient cave.
Troo is a troglodytic warren 166 kms south of Paris in central France’s Loir. Here the population of the “village of rabbits”, as Julius Caesar called it in 52BC, had been living in limestone caves together with their maturing wines for uncounted years. Our friends’ families had been in Troo for only 60 years so they were newcomers, and much younger than the wine they found reposing in their caves when they bought their property.
What we found in one of the large caves was a section, separated by an old iron gate, in which lay several dozen mould covered bottles which still held wine laid there over 120 years ago.
Think of it. The oldest bottles were laid down in 1870.
In 1870 Imperial France was at war with Prussia and the Second Republic under Napoleon III came to its end with Napoleon III’s surrender at Sedan. As tens of thousands of French and Prussian soldiers lost their lives on the battlefield the green vineyards flourished around Troo.
As the smoke and dust settled over Europe the grapes were peacefully harvested, pressed, fermented, aged and bottled and laid to rest in these same caves by diligent farmers looking forward to the dawning Third Republic with Leon Gambetta’s promise of liberty rather than glory. Certainly something worth celebrating with a good glass of wine.
Here the ageing bottles lay as time and Europe rolled on with history passing them by as if the world were in the same repose as they enjoyed. And that was over 100 years ago. As they approached their 15th anniversary Alfred Nobel set aside his estate to establish the Nobel Prize, Swarowski began production of his gorgeous crystal glass, and Louis Lumiere showed the first moving picture film in Paris. As they reached their 21st year the first Metro line was inaugurated in Paris and the Olympic Games there excited the population. By the time the wine had slept for 30 years or so the world had entered the 20th century and in faraway America the first great Texas gusher ushered in an age of wealth and demand for fine wines. When the wine reached 40 Louis Bleriot became the first man to fly across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft. Not long after that Europe entered into a fearful period of wars, the infamous trenches stretched across battle torn Europe. Another war and Maréchal Pétain shook hands with Hitler, just a few miles away from the ageing bottles, at Montoire. The wine slept undisturbed through all this, and through the peace celebrations when many bottles were sacrificed, giving up their spirits to revive those of others.
And so the years passed and generations slipped by. Rulers came and rulers went. Some became famous and some forgotten. New discoveries abounded. The world became bigger yet smaller, safer yet more dangerous, freer yet more frustrating. Still the wine lay still in the cool peace of the cave oblivious to the new varieties, the new techniques the new markets. Waiting only to be appreciated.
Wine tasting is a pretty simple act but is only a small part of appreciation. To taste one needs no more than to roll the wine over one’s tongue sensing sweetness on the front, bitterness on the back, sour on the sides and salt in the centre and then full on the tongue with a slow intake of air bubbling through the liquid to fill the retronasal passage with the aroma.
But there is more than this. The more committed taster will look first at the wine and enjoy the colour, judging age and acidity from the hue and the flow of its tears. Swirl it in the glass to check the colour at the edges and to coat the sides of the glass with as much liquid as possible so as to release the maximum of aroma. Only then will they taste the wine and with an emptied mouth experience the true quality of the wine in the Caudalie lingering in all the sensory passages of taste and smell and filling the head with aroma.
Even this is not all is not enough. Full appreciation of a wine, especially an old wine, lies also in the imagination and the anticipation. The awareness waxes in the mind and wanes in the senses. A good wine is appreciated for what it enfolds. Anticipations of different wines differ according to the variety of grape, the area of origin, the reputation of the producer, the age of the wine and each of these goes deeper still. The more one knows about the wine the more one can appreciate in its depth.
One looks not just at the colour of the wine but through it as through a magic philtre. One pauses to see in the mind’s eye the vineyards, the surroundings, the sun, wind and rain, the leaves, the fruit. One feels the depth of the roots seeking in the soil those rare elements which will create their unique flavour. One feels the weight of the years of maturation.
My friends have been curious to know what 120 year old wine tastes like. Surely no wine can survive that long especially if not specially cared for. This wine had lain for 120 years, more than an imagined lifetime, so what did I taste? Was it an elixir of the gods? Was it vinegar? Was it gritty poison? Was it amber warm in colour? Was it clear and colourless? Was it dull and dismal? Did the liquid flow in golden drops? Was it thick and viscous? Did it smell like an angel’s breath? Like a farmer’s armpit? Like rotten fruit? Was it acrid, rancid, fetid?
It would be miracle enough if after 120 years it were still potable, still resonating the echo of the grape, still clear and rich in colour.
Very carefully I took the bottle from the rack. Should I draw the cork without moving it and decant the wine? I did not know. I had looked carefully at the blackened end of the cork encased in a crusty layer of old seepage. I couldn’t know whether it would be possible to draw the cork or not and what would happen to it when touched by the point of the corkscrew. I couldn’t know whether the spiral would simply slide into a soft mass, if the cork would disintegrate entirely or whether the corkscrew would simple pull out again with a few grains of cork drilled out in its core.
I resolved to allow caution to win over instinct. Ever so gingerly I removed the bottle and placed it in a cradle. I should have left it there for a fortnight before doing anything more but after 120 years of waiting I was impatient. Ever so gingerly I pricked the top of the cork with the screw and turned it slowly, applying the least pressure possible. In it went with little, but reassuring, resistance. A few turns and that was it. Now for the second test, withdrawal. Holding the neck of the bottle very gently, but firmly, I began to draw the corkscrew out of the bottle. Would the cork come with it? The result was a compromise. Half the cork came out with the spiral and half remained in the neck of the bottle. That was good enough for me as it meant that the corrupted and perhaps contaminated part was clear of the liquid and what remained was, at least, clean and had been well sealed. I removed the clean part most unprofessionally and won’t boast about my act of impatience.
Pouring was easy enough, in fact the wine could have been a fresh bottle and all I had to consider was possible sediment.
The rest of the experience I will not describe as this would rob your imagination of its own banquet. It would be tasteless to transport you where you can go in your own imagination.
How could I describe the feelings and fragrances, the heat and the cool, the sunrises and sunsets, the surge and denouement of the senses without spoiling your own experience? I hope that the photographs will stimulate your fantasies enough for you to have your own, personal, sensation.
I drank not the wine but the ancient vineyards, the farmers working in the fields, the families praying and playing in the chambers above, the barrels and bottles gathering dust and mould. My consciousness was filled with the years, the lives, the events and seasons which passed over the recumbent bottles.
And then, the Caudalie. However great a wine the lingering sensory finish can last in the taste buds a few minutes at most. The greatest reward is to hold the experience in the mind and this one can do for a lifetime.
And finally. Though I may live to 120, this is an experience I can never repeat, an anticipation and a joy I can never again encounter. Only once in a lifetime, and even then only if one is extraordinarily lucky, can one taste a 120 year old wine for the first time!