I had the absolute pleasure of visiting my grandfather last night. He comes to Santa Barbara in the winter months from Chicago. He’s approaching a century of living, and is as spry as many men 1/2 his age. I truely hope the greatest gift he passes to me are his good genes. He decided to teach me how to open an old bottle of wine. He had a ’45 Haut Brion, a ’66 Romanee-Conti from Burgandy, and a NV Madeira that had been kicking around his cellar for at least 50 years.
Over the past few years we’ve talked more and more about good wine. He’s been a collector for 60+ years, importing Bordeaux and Burgundies before they started showing up on grocery store shelves. He got a taste for it during WWII, when he was placed in charge of organizing Nazi supply wearhouses discovered during the liberation of France. Sometime I’ll get around to posting some wine related experpts from his autobiography (It’s interesting stuff).
One of his first pieces of advice to me when I told him I enjoyed Bordeaux wine, was to find a friend in Bordeaux to ship the cases to me. He was I think referring to a negociant, a wonderful friend to have I’m sure. Unfortunately Bordeaux has become a huge industry these days, and aside from moving to the town I doubt I’ll see the kind of deals he found for this delicious wine.
On his instructions, I used the ah-so to wiggle down the sides of the 66 year old Haut Brion cork. On my first try, miraculously, I managed to pull the entire cork out completely intact. It was deep dark red all the way up to the top, and smelled like heaven. Raisins, roasted nuts, black tea, a smidge of orange peel. Poured the bottle through a coffee filter into a decanter, washed the bottle out, then returned the strained deliciousness minus all sediment back to the bottle through a funnel. This process worked remarkably well, and apparently my grandfather has been doing this for 50+ years. Barely a cm of wine was lost on any of these bottles, with 99% of the sediment removed. The process also aerates the wine, making it pretty much perfect to drink.
He let me sample a small pour from each bottle with him “To check and see if they’re good.” Wow and double wow. The Haut-Brion was amazing, probably the most fantastic bottle of wine I’ve sampled in my short time drinking wine. I had a ’62 haut brion that paled in comparision (though it was still pretty excellent, it just didn’t hold up as well). This bottle had such a young core, it was amazing how dark and rich it still was.
The Burgundy didn’t hold up through the ages. Not that it was bad by any means, but that amount of age on a refined pinot noir is always gonna be a gamble. It probably also didn’t help that I had the haut-brion just before it. It still had a lovely nose, some flowers, herbal tea, mulled figs. Lighter in color and also in flavor. I only had the few sips, so it was hard to paint a great picture of it. I was so excited to even try these wines I’m pretty sure my brain short circuited and my selfish instincts kicked in. Drink it. Drink it before he changes his mind…
Finally I got to try the Madeira. Just opening the bottle I was hit with a wave of dense strawberry, raspberry, stewed dark fruits, mesquite smoke, . It was haunting, incredible, words just don’t do the experience justice. Drinking it was even better. It tasted timeless, so young, yet old at the same time. Dense flavors, unbelievable complexity, and a finish that went on, and on, and on. It had a lovely sweet structure, a punch at 18% (as listed on the bottle, might have fermented it’s way into being even stronger). It was like someone had taken raisined rock sugar, cooked it down into caramel, and added subtle ginger, zest, herbal tea, raisins, espresso, dried herbs, cigarbox… The feeling was a akin to an amazing kiss from a beautiful lover, it left me dizzy, overwhelmed, and decidedly wanting more. Through my grandfather, I’ve had the experience of trying old chardonnay, champagne, bordeaux and burgundy, and each amazing bottle has registered a single thought in my head – I HAVE TO GET MORE. Madeira, you are on my hitlist.
We finished the night with an ’81 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, a bottle I’d had once before that was absolutely stunning (also my birth year). This bottle was equally up to the task, though probably needed a few hours to blow off a smidge of funk (I feel pretentious even typing that, it was truly a wonderful bottle). We left a good 1/2 bottle of it for him to finish the next day, and finished the meal with another small glass of that amazing Madeira. A curious conversation with my grandmother revealed that Martha’s vineyard was named for the daughter of one of my grandfather’s friends. Small world. It’s hard to express how grateful I am that my grandfather is in great health, and willing to share such amazing experiences with a young, unseasoned, slightly wine-snobby grandson. I love him for so many more reasons than this, but I’ll gladly add this to the list.