Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Opening old wine: the perils and pleasures

A couple of weeks back, my long-suffering wife and yours truly celebrated a signature wedding anniversary that I decided to designate  our “Penultimate 50th.” Actually, it was our 49th -- but who’s counting?

For really seminal events – like our Penultimate 50th – I try to amp up the celebratory liquid several notches. So I wandered down to where I store a few special old bottles of wine to see if there might be one with a vintage date close to 1970 – the year of our wedding.

Lo and Behold! I found the perfect bottle of Bordeaux red wine - 1970 Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou (pronounced do-crew bow- kii- you).

Sounds great, right? Well maybe not. Because when you’re dealing with wine older than most of the people currently occupying Mother Earth, a lot can go wrong. So here are a few tips you might find helpful in case you’re considering purchasing an old bottle of wine, or opening one you’ve had in your cellar for a while.

First of all, you’ll need to consider the vintage date and the reputation of the winery. I knew that 1970 was considered a very good vintage in Bordeaux. Also, Ducru has a historically excellent reputation for quality. And, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that esteemed wine critic, Robert Parker, rated it 92 on a 100-point scale. So far, so good.

But what about other considerations such as how and where the wine was stored for all those many years. Well, I had purchased the wine from a state ABCC store in the early 1980’s, and I had stored it in a cellar where the temperature and humidity were fairly consistent. In this instance, the temperature and humidity did not vary more than 10 degrees from summer to winter. So I felt pretty good about this aspect of the evaluation.

But how about the wine itself? How could I be comfortable that the wine would still be palatable after almost five decades? One positive indication that this particular bottle might still be good was that it had not “ullaged” much over time. Ullage is a term wine experts use to describe the amount of wine in the bottle that has been lost over time due to leakage or evaporation. Some amount of ullage is expected in older wines. But if the wine level has dropped down below the shoulder of the bottle, the air that has replaced the liquid could cause the wine to oxidize- and that’s not good.

And while the level of wine in my bottle had ullaged somewhat – about one-half inch – I felt pretty good about this component of the evaluation process. So now all that remained was to open that baby up and give it a good sniff and sip- right?

Not so fast my friends! There was still the issue of opening the bottle and dealing with the real likelihood that the cork would disintegrate during removal. The only way I’ve ever been able to successfully remove the cork in an old bottle of wine is by using a two-prong metal contraption called an Ah-So. To use the Ah So, you must insert the prongs on either side of the cork and rock them carefully down as far as they will go in the bottle. Then you gently twist and slowly pull the cork out.

But I didn’t have my Ah So with me at the time and I had to rely on a traditional waiter’s corkscrew to open the bottle. Unfortunately, most of the cork fell into the wine. But all was not lost. I used a wine funnel with a metal screen (that I had purchased online) to pour that old elixir through and into a crystal decanter. Ah…the moment of truth had arrived!

So I carefully poured the wine into our glasses. Then I sniffed. The aroma of leather, tea and damp earth filled the glass. The color was a kind of burnt cranberry with just a slight tint of orange around the edges. I swirled the wine and let it sit for a full five minutes before taking a sip. On the palate, the first sensation was of sour cherries, then cola and then tea. The wine was also silky, and over a period of one hour, both the aroma and the flavors became more complex and refined. To say the least, the bottle exceeded our expectations and we were both very pleased.

I’m saving one more bottle of 1970 Bordeaux for the half-century celebration next year. I can only hope that the owner of the wine ages as gracefully as the wine we’ll be drinking. Cheers!
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