There are some superlatives virtually everyone in a community of enthusiasts locks up in a bejeweled memory box, to be opened and shown off on occasion. Your fastest mile, if you're a runner. Your SAT score, if you're a try-hard. If you're a wine freak, one superlative you can trot out is your oldest wine, a snapshot of a different world of wine than we inhabit, less and less likely to be revisited as bottles fade and disappear.
The oldest wine I've ever drunk was a 1947 Porto Rozes. This was at the Dînner des Grands Chefs that Relais & Châteaux puts on every year; last winter's was in Manhattan, and 45 chefs cooked at stations around the perimeter of the ovoid Gotham Hall while guests ate in the middle. Daniel Boulud, Gary Danko and Jean Georges Vongerichten manned the stoves. Waitstaff paraded out cradling child-sized bottles of Pommery. The Port needed no fanfare, being the age of India, Israel and the CIA.
The most mysterious of my old bottles is perhaps a still red popped just this past Friday. A sticker indicates it was Lot 049 at the 1989 Napa Valley Wine Auction. This was a 1968 Inglenook Charbono. The back label reads, "Almost unique … in America … It reflects more than 90 years of Inglenook heritage … made from a grape which in the Italian Piedmont yields a wine considered by many to be the finest of Italy's red wines."
What can we know about this wine? Some of the grapes may have been grown on the original Inglenook property, perhaps even from vines planted by founder Gustave Niebaum himself. Though John Daniel Jr., who led the estate through its glory years, sold the Inglenook name and facility in 1964, he held on to the vast majority of the vine land, so the provenance of the '68 Charbono is a bit in question. (Robert Foley, the Napa stalwart who now bottles under his own name, and others have written that at least part of the source around this time was an 8-acre block in Calistoga.)
In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola purchased the 1,560-acre property still owned by Daniel's wife. I asked him what became of the Charbono on that part of the original Inglenook property. "There were many, many varieties when we bought the property, but much was replanted relatively soon," replied Coppola. "So the Charbono went." Having recently reunited the Inglenook name with the historic vineyard, Coppola has moved toward restoring the tradition of the estate. Might a return of Charbono be in the cards? "No."
A pity: 45 years after it went into the bottle, I drank a Barolo-hued liquid, with sweet fig, banana bread, some beef and cherry notes, even a fine tannic structure. An important lesson then: Don't let uncertainty about provenance, perfect storage or ageability scare you off the adventure of actually opening a bottle to see for yourself.
As we get older ourselves, most rewarding along the path of our wine journeys is the ever-widening circle of people we meet, both because we can commune in a shared joy, and because, once in awhile, someone is game to open a really ace bottle for you. That's how I came across my oldest still white.
Years ago, as a very green wine blogger in Europe, I passed through Germany's Mosel River Valley with two colleagues. Recovering from Federweissenfest, the celebration of the nouveau Riesling, we cold-called a few wineries to visit, among them Weingut Dr. Loosen. Ernst Loosen is a guy with a lot of irons in fires all over the world, but he was home at the time and invited us to come by that afternoon, which turned into an evening of home-cooked dinner and a parade of fine old wines, capped off by a 1966 Riesling his grandfather had made.
The bottle was unlabeled—private stock—but, if I recall, the wine was barely even turning golden in color. I spoke with Loosen recently about the longevity of old-style Riesling. "The wines were all produced in old 1,000-liter foudre oak barrels" and aged like that for a year, he said. "If you taste these wines young, they're not that charming because of the micro-oxidation, the long contact in the barrel, but it gave the wines great ageability."
"My grandfather never touched a Riesling when it was not minimum 10, 15 years old," Loosen added. "For him, a Riesling was like claret."
Though Loosen farms the same six "grand cru" vineyards his grandfather did, his wines may never be quite the same. The Mosel has undergone significant climate change in these four decades. "In the old days, they struggled to get even a kabinett in a vintage like '61 or '63. Nowadays, we have just the opposite problem," Loosen said. "Now everything is rather overripe and real kabinett is very difficult to harvest."
For the oldest wines they tasted, Coppola dated his to the 1890s, while Loosen relished a Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese 1911 and a 1915 Chambertin "Vieux Cep." What about you? What are your oldest wines and the stories behind them?
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.