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mixed case: opinion and advice

What's Your Oldest Wine?

I'll start …
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Feb 28, 2013 4:45pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

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.

James Peterson
San Antonio, TX —  February 28, 2013 7:26pm ET
The oldest wine I ever had was an 1899 Seppelt Port, barreled in 1899 and bottled in 1999. It really was delicious. We drank it at the 1999-2000 New Years dinner.
William Hyde
Tallahassee, Florida USA —  March 1, 2013 6:04am ET
I recently purchased at auction a 1972 Inglenook Charbono. The bottle is in excellent condition, and recent reports of similar vintages indicate that this rare wine is still cruising. It's a shame that that these Charbonos have been largely abandoned except for a precious few vineyards (e.g., Shypoke). I anticipate a special tasting with this bottle.
Merlin Guggenheim
Zurich —  March 1, 2013 8:48am ET
1937 latour (dead) and 1937 lafaurie peyraguey (spectacular)
John Noble
Columbus, OH —  March 1, 2013 2:23pm ET
1900 Malvazia Madeira for a turn of the century dinner. Tarry and unique but quite memorable.
Jim Mcclure
Ft Worth, TX USA —  March 1, 2013 3:55pm ET
1900 D’Oliveiras Reserva, I believe it was the Boal bottling. Our somm was gracious enough to give us a tour of the restaurant's quite impressive cellar after dinner one evening a couple of years ago, and poured us a little of this outstanding Madeira. Definitely an experience!
Paul P Ritter
San Jose, CA —  March 1, 2013 4:03pm ET
Feb 1998, for my 50th. We opened my 1948 Fonseca, WOW!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  March 1, 2013 6:17pm ET
Nice idea, Ben. I enjoyed a 1949 Chateau de la Tour Clos Vougeot around the holidays in 2000. My father had purchased it I believe in the '70's (quite possibly thinking it was Chateau Latour). This was once a very well regarded Clos Vougeot domaine. The wine was showing nicely with a pronounced raw meat character to its quite rosey brick color, dried red fruits completing the palate.

Not being especially sentimental, I had never saved a bottle but decided to keep this one, placing the cork halfway into the bottle opening that night. I woke the next morning to find the cork precisely flush inside the bottle as it had been for all those years and where it remains today. No one had touched it.

Tom
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  March 2, 2013 2:43pm ET
I have had Civil War era vintage Madeiras (1862, 1863) on several occasions, the most memorable one being a 1863 Malmsey from Cossart Gordon. A good friend in Seattle and I split the purchase price and our wives prepared a "Captain's Table" dinner based on the foods and wines described in Patrick Obrian's wonderful Jack Aubrey novels. The old Madeira came at the end of a long and memorable meal. What a treat!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Craig Plainfield
Portland, Oregon USA —  March 2, 2013 5:21pm ET
At my restaurant we have had a dessert wine by the ounce program for many years. At one point I had madiera from every decade for the last 200 years. The oldest is a 1795 Barbeito Boal. I still have it. It is spectacular.
Patrick Mullane
San Mateo, Ca. —  March 2, 2013 5:55pm ET
Had a 1865 Lafite with a customer about 10 years ago......I imagine it's still going strong....Amazing!!
Albert Fields
Stockton Ca —  March 2, 2013 9:44pm ET
In 2011, opened a 1961 Chateau Latour. Friend's birthday/retirement. Bouchon in Yountville. And Bloomsday to boot! Gotta believe I'm not gonna do much better ...
Kc Tucker
San Diego, CA —  March 4, 2013 1:13pm ET
Taylor Fladgate pre-phylloxera Scion port. Estimated age 1855. Amazing burst of flavor on the palate. Thank you, Robert Bower!

Jim Kern, Holiday Wine Cellar
North San Diego County, CA
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  March 4, 2013 1:37pm ET
I don't really go for very old wines. Recently popped one of my 1997 Fontalloros, which is among the oldest I have. Still sitting on a bunch of 1997 Tuscans and a 1997 Ceretto Bricco Rocche Barolo Prapo which will each eventually assume that title.
Ben Odonnell
New York —  March 4, 2013 4:14pm ET
Some very impressive pours all around, thanks for sharing. I updated my red today to the 1959 Château Lagrange St.-Julien, still a vibrant wine. The magnum was relabeled, but with the old design. I apologize for the picture quality... there's a lot going on on this label: https://twitter.com/BenODonn/status/308683786713956352. I asked Lagrange GM Bruno Eynard about his oldest: 1878 Lagrange.

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Eric Treiber
LaGrange Park, IL —  March 4, 2013 8:17pm ET
Oldest ever enjoyed was a 1900 Krohns Reserva Port. A gift in 2000 from a very good friend. The oldest wine still in my cellar is a 1980 D'Yquem, which will be opened this year.
Steve Smith
Troy, NY —  March 5, 2013 10:42am ET
An 1872 Terrantez Madeira that I brought back from Portugal a number of years ago. Took me 5 years to work up to opening it. Pretty spectacular.
Fletcher James
Leesburg, VA —  March 8, 2013 10:58pm ET
In 1978, the year my son was born, Monsieur Henri imported a lot of "Vintage 1900 Madiera", at a modest price. I put away a bottle, intending to drink it with him for his 21st birthday, when it would be 99 years old. We actually got to it when it was 102, were pleasantly shocked to find that it had held onto vibrant fruit and was a wonderful bottle.
Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  March 10, 2013 8:14am ET
Lets be honest here. History in a bottle is amazing! But the wine itself usually is not. The experience of opening one of these super-aged bottles heightens our senses, transforms us to another era, allows for some showmanship...and retards our honesty.

I too have been fortunate to taste very old wines (none before the 1940's)....they all taste like-----very old wines. They are either flat or taste like dirt and dust.

With the exception of the dessert wines (a bunch were mentioned in this post) it's a joke to claim these still taste great. A few of these posts actually refer to the experience being wonderful, not the taste. Thanks for being honest.

Nice post though Ben. Not only does it take us down memory lane, it allows for a, "mine is bigger than yours" discussion. I could take part...but I know mine is not bigger.
:)
Ken Scherfee
Sacramemnto, CA —  March 12, 2013 12:28pm ET
1857 Madeira opened in 1997. Mind-boggling complexity.
1968 Beaulieu Rutherford, opened in 2003. Superb, integrated cab, with no hint of old age. While not exhibiting young fruit, it presented beautiful plum, blackberry, cassis and cedar tones. 'Wish I had another bottle to try now.
Calif. cabs from mid-80's now drinking very nicely.
Pity anyone who considers cabs over the hill at 15 - 20 years.
Eduardo Araujo
Florianopolis Brazil —  March 12, 2013 6:12pm ET
I tasted the Quinta do Vallado Adelaide Tributa Very Old Port 1866 las november attending the wine debut event in Lisbon.

It was amazing!
PAUL LOPEZ
Paso Robles, CA —  March 18, 2013 10:13am ET
I was fortunate to be invited to a tasting of the 1792 Blandys Napoleon Madeira in 1987. 13 people, 13 one ounce pours, for the celebration of my good friends 13th wedding anniversary. A beautiful yet dry Bual, it filled the room with caramel and toasted almonds .
I still remember my invitation to the tasting, an 11x14 framed and matted invite, artfully done. I still have all of the press clippings from all over the nation and Madeira Island. Unforgettable....

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