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Savoring the Past

19th century wines show well in a San Francisco tasting

James Laube
Posted: November 9, 2004

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to taste some great wines from Bordeaux that were, for the most part, not only much older than most of us, but in much better health as well.

I don't expect to celebrate my 134th birthday. But if I do, and I'm in the same shape as the 1870 Château Latour or the 1870 Château Lafite Rothschild are today, life will still be worth living.

These two greats--along with six more old-timers--were served at the Taste For Life benefit in San Francisco, which raises money to fight diabetes. They provided some extraordinary insights into another era of wine. Consider for a moment that some of these wines were made before electricity, not to mention concentrators, reverse-osmosis machines or even consultants.

The 1870 vintage was one of the two greatest pre-phylloxera years of all time (the other being 1864), according to Michael Broadbent's Great Vintage Wine Book. "The wine was massive, but so hard and unyielding it took 50 years for it to become drinkable," Broadbent wrote. So apparently we didn't miss much during its formative first 50 years--a time before any of us at the table had been born.

What struck me about the two 1870s (beside the fact that I keep wanting to type 1970) and another classic, the silky, seductive 1900 Château Margaux, was how pure and rich their colors were and how well-preserved, developed and attractive the aromas and flavors were.

Mind you, youthful flavors at this age are really a euphemism for mature flavors, meaning that the wines all showed traits of secondary fruit essence, along with a trace of oxidation, which you expect of wines this age.

We owed these gems to Wilfred Jaeger, a 40-something physician-turned-venture-capitalist with a passion for fine wine. As a young doctor, he saw the pain and anguish diabetes inflicts on its victims, and he is particularly interested in helping to find a cure for juvenile diabetes. He also savors the experience of wine time-travel and is down to earth and plain-spoken when discussing these treasures.

We did have a couple of disappointments. The 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild had maderized. This is usually a potent, concentrated wine. Yet the bottle we tried appeared light in color and void of its signature concentration and complexity. The 1975 Château Lafleur, too, appeared to be a lesser bottle. Its smoky-anise bouquet showed a nutty character.

The 1961 Latour, though, was hitting on all cylinders. It offered a strong display of intense fruit and cedary-earth flavors and continued to evolve in the glass for more than an hour, providing a mix of rich flavors on a mature, yet elegant frame. It might be aging along the lines of its sibling from 1870.

The surprise of the evening came with the 1947 Cheval-Blanc. We had two different bottlings of this classic wine.

The regular '47 Cheval is arguably the greatest Bordeaux of the past century and a highly controversial wine as well. The divisiveness over this wine stems from its level of ripeness, which many, including Broadbent, have described as almost Port-like. The first '47 showed precisely that level of optimal ripeness.

The other version at the tasting was a château-only bottling, with a different label, held aside by the owners for personal use. This Bordeaux was more traditional in its elegance and restraint. I preferred it to the riper bottling. This was a bit confounding to me, given that I've long considered the regular 1947 one of my all-time favorite wines.

A couple of thoughts crossed my mind as the tasting ended.

One is that when a wine ages as long and as well as most of these had, it is proof that the wine had to be perfectly balanced when it went into bottle. There's no way they would endure for decades were they unbalanced, or deficient in one element or another.

Second, none of the wine's tannins had expired. In fact, the tannins still showed a strong presence. It's a reminder that while you need tannin in a wine to age, a little goes a long way.

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