It was all about age on Fathers Day

A truly great wine experience is often a combination of a great wine and the perfect moment to enjoy it. I had one of these on Father’s Day.

I thought it might be fun to share some of the stresses and sublime rewards of opening a bottle of wine older than many wine bloggers (though not this one), because although they are fairly rare, they are not necessarily impossible to find or afford.

Father’s Day is already a great indulgence, with a lie-in, gifts and cards from the kids, and not having to toss a coin to decide the designated driver for the drive home. I was given the opportunity to select the wine to accompany the delicious roast beef (Mum’s Aga-cooked meals with lots of home-grown vegetables are already wonderful), and so I headed off to the wine rack to explore.

Fortunately, some months ago, I divided up and labelled my father’s small collection into:

  • D: Drink
  • S: Special (can drink now, but it will keep, and make sure I am invited)
  • K: Keep (it will be better with a little more age)

… so it was the turn of an “S”. 

I found a bottle we bought together as part of a mixed case of single bottles of old vintages when we were living in Logroño, La Rioja, during the 2008 vintage. This was a Viña Ardanza, La Rioja Alta, 1981 the same wine I tasted the 2000 vintage of recently. 

The wine looked in great shape for something that had been in the bottle for almost 30 years, though I was getting mixed messages. First, the most obvious, was the ullage, which is the gap between cork and the top of the wine. If this is too great, it indicates that wine has escaped, and oxygen has probably got in. This was almost normal (GOOD).

The cork was moist (GOOD), a little too moist (BAD), and was loose enough to move if you pushed it (BAD). Not really a great sign, but not a killer. In the end it split as I pulled it out (needed a Butler’s Friend really), but it wasn’t crumbling (GOOD), and the last section made a VERY satisfying POP! as it came out (GOOD). 

The moment of truth. A quick sniff … and … oh, yummy!

I decided to decant it. Old Rioja doesn’t have a great deal of sediment, but the wine had been locked in the bottle for 30 years and a breath of fresh air before drinking seemed only fair.

The colour was no longer the purple of young Tempranillo, nor the normal brick red of aged Reserva Tempranillo. This was definitely autumnal leafy brown, rusty and almost see-through, with a hint of reddishness in the centre to stop you wondering whether it was just oxidised (and effectively rusted to death).

Sniffing the glass brought to mind all sorts of images of things that would normally be warning sings that something was wrong, because most wines are mean to be drunk young and fruity these days. This wine was anything but, yet it was still vibrant in that it tasted “right”, despite having characters we might balk at normally.

The smell was really rich, balsamic, with hints of mushroom and lots of cedar and bit of damp bark, but in the same sense that a damp forest smell can be both fresh, clean and alive, yet also decomposing. The aromas were of spice not fruit, also a bit nutty. A world away from those wines that bring to mind little more than fruit cocktails. 

The revelation when we tasted it was the absolute velvety smooth feel, with soft tannins, but yet a freshness from the acidity that showed that this was a wine that had the backbone to survive all this time. There was something sweet and bright, with an impression of pepper on dark fruit, that added to the complex flavours of the cedar wood. And to top it all, it had what we call in the trade, “great length” – which means the flavours seemed to linger in your mouth even after swallowing, so the impression remained clear for ages.

This may seem a little over the top as a description of a single wine, but there are moments that remind you that wine is something special, evolving, and rewarding, and that drinking it at the right moment, in the right circumstance is a privilege to savour rather than something you can programme, and this was one of them.

I urge you to do a little digging and find wines from special years (birth years, wedding dates, memorable events) to savour with friends and family. They are not everyday wines, but you’d be surprised how affordable they are for such memorable experiences.

I trust the other fathers out there had memorable moments with their families too. Cheers lads!


Update: Some places to buy older vintages by the bottle:

  • SauternesSteve
    June 22, 2011

    Vina Ardanza is a lovely Rioja – I remember selling this vintage years ago and I am not surprised that it has stood the test of time. My father and myself shared a bottle of 1996 Ch La Tour Blanche (no surprise there then) which was in pretty good nick too. Sauternes are excellent wines for anniversaries and special days as they generally age really well and are not too expensive either. They can be enjoyed on their own or with food. We went with strawberries, cream and Chocolate St Emilion but the wine would have gone just as well with a crispy roast chicken!

  • Tom Parnell
    June 22, 2011

    Great post about (yes) a wine that just edges ahead of me in the age stakes. I didn’t think it remotely over the top to write at such length. Then again, I am hardly an avid devotee of brevity, myself…I enjoyed the damp forest simile.