Old wine is not to everyone’s taste. A whole generation of winemakers have grown up assuming that the primary flavours of youthful wine is what the market wants. The result has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t know or understand the taste of old wine, it’s unlikely you will care to make wine which will be at its peak years after you’ve entered the great production cellar in the sky.
In the early 2000s I spent time at Chateau Margaux with the late Paul Pontallier, selecting wines for his presentation at the annual Wine Experience I used to host. After tasting several vintages spanning five decades we settled on the 1959 as the final wine in the line-up. Paul had already been Directeur of the chateau for twenty years, during which time he had produced several legendary vintages of the great Bordeaux. However, as we tasted the 1959, he remarked: “I hope to make one wine in my lifetime which will give pleasure like this many years after I’ve died.”
This ambition is easier to fulfil when you are responsible for running a top estate in a region famed for the longevity of its wines. Thomas Jefferson imported quantities of the 1787 Chateau Margaux after his sojourn in France as US ambassador. By the 19th century the top Bordeaux reds were already considered vinous investibles. This in turn meant that they were not being made for instant consumption.
The great pre-phylloxera vintages of Bordeaux’s First Growths are amazingly long-lived. Len Evans’s Single Bottle Club consumed a double magnum of 1865 Lafite in perfect condition little more than twenty years ago. The late Michael Broadbent, who used to head Christie’s wine department in London, had this to say of another Lafite vintage – the 1870. “There were 42 magnums of it, binned in 1878 and scarcely touched. The thirteenth Earl had been a tremendous connoisseur but, clearly, he did not like this particular wine. It had a reputation for being “black strap” and it was enormously tannic, like red ink. The Earl died about 1913, long before the wine became ready to drink. It took fifty years for Lafite 1870 to become drinkable” …(Then, after a magnum was opened ahead of the sale)… “The original cork had never been changed. The level was excellent and I decanted it carefully. The wine was absolutely perfect. It could have been twenty years old, not a hundred years old.”
Making wines for great longevity usually comes at the expense of early drinking. In today’s world, when roughly 90% of all wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, it’s a sign of insanity to vinify a vintage for the grand-children of those brave enough to buy a bottle. Purchasers who do want age-worthy wine represent an absolute minority, and they are certainly not thinking in terms of decades, let alone centuries. Since the problem with making wine for immediate drinking is that it won’t necessarily last very long, the trick is to find a happy balance.
Kanonkop certainly achieves this: even the slowest developing wine in the range, the cabernet, can be approached within a few years and it is likely to improve for thirty or forty more. Some of the older vintages of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noirs have kept remarkably – disposing of the idea that Cape pinot doesn’t age. Many of the great classics from the 1970s – Nederburg and Zonnebloem Cabernets, Lanzerac Pinotage, Meerendal Pinotage and Shiraz, for example – are tasting better now than bottles made in the 1990s.
If you are a collector, or if you’re buying wine with a view to opening a bottle on a 21st birthday, here are some useful guidelines. Look for slightly lower alcohol (13.5% or 14% but not higher) and more overt acidity and tannin in young reds. Finally, notwithstanding the injunction that “past performance is no guarantee of future results” a track record of age-ability is worth more than a critic’s boastful score.