The reactions elicited by old wines sometimes recall the proverb, erroneously attributed to Nietzsche, that ‘those who were seen dancing were thought mad by those who could not hear the music’. Though for those who enjoy them there is nothing finer, sceptics suggest that appreciation for ancient vintages is at best an acquired taste; at worst an indulgence in nostalgia rather than true gustatory gratification. Indeed, I have heard it said that old wines are truly pleasing only in proportion to the degree that they retain the qualities of youth.
Of course, as far as wine is concerned, antiquity and decrepitude are far from identical, and the aging capacity of Europe’s classic wines is routinely and considerably underestimated. Wines like Château Montrose’s 1921 vintage, Domaine Engel’s 1964 Clos Vougeot or Monnier’s 1978 Meursault Charmes, all enjoyed this year, are mature, certainly, but not old in the sense of having lost vitality or clarity. Indeed, I’d suggest that it’s only with sufficient time for their structural elements to unwind and their complexity to emerge that wines like this justify their lofty tariff and reputation. Mature, then, might be a better word to employ than ‘old’—though, admittedly, that does set my argument up for success.
With that reservation in mind, I’d also dispute the assumption that well-aged wines are necessarily an acquired taste. This year, I’ve served bottles of mature Bordeaux, Chinon, white Burgundy and Barolo to friends who, while new to wine, immediately grasped why they were so exciting. Since it was mature wines that made the greatest impression on me when I was cutting my teeth as a taster, that shouldn’t have surprised me. The aromatic amplitude, umami-like depth and kaleidoscopic complexity of bottles that have been given the time to realise their full plenitude are actually pretty visceral in their appeal.
But it would be equally limiting to deny that old wines do play on the imagination as well as the palate, whether by inspiring a generalized sense of nostalgia or by evoking more particular memories and reminiscences. The great wines of the world may be the most compelling in the glass, but they are also—and not coincidentally—the most freighted with history and historical associations: as Louis-Michel Liger-Belair observes, Burgundy’s Grand Crus (to take one example) are ten per cent wine, ninety per cent imagination.
These reflections were suggested by one bottle in particular, a 1966 Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Clos de la Bussière, bottled by Berry Bros & Rudd and enjoyed this summer in meaningful company. This was a fully mature red Burgundy which shone over lunch, bursting with notes of dried cherries and strawberry, potpourri, roast squab and rich soil; on the palate, the wine’s tannins were fully melted, but the bright spine of acidity so characteristic of the vintage gave it length and focus, underpinning the sweet but not yet degraded fruit.
Most obviously, the wine evoked rich historical associations. The origins of the Clos de la Bussière lie in the twelfth century, when the vineyard was cultivated by the Abbeye de la Bussière (today home to a charming hotel and restaurant). It has been a monopole since the beginning, and the property of the Domaine Roumier since 1953, so presumably this wine was made by Jean-Marie Roumier, who took over the direction of the estate from his father Georges in 1961—though it is possible that the Berry Bros wine was vinified from purchased grapes by someone else. Jean-Marie replanted the vineyard, beginning in the late 1960s, so I also presume that the 1966 hailed from old vines, planted when the Clos was in the hands of either the Bettenfeld family or the Domaine Marcel Graillet, its two previous proprietors (the latter destined to become the core of the newly-minted Domaine Dujac just two years after this wine was made).
But this bottle was also special because it came from the cellar of the late Hugo Dunn-Meynell, the man who introduced me to great wine. It was while cataloguing his cellar that Hugo acquainted me with some of the great clarets and Burgundies of the twentieth century, imparting knowledge with such a light touch that I scarcely noticed it at the time. As the years pass, I increasingly appreciate the extent to which his example also offered lessons in character and courtesy that I can only aspire to imitate today. Thanks to that 1966 Morey, the wines of the Clos de la Bussière will always remind me of Hugo.
Needless to say, associations like these are entirely subjective. They’re not part of a wine’s inherent quality. But their capacity to evoke the past, more or less poignantly, is nonetheless one of the most humane and melodious voices in mature bottles’ complex score.