How good can a century-old bottle of wine be?
You can stir up any gathering of wine enthusiasts by bringing up the subject.
It is true that if a wine, however great, is subjected to a lot of travel, abrupt temperature changes or unsuitable storage, its life expectancy will be drastically shortened (except for fortified wines, such as Madeira, port and sherry, but it is the brandy in them which is responsible for durability).
But if it travels little, or better yet, never leaves its original cellar, is properly cared for, refilled – sacrificing other wine of the same vintage – and recorked every 25 to 30 years, it may keep a century and more, especially if it is a richly tannic Bordeaux.
Thanks to Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who extended an invitation through his manager Philippe Cottin, I had the chance, along with three other Americans, to put theory into practice at a tasting lunch at Château Mouton-Rothschild.
After a preliminary tasting of the promising 1970 and 1971 from the barrels and a little champagne to clear the palate, the six of us (including Mr. Cottin's assistant, Alain Maurel) sat down to a simple but well-prepared lunch whose sole function was to set off the wines, which must be the despair of the cook whose best efforts are frequently overshadowed by the outstanding collection of wines here.
The meal consisted of a truffle omelet, roast duck with vegetables, avocado and lettuce salad with almost no vinegar in the dressing, cheese and a strawberry sherbet. But my attention was given over completely to what was poured successively into the wine glasses arranged in an upside-down V in front of my plate, each leg of the V representing a different century's wines.
First was a 1961 Château Mouton-Baron-Philippe, a fifth growth of Pauillac, which served as a sort of rinse between the other wines and as a comparison between the present and past.
The next three wines were served simultaneously: a 1929 Pichon-Longueville (Comtesse de Lalande), a second growth of Pauillac, a 1926 Château Latour and a 1924 Châeau Margaux. Curiously enough, only the first and youngest of the three, the Pichon-Longueville, was in decline, with a distinctly overripe bouquet and taste. It was the only bottle in which anything remained at the end of the tasting some four hours later. The '29s are generally said to be on their way out after a glorious past.
The '26 Latour was powerful wine, with a rich bouquet that opened slowly during the meal, while the '24 Margaux was more elegant and delicate, with a full bouquet of flowers and fruit.
Next, at the apex of the V of glasses, was poured a 1900 Château La Lagune, a third growth of Médoc. It still had good color but was becoming very brick-toned while the previous wines had this color only at the rim. There was a touch of operripeness in the bouquet but it was incredibly fruity and delicate in taste especially for a third growth.
Then down the other leg of the V appeared a series of Moutons – 1899, 1895 and 1878. The first was regal and opened gradually into a rich wine that was obviously destined to last a long time yet. The second was also rich and still tannic with plenty of fruit, but it was somewhat overshadowed by the '99.
Oldest of all, the 1878 Mouton was coffee-colored with a garnet-red heart. The bouquet was beautifully rich, reminiscent of fine, old leather and the taste was fruity and still tannic with a long finish, although it had been decanted an hour before lunch and had now been open for five hours. There was nothing worn out about it, despite its 94 years.
Yet for sheer taste sensation the oldest was not the best. It was a 1921 Château d'Yquem, which is thought to be the finest wine Yquem, and hence Sauternes, ever made. It is hard to imagine anything more luscious. Despite an amber color darker than old Armagnac, this once white wine was almost fresh, as if all the flowers and fruits of the earth were exploding in it.
We came down to earth with coffee, and an 1848 cognac sent us off ready to defend the excellence of old wines.