Drink the Old Stuff FirstThe Wines of Our Youth
Due to the great largess of friends and people in the wine biz, I have been afforded the opportunity to taste some wines that have a little age on them. Not ancient wines or even wines from say, before I took my first steps, but rather some wines that had their genesis in the summers of my youth in the 1970s and ‘80s.
First, let me say that any time I can sniff, sip and contemplate a wine from a time gone by, I love to try to remember the state of my personal state at that time. For example, while once looking at the burnt-orange rim of a ’71 Domaine Gros, Richbourg, I recalled that I was just entering high school as the grapes in that glass were being harvested. My go-to wine at the time, if you could call it that, was Mateus Rosé, a slightly sparkling Portuguese number that I had read was popular with one Rod Stewart, who had recently released his third solo LP “Every Picture Tells a Story,” with the hit “Maggie May.”
But I digress, as anyone who knows what an LP is, will surely tell you.
The point is that for many of us the opportunity to taste the wines from the historic vintages of the past is one that should be savored. Old wines, like, ahem, old people, have achieved texture, character and beauty that is a result of having been afforded time to mature.
Not all old wines of course. But there are special wines sourced from grapes born in vintages in which the sun and the seasons smiled softly upon them and were crafted by winemakers whose deft hands gently persuaded them to perfection. These are wines that have been nurtured by owners who kept them in pristine condition for decades. Never too warm, nor too cold. Just right, as they awaited the moment when the twisting of the cork and the rush of air through the bottle’s neck that would announce that it was time for the wine to be drunk.
My greatest “old wine” experience came from a bottle of Syrah from the Northern Rhone. Hermitage, to be precise. And it was not all that old. But the 1990 Hermitage Cuvée Cathelin, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave was one of those wines that demonstrated why having the patience to cellar and keep a wine for some time, in this case two decades, can be so rewarding. This was a wine from an outstanding vintage in a place that is as regarded as a mecca for lovers of Syrah.
J.L. Chave Hermitage is a family-owned Domaine based in Mauve, France, that has been growing vines and making wines in the northern Rhône since 1481. Over those 500-plus years, the responsibility for the grapes and the fine wines that are made from them has passed from father to son, from one generation to the next. The reins, and that responsibility, are now held in the hands of a brilliant winemaker named Jean-Louis Chave, who is widely regarded as the 21st century’s master of Syrah. This wine was made by Jean-Louis’s father, Gérard, who was the 15th generation of the family to be involved in the production of wines.
The Cuveé Cathelin is only made in exceptional years. I remember the nose was still fresh with floral notes, as though I were smelling a field at the base of the mountain where the fruit was grown. It was complex, structured, fruity, leathery, smoky, spicy and rocky. There were berries, peppers, a little chocolate and a hint of vanilla. In short, all of those things that make great Syrah such a pleasure to drink. The intensity and richness were overwhelming. For over an hour I savored my glass of wine and observed subtle changes with each sip.
I still have the empty bottle in my wine rack as a reminder of the experience, though the moment is etched in my memory. While I do not know the Bible well, I do know a passage or two that relate to wine. This one, Luke 5:39, kind of sums up the experience:
“No man also having drunk old wine straightway desires new: for he said, the old is better.”
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Inside Inmam Family Wines in the Russian River AVA.