Aged and Ageing wine

Martin Field 2005-10-01T01:16:03+00:000000000331200510 Wine

Among the fine reds lined up on our regular Tuesday table was a bottle of 1952 vintage Mt Ophir Burgundy. Mt Ophir was a renowned Rutherglen winery near Chiltern that shut down in 1957. In its day, according to David Dunstan’s Better than Pommard – A History of Wine in Victoria, Mt Ophir produced over half a million litres a year.

The 53 year old wine (most likely shiraz) was in a heavy champagne bottle of an unusual bluish green hue and we wondered whether the contents had stayed the distance as the ancient cork looked very dodgy and proved difficult to extract. But not to worry, the wine was excellent. In colour it was a deep ruddy brown. The nose showed leathery aged fruit but was not at all sherrified. Also there was a distinct whiff of vanilla, although it is unlikely that the wine was matured in new wood. The palate was soft, rich and dry with a long and penetrating finish and a flavour that reminded me of coffee liqueur. It must have been a monster in its youth.

Strangely the empty bottle displayed no sign of sediment or lees that I could see and that recalled to mind a remark made by Max Schubert long ago that he had seen aged reds reabsorb their lees in the bottle as time went by and I wondered if this had happened here.

In those days the wine would have been made in open fermenters at the height of summer – in temperatures of 30 plus centigrade. Your modern day, additive-laden reds made in refrigerated stainless steel tanks under inert gas haven’t a chance of lasting 50 years. Maybe twenty. Tops.

Cellaring – odds against
Which raises the question, is it worth cellaring modern wines? Most commercial wines are made in the anticipation that they will be drunk within 48 hours of purchase. Consequently winemakers fiddle about with the winemaking to ensure that both red and white wines are soft and approachable in their youth. This style of winemaking unfortunately doesn’t bode well for long cellar life. And cellaring has of course always been fraught with constrained risk.

Reduced to its simplest level wine storage can be seen as a sloppy scientific experiment. It comes down to this: you fill a glass test tube(i.e. a wine bottle) with a watery solution containing varying combinations of colouring, alcohol, acids, tannins, flavourants, sulphur and other chemicals and then seal it with a cylindrical hunk of tannin laden bark (outer wrapping of a tree), bung it to one side, leave it for an indeterminate period in an out of the way part of the house and, basically, hope that on some occasion in the near or distant future it might be enjoyable rather than toxic. A bookmaker would not see this experiment as a good bet.

Not in your favour is the fact that the organic closure (cork), if not already tainted when new, will eventually rot and let wine out and air in thus speeding up the deterioration process. Further, every prolonged ten degrees centigrade increase in storage temperature will roughly halve the life of the wine. Exposure to light will exacerbate this decline.

Which is not to say that the bet doesn’t sometimes pay off. There are few greater delights that drinking an old wine that has aged gracefully – like the Mt Ophir – despite the considerable odds against it. I can recall some memorable examples, like a Kopke Vintage Port 1945; a few bottles of Seppelt Sparkling Shiraz 1946. The Moulin Touchais (chenin blanc) 1945 and 1955. Yalumba Riesling 1934 and a 1930s blend of Sercial Madeira, bottled by Jimmy Watson.

But the few classics I’ve been lucky to taste have been far outnumbered by murky brown, tired old things that have long since lost their fruit and vibrancy. Sure it’s interesting to try museum pieces for their curio value – but that rarely outweighs the disappointment factor.

My solution is to drink most reds and whites in the first five or so years after release. And when I buy these days, all other things being equal, I look for wines sealed with screw caps and avoid corked bottles.