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WHAT’S ULLAGE GOT TO DO WITH IT? – THE CURIOUS CASE OF 1928 LA GAFFELIÉRE NAUDES

John Tilson • 2/16/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

sleuth sherlock holmes

This case is all about provenance and storage. (To read Dennis Foley’s article on proper wine storage click here)   But, despite the long standing belief that the history of the wine (provenance) is the most important thing in evaluating an old wine, it is the thing that most new wine buyers have ignored. This is their first mistake. And, sadly, this includes the buyers and a lot of the auction houses and other wine merchants. Witness the recent controversy regarding a Spectrum auction of old wines many of which were thought to be fake. (To read that article click here)   In fact, I would say that most people who are inexperienced and looking to buy old wines (either to drink or re-sell) put ullage (the amount of empty space between the level of the wine and the bottom of the cork) at the top of their list for things to look for and pay little or no attention to storage and provenance at all. These fill levels (the greater the ullage, the lower the fill), the color, and the condition of the label, cork, and capsule are the primary things that are sought out by collectors, merchants, and consumers alike. It is, in fact, an unholy trinity. The accepted wisdom is the higher the fill, the better the color (dark for red wines and light for white wines) and the better the condition of the label, cork, and capsule, the more valuable the wine. In other words, the perception is that the “newer” the wine looks, the more likely it is to be great and, therefore, more desirable and valuable. In my view that is totally wrong and lost on many of the new entrants in the wine game. But, once again we have to differentiate between collectors who are buying wines as an investment versus experienced wine drinkers who are knowledgeable and are buying wines to drink.

Moreover, many recent collectors (many of whom I think are of the “investment” variety), in their desire to buy old “perfect” bottles have been duped by counterfeiters using the above criteria. That’s a real problem. (To read my article on the long history of wine fraud click here). Now old wines that are “perfect” should be viewed with great suspicion. You see, the greatest thing to look for by far is provenance (To read my article on this click here). Knowing the provenance of old wines has enabled me to have great success with old wines that I have purchased. And, a very large percentage of the greatest old wines I have ever experienced have been wines that exhibited one or more “flaws.”  I’m talking about old wines with low fills and destroyed labels and/or capsules as well as light colored red wines and dark colored white wines. But, of all my old wine experiences, by far the most unusual one of all is – The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes.

But, before I delve into that story, let me give you a little background on Chateau La Gaffelières Naudes. It is located in the St. Emilion area of Bordeaux between the hills of Pavie and Ausone. The vineyards and buildings here date back to the Gallo-Roman era. And, while none of these remain today, part of the current Chateau dates back to the 11th century. In the 17th century it was the site of a leper colony and shortly thereafter it was acquired by the Malet Roquefort family. The estate was very large and portions of it were rented to sharecroppers who farmed the land and harvested the crops in return for a portion of the harvest. By the mid 18th century, the vineyard plantings were extensive and a significant amount of wine was being made. During the 19th century the Chateau underwent a large expansion and restoration. Near the end of the 19th century the estate was divided.  Part of it was retained by the Malet Rouquefort family and combined with other vineyards into what became Chateau La Gaffelière Naudes. The other part went to the Boitard de la Poterie family and became know as Canon-Boitard. In the 20th century Canon-Boitard  became known as Canon La Gaffelière.

Although the wines of the Medoc and Graves in Bordeaux were classified in 1855, it was not until 100 years later in 1955 that the wines of St. Emilion were classified. Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc were awarded the highest classification, Premier Grand Cru Classé A. Chateau La Gaffelière Naudes was classified a Premier Grand Cru Classé B, the second highest classification, along with 11 others. Chateau Canon la Gaffelière was classified in the third highest classification, Grand Cru Classé, along with 62 others. In 1963, the name La Gaffelière Naudes was changed to the current La Gaffelière.

 

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Today Château La Gaffelière encompasses over 60 acres of vineyards. It has been owned by the Malet Rouquefort family for some 400 years making it the oldest family owned vineyard in Bordeaux. That’s staying power! Today the vines are 40 years of age and the wine is made from 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1928, it is obvious that there were different vines being grown with perhaps a different % of each grape variety being used as well.  In my book, the year 1928 was one of the “real” contenders for “Vintage of the Century,” along with 1929, 1945, 1959, and 1961. In fact, the back to back Bordeaux vintages of 1928 and 1929 are legendary.  Today I think the general assessment can be made that the 1929s were better young. The1928s were characteristically quite hard and tannic and took much longer to come around. In fact, the late Harry Waugh, a great gentleman, wine writer, wine taster, consumer, and friend told us early on that the 1929s were absolutely great after 10-20 years, while some of the 1928s were not drinkable for 20-30 years. But, the best of the 1928s generally outlasted the 1929s and turned into fabulous wines making it difficult to assess which was the better vintage. That window of opportunity probably was somewhere in the 1960s – 1980s. My friends and I drank a lot of 1928s and 1929s in the late 1970s – early 1990s. We had many great bottles and some not so great of the1928s and 1929s and, I must say, I do not have a preference as to vintage. In the years since I have drunk a lot less of the 1928s and 1929s. But, that brings me to The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes.

I acquired a case of 1928 La Gaffielière Naudes in the mid 1970s. In was, I believe, purchased at a Christie’s auction in London. The source of the wine was direct from the négociant and the wine was in a wooden box. Interestingly, about the same time I also acquired a case of 1928 Palmer again in a wooden box and, I believe, from the same source.  These boxes remained unopened in my cellar for nearly 40 years. They both were opened some years ago, about a year apart as I remember.

First, opened was the 1928 Palmer which is one of the greatest ever Palmers and one of greatest 1928s. The wooden case had never been opened. The box did not have the customary wood engraving, but rather a stamp “1928 Chateau Palmer.” The bottles were packed in straw as was customary in those days and the bottles were beautiful. High fills, no seepage, all labels showing a bit of wear, but intact and very legible with good corks and capsules. The wines I have drunk from this case have been extraordinary and very consistent and I still have a few bottles left in my cellar. This was a remarkable case of wine from the very beginning.

Planks

Then there was the 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes. This wine did not have the reputation of Palmer. And, I remember having some very good bottles of the wine from the 1940s and later from 1961 and 1970. But, generally most years in the 20th century were difficult for this Chateau, as they were for most Bordeaux wines in this period. So I really did not know what to expect. But, when it comes to old wines, I also know that the old saying “There is no such thing as great old wines, only great old bottles” is absolutely true. (To read the Retrospective Review featuring 1928 and 1929 Bordeaux in an early issue of the Underground click here). So the wooden box was carefully opened. It was obviously a very old box. Interestingly, the box had the Chateau name engraved on the end, but it said Chateau La Gaffelière, not Chateau La Gaffelière Naudes. Remember, as I said earlier, the name did not change until 1963. This is the first curiosity!

Like the Palmer, the box had never been previously opened. And, again the bottles were packed in straw with no visible strains indicating leakage – so far, so good. But as each bottle was unveiled, the labels all read Chateau La Gaffelière Naudes.  However, it was obvious that there was a great variation in the fills with some bottles into the neck and some only ½ full! We carefully examined everything. There was absolutely not a wine stain anywhere – not on the box, not on the labels, and not on the paper and straw in which the bottles had been wrapped. And, there was also no sign of the slightest seepage anywhere on the bottles. So, what we had out of 12 bottles were 3 or so bottles with neck fills, a couple bottles with top shoulder/high shoulder fills, a couple with mid shoulder/low shoulder fills, and a few with fills ranging from ½ full for 2 of the bottles and about 3/4s – 2/3s full for a couple of others. The labels were intact and worn, but none were destroyed. It was indeed a very curious case. First there was the embossing on the box and the extreme variation in the fills with no signs of leakage anywhere. But, that was just the beginning. The plot was about to thicken.

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The color on all the bottles was really amazing with no visible browning through the glass. The wine in all the bottles was also very clear reflecting the very long time that they had rested. Like I normally do with a new case of old wine, I started off with the lowest fill. In this case a bottle ½ full. I stood it up for a day and, noting that it was beautifully clear, I opened the bottle. The first pour showed a beautiful ruby color with just a bit of amber. The nose was absolutely breathtaking with plums, violets, cedar, and exotic spice tinged nuances. On the palate, the wine was like satin with great purity, depth and flavor with elegance, complexity and a very long finish. I was astounded as were the others. It was a perfect wine!5-yellow-stars This was absolutely mind boggling and from a bottle ½ full! I waited about an hour to finish the wine and it did not fade one bit!

A couple of years later Jeffrey Patterson, the winemaker and now majority owner with his wife Ellie of Mt. Eden Vineyards, was here for dinner. Along with other wines, I served him a “mystery wine”. (To read my recent article on Mt. Eden Vineyards click here). The wine I served was again the 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes and again it was from a ½ full bottle. I poured the glasses, gave him one and he remarked on the color, nose, and flavor of the wine. He was very impressed. As is my custom, I asked him was there anything he would like to know before I revealed the wine’s identity. He said “no” and ventured that it might be from the 1960s. He also thought it was a Bordeaux and stopped there, only to add that he thought it was maybe the best Bordeaux he had ever had, maybe a 1961. So at that point, I brought the bottle to show him. He looked at it and was totally surprised. He could not believe that the wine was that old and asked “Where is the decanter?” I told him there was no decanter and he replied “Well, where is the rest of the wine?” My response was that it was in the bottle. Again, he was skeptical and insisted I must have poured more than our two glasses. I told him “no” and went on to explain The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes. Like others before him, he had no explanation. As we finished the last of the wine later, we marveled at the silkiness and complexity of the wine and how it had actually improved with air. Jeffrey concluded that it WAS the best bottle of Bordeaux he had ever had and I, again, thought this bottle was perfect. 5-yellow-stars

The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière continued on. I drank a couple of the other lower fill bottles and they were all magic. And, over the next few years I repeated the story of The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes to many experienced people and no one could come up with an explanation. That is until I had dinner with Paul Draper, the CEO and long time winemaker of Ridge Vineyards, at our house a few years ago. I had served him a half-bottle of 1938 La Questa Cabernet. La Questa is the name used for the wine originally produced from the Rixford Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard located in Woodside. The vineyard was planted by E.H. Rixford in 1884. Today, this area is part of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Vinticultural Area).  Rixford vineyard, which does not exist today, produced some of the best Cabernets ever made in California including this one as well as others such as 1941 Gopher Gulch Cabernet Sauvignon. (In chapter 2 of the book Vineyards In The Sky written by Martin’s Ray’s wife, Eleanor, there is information about La Questa and Rixford Vineyard and Martin Ray’s involvement in the 1940s. Also, there is information on La Questa, Rixford, Martin Ray, and other old California wines in my cellar notes article last year. To read that article click here.)

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Ridge Vineyards, of course, is also in the Santa Cruz Mountains with a long history of wine production dating back to the late 19th century. (To read my recent article on Ridge Vineyards click here.) So I thought Paul would enjoy drinking the old Cabernet Sauvignon from the same general area. I did not disclose the name of the wine or show him the label, but he saw me opening the wine and, of course, knew it was a half bottle. He tasted the wine and said that it was a remarkable bottle of old California Cabernet. I agreed and then he identified the wine as 1938 La Questa. That’s pretty amazing. So I asked how he knew. He said that he had drunk the 1938 La Questa before from half bottles and that it was terrific. And, knowing that this wine was a half bottle (the 1938 La Questa was only bottled in half bottles and I have never seen any with capsules) and knowing that it was old and really good, Paul felt sure that this was 1938 La Questa. Then we began talking about old wines and I told him about The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes and the low fill bottles with no sign of seepage. He listened and then said that this was not all that unusual. I replied “How so?” since I had never encountered this before nor had anyone else that knew the story. He went on to explain that in the old days there was no electricity. Bottling, therefore, was often done by hand, bottle by bottle, in dark cellars by candle light. This led to bottles that had varying degrees of fills from the very beginning. Amazing! This has to be the only explanation possible. And, even more amazing is the phenomenal quality and consistency of the bottles, even those ½ full! Surely, that tells everything one needs to know about how the wine was kept!

The matter of the name on the case and the name on the bottles being different was the last piece of the puzzle. When I posed the question to Darrell Corti, owner of the great Corti Brothers store in Sacramento www.cortibrothers.com, and a long time friend with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things food and wine, here is what he said:

“Wow! This is a good one!!!

As to the quality of the low filled bottles, sometimes they are really delicious. It appears that a vacuum is created and the wine stays just like it is. All the low filled bottles I have had have been good. They look terrible, but are fine.

No sign of leakage, they may have been put in as low fills advertently or inadvertently…. Before the 1955 classification, some properties gave themselves airs and called themselves things they were not. I do not remember the Naudes actually being used in the trade. It was La Gaffelière. The painted on date is common. They buy the wood shuck and then stencil it. This may be the reason also of the branding.

Paul may be correct about the original fills. But then, someone may have noticed the low fills and then they got put in with others. It really is hard to say, but your provenance over fills is really point on. It’s the property owners that drink the low fills!”

here comes da judge

So the saga is over. Here comes da judge! Your honor, at this point I would like to thank you for your consideration. For the record, I would concur that The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes is solved. The issue of the condition of the bottles and the perfection of the wine, is irrefutable. And, I would say that this case represents absolute proof to my point that old wine is like real estate. In real estate it is location, location, location. In old wine it is provenance, provenance, and provenance. (Again, to read my article on storage click here).  May wine counterfeiters rot forever in a vat of bad wine. In the background, there is the sound of the gavel striking. Case closed!

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

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4 comments for “WHAT’S ULLAGE GOT TO DO WITH IT? – THE CURIOUS CASE OF 1928 LA GAFFELIÉRE NAUDES”

  1. What an absolutely fascinating article !!-just amazing-Thanks also to Darrell Corti,a good bloke who,some years ago, drove up to San Francisco from Sacramento just to have dinner with a keen Aussie on a cruise ship-many pinos noir later then drove back to Sacramento while I went immediately to bed,pissed !!!!

    Posted by Chris Foskey | February 19, 2012, 12:12 am
  2. Thanks Chris,
    Darrell is an old friend and we have done some great tastings over the years.
    Please pass around the Underground down under!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | February 21, 2012, 12:52 pm
  3. Years ago we had a number of Bordeaux from the 1928 vintage for a friend’s birthday. One bottle, Chateau Brown, was a ‘low fill’ or ullaged and the wine was well down into the shoulder, or below.
    I neglected to notice this a few days before we were to open the bottle and I did not have a ‘back up’ bottle in case this one was shot.

    It was the lowest level of fill of any of the wines from 1928 we opened and it was the least prestigious. And my! What a wine this turned out to be!! It was glorious.

    More recently we’ve opened some 25-35 year old California wines…a few were ullaged. One bottle, whose cork had shriveled and dried out (despite being stored upside-down in its original case)was spoiled. The others (1973 Mount Eden, 1978 Villa Mount Eden, 1985 Hanzell Cabernet) had a good ‘seal’ to them and the wines all shown beautifully, especially with a bit of aeration.

    You never know, though…but some old bottles, seemingly derelict in condition, have been terrific!

    Posted by Gerald Weisl | October 12, 2013, 3:41 pm
  4. Thanks Gerald. This is a really interesting account of your experience with old bottles. It very much mirrors my own experience. Things just get goofy some times. With the wide spread publicity about wine fraud many people are freaked out about old bottles. Funny thing: Some of the best wines I have ever had have some from old bottles that were far from perfect – label, fill, color, cork, etc. Stay the course.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | February 11, 2014, 11:20 am

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