A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life


John Tilson • 1/27/16        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

wine cellar

As I have said many times, there is nothing better than a great old wine. But, the exception might be if it is a wine that virtually no one knows, and one that you chose and cellared for yourself and friends from the very beginning. It is exactly the latter that this story is about.

Many years ago, as we were doing hundreds of blind tastings of all kinds of wines for The Underground Wineletter, they often included Cabernet Sauvignons. In one of those tastings, there was one Cabernet Sauvignon that jumped out as being really special. We were all surprised when the wine was unveiled. No one guessed what it was, and no one had ever tasted the wine before. Add to that, the wine was inexpensive. So, as we often did when we were surprised in a blind tasting, we put the same wine in another blind tasting. And, guess what? Many people recognized the wine because it was so distinctive, and it was a favorite for the second time in a row. The wine retailed for well under $10 and we all were amazed that the wine was that good and so delicious young.  So we all scrambled to buy the wine. As it turns out, it was made in a good quantity and was available “on sale” with a big discount for volume purchases! Those were the days!!!

I do not remember how much we all bought, but I think it was around 20 cases and I probably wound up with something like 10 cases. (No. That is not a misprint. When I’m in. I’m all in!) The wine became our “house wine” and we drank most of it in the first few years. But, I did lay away several cases for future drinking. And, we drank those off and on for the next decade or so. Always the wine was supple, lush, and delicious.

Fast forward to today. Recently, I found that I had just under a dozen bottles left and decided to serve a couple bottles at a holiday dinner party with old friends. Accompanying the wine was my version of Osso Bucco (slow braised veal shanks served with a reduction sauce and creamy mashed potatoes and celery root). This was a match made in heaven, and the wine elicited a series of oohs and aahs as people drank it with the Osso Bucco. Terms like “amazing” and “unbelievable” were heard. The wine was a real hit. And, again, no one had ever previously tasted or heard of the wine. It might as well have been served blind just as it was the first time I ever tasted it all those years ago. The difference was that this time the wine is nearly 30 years old versus maybe 2 years old when it was first tasted. So, you might ask, what is the wine? That is a good question. But, first a short break for a word from our sponsors, The Australian Wine Association.

word from sponsor

Just kidding about the sponsors, but the wine was Australian: 1986 Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. And, as mentioned earlier, it was complex and beautifully balanced from the git go with 13% alcohol. In its youth, the 1986 Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded numerous awards in wine competitions. Even so, as I said earlier, it was inexpensive.

Here is my recent tasting note on the 1986 Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon: Deep color, faint amber tone, amber edge. Stunning perfume with hints of cedar, eucalyptus, plum, mint, and spice. Soft, rounded, lush, and very elegant. Gorgeous cedar, mint, and eucalyptus tinged fruit with intensity and depth and impeccable balance. An absolutely stunning wine.

Seemingly a cross between a great Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and a great Bordeaux, yet with the texture and velours of a great Burgundy, this wine is surely one of the best Cabernets of the 1986 vintage. Recently, I enjoyed a wonderful bottle of 1986 Margaux which was gorgeous. But the 1986 Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is even more lush. And, while different than the 1986 Chateau Margaux, both wines have great flavor and complexity.

Australian CS

Make no mistake. The 1986 Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is an amazing wine. It was impressive from the very beginning and now at nearly 30 years of age it is sublime. It has aged like a great old Bordeaux or a great old California Cabernet from the period 1930 into the 1990s. Today many wines have changed. In particular a lot of California Cabernets are over the top, and many “cult” wines do not appear to be aging well. They are bigger, riper, richer, and more alcoholic (to read my article Where Has Napa Valley Gone click here).  But are these new wines better because they are bigger? For me the answer is no. Many Australian red wines have also gone down the same path. And, many have fallen from grace. Where did Australia go wrong? It is the same story: Trying to make things bigger because bigger is now supposed to be better.

Today the wine that was formerly Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is still made and is called Jacob’s Creek St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. I did a quick check, and the current vintages are still relatively inexpensive. But, I have not tasted another more recent vintage of the Orlando Saint Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon or the Jacob’s Creek St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon since first tasting the 1986 nearly 30 years ago. And, other than the 1986, I have none in my cellar. So I have no idea what the wines are like now.  They might be worth a try. But, for now, I will enjoy my remaining bottles of the 1986. It is a shining example of what a wine can be young. And, well stored, what a wine  can develop into over a long period of time. Balance is the key. Bravo!

back label

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

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  • ken gargett says:

    Really interesting read. Not surprisingly, the wine is far better known in Australia and that was always a stellar vintage for it. I have not seen it for 2-3 years but it was always wonderful, brilliant value and seemed to be getting better. Your description is pretty much spot on – wish I’d had 10 cases.
    Recent vintages are very fine wines, though very hard to live up to the standard of that 86.

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Ken,
      Thanks for the note.The 86 is indeed very special. It has been quite some time since I have tasted any young Australian wines. But, even if I did, it is highly unlikely that if I purchased them I would be around long enough to enjoy them!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Larry Burr says:

    Serendipity! While reading your Letter, I am enjoying a bottle of 1978 Charles Krug Cabernet purchased at the winery in 1980. I have been looking at this bottle for a while now, and decided to finally open it. Filtering needed for sediment around the somewhat moist cork, mid-ruby, pale rim. Firm nose of cedar, some tobacco, almost sweet entry, well balanced, very little of the “hole in mid palate”, layered flavours, long finish, soft tannins.The 1978 vintage was rated 92 by Mr. Parker. Excellent wine! Stored at 10 – 12 degrees Celsius.

  • Richard Heilman says:

    When people ask me what makes a great wine, the first words that come out of mouth are “Balance”. It doesn’t matter if that is a $10 bottle or a $500 bottle, if the wine doesn’t start out balanced it will never age properly and is more likely to cause pain rather than pleasure over time. So you’ve hit the nail on the head here, John. A wine with balance will age gracefully and develop the kind of secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors that bring smiles to our faces and harmony to the cuisine they might be matched with. Big is Better? No way!

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Richard. Yes great old wine is about balance and storage. It’s really quite simple.
      It is amazing how, over the years, many people have told me that a wine that tastes great young will not age. But, they will age if they are balanced. The 1968 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was a favorite wine for many of us years ago right after it was released. Many felt that it had to be consumed right away. I drank some, but I have kept a good supply in the cellar. The best bottle I have ever had was 2 years ago! It has aged magnificently. I have not had one since. I will, of course. But, there is no hurry. Balance, balance, balance. And, storage, storage, storage. That’s all there is to it. To only drink young wine and not buy, cellar, and drink wine when it is old and mature is to miss one of life’s great pleasures!
      In Vino Veritas,

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