Recently in a flurry of emails between several very experienced wine drinkers there were many questions and opinions about old wines including decanting, bottle variation, and different opinions on the same wine by different tasters. All the opinions were from people who have spent their lives tasting and drinking the best wines in the world. And, indeed a lot of the dialogue focused on the wines of Domaine de la Romanée Conti. The impetus for the emails was in response to my obituary on Albert Givton, a Underground Wineletter Contributing Editor, which also featured links to two articles about Albert and has notes on many great old wines (click here to read the article).
The participation in the email exchanges prompted me to think about the entire subject of the wine experience, cellaring and drinking old wines, and why so many of us are totally consumed by it. For me it started when I was in my 20s and has continued to this day over 50 years later. Below are my thoughts on the wine experience and the joy of cellaring and drinking old wines:
For openers, I would say that there are 2 major things that account for differences among different people about the same wine: bottle variation and difference in palates. Bottle variation is important and very real (more on that later), but the difference in palates is most important because all people do not have the same sense of smell and taste. And, not only do perception of different smells and tastes vary between people, so do the likes and dislikes. Given this fact, universal agreement is unrealistic.
And, another factor, but of much less importance in most instances, is how the wine is handled before opening. Of course, the exception is the old wine that is decanted too long in advance and is tired and lacking in smell and taste or served without decanting and cloudy and full of sediment which completely obscures the qualities of the wine. Nonetheless, there was a time in Burgundy when some Burgundians felt that serving old Burgundies with sediment was a good thing. But, having experienced this, it is not an opinion that I share. Young wines I may decant and give a fair amount of air before serving. Really old wines from my cellar I decant just before serving. The exception being that when I know a wine has been backward for a long time I will give it more air.
However, even with wines of great reputations where the conditions of storage and serving are the same, it is not always the case that everyone will agree on the individual bottles because of the difference in palates. Also, there are tastings when certain wines were bottled at different times and also wines that suffered from less than ideal storage at some point in their lives. Not to mention that the “better bottle” phenomenon is part of the human condition. That condition means that we all do not always remember things the same, and we are all influenced by the things surrounding us when we are consuming wine: the people, the surroundings, the occasion, our mood, and the food among other things.
Bottle variation is the other factor accounting for the difference in taste for the same wines tasted by different people and this is a subject much discussed by those who consume a lot of old wines. But, for me, bottle variation is just a fact of life when you are drinking wines where the provenance is not known from the time of the first release to the time the bottle is consumed. Storage is, of course, a major factor in how wines taste after long term aging. For an old wine to be great it must be stored under ideal conditions: in the dark with no vibration and a low temperature of 55 degrees or less (my cellar is kept in a range of 48-50 degrees, and with a good level of humidity (to read an article on wine storage click here ). I have encountered the issue of storage numerous times with 2 bottles of the same wine, served at the same time, being completely different due to great storage versus mediocre or poor storage.
But, even with the same great storage the same bottles may not smell and taste the same. One thing that can account for this is that historically some wines were bottled at different times. And some wines were bottled barrel by barrel, and at other times, for the same wines, all barrels were blended before bottling. That assures that buying wines at different times will mean that the bottles will have bottle variation. So if old wines are purchased when they are old from different sources, it stands to reason that there can be bottle variation.
Wines in my cellar dating back to the 1960s were almost all purchased on original release. Remember California Cabs like the 1968s from Martha’s Vineyard and BV Private Reserve? I certainly do. And, I remember how so many people said that the 1968 BV Private Reserve should be consumed early as it would not age well. That was largely based on the opinion that the wine was so forward and easy to drink young that age would not be of benefit. But, that was never my opinion. Fast forward to today. A bottle that I had a couple of years ago was the best bottle of 1968 BV Private Reserve that I have ever had. And, over the years, I have consumed and enjoyed many bottles. But, thankfully, I bought cases so I still have a lot of bottles left to enjoy in the future!
And almost all the other old wines in my cellar (dating back as far as the early 20th century) were stored under ideal conditions before I bought them – old Inglenook and Hallcrest Cabs, old Bordeaux such as Chateau La Fleur and many others, and old Burgundy such as La Romanee, DRC and many others.
Furthermore, many of the wines in my cellar today were originally purchased in case quantities. As a result, I find very little bottle variation in the individual bottles of the same wine from my cellar. Purchased at different times the same wine might very well exhibit a lot of bottle variation. And because of ideal storage, I almost never have a wine that is over the hill.
In short, there is no easy answer. But, in my opinion, when it comes to wines where wine tasters are in agreement as to the types and styles of wine they like, personal taste is the most rational answer, and there is no right or wrong that can be applied consistently and universally. This makes the entire concept of scoring wines suspect. But I will save that subject for another time.
Way back in the 70s when the nucleus of The Underground Wineletter was being formed, we did a lot of tastings with a lot of different people. Almost always the tastings were done blind. When I decided to start publishing The Underground Wineletter in 1979 (click here  to read that first issue) I selected a group of people who were friends and people whose palate was in sync with mine to do certain tasks which included assembling the wines, making the necessary arrangements, and attending the blind tastings and scoring the wines. We also invited other interested wine drinkers to attend and help defray the cost. In the earliest days we averaged scores of all tasters for each wine. When I first started writing the Underground I averaged only the scores of the people who were listed as contributors. But, even then, there were often times when we were not all in sync. Since I did almost all the writing, my name was on nearly every article. I soon realized that averaging did not represent what I was writing and quickly started using my score and tasting note. When other editors were significantly above or below I would sometimes slightly adjust my score and tasting note. When others wrote articles those articles reflected their opinions including the scores. Mostly we were in sync, but not always and, at the end of the day, nearly all the articles had my name on them and I had to accept the responsibility.
Of course, nothing is perfect and that includes what I just described. But, one thing is for sure – there was transparency. Most of the young wines we tasted from bottle were tasted blind. That really kept everyone honest. One person who often tasted with us was not fond of blind tastings. His saying was “Show me a great label and I will show you a great wine”. I think we all know that this is not always the case, but I do think that all of us are certainly influenced in tasting when we know the identity of the wine and then can remember our past experiences good and not so good. Again, I attribute this to the human condition. And, just as an aside, most of our tasting notes and scores were from wines in the bottle. When we did taste from barrel (we were very early in doing this especially in California) we gave only potential scores. Fast forward today to big numbers, most of which are based on tasting wines from barrel. This is a tricky game as a wine tasted from barrel is only one component of an unfinished wine. That wine can change significantly over time: after all the barrels are blended (although here wines are also tasted and scored when in tank before bottling), after bottling, and even more so over a longer period of time in bottle. Despite this, the scores for wines from barrel are often used well into the future (particularly by merchants trying to sell wines) which really makes no sense. But, again, I will leave that to discuss more at a later date.
So there is a bottom line for all of us. However, the bottom line may be different. For me, when I am drinking old wines I like to know what I am drinking. If I am influenced by my past experience, that is fine with me. I like to recall my past experience with the wine when I drink it.
As I mentioned earlier, many of my wines I have cellared for decades and often there is a story about how I acquired the wine. A prime example would be the 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake Cabernet Sauvignon. My friends and I were responsible for the existence of this wine. And I am proud to say that I persuaded the late Al Brounstein, the founder of Diamond Creek to bottle this wine. Today the wine has more than lived up to the very high expectations that I had for this wine after tasting it from barrel (click here to read a recent article which includes tasting notes on the 1978 Lake and a history of the creation of the wine).
For sure, one of my great joys in life is drinking great old wines. And, I must say that I have certainly consumed countless bottles over the decades that I have been drinking old wines. So maybe I am prejudiced. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that wine is all about enjoyment. To maximize my enjoyment I need the right wines with the right provenance. When I have those two things, the only things left are the occasion, my mood, the people, the setting, and the food (to read my article People And Wine Aging Together which summarizes my thoughts click here ).
In Vino Veritas,