“Legendary Potions”: An old wine dinner back to 1929


Mature vintages are a normal part of any discussion with Darryl and Nancy.   However, when it came to selecting our wines for a recent dinner, they led off deep with a double salvo of vintages from 1929 and 1931.  This soon led everyone else to offer up bottles from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

It was easy to be seduced by the final wine list.  The vintages from 1929, 1931, 1937, and 1942 were at one time not only difficult but impossible to secure in America.  The oldest wines were initially not imported due to Prohibition.  The others would have been held up for a few years due to transportation difficulties caused by World War 2.  In fact, Jane Nickerson wrote in The New York Times that the first tasting of imported wines since the war only took place in New York City during 1946.  For these reasons, in part, all of the oldest bottles bore modern import strips.

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It turned out that ullage as an indicator of condition reined king.  With one loose cork, two bottles low in the shoulder, and even one below shoulder wine, these bottles were doomed from the start.  Whether this was due to poor storage in Europe or America is not known.

However, you cannot find fault in trying a low fill 1929 Chateau Duhart-Milon, Pauillac or even a 1949 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, Graves  for they are rather difficult to acquire.   The 1929 Duhart-Milon is largely regarded as an excellent wine.  This particular vintage represents the last great vintage of the estate before it succumbed to the economic depression of the 1930s and ravages of the war.  With no capital to spare, the old vines slowly died off with the overall acreage declining as weeds took over.  It was not until 1962 that the estate was turned around after the acquisition by Domaines Barons de Rothchild.

Such history was in the back of my mind when, with bottles in hand, eight of us gathered last week at The Grill Room in the Capella Hotel located in Georgetown.  Present were Darryl, Nancy, Tim, Scott, Lily, Josh, Morgan, and myself.  For our dinner Chef Frank Ruta created a six course menu around our wine flights.  The wines themselves were overseen by Master Sommelier Keith Goldston.  There was much discussion with about the service of the wines to let them show their best.  While there was no help for some bottles, the dead bottles of Bordeaux were tempered by other tenacious old red wines and an incredible opening flight of Champagne.

Tempura
cod and colossal squid from Denmark, sweet onions, dauphines
grilled soy braised daikon

I have drunk Salon only once before but given the situation I did not note the vintage nor how the wine tasted.  Our bottle of 2002 Salon, Cuvée ‘S’, Les Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs, Brut Champagne  from the current release was deep in the aromatic nose, with cream and fat in the mouth, and a racy finish.  It was young in the mouth but when I returned to it I could not help but see what all was in store.  It was a very good but perhaps due to youth not as compelling as what was up next.  The first mature wines were perfectly fresh.  The 1973 Moët & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne was a tremendous bottle, holding nothing back for the first hour or two.  I was beguiled by the fat and oil textured flavors.  As the 1973 began to fade the 1976 Moet & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne finally opened up.  This was always more austere in nature with yeast notes, dry flavors, and vibrant acidity.  It finally showed good complexity and even suggested the need for several more years in the cellar.

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2002 Salon, Cuvée ‘S’, Les Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs, Brut Champagne
Imported by Vineyard Brands.  Alcohol 12%.  The nose was very aromatic with remarkable depth, a hint of yeast, and underlying earthiness.  This lovely wine was rich in the mouth with very fine and strong bubbles that quickly dispersed to leave a dry texture and chalk infused finish.  With air it took on cream and fat, which never became heavy because it was racy.  Young!  **** 2020-2050.

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1973 Moët & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne
Imported by Schieffelin & Co.  Alcohol 12.7%.  The darkest of the pair, this bottle revealed pure aromas of coffee and latte with bits of nut added in.  In the mouth the lively, firm bubbles made way to a drier, richer, and creamy wine.  It lost bubbles with time but it developed remarkable amount of fat and oil before the racy finish.  This tremendous wine delivered all it could before fading after an hour or two.  ****(*) Now – 2025.

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1976 Moet & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Champagne
Imported by Schieffelin & Co.  Alcohol 12.1%.  Though it bore familiar aromas, there were more yeast notes.  The flavors were youthful with pretty floral components and better defined acidity.  Nice flavors developed after a few hours of air making this a vibrant, mature wine. **** 2020-2035.

Shoat Belly
chestnut coulis, apple and turnip salad

Michael Broadbent noted the 1973 German vintage as the largest vintage on record with most wines set for early consumption.  I might have hedged once the nose opened up on the 1973 Egon Müller, Scharzhofberg Kabinett, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer but the flavors were getting tired in the mouth.  While fine enough to drink I did not crave more.

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1973 Egon Müller, Scharzhofberg Kabinett, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
Shipped by Weinexport Hattenheim BMGH.  Imported by Kobrand Coporation.   The nose was first evocative of geraniums before developing complex aromas of herbs and old lady perfume.  In the mouth were apple-like flavors with some old and dusty notes.  ** Now.

Hand Cut Tagliatelle
with kabocha squash, truffle and shaved reggiano

The 1929 Duhart-Milon, Pauillac turned out to be a shell of its former self.  Perhaps speaking to its original potency, the nose was incredibly aromatic but of herbs and greenhouse plants.  This was followed by tart and strange flavors in the mouth.  No doubt old but refusing to let go was the 1931 Fontanafredda, Barolo.  This is a remarkable bottle because very little appears to have been written in English about this vintage let alone the wine.  The Wasserman’s described the vintage as “widely considered to be the greatest of the century” in their book Italy’s Noble Red Wines (1991).  Michael Broadbent wrote that “pre-war vintages are scarce” for Italian wine which remains true to this day for there are but a handful of tasting notes.  The  Wasserman’s made note of the 1931 Giacomo Conterno, Barolo, there is also Michael Broadbent’s note on the 1931 Giacomo Borgogne, Barolo Riserva Speciale, and finally Jamie Wolff (Chambers Street Wines) mentions a  good bottle of 1931 Marchesi di Barolo.

Fontanafredda has a royal history dating back to the mid-19th century.  Trying times began with World War I and reached a low mark with the economic depression of 1929.  After changing ownerships a few times, Fontanafredda went into bankruptcy in 1930 then was acquired by a bank in 1932.  Kerin O’Keefe writes in Barolo and Barbaresco (2014) how this bank turned the estate around.  You can imagine my delight when this bottle, produced during economic turmoil and bottled under new ownership, turned out to be fabulous.

Darryl had double-decanted the 1931 Fontanfredda, Barolo almost 24 hours prior to our tasting.  He reported that the wine had gained weight since he first pulled the cork.  It was in the mouth that this wine shined.  It had richness and weight but it was the tension which kept me returning to my glass all night long.

Also drinking very well, was the 1937 Camille Giroud, Hospices de Beaune, Cuvee Blondeau, Volnay.  The excellent 1937 vintage also happens to be the same year of the first Burgundy pavilion during the Paris Exposition.  Our bottle was fairly pigmented when first poured but the color shifted to include more browns which matched the old wine flavors that also came out.  The wine was sexy but unlike the rich body of the Barolo, our Volnay had structured black fruit and minerals.  If it was more firm the aftertaste was coating and long.

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1929 Chateau Duhart-Milon, Pauillac
Shipped by J. Calvet & Co.  Imported by Ginday Imports.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Below shoulder fill.  The dark brown color let to aromatic herbal and greenhouse aromas that also took on notes of dill.  The flavors were similar in profile with a tart start, strange flavors, and an old wine finish.  Sadly not worth drinking.  Not Rated.

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1931 Fontanafredda, Barolo
Imported by T. Elenteny Imports. Alcohol 11%-14%.  The nose did not prepare one for the surprising richness of the flavors.  It showed a racy personality with inkiness and most importantly, tension.  This was an elegant, compelling wine.  **** Now – 2035.

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1937 Camille Giroud, Hospices de Beaune, Cuvee Blondeau, Volnay
A Becky Wasserman Selection imported by Old Vine Imports.  Alcohol 13%.  There was still red color in the glass but with air it took on browner and garnet tones.  This was a sexy, old wine which showed proper mature flavors with air.  It still sported some tannics with a touch of dusty, black fruit and minerals.  I particularly liked how the old fruit flavors clung to the mouth in the rather long aftertaste.  **** Now – 2025.

Bobo Farms Air Chilled Duck Breast
glazed beets, juniper sauce

This next flight featured two well regarded bottles from excellent vintages in Rioja.  In The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain (2011) the vintage comments point out that 1942 “Vina Albina from Bodegas Riojanas” is in “top form today.”  The Vina Tondonia “in gran reserva format, represent the peak of the vintage.” The 1942 Bodegas Riojanas, Vina Albina, Rioja was in top-form and really deserved even more air than it received.  This textured wine had citric red fruit flavors and a youthful personality that reminded me of a demi-john aged wine.  Sadly, our bottle of 1947 R. Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, Rioja was on the tired side.  With the fruit largely gone it was tart and acidic with less flavor.  Both bottles had metal capsules.  The Riojanas bore a more modern Consejo Regulador  Garantia de Origen label on the back with the de Heredia sporting the older Diploma de Garantia.  I feel these labels spoke to the relative release dates of the wines.

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1942 Bodegas Riojana, Vina Albina, Rioja
Imported by The Rare Wine Co.  Bottom neck fill. Quite clear and vibrant in the glass with a meaty nose of sweet berries.  In the mouth the citric red fruit flavors and tannins made it taste like a demi-john aged wine.  The flavors were dry and mouthfilling with watering acidity, a hint of old wood, and a cool, meaty note.  It left good texture on the tongue.  **** Now – 2035.

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1947 R. Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, Rioja
Imported by T. Elenteny.  Top-shoulder fill.  The wine smelled old with notes of soy.  In the mouth the flavors were very tart and citric, leaving a first impression that the wine was older.  The fruit had largely faded leaving prominent acidity and some old wine flavors.  ** Now.

Dry Aged Shenandoah Rib Roast
locally foraged winter oyster mushrooms, glazed celeriac, red wine jus

This final flight of red wines turned out solid at best.  With the 1949 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves clearly evocative of bananas and the 1955 Cos d’Estournel, Saint-Estephe even worse, the 1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe  once again exhibited reliability.  This bottle had better fill and a different shipper than the bottle I tasted this summer.  It proved different too with a robust, tannic, and textured personality.  It is what I drank with my rib roast.  The mallet-shaped bottle of 1964 M. Chapoutier, Cote-Rotie was aromatically described by one guest as “fog of ass”.  It was odd and certainly stinky so much so that I did not revisit the wine until after I finished my course.  Surprisingly, the nose cleaned up and developed a core of robust fruit.  Though a bit clunky, it was a decent glass.

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1949 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves
Though the bottle smelled of sweet fruit, in the glass the wine was strangely evocative of banana foster.  This sweetness quickly faded to reveal old vintage perfume.  In the mouth were highly astringent flavors of tart red fruit and perfume.  It was a bit salty too.  Not rated.

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1955 Cos d’Estournel, Saint-Estephe
Shipped by Tarbes & Co.  Imported by Vintage Wines Inc.  The smelly nose made way to tired, old flavors of menthol.  Worse than the 1949.  Not Rated.

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1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe
Imported by Direct Import Wine Company.  Alcohol 11% – 14%.  The wine looked good with a garnet color of color infused with some redness.  This wine presented mature flavors in a youthful, robust, and tannic nature.  While not sporting a ton of fruit, this wine craved air, filling the mouth with textured flavors of maturity.  A good drink.  *** Now – 2025.

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1964 M. Chapoutier, Cote-Rotie
Frederick Wildman and Sons.  Imported by Schallery Wine Company.  Bottom shoulder fill.  This was a very dark cola color.  I initially thought it too old with its odd nose one person described as “fog of ass”.  Upon revisiting it had cleaned up tor reveal a core of red and black fruit with surprising robustness.  A solid wine which just needed to shake its stink off!  ** Now – 2020.

Tarte Tatin aux Coings
Honey buckwheat ice cream, vanilla quince sauce

The final wine of our evening was a fitting last glass.  The mature flavors fit in with all of the other wines but the sweet, tense flavors acted as a refresher.  As such I was satisfied and felt no need to taste anything else.

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1959 Moulin Touchais, Anjou Blanc
Imported by Rolar Imports.  Alcohol 12%.  With a color of vibrant, dark gold and a nose of membrillo this wine was attractive to all of the senses.  The rich flavors hinted at sweetness but this old wine had strong focus and good life from the acidity.  The acidity drove the wine through the end where it tasted like a mature white wine.  Good tension.  ****Now – 2045.

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  1. December 16, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Lots of fun and great write up, Aaron. Many were simply old for me, but I certainly wouldn’t have traded the experience for many other things. I thought the first and last flights stood out, along with the Barolo and Burg. Next up–a ’70s & ’80s Champagne dinner!

    • December 16, 2015 at 10:03 am

      I think the Champagne flight was the star of the night but the Barolo and Burg were the best reds. I could have drunk more Anjou as well!

  2. Peter Morrell
    December 16, 2015 at 10:16 am

    There’s no wine like an old wine…

  3. December 16, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Count me in for the middle-aged Champagne dinner!

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