Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
5 Oct 2003
 

On purple pages we have been discussing to what extent levels of alcohol, sweetness and acidity affect the aging ability of white wines in general and, oh all right then I admit it, Riesling in particular.

I've just been sent this from Agence France Presse.

531-Year-Old Wine Still Fine

19 September 2003. As hosts of Europeans turn out for 'Heritage Day' celebrations this month, a French wine is making its own claim on history after 531 years, the world's oldest wine in a barrel is said to still have a fine aroma.

With its bright shades of golden-amber and its aromas of vanilla, hazelnut or camphor, the 1472 vintage of white Alsace wine has been aging for over 500 years now in the cellars of the Strasbourg Hospice in eastern France.

After so many centuries in a barrel 'it is simply extraordinary that it is still wine,' said Philippe Junger, who is in charge of the historic cellars to be opened to the public this weekend for the yearly Heritage Days.

In France, a country proud of its past, 11.5 million people turned out last year for the two-day event when thousands of historic sites and buildings are thrown open for a once-a-year peek to the public. Some 14,000 sites will be involved this year for the 20th edition.

In 1994, tests conducted on the old wine by the office in charge of policing products and preventing fraud, the DGCCRF, concluded that 'the old thing has maintained an astonishing sprightliness' and 'a powerful, very fine aroma'.

The white wine, tinted with the amber shades oak [eh? more likely long-term oxidation], has an alcohol content of 9.4 per cent and has a particularly high percentage of dry matter (the solids in a wine), which, according to Junger, is a guarantee of the persistence of the original wine.

'About one per cent of the volume evaporates each year, it's the angels' share, so we add a bottle of dry white wine every three months. But in this barrel there is dry matter from at least 300 litres of 1472 wine, so it remains a 1472 vintage.'

Junger, a former chef, said the vintage had survived notably because of its acidity.

'It is a wine with a lot of aroma, very acidic on the palate. It is extraordinary but should be drunk sparingly,' said Junger, one of the happy few to have tasted a wine said to be the oldest in the world 'until someone proves the contrary'.

Celebrated as early on as in the 17th century, the wine is the topmost 'treasure' of the cellars of the Hospice, which each year make a profit of tens of thousands of dollars.

In centuries past the hospital would exchange vines against medical help and make its own wine in the old cellars built in 1395. But around a decade ago, the hospice signed an agreement with some 40 top Alsace wine-makers to hand over their best vintages for aging in the cellar's gigantic old barrels.

The result are 150,000 bottles each year of titillating 'Hospices de Strasbourg'.

Devotees of Michael Broadbent's unparalleled journals of drinking - sorry tasting - venerable wines (see wine news) will remember his references to the 1653 from Bremen's city cellars, but this knocks spots off it. Shame no one seems to have told him about the ancient Strasbourger.