A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See my full tasting notes on the wines mentioned below.
The cork industry is proud of the new techniques and products they have been developing to reduce the incidence of the cork taint that renders wines anything from much less pleasurable to undrinkable. The trouble is that those of us who enjoy drinking wine at its peak of maturity are still coming across far too much evidence of the period when cork quality was seriously prejudiced, roughly the last quarter of the last century.
In the last few days alone I've had to pour a bottle of 1985 Pomerol, now worth £200, down the drain because it smelt and tasted of mouldy cardboard, and came across another wine, a 2015 South African white worth £30, that was less dramatically affected by TCA, the compound associated with cork taint, but did not taste quite as it should. These are far from isolated incidents – just the most recent ones. I'm not naming the wines because cork taint strikes with infuriating randomness; other bottles of these wines will probably be fine.
Thus it was unusual to experience a dinner earlier this year at Portland in London without a single incidence of TCA. It was designed to showcase nine fully mature French reds, mostly in precious magnums, from the vintages 1982 to 1990. Not only were they pristine, they showed all the nuance and complexity we winos seek from wines that have evolved for many a decade in bottle.
Another remarkable thing about this collection of deliciously mature wines – the crème de la crème of their appellation - was their price and availability. They had been bought, relatively recently and for relatively modest prices, and were donated by the organiser of the dinner, Belgian wine-loving private-equity executive Thomas De Waen. (Their Bordeaux counterparts would have cost many times more and Burgundy equivalents would long ago have disappeared from the market.)
And they also had the great attribute, as far as I'm concerned anyway, of being only 12.5% alcohol, relatively low nowadays. Furthermore, they went beautifully with every dish served with them – from the pickled shitake mushrooms with soy and ginger cream, via lamb croquettes with miso and fermented turnips to the cod en papillotte (pictured above).
So what is this magically inexpensive, expressive, long-lived treasure? Chinon, the Loire's centre of Cabernet Franc perfection, of course. The strange thing is that most Chinon is drunk young, at under five years old, but this dinner proved what a shame that is.
De Waen was very much in evangelical mode, explaining when proposing the dinner, 'I've taken a real interest in aged Loire wines. I find them fresh, interesting, authentic and offering a real sense of place. The QPR is also downright amazing, though that is starting to change.' It is true that there is already a cult Loire red. New York somms and wine appsters have been in full cry in their pursuit of mature bottles of Clos Rougeard, from the long-standing Foucault family operation that seems on the brink of being sold to French telecoms billionaire Martin Bouygues, already owner of Château Montrose in Bordeaux.
Even very young bottles of this Saumur-Champigny carry three-digit prices, but when De Waen emailed Domaine Olga Raffault to ask whether they still had any 1985, 1989 and 1990 to sell, they responded, 'Sure, how much do you want? It's €40 a bottle including VAT.' He ordered a dozen of each and very delicious those we tasted in London were too – especially the older two. We also enjoyed wines from Charles Joguet, Bernard Baudry and Couly-Dutheil, known as René Couly in 1983, the oldest vintage of his Clos de l'Écho we tasted. They were bought variously from auctions, eBay (De Waen is a fearless buyer of fine wine vie eBay; I'd be wary of how the wines were stored) and from wine shops in Europe.
Because we thought the oldest wines would be the frailest, we worked our way from 1982 to 1990, beginning with a truly entrancing Joguet 1982 Clos de la Dioterie, Vieilles Vignes, that demonstrated the appeal of these mature Chinons beautifully with its delicacy and fragrance. The 1988 vintage of this wine was my joint favourite of these nine marvels – transparent and fresh, it was noticeably more graceful than the other 1988, the Grézeaux 1988 from Bernard Baudry, also in magnum. My other coup de coeur was the 1989 Picasses, bought so recently direct from the domaine by De Waen. It was more concentrated than most – almost meaty.
Only one of the wines seemed a tad past it, the René Couly 1983 – but then many a serious red bordeaux 1983 based on the supposedly much longer-lasting Cabernet Sauvignon grape is well past it too. For long a fan of Cabernet Franc, the signature grape of the middle, east–west stretch of the Loire where this comes from, I always think of the discovery, thanks to the development of DNA profiling techniques and their application to grapevines, that Cabernet Franc is in fact the parent of the much more popular and respected Cabernet Sauvignon. When it's good, as in a substantial part of the blend of first-growth St-Émilion Château Cheval Blanc, Cabernet Franc is so very, very good.
It may be thought that the wines lasted as well as they did because they were in magnums like the middle wine above, which are supposed to keep wines extra youthful. But in fact the three Raffaults poured from a regular bottle size flanking the Joguet 1990 magnum still had lots to give and even some tannin lurking in the slips.
For those keen to lay in some mature Chinon, the price-comparison site wine-searcher.com is a useful resource and suggests there is still reasonable availability on both sides of the Atlantic, often at modest prices. Fine-wine traders tend to ignore red Loire altogether, including Chinon, though it looks as though Fine & Rare Wines are offering a few Chinons, at much higher prices than bricks and mortar retailers.
Delighted attendees at the dinner included a high-profile Belgian art dealer, a wine-loving City lawyer, two young French wine professionals, three of us Masters of Wine, including Anthony Hanson of Christie's, and lifelong trencherman Willie Lebus of Bibendum Wine. We were all knocked out by the quality, consistency, and freedom from TCA, of these underrated antiques.
To get us in the mood, De Waen supplied the most stunning rich-but-dry white Chenin Blanc from the northern reaches of the Loire, Eric Nicolas' Domaine de Bellivière, Calligramme 2010 Jasnières, to sip as an aperitif. This coming week he is planning to repeat the exercise with another wine he reckons deserves more attention, dry white bordeaux. I can't wait.
The Chinons we tasted
All magnums except for the Olga Raffault wines.
Charles Joguet, Clos de la Dioterie Vieilles Vignes 1982
René Couly, Clos de l'Écho 1983
Couly-Dutheil, Clos de l'Écho 1985
Olga Raffault, Les Picasses 1985
Bernard Baudry, Les Grézeaux 1988
Charles Joguet, Clos de la Dioterie Vieilles Vignes 1988
Olga Raffault, Les Picasses 1989
Olga Raffault, Les Picasses 1990
Charles Joguet, Clos du Chêne Vert Vieilles Vignes 1990