Old Wine

A lot of old wine has come my way recently, proving that there is merit in acidity. Some of the oldest-tasting was far from the oldest in years.

A friend had just found herself in the strange position of taking delivery of 27 cases of wine from the British prison service. She'd been left the contents of an old friend's cellar. The man who gave the speech at the old friend's memorial service turned out to be a crook who embezzled not a little of the deceased friend's estate, including those 27 cases of wine. On the day after the embezzler's appeal was turned down, a man and a van turned up on her doorstep having driven the wine straight from an intriguing place called Prisoner's Property Store in Wales.

Cataloguing wine clearly isn't a speciality of the British prison service. The accompanying list cited items such as "One box containing four bottles of Chardonnay". In fact much of it turned out to be California wine from the 1970s and 1980s from what were then some of the best producers. The new owner invited around a few of us to assess its condition.

'Dire' would politely sum up the condition of the California whites, or rather browns. I do hope no-one out there is keeping Chalone, Robert Mondavi or Chateau Montelena Chardonnays from 1977, 78 or 79 for a rainy day. The Mondavi 79 had a certain charm but they were generally more like sugar, alcohol and acid mixtures than wine. But of course even today – now that California winemakers ferment as well as age their Chardonnays in barrel so they no longer turn brown after a few years in bottle, and leave slightly less sugar in them – California's relativley low acid Chardonnays are hardly prime candidates for cellaring.

The reds were much better. Heitz Martha's Vineyard 1984 (bottled as late as 1988) was stunning: still fresh and lovely, slightly dusty but in the most attractive way possible. Martha's 1973 on the other hand was oxidised. (It was difficult to tell how hot the Prisoner's Property Store had been; no corks had been pushed out of the bottlenecks by expanded wine, so maybe not too bad.) Spring Mountain Cabernets 1975 and 1987 were simpler wines (as was the remarkably well-preserved Sterling 1977 in magnum) but the 1978 was still chewy with tannin. And talking of tannin....there were also the first two vintages of Christian Moueix's sortie into the Napa Valley, Dominus, made long before this Rutherford property had its own architectural showpiece for a winery. Both are still tough and stern, the 1983 much more evolved than the 1984 which may eventually turn into a complex and intriguing drink, but the style is lightyears from the rather plump wines now being made by the owner of Ch Petrus at Dominus.

No-one could accuse 1928 red bordeaux of being plump. That is a statement I could not have made with any confidence a month ago, having tasted no more than two in my life. But the other day a young Hong Kong wine enthusiast who has been studying in the US decided to open no fewer than five bottles from this famously tannic vintage over dinner for just six of us. He had bought them at Christie's towards the end of last year and kept them in London, the way so many of the world's collectors do.

It was fascinating to see just how different the bottles and labels were then. No artist's label on the Mouton; no special shape for the Haut-Brion. The star of the show was not a first but a second growth, a very complete and rich Ch Montrose, although even this old stager from St Estephe went downhill in the glass after 20 minutes or so. I shouldn't take up valuable space by describing such rarities but what I will say is that your palate has to completely re-adjust when tasting such old wine – just as you have to change your behaviour in the company of slightly frail, elderly people. Faults unforgivable in a teenager are accommodated. Every caprice is indulged. But the Haut Brion was still a very strange wine indeed, like rank treacle, while this particular bottle of Cheval Blanc with its perfume and richness was more like a red burgundy.

The most delicious recent voyage back in history was also the most surprising. Eight of us celebrating our 50th birthdays this year took the Eurostar/Chunnel from London to Paris for a lunch dedicated to wines of our birth year – a year rather scorned by the official texts. We had sent on ahead a grand total of 14 bottles of 1950s to the two-star Faugeron in the 16th arrondissement. This was of course far more than we needed, but we were convinced that at least half of these bottles would turn out to be duds.

Well! We were amazed to find that of all the wines, only a Clos des Jacobins St-Emilion added at the last minute was the remotest bit over the hill. The restaurant looked after us beautifully. Many Michelin-starred establishments might just have looked on us Brits as a low form of gastronomic hooligans, but not Henri Faugeron and his wife. He had a devised a menu specially for the wines, and kept sneaking out of the kitchen to have a sip with us. (And when one of his waiters caught some of the party having a restorative beer in a local bar afterwards, he apparently merely complimented them on their stamina – as well he might.)

It was perhaps not too surprising that the ports, Sandeman and Croft 1950, were still very much alive and kicking. Nor that the extraordinary Massandra Muscat from the Crimea – all burnt demerara sugar and rasperries – clearly had decades ahead of it. It had already been proved to me that La Mission Haut Brion is one of the great 1950s and has some future ahead of it, but a gorgeously elegant Margaux and ethereal Lafite were by no means disgraced by this magnificent Graves. Gruaud Larose, Cheval Blanc, and a tawny, creamy Coutet with the foie gras were in as fine form as we were.

But the real surprise was the burgundies. A Musigny 1950 given to one of our group by negociants Bichot was a robust red with more than a hint of the Rhone or North Africa about it. But the Corton 1950 Hospices de Beaune Cuvee Charlotte Dumay from Boisset's cellars was absolutely out of this world. It had that magic combination of sweet violet fragrance on the nose, dancing liveliness on the palate and long, long richness on the finish that you hope every burgundy might eventually acquire. With licorice, truffles and minerality all perceptible, this was one of the best red burgundies I can recall.

And at the very beginning of the meal (we'd had champagne – much younger than 1950 – on the train) were perhaps the two greatest suprises of all: two bottles of 1950 Chablis. The Grand Cru was richer than the straight Chablis but both were thoroughly vivacious and refreshing. The sorry state of the California Chardonnays 30 years younger made me realise yet again that new oak and malolactic fermentation are not always such a good thing.