The Gift of Vintage

Food & Drink - January 8th, 2010

by J.K. Whelehan

What would you give someone for a 40th anniversary or any special occasion? Certainly a wine from the milestone year might be worth considering. Most people when following this path choose Bordeaux, ingrained with its long and venerable tradition.

In 1855, at the request of Napoleon III and in preparation for the Exposition Universelle, a classification of wines were made. Sixty wines from the Medoc and one from the Graves were divided into five classes, with premier Cru at the top. The brokers based the classification on the reputation and the records of the prices paid for them.

But interestingly enough, the concept of ‘château bottling’ (represented by mis en bouteille au château on the label) is fairly modern. Indeed some châteaus had no bottling lines and sold their wine in bulk to negociants, while others sold parcels to merchants. Indeed often the foreign bottlings from top companies like Berry Bros. & Rudd Ltd. (B.B.R.) commanded better prices than Bordeaux bottlings. However in the 70s things changed. B.B.R’s house magazine in 1971 complained, “Now it looks as if we may soon be able to get nothing but château-bottlings of the 60 or so classed growths.”

How does this relate to gifting a milestone wine? All wines do not age equally, so for the landmark wine it is probably safer to select wines which are classified. In general the older the wine required, the higher the classification. With older vintages, given a reliable supplier, do not be put off by apparently ‘strange’ labels.

Importantly, check the vintage rating. A wine from a bad vintage will not improve at best. Alternatively, keep in mind Bordeaux’s famous sweet white, Sauternes. Affected by the fungus botrytis, which in effect extracts the water from the grape, concentrating sugar and acidity, the resultant wines are more durable then their red counterparts. Given the life span of table wines, fortified ones such as vintage ports are perhaps a better option to ensure the quality. Their longevity is ensured by the addition of spirits. For complete security, pure spirits provide a solution, such as vintage cognac and Armagnac. Finally, for those born in a bad vintage, maybe try for year of conception!

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