As I was approaching my Big 5-0, I visited Argentina, hosted by a famous figure in the world of wine. At dinner one night, my host’s wife told me that her husband’s 70th birthday was just around the corner. I declared that I was also about to reach a major milestone, and she enquired if I was going to be 70, too. I consoled myself with the thought that the restaurant was absurdly dark. Adding insult to injury, on a visit to the cellars of Marqués de Riscal in Rioja with two fellow journalists, our hosts brought out a 1964, the birth year of one of us, and a 1961, the birth year of another. The next wine, whose neck required hot tongs, was a 1928. Cue much amusement at my expense as I insisted, through gritted teeth, that no, I was not 82 years old.
Anniversary and birthday milestones should be celebrated with special bottles worthy of the occasion, but if the process of our own ageing is often so difficult to ascertain, the same applies, all the more so, to wine. It’s all very well what Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra – that ‘age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’ – but no wine is fixed in timeless suspension. The complex processes at work in a bottle of wine make subtle changes over time, destroying the lesser and bringing welcome, new yet lived-in features to those with the magic ability to age well. How can we tell, if we want to give a special gift to commemorate a birthday or anniversary, that we’re giving a wine that has not just survived but prospered?
The short answer is that we can’t, as wine can often surprise us for better or for worse. The long answer is that there are clues to help guide us through a potential minefield of disappointment. Most wines that age well come with a pedigree and, most likely, a premium attached, too. Vintages – good, bad and indifferent – are an aid to gauging potential longevity.
The older the wine, the more important it is to know its condition and provenance. Caveat emptor, as ever: check a reliable search engine such as Wine-Searcher.com and a trusted broker or merchant; if you can’t find the year you’re looking for, a respected auction house such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonhams may be able to oblige.
Anniversary wines 2021: The Decanter guide
If you’re celebrating your tin anniversary, you remember 2011 more for your wedding than for the demise of the News of the World or Osama Bin Laden. In the wine world, while 2011 was a challenging vintage in Champagne, it ushered in a new era for Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck, bought by the Descours family from Rémy Cointreau. One of the few successes, the Larmandier-Bernier, Vieille Vigne du Levant Grand Cru (£80-£84.95 Millésima, Plus de Bulles) is wonderfully nutty and characterful.
An unremarkable year in France can often be a great year for vintage Port, and so it was that 2011 was declared by all the major Port producers – the first such since 2000. The complexity, opulence and structure of Taylor’s (£67.85-£109.95 Christopher Piper, Master of Malt), and Fonseca (£71-£99.95 DrinksWell, Tanners) make them eminently worthy candidates to be laid down for silver wedding celebrations.
For the ultimate party, the new jeroboam of English sparkling Nyetimber (£205 Fortnum & Mason), based on the 2011 vintage, will put on the style, big time. In the shadow of 2009 and 2010, Bordeaux 2011 was not much to write home about, but Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol, stood out, and a double magnum (£560-£600ib Crump Richmond Shaw, Grand Vin) would be the life and soul of any occasion. For Riesling lovers, the Schloss Schönborn, Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Kabinett Trocken (£17.99 The Winery) is now fabulously mature.
Eighteen years ago, Concorde went to that aircraft hangar in the sky along with Dolly, the first cloned sheep, and, with 26 seconds to go, England beat Australia in the Rugby World Cup final. Wine people who visited the trade event Vinexpo will never forget the sight of corks rising spontaneously from the necks of their bottles in heat so torrid that it necessitated chilled rosé. The remorseless summer temperatures affected many wine regions badly, not least Bordeaux, but I have no regrets in buying en primeur the voluptuously rich yet remarkably well- balanced Château Montrose, St-Estèphe 2CC (£141.75-£213.75ib Crump Richmond Shaw, Hennings, Lay & Wheeler).
Any 18-year-old would surely appreciate a birthday toast with Krug, Brut 2003 (£153.33-£175.50ib Corney & Barrow, Cru), one of the relatively few 2003s that managed to retain balance and freshness in this vintage. Being a drought year, it was great for vintage Port in general; and from Germany, the 2003 Schloss Schönborn, Pfaffenberg Riesling Erstes Gewächs (£28.99 The Winery) is ageing gracefully.
I was at the Argentina tasting at Banqueting House in London’s Whitehall when the events of 9/11 unfolded on that day in 2001 – sadly, the event with which this year will always be associated.
In Europe, the Leaning Tower of Pisa reopened in this year after more than a decade of stabilising construction. Meanwhile, in the wine world, in a series of blind tastings in the US and Europe, the Nicolás Catena Zapata 1997 ambushed Châteaux Latour and Haut-Brion, Solaia, Caymus Special Selection and Opus One. Nicolás Catena Zapata 2001 (£82.50ib Cru) therefore seems an appropriate choice for celebrations.
It was a more classic vintage in Bordeaux than the much-hyped 2000, with successes at Château Cheval Blanc, St-Emilion 1GCC (£335- £417ib In Vino Veritas, JF Tobias) and Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac 5CC (£57-£71ib Hatton & Edwards, Lay & Wheeler). 2001 was a very good Rhône vintage, and Clos des Papes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (£74.40 Seckford Wines) and Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (£75-£89.99 Handford, Wine Trove) have stood the test of time. On the flip side of the Rhône coin, Tim Kirk produced the first vintage of the co-fermented Clonakilla, Shiraz Viognier (A$109 Langton’s) in Canberra District, Australia, to great acclaim; meanwhile, in the Cape, Boekenhoutskloof and The Foundry were showing South African Syrah in a new light. In Santa Cruz, madcap winemaker Randall Grahm, the original California Rhône Ranger, bottled the excellent Bonny Doon Vineyard, Le Cigare Volant under screwcap for the first time in 2001.
Millennium-year babies were born in the first century-leap year since 1600. Y2K was the end of the road for the classic Mini, but Liv-ex, the wine exchange founded by two ex-stockbrokers, added a new string to the bow of fine-wine trading. Despite the hoo-ha over the turn of the century and a certain rigidity of tannin in Bordeaux, I bought en primeur Château Léoville Barton, St-Julien 2CC (£120-£130 BI Wine & Spirits, Cadman Fine Wines) and Château Calon-Ségur, St-Estèphe 3CC (£90ib-£170 Crump Richmond Shaw, Hedonism), bottles that any wine-loving 21-year-old would be more than happy to receive as a gift now.
The year 2000 saw the first vintage of Argentina’s Bodegas Caro, Caro (DKK499 Vinomani Denmark: about £60), the joint- venture project between Baron Eric de Rothschild of Lafite and Catena. In Australia’s Clare Valley, the 2000 vintage of Grosset, Polish Hill Riesling was the first to be released under screwcap. ‘It was a victory signal to Portuguese cork suppliers,’ says Andrew Caillard MW, and it encouraged other producers to follow where Grosset had led. That same year, PlumpJack, Cabernet Sauvignon (US$75 Cellaraiders) was the first super-premium Napa wine in screwcap, with part of its 1997 vintage bottling.
If you’re celebrating your silver wedding anniversary, you’ll surely never forget that in 1996 we bade farewell to Ella Fitzgerald, adieu to François Mitterand and ciao to Marcello Mastroianni. In wine, 1996 was the first release of Ridgeview, Cuveé Merret Bloomsbury, which four years later won the Gore-Browne Trophy, the highest accolade in the UK’s annual national wine competition. Also of particular note: the 1996 vintage of Schramsberg, J Schram (£102 Blast Vintners) was voted Best Overall Wine and Best Sparkling Wine at the Sydney International Wine Competition seven years later – the first time an American wine received these accolades.
Dom Pérignon’s former chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, described 1996 Champagnes as ‘insane, with all the attributes of great wine – the only problem is you can’t drink them’. Acids were often out of kilter, although not in the case of the remarkably youthful-looking and delightfully intense Dom Pérignon, Oenothèque 1996 (£290ib-£350ib Grand Vin, Wilkinson Vintners).
In Bordeaux, Château Léoville Poyferré, St-Julien 2CC (£90ib-£128.99 Atlas, T Wright) and Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac 5CC (£104.17ib-£169 Hedonism, Justerini & Brooks) were both great successes.
Vouvray got the balance of sugar and acidity spot-on, with Domaine Huet, Vouvray Le Mont Première Trie Moelleux (£90 Dudley- Jones) a memorable example. In Australia, the release of Roman Bratasiuk’s Clarendon Hills, Astralis Shiraz 1996 (£163.33ib Farr Vintners) made waves when Robert Parker propelled it to celebrity.
Thirty years ago, we experienced a watershed year heralding the end of the Cold War, South African apartheid legislation and the Soviet Union. In France, the moral compass shifted from the licentious to the strictly licensed, following the introduction of the notorious Loi Evin, a policy that dramatically tightened regulations on alcohol and tobacco.
As a vintage, 1991 was widely missed, despite wines of excellent quality being made, especially in the northern Rhône, where Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, Hermitage and Domaine Gentaz-Dervieux, Côte Brune Côte-Rôtie (£3,480 Hedonism) were outstanding. Thiérry Allemand of Cornas also made perfumed wines of great elegance, and we’re fortunate that Jaboulet, La Chapelle Hermitage (£300ib Justerini & Brooks) can still be found.
1991 Bordeaux was overshadowed by the fabled trio of the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages, which make Château Montrose, St-Estèphe 2CC (£73ib Crump Richmond Shaw) look reasonably priced. Excellent wines produced in the Napa Valley include Robert Mondavi, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (£162 Hedonism) and Dominus Estate, Dominus (£330ib Alex Marton).
When I travelled to Coonawarra, Australia, for the Wynns 50-year Black Label tasting in 2004, the Wynns, Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 (A$272 Winesaver Australia) emerged as the most popular. The same estate’s winemaker, Sue Hodder, tasted Wynns, John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 (A$359/magnum Wineaway) in 2017, and pronounced it chocolatey-rich, with mellow-textured density and savoury depth of mulberry-ish flavour.
In 1981, many millions of people watched the wedding of Charles and Diana. That same year, reggae – or, at least, Bob Marley – died. The 1981 vintage was one of the few for Charles Heidsieck’s Champagne Charlie, and a very good, if rather overlooked, vintage in Bordeaux. It was especially good for Château Latour, Grand Vin (£348-£420 Barber, BI Wine & Spirits) and Château Gruaud-Larose, St-Julien 2CC (£68.40-£99 Barber, Vintage Wine & Port), with Château Climens, Barsac (US$60 The Bottle List) a lusciously ageworthy Sauternes.
Meanwhile from the Douro, a huge treat for 40th birthdays and anniversaries, Kopke, Colheita Port 1981 (US$99 Vinopolis) is a wonder of gloriously fragrant, liquid crême brûlée-like aged complexity.
In another giant leap for mankind, Apollo 14 landed on the moon in 1971, the same year that Evel Knievel set a world record jumping over 19 cars on his Harley-Davidson XR-750. Krug bought the walled Clos du Mesnil, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier was established, and the first bottle of Barone Pizzini’s Franciacorta was made. It was a great year in Germany, and Australia’s Penfolds, Grange Hermitage Bin 95 1971 (A$1,950 Armadale Cellars) was produced, which later caused a sensation by beating the best Rhône Valley wines at the 1979 Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad.
Ridge, California Cabernet Sauvignon (US$1,900 Flask) from the Monte Bello estate was one of the great wines of the vintage. And commemorating the birth of Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel Brut Vintage 1971, the Cape celebrates 50 years of Méthode Cap Classique fizz this year.
This was the year in which John F Kennedy became US president and The Beatles first performed at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.In the wine world, North Africa still accounted for almost two-thirds of the world’s wine exports, with Algeria the world’s largest exporter of wine.
The first ‘upside-up’ year since 1881 (in which the numerals of the year look the same when rotated upside down) was my ‘lightbulb’ initiation into fine wine, when my father served a Château Fombrauge, St-Emilion GCC 1961 (€341.60 Cantina delle Meraviglie), which he’d picked up for a song at Cullens a few years earlier. It was the same vintage of the greatest wine I’ve ever drunk, Château Latour, Grand Vin (£5,120ib Grand Vin), which then-Financial Times wine correspondent Edmund Penning-Rowsell brought up from his fabled cellar.
In 1951, Dennis the Menace made his first appearance in The Beano; that same year, JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was published. Penfolds, Grange Hermitage Bin 1 1951, Max Schubert’s first experimental wine, was never released to the public, but it marked the beginning of the modern era for Australian fine wine.
The first cuvée of Dom Pérignon was the 1921 (although it didn’t assume the brand name until 1936); 1921 was also the year in which Champagne Salon launched its first commercial vintage, the 1911, at the celebrated restaurant Maxim’s in Paris. What’s more, 1921 is the oldest vintage in the reserve wine in the Pierre Péters, Héritage Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV (US$889 SommPicks). If anyone can think of a more life-enhancing gift for a wine-loving centenarian, let me know.