A birthday or anniversary gift is welcome at the best of times, but there’s a particular thrill in receiving a special bottle that honours both your and the wine’s vintage. Fortunate indeed is anyone with a birthday or anniversary in a great year for wine, less so if you were born or married under the wine equivalent of a bad sign. Assuming you did say for better or for worse at your wedding, even so-called off-vintages can have their moments – and at least they’re cheaper. In this context, it’s worth remembering that every year is a vintage in Bordeaux, whereas Champagne’s and Port’s warts are neatly air-brushed for us by producers only ‘declaring’ a vintage considered great.
By a strange alchemy, fine wines, especially when in larger formats, have the capacity to ‘improve’ in the bottle as reduction brings new odours and flavours to the party. The further back in time, the more fragile the wine, so the condition in which the wine has been kept and the ability to trace it back to a reliable owner become all the more important as time goes by. Given the diminishing chances of (a) finding a wine in good enough condition and (b) finding that wine anywhere at all, the strongest of caveat emptors applies. You must look to a trusted wine broker, merchant or auction house, preferably aided and abettted by a search engine such as www.wine-searcher.com.
Where quality and longevity dovetail, sod’s law probably dictates that the object of your affections – the wine, that is – is above your pay grade. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Exceptions that prove the rule are to be found in long-lived sweet wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, German Riesling auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese and Vin de Constance from the Cape. All the more so fortified wines, in particular the vintage and 20, 30 and 40-year-old tawny Ports, vins doux naturels from France and vintage Sherries. As for Madeira, it’s one of the few wines that can claim to outlive even centenarians.
Also useful for anniversaries is that breed of wines deliberately held back for a museum or library release. Most notable among these are recently or late-disgorged Champagnes, the ultimate expressions of maturing in the bottle, such as Dom Pérignon’s three Plénitudes of ageing. Louis Roederer’s Cristal has followed suit with its Vinothèque range, Philipponnat too with its LV range released after 25 years, and Charles Heidsieck is another house specialising in older releases direct from the cellar.
A small handful of producers even offer visits to their cellars where you can try out a wine from the year of your birth or anniversary. Château Kirwan in Bordeaux, for instance, offers you the chance to taste the wine of your birth or wedding year, which is great, just as long as you weren’t born or married in a shocker such as 1965 or 1968 – you would be better off tasting the wine of your birth year on the A$90 tour of Seppeltsfield in the Barossa Valley, where the centennial cellar contains an unbroken lineage of barrels of vintage tawnies going back to 1878.
If you were married 10 years ago, your honeymoon may have suffered from the fallout, literally, from Iceland’s volcanic Mount Eyjafjallajökull. It was also the year in which Spain won the FIFA World Cup and Wikileaks leaked. Arguably the greatest Bordeaux vintage of the 21st century before and since, prices have barely moved since en primeur, so the wise virgins who waited are well-placed to snap up wines that won’t break the bank, such as Châteaux Brane-Cantenac, Margaux 2CC and Lafon-Rochet, St-Estèphe 4CC.
In Spain, Roda 1 is rich and finely balanced after a decade. Antipodean options are plentiful – worthy of note was Ochota Barrels’ Fugazi Grenache, ‘the first of the avant-garde natural wine movement to cross over into the mainstream wine market’, as Andrew Caillard MW puts it. And from England, is there a better way to celebrate a tin wedding anniversary than by popping the cork on the richly textured and tangy Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée or mouthwateringly good Digby, Fine English Reserve Brut?
Now 18 years old, the first offspring of the post-9/11 generation saw in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and saw out the Queen Mother in a year in which Bowling for Columbine had its première and Brazil beat Germany to win the World Cup for the fifth time. Among many great 2002s in Champagne, the sumptuous Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François stands out, along with the bone-dry, mouthwatering Dom Ruinart, Blanc de Blancs, Jacques Selosses, Millésime and two iterations of Dom Pérignon: the toasty, textured Brut and the recently disgorged truffley, rich, savoury P2 Plénitude Brut.
For Port, Dow’s Quinta Senhora da Ribeira was made before the rains set in and is drinking superbly. In a well-regarded vintage in Australia, top Barossa Shiraz has come into its own nicely now. If gifting, Henschke’s Hill of Grace or Wendouree’s Clare Valley Shiraz would be above and beyond generosity; Yalumba, The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, Penfolds St Henri Shiraz or, if available, Cape Mentelle Shiraz would tick the box.
The Noughties ushered in George W Bush, Coldplay and the Tate Modern, but said goodbye to the dot-com boom. There was a lot of hoo-ha about the millennium vintage precisely because of the number, and while sometimes overrated, there are some good Bordeaux wines drinking well now: Châteaux Léoville Barton, St-Julien 2CC and Brane-Cantenac, Margaux 2CC; Pomerol’s La Conseillante and Vieux Château Certan; and for value, Chasse-Spleen, Moulis-en-Médoc.
Australia’s Grosset, Polish Hill Riesling, Clare Valley was the first vintage of Grosset’s great Rieslings to be released under screwcap and, kept in good condition, has stood the test of time, if you can find any.
It was a year of fires and heatwaves in South Africa, with Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon, Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon and Sadie Family Wines Columella repaying careful cellaring. Graham’s Vintage Port is now perfect, while the legendary Quinta do Noval, Nacional rare Port from 1.7ha of ungrafted vines, is so rich and concentrated that a 20-year-old could even opt to keep it for his or her children.
In the year in which Bill Clinton was acquitted in his impeachment trial, Manchester United beat Bayern 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League and Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace was released, Bordeaux produced some attractive, well-balanced reds, albeit lacking a little concentration, but Châteaux Lynch Bages, Pauillac 5CC and Cantemerle, Haut-Médoc 5CC remain solid. It was a good year for Sauternes and Barsac and great in the Rhône, with strong showings from Jamet’s Côte-Rôtie, Cornas from Thierry Allemand and Auguste Clape, Chave’s Hermitage, and from the south, Clos des Papes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Austria’s Wachau was more than reliable, with Rieslings from FX Pichler and Knoll standing out. In Champagne, the excellent Billecart-Salmon, Le Clos St-Hilaire Zéro Dosage is remarkably elegant and in Port, the Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage is one to look out for.
Italy is arguably the winner, with fabulous superTuscans such as Isole e Olena’s Cepparello and Fontodi’s Flaccianello.
Although not a landmark vintage in Australia, Penfolds, Grange is a great wine, along with the Parker, Coonawarra Estate First Growth Cabernet Sauvignon.
If not for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which closed to visitors, the stars aligned for Nelson Mandela, who walked out of Victor Verster prison – and for the vintage across Europe. My only regrets about buying a case each of the Chave, Hermitage red and white was that I didn’t buy two of each.
1990 was the culmination of three great vintages for Champagne, with, among many, a fine Veuve Clicquot, Cave Privée Rosé and the great Dom Pérignon, P3 Brut. In Germany, low yields produced stunning Riesling at auslese level and richer from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, notably from Robert Eymael, Joh Jos Prüm, Maximin Grünhäuser and the great Egon Müller.
From Trentino in Italy, the Bordeaux-style blend San Leonardo was an exceptional wine in an outstanding vintage, and from Tuscany, Montevertine’s Le Pergole Torte Riserva and Sassicaia stood out from the crowd.
The monumental Penfolds Grange was voted Wine Spectator Wine of the Year in 1995, and Dr John Middleton’s Mount Mary, Cabernets considered one of the great Australian Cabernets of its time, even if Wynns Coonawarra, John Riddoch is still going strong and more accessible today.
This decade kicked off with a bang, literally, with the eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington state, and continued in similar vein as the Iranian embassy in London was besieged and John Lennon shot dead in New York. The only 1980 I remember was a remarkable Petrus Pomerol, served at dinner by Eddie Penning-Rowsell, then the wine correspondent of the Financial Times. Henri Jayer and Domaine Dujac were good in the Côte de Nuits as were the northern Rhône reds.
It’s good news if you can get your hands on the excellent Warre’s Vintage Port or the Quinta do Noval, Nacional. But if not, 40-year-old tawny Port is an excellent option – among the best are Dow’s, Quinta do Noval and Taylor’s, all beautifully rich and nutty now after their prolonged dehydration in cask over decades.
In Australia, Knight’s Granite Hills Macedon Ranges Shiraz kick-started Victoria’s cool-climate movement, while Lindeman’s, St George spearheaded the reputation of Coonawarra as Australia’s premium Cabernet Sauvignon region.
Those celebrating a 50th birthday or golden wedding anniversary may remember Woodstock in 1969, which closed with Jimi Hendrix, who died the following year, along with Bertrand Russell and Charles de Gaulle. It was a typically old-fashioned Bordeaux vintage, better on the Left than the Right Bank, with Châteaux Latour, Pauillac, Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Léognan, Montrose, St-Estèphe and Domaine de Chevalier, Pessac-Léognan among the stars of the show.
It was an excellent year for vintage Port, with Graham’s arguably the greatest, and for California Cabernet, Heitz, Martha’s Vineyard a case in point.
If you can get your hands on JH Andresen, Colheita Tawny Port, then you’re in for a very special treat, but even the bodega may not have any left. Australia’s Lindemans, Bin 3875 Chablis (Semillon) from Hunter Valley was, according to James Halliday, ‘a watershed year’ from which it became a very successful show wine, even if the Tyrrell’s Vat 1 and Mount Pleasant’s Lovedale emerged subsequently as the leaders of the aged Hunter Semillon style.
60th (1960 and beyond)
It’s Now or Never for Elvis, while Chubby Checker Twisted the night away, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene and Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on a desk at the UN. Anyone lucky enough to have a Quinta do Noval, Nacional 1960 in their cellar will know that this venerable, rarest of vintage Ports remains wonderful.
According to Roy Richards, the Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol 1950 is ‘still stretching its legs enthusiastically’. Marqués de Murrieta 1960, red and white, were both memorable in their day. In Australia, Lindemans’ Bin 1616 Hunter River Riesling was an all-time Aussie great from winemaker Karl Stockhausen.
To celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, the Symingtons came up with a 90-year-old tawny Port, a blend of the 1912, 1924 and 1935 vintages with an average age of 90 years.
For the ultimate gift to the centenarian in your life, Taylor’s Century of Port Collection comes in a presentation box containing a half-bottle each of a 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old tawny, adding up to a century of ageing in cask.