Old wine: an ongoing subject of interest

My wife and I recently had a small dinner party with one of my oldest friends and his wife. Not only are we friends from undergraduate days at University of Toronto, we are also colleagues who have traveled the wine route together, or on parallel paths, for some 45+ years.

It is tradition when we get together to delve into our personal cellars to find a nugget or two to share.  In this regard we are pioneers in the game of A-B comparisons: that is, where two, or more, wines with some similarities are tasted together and repeatedly re-tasted over an evening to see how the wines evolve.  Through this type of exercise I have realized the notable disadvantage of decanting old wines; namely the loss of opportunity to experience the natural evolution of a wine once exposed to air after years/decades sealed under cork in a bottle. Like most old things old wine should be treated with care.  This way the wine will show its best side, on its own terms.  This careful treatment can be important with very old wines which may not have much life left, life that can be completely sapped with a sudden, jarring exposure to air in the decanter.

On this occasion we each brought a bottle of old red Bandol, along with some other oldies.  I will focus this comment on the Bandols.

Bandol is a small appellation in the Provence zone of southern France.  The red and rosé wines from Bandol are made largely with the Mourvèdre grape.  This grape is rarely used on its own, as it is a difficult grape to enjoy without being blended with other grapes, such as Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, grapes with generally more approachable character.  Mourvèdre is a late-ripening, truly black grape which when young shows tannins that never end, a reductive barnyard character, herbal notes and often little fruit.  Sounds downright un-appetizing don’t you think?  Combine this aroma/flavour profile with prices that are often in the high – $20’s range, or more, and you wonder why anyone would buy Bandol.  Perhaps this is why we don’t see Bandol very often in Vintages releases.

The wines we tasted were a Domaine Tempier 2001 and a Domaine La Bastide Blanche 1978.  Both wines are premium-quality made by leading producers in the region.  These are wines that demand patience and the case was proven at this dinner.

Brothers from Bandol

When first opened the Tempier showed delightful youthfulness.  The colour was bright ruby with nary a hint of garnet.  The cork was long and was tightly-seated when pulled: no oxidation here. The nose was full of ripe stewed plum and spice. The palate was ripe and full-bodied but had a firm structure.  The acidity was quite high, unusual for Mourvèdre/Bandol, with firm but well-integrated tannins and the finish was long. It was a delight from the first sniff.

The Bastide Blanche was also youthful but in a subdued fashion.  The colour was bright ruby with some signs of garnet at the rim, but the wine was surprisingly red in colour for a thirty-something year-old. The nose was closed when first opened and we were afraid this one was past its peak.  The palate restored our spirits as it was ripe, juicy and harmonious.  This is what we hoped for and we were not disappointed.  In fact as the evening progressed it was a wonder to watch as the 1978 and the 2001 became more alike, especially on the nose. The Bastide Blanche opened slowly but steadily and showed bright, red and black stewed fruit with slight herbal notes. The wines were a perfect match for a cold beet salad garnished with crumbled goat cheese and basil.  Not only was this a match in colour but it was a match in earthy, juicy character. Sublime.

For those who wish to start a Bandol corner in your cellar, there is a Bandol from the late August Vintages release that is still widely available: AOC Bandol Château Val D’Arenc Les Hauts de Seignol 2009 (19.95 per bottle).  I didn’t recommend this wine and I suggest it may be worthwhile to be patient and wait for a top-producer-Bandol to appear.  Look for producers such as Tempier, Bastide Blanche, Pibaron, Rouvière and Vannières.  When the wines warrant, you can be sure I will give them my recommendation.

The wait for the right wine will be worthwhile and will simply be a slow ramp-up to a longer wait for your Bandol to reach its peak. I assure you, the wait is worth it!

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.