We are told that larger bottles are better for ageing. The larger the bottle, the less oxygen contact per volume of wine and therefore the slower the oxidation process. Just as apples go brown, metal rusts and humans eventually die, oxidation will eventually strip the flavour of wine, tannins and fruit. We are also told that a large ullage, the gap between the cork and the wine, correlates to the quality of the wine based on the same principle. But oxidation is the reaction we love to hate. The aldehyde compounds that alcohol and oxygen produce are very important flavour compounds in wine and of course, oxygen polymerises (softens) the tannins. A recent experience with a 120-year-old, half bottle of Bordeaux with a big ullage seriously tested my understanding of wine. This unforgettable experience shows just how alive and non-scientific wine can be.
Château Léoville 1893 half bottle
This amazing old bottle was purchased from a collector’s estate, sadly leaving little of its cryptic, 120-year story. ‘Château Léoville’, ‘Chalié, Richards, Holdsworth and Co’ and ‘1893’ were all that appeared on the label. I contacted the Bartons at Léoville Barton in order to find out why it didn’t indicate which of the three Léovilles it was. No luck. Léoville Las Cases was a single property until the early 1800s when it was split into Léoville Barton, Poyferré and Las Cases. The Wine Doctor, Chris Kissack, who is extremely knowledgeable on Bordeaux and its history, suggested it could really be any one of the Léovilles, but probably Las Cases as it was THE original Léoville. This bottle would have been shipped over in cask from Bordeaux to London in around 1894 where it was bottled by the shipper and merchant ‘Chalié, Richards, Holdsworth and Co’, based in London.
There is no reason to question its authenticity as the shape of the bottle, lead capsule and amazingly saturated cork were all perfectly placed. Where it had been for 120 years remains a mystery, although I am certain that the people involved in making this wine did not think we would be drinking it on the tip of Africa four generations later…
The ullage was well past the shoulder, a gap of at least 40ml. The cork, however, came out beautifully and on its own filled the room with amazing aromas of ‘oldness’; nostalgic and comforting aromas of your grandparents’ home, of old leather, wooden chests and vintage books. The cork was heavy and wine soaked, partly explaining the ullage.
1893 is the earliest vintage ever on record. Even earlier than 2003, indicating that it was a prodigiously hot vintage. And yet when poured, the wine showed a bright red core leading to a faded rim that went from a deep orange to a rusty brown. There was a slight mustiness on the nose, coriander and fine dust. With a few swirls, the fruit started unveiling itself and the lucky drinkers slowly showed schoolboy-like grins. I had chills down my spine. It was so fresh! It was alive!
The wine was balanced, both delicate and textured with the tannin all but melting into the savoury red-fruited core that ended with spice and generous sweetness. Like a satin sheet it slid down my palate, a sensation that the St Julien appellation is renowned for. I wish there was more to share, but our precious pours were finished rather quickly. A delicate old wine like this has little chance once opened and would probably have faded quickly after 30 minutes.
Mouton Rothschild 1934 half – perfect level and one with ullage at mid-shoulder
Regarded as the greatest vintage in the ‘30s, it was a tough time for Bordeaux in between two wars and not many great wines were produced. Of the six halves in the set, ullages ranged from perfect fill to lower-shoulder. It was a great opportunity to taste two wines of varying ullages side by side. As with the Léoville, one would of course assume that the better fill would be the better wine of the two.
The perfect bottle was rather earthy and shy on the nose with an overt streak of mint, almost leaning towards eucalyptus. The palate was a little hard and almost angular, showing the Pauillac sternness and cassis-laden core. The wine, however, wasn’t supremely balanced and whilst very enjoyable, it didn’t shatter our wine ‘being’ like the Léoville did.
The second bottle with a bigger ullage was singing. It reminded me of the ‘55 and ‘59 (tasted earlier this year at our six-decade vertical), with its dense sweet fruit and meaty, savoury richness. The tannins were softer and the wine was more balanced, caressing the palate with extraordinary richness and length. The increased presence of oxygen seemed to have uncovered the true core of this wine, making it more stable, confident and real. It continued to blossom and showed no decline.
No doubt in our minds, the wine with the bigger ullage was superior. There goes the rule book!
Château Margaux 1966
Of the two bottles bought from another private collector, this had the better of the two ullages. The first, with ullage below the shoulder, was – as suspected – dead. This bottle was delicious, even though it showed ullage down to the low-shoulder. Just a hint of oxidation on the nose slowly blew off to true Margaux magic. Château Margaux didn’t make the humdinger that is Palmer 1966, but it was still very good. A spicy, juicy, velvety experience with ample texture and fullness. The palate started to fray after 15 minutes.
Remarkably, all four Bordeaux – at varying ages and ullages – showed off their communes precisely.
Ramos Pintos 1926 LBV
How fitting to end the evening with a wine that was ‘designed’ for drinking young and again challenged our wine thinking.
Late Bottled Vintage Port was born out of the need to bottle ports made in lesser years. It only really became an official style in the ‘50s, a trend started by Ramos Pintos. The 1926 was in fact the first Late Bottled Vintage Port ever!
We don’t drink enough old vintage port. It gathers complexity that is very difficult to find in unfortified wines; the higher alcohol acts as an anti-oxidant, so the ageing process takes longer and gathers more flavour compounds. This port had become drier, softer, more complex and savoury in style. Swirls of rum and raisin, rhubarb pie and a creamy finish made for a terrific drink that might last forever, which is my lifetime at least.
– Roland Peens, November 2013