Vertical tastings and old charmers

Enjoying aged wine is one of the great pleasures of drinking. How to achieve the right ageing conditions and wonderful – as well as peculiar – mature wines encountered in the past month. After all, finding wines that have aged well is as good a form guide you’ll get as to what to lay down now for the future.

Peter Lehmann was a brave man to make Zugspitz Flaxman’s Vale Apfelwein in 1966. There were plenty of grapes, so why make wine from apples? Braver still, I thought, to cellar it for 27 years, and generous to a fault to present me with a bottle on a trip to the Barossa in January. It turned out to be a great leveler. A few expert palates here in Canberra correctly put an age on the masked bottle, but no one sniffed out the apples. It showed two things about cellaring: it’s a myth that only reds keep for very long periods; and the older dry whites grow, the more the aromas and flavours of age take over from individual grape and regional characters.

Despite this, one old red tasted in Victoria demonstrated that age can hone up flavours peculiar to a particular grape variety, as well as adding a smooth, silky texture. When Viv Thompson took a 1975 Pinot Meunier from the underground cellar of Best’s Great Western Winery, I really did not expect much. I was wrong. Here was a wine that started life as a lightish, delicate, fragrant dry red. It disappeared quickly over lunch, the lush, gamey flavour, and silky delicacy being irresistible. You can buy the current vintage from Viv for around $10. And there’s no reason why, if well cellared, it won’t turn out as well as the 1975.

At the other end of the scale, Birks Wendouree Bin W16 Clare Valley Claret 1961 was, at birth, one of those great blockbusters we see at times from Clare: impenetrably purple; pungently sweet and ripe in aroma; mouth puckeringly firm with tannin and loaded with ripe fruit flavour. Thirty-two years on with Peter and Mark Barry it was a glorious pot pourri of rich, sweet, fruity and decaying flavours. It was an absolute joy to drink… and probably sold for the equivalent of less than $10 in its day. Again, there’s no shortage of good, solid Clare reds to pop in the cellar today, although it will be hard to find one quite of this genre,

Although we can say, in general, Australian chardonnays don’t cellar well, there are exceptions, those from both Seppelts and Best’s at Great Western being good examples. I recently tasted a 1984 Best’s at a dinner party in the home of Ross and Lorraine Hanna of Macgregor and again on my visit to Best’s. Age confers on this wine a new dimension of rich, smooth aromas and flavours. What a great but simple pleasure it is to drink it. All the Hanna’s had done was buy a case at cellar door and stick it under the house for a few years.

In Sydney earlier this week, Don Lewis, Mitchelton’s wine maker, presided over a tasting of his Rhine Rieslings, vintages 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992. Some years back I reported on a similar tasting and the conclusion now is the same as then. All vintages are alive and well, with, to my taste, the 1980 and 1992 being great highlights. Vertical tastings like this are interesting but, of course, not as much fun as drinking the wines over a meal with friends. But the tasting proves the quality of the line and underscores Mitchelton Rhine Riesling (around or under $10) as a totally safe buy for the cellar.

If drinking aged wine can be enjoyed on a modest budget by doing the cellaring yourself, there are also sublime drinking experiences for those prepared to pay someone else to do the cellaring.

Lindemans, as far as I know, remains the only company cellaring wines, on a large scale, for re-release. In the Hunter last week I was fortunate to enjoy with a meal a glass each of the legendary Hunter River Chablis Bin 3875 1970 and Hunter River Burgundy Bin 6600 1983, both being released (around $70 and $30 respectively) as part of the company’s 150th anniversary. These are supreme examples of regional specialties having been cellared impeccably.

The point with these, indeed of all the wines mentioned here, is that they could have been bought comparatively cheaply when young. They were good wines then, but age has increased the drinking pleasure.