1865 – Gut-feel may be best guide to red wine longevity

Australia New Zealand Wine Industry Journal 2002, Vol 17 pp. 12-13

Just what makes a red wine able to age in bottle for a long time? That was the inevitable question last year when 27 people shared the experience of a double magnum of Château Lafite-Rothschild 1865.

The wine had been bought by James Halliday at auction in London on behalf of a group of friends he had organised. A dinner, mostly of Bordeaux magnums, was arranged at Tower Lodge in the Hunter Valley with Halliday and Len Evans the hosts and with the double magnum as the centrepiece.

To put the year in context, 1865 was a mere ten years after the 1855 Classification of the Médoc, in which Lafite took the highest place. It was also the year Lincoln was assassinated. Napoleon III’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war was still six years away and Disraeli’s prime minister-ship just three; Beethoven had been dead less than 40 years and Burke and Wills had perished on their return crossing of Australia just four years before.

The 1865 vintage is now regarded as the greatest surviving one for red Bordeaux from the pre-Phylloxera period. Michael Broadbent describes it as “the sturdiest and most dependable of all the pre-Phylloxera vintages and still drinking despite its great age.” It was one of three famous pairs of years in the period – 1864/5, 1869/70 and 1874/5 – and part of a golden era for Bordeaux that was rudely ended by the arrival of Phylloxera.

It was a prolific vintage. Edmond Penning-Rowsell (Penning-Rowsell, 1969) reports that Lafite made about 19,000 cases of 1865. This double magnum was château-bottled and had been the property of the Earl of Rosebery. It was binned in 1868 in the cellar at Dalmeny House in Edinburgh, Scotland where it stayed undisturbed until 1967, apart from a re-waxing of the neck in 1932.  It then passed through two other owners, before being offered by Christies in 2001.

The wine level was remarkable, at the base of the neck, and the 1932 wax seal was still intact. On opening, the first half of the cork, now about 134 years old, came out whole, but the remainder crumbled and had to be retrieved in small pieces. The length appeared to be a normal magnum cork diameter and length – about 50mm.

The colour of the wine was extraordinary – a deep blackish red with brick showing only on the edge. On colour alone, the wine could have been 100 years younger. The nose was extremely complex and still showed berry fruit, along with chocolate, truffles and anise. There were also strongly aged characters of mushroom and cheesecloth, like the rind from an old wheel of cheddar. Another taster suggested ‘ladies handbag’ – a great description, this, combining leather with perfume and, dare one say it, sweat and other mysteries. The palate was richly flavoured and lively, and still showed fruit sweetness. The balance was excellent, with no evidence of thinning out, although the tannins were quite firm. (The 1865s were apparently known for their tannins.) Len Evans commented on the outstanding ‘line’ of the palate – the continuity from start to finish.

The mushroom character reduced somewhat as the wine breathed, although it never disappeared, and the wine held in the glass for at least two hours after pouring.

So what had made the wine able to last 136 years? The sulphur dioxide at bottling would have protected the wine for a while, and the bottle size would also have helped. Wines tend to last longer in larger bottles as any ingress of oxygen through or past the cork (that barely differs from a normal bottle size) is dissipated through a larger volume of wine. The cork could have had an even greater role, according to Peter Godden, Manager of Industry Services at the Australian Wine Research Institute. The AWRI has found over a 1000-fold difference in the transmission of oxygen by wine corks. The cork in the 1865 must have been one of low transmission. Secondly, the phenolics in the cork would have protected the wine by reacting with oxygen as it diffused in.

Eventually, however, it must have come down to the wine.  Once the sulphur dioxide had gone, “there appears to be nothing to resist oxidation other than the phenolics”, Peter said. In more advanced decline, the phenolics would eventually start to drop out of solution and take tartrates with them, with the wine losing colour and balance. This wine would not have progressed that far. All these processes would have been slowed in the cold of the Scottish cellar. (However, Peter Godden pointed out that, if the cork had badly deteriorated, the cold conditions might have speeded the ingress of oxygen, as gases dissolve more readily at lower temperatures.)

Would there have been anything special about the phenolics that would have enabled the wine to age? From the taste of the wine, the tannins would have been fully ripe at harvest. 1865 was a high yielding vintage, but also an early one – Lafite started picking on 14th September – so there was clearly no difficulty getting the fruit ripe. My own feeling is that wines that start hard, with unripe, bitter tannins, don’t become attractive, as the fruit fades and the green tannins remain. Wines with strong, but ripe, tannins are those which are able to last. But can this be quantified?

Malcolm Allen is Associate Professor in Wine Science at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, and a tannin chemist. “I’m not aware of any scientific evidence”, Malcolm replied. “Tannins are a horrible mixture, parts of which behave in different ways. They are therefore very difficult to work with, and re-constructing the mix on an experimental basis is very difficult”, which is why the tannin project managed through the AWRI (Williams, 1998) was not likely to bring results for some years.

“But we do know that the balance between anthocyanins and tannins is important”, he continued. “Monomeric anthocyanins have limited stability and polymerisation is very important for long-term stability of wine colour. But it is a double-edged sword, as excessive polymerisation can lead to precipitation and loss of colour. Anthocyanins may limit the extent of polymerisation of tannins and hold them in solution.” This would tend to protect wines from oxidation. To add to the difficulties, polymerisation and de-polymerisation are happening at the same time with different phenolic fractions in the wine. A low wine pH will slow some ageing processes by reducing the oxidation of phenolics.

There is not much published material on the rate of wine ageing, phenolic levels and colour in different wines. The proceedings of an ASVO tasting seminar in 1988 (Lee, 1988) gives a spectral analysis of a group of cabernet sauvignon-based wines from the 1985 vintage that were tasted at the seminar. Age indices for the Bordeaux wines tended to show less age than those from Australia, California and New Zealand and the Bordeaux also generally showed brighter tints and deeper colour. Total phenols tended to be higher, too, although the highest were in Penfolds Bin 707, Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon and Château Cos d’Estournel. Papers in the proceedings describe the details of winemaking for some of the wines tasted, but relating methods to the spectral analysis and the taste of the wines is virtually impossible (my comments).

Most of us can recall wines which seemed to have aged remarkably slowly – 1976 Yeringberg Cabernet, 1980 Yarra Yering No. 1 and 1921 Ch. Cantemerle are three that spring to mind – but what it was about the viticulture, growing season or winemaking that contributed to that is difficult to prove.

Phenolic reactions, both in fermenting wine and wine maturing in oak and bottle, are extremely complex and involve tannins, anthocyanins, oxygen, acetaldehyde and sulphur dioxide, (Allen, 1998). At present, Malcolm believes that winemakers’ experience and gut-feel is a better guide to creating red wine longevity than an understanding of phenolic chemistry.

Winemakers who want to produce wines capable of long ageing (by no means essential, by the way) can, with current knowledge, only follow examples of wines or growing and winemaking methods they respect. And then perhaps wait for 136 years to know if they’ve been successful.

References

Allen, M. (1998) Phenolics demystified in ‘Phenolics and Extraction’. Proceedings of an ASVO Oenology Seminar, Adelaide, 1997, pp 4-11.

Lee, T., ed. (1988) Tasting seminar, Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. (Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology. Adelaide).

Penning-Rowsell, E (1969) ‘The wines of Bordeaux’. (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth).

Williams, P.J. (1998) Structures, rates of formation and sensory properties of red wine pigmented tannins and the influences of viticultural practices on these tannins in ‘Phenolics and Extraction’. Proceedings of an ASVO Oenology Seminar, Adelaide, 1997, pp 28-29.

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