Great wines, great memories

When I mentioned on Twitter at the start of this year that I celebrate 30 years’ professional involvement with wine in 2013, it was suggested I write about some of the memorable wines I’ve enjoyed in that time.

Apologising up front if this seems unnecessarily indulgent, (though I do promise the wines are truly memorable for one reason or another) that is what I plan to do now and again over the next few weeks.

I admit to cheating with my first wine, as it was one I marvelled at outside of the last 30 years; in 1978 in fact, when I was one of a very select group of 16 who drank 1874 Chateau Lafite – that is a pre-phylloxera, 104 year old First Growth, not something that falls into one’s wine glass every day.

There’s an interesting story behind my luck, but with something this old, it perhaps adds to the remarkableness by giving some context to its birth year.

So, in 1874 Disraeli became prime minister of Great Britain, lawn tennis was introduced, David Livingstone was buried in Westminster Abbey, Verdi’s Requiem and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus both premiered and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd was published. Artists Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were active – goodness what a palette of talent! A memorable year for many reasons, including a great Bordeaux vintage.

For forgotten details, I turned to a scrap book I kept for many years. The story goes that members of the Wine Tasters’ Guild of South Africa met (the now late) John Avery MW at the 1977 Nederburg Auction and learned that he had three bottles of 1874 Chateau Lafite. Probably in part due to the bottle having no label, the wine cost the princely sum of R120 (the same vintage today would cost R80 000 odd in France and a whopping R242 000 in Hong Kong so winesearcher advises!). The bottle was transported to Cape Town by cargo ship; by air would likely have dislodged the very crumbly, original cork.

Lafite1874glassAfter a six-month rest, the great opening was planned, black tie and all. Special glasses were bought and embossed with the ‘Lafite 1874’ imprinted on top of the cork, as in the photo (the bottle might have been label-less but this was no Rudi Kurniawan fake!). The venue: David and Jos Baker’s home at Eagles Nest. The guests: committee members of the WTG (I was probably secretary then) as well as Billy Hofmeyr, who was to make his own first Bordeaux-style blend at Welgemeend the following year, and Julius Barratt, working in South Africa at the time but later to return to the UK where he recently retired from Awin Barratt Siegel, the importer of which he was a founder.

I remember Billy brought along some rather nice right bank wines, Cheval Blanc comes to mind and we also had a few other vintages of Lafite to ‘tune the palate’

Of course, the occasion had its own dramas, no surprise that extracting the cork was one (the little crumbles in the photo are part of it) but a variety of corkscrews and an Ah-so eventually did the trick.

Lafite1874glasscorkThe air of anticipation was tense – I mean what if all this fuss was over a bottle of vinegar or corked wine? Thank goodness, it was neither. Memorable was the wine’s unwrinkled flesh, still sweet and supple with more than a glimmer of the cabernet sauvignon which forms the majority of the blend of the modern day Lafite. There was form and freshness completed by savoury length. It had aged so slowly yet perfectly, it was easy to tell it came from a great vintage. Nor did this graceful wine have one last dance and collapse; it continued to give pleasure for as long as it remained in my glass. I read that it refused to give up the ghost for at least a further 18 hours.

Some of the details I’m recording here come from The Wanderer’s column in The Argus. Having written about a slightly younger vintage of the same wine, an 1806, which was expected to reach R15 000 on auction at Christies in London, David Baker phoned to tell him about the Guild’s 1874 and offered the dregs of the bottle. Writing about this, he says that ‘.. even after 18 hours the heavenly nose was still there – fruity and faintly redolent, to me at least, of some delicate herb. On the palate it was like velvet, and the cabernet flavour matching the bouquet and lingering delectably long after the last swallow, was an experience to be remembered.’

A regretful David Biggs told me he wasn’t the lucky Wanderer, though he took over from Max Leigh shortly afterwards and is still wandering strongly.

With such venerable bottles, one is experiencing more than just the wine, the whole history is part of it too. One becomes so acutely aware of this.

Other old bottles, though none as old as this Lafite, both foreign and local, have also provided many pleasurable memories. I’ll do some digging in the archives and re-live the next one shortly.

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