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My in-laws are friends with a delightful couple, Doug and Beth, who spent years in the Middle East where Doug was a political officer at various U.S. embassies. They were in the stands when Anwar Sadat was killed in 1981. When not discussing world politics, Doug is a serious oenophile—-and a generous one, too. He brought two old bottles of Burgundy from his cellar, these dusty and weathered specimens from 1972. “CHASSEUR” was stamped across the label.
Now, most of my wine drinking, for reasons of budget and a paucity of rich friends, is limited to recent vintages. My own personal “wine cellar”—-imagine a bakery rack placed in a cold basement—-has a few old bottles. There’s a 1981 Bordeaux from Latour Haut-Brion, and a 1976 Barolo, both of which I seem to be saving for a special occasion that never arrives. But mostly my collection is a rag-tag assortment of favorite cheapies and a few limited-release bottles dating back to 1997 or so.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I saw the 1972 bottles sitting on the counter, along with a couple of newer wines that Doug had brought as back-ups in cases the 36-year-old Burgundies had turned to vinegar. He knew it was a distinct possibility. Frankly, I didn’t care one way or the other. It’s not often that you get a chance to quaff a wine that’s older than most of your co-workers.
I had never heard of Chasseur before last night, and I haven’t learned much more since I started researching the label this morning. Perhaps Chasseur was a negociant, since the 1972 label notes that the wine comes from “appellation bourgogne rouge controllee,” a lower classification that means the wine could be “made anywhere in the whole of Burgundy,” according to one of my wine guides.
Whatever its pedigree, the wine’s age was a marvel. I’ve read differing opinions on whether pinot noirs age well. Some say you shouldn’t age pinots longer than five years; others argue that a good, well-structured Burgundy can age much longer. I was dying to find out how well this faded beauty would age.
The corks, as you might expect, were practically mush at the bottom, which meant we had to filter out all the little pieces floating at the top of Doug’s prized juice. Once it was filtered and allowed to sit for about 30 minutes, we all poured a glass. The wine’s color had turned a little brown around the edges, the result of oxidation, which you’d expect after all these years.
But the flavors were almost fully intact; yes, as I told Doug at the table, there was a slight aftertaste of vinegar, but the fruit flavors were still intact—-the soft cherry, the very ripe strawberries. There was even a surprising toastiness that I loved. In other words, the aging process had not stripped away much of what makes Burgundy wines so great. Everyone around the table was rhapsodizing about Doug’s bottles. I was content to sit quietly, appreciating this bottle of juice that had been sitting in Doug’s cellar since the Nixon administration and thinking about all the things have had changed since then, for me and this wine.
Part of the thrill of drinking old wines is appreciating the passage of time. We tend to bemoan what time does to our bodies, our minds, our temperaments, and maybe even our ideals and dreams. But when we’re not fighting time, we can also enjoy its benefits: the complexity of thought that comes with time, the ability to forgive little flaws (like a touch of vinegar), and the willingness to slow life down and savor its small pleasures, like a glass of wine among family and friends.