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In Praise of Older Wines (July 18, 2013)

Question: To what or to whom do the following quotations refer?

"Raspberry scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blessed, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs suddenly set free in our tedious world..."

"They opened the gates of Paradise which Swinburne fathered on Swedenborg where all the senses were confounded and where music, colour and perfume were one."

Believe it or not, both quotations of overwrought prose refer to bottles of wine. Not just any old wine. These panegyrics were penned, without the hint of a blush, by two British connoisseurs in the 1940s. They refer to a tasting of Château Margaux 1871 and Château La Lagune 1885 respectively, wines made in the Golden Age of claret before the dreaded phylloxera blight laid waste the vineyards of Europe. They say Bordeaux wines have never been quite as good since. But then every generation says that about the Golden Age of anything.

Wine enthusiasts cannot help being curious about those pre-phylloxera wines. My researches into these wines have, for the most part, been second hand. When I come across descriptions of them in old wine books I'm moved to a frenzy of carpet-biting envy. Here's one written in 1948 by Colonel Ian Maxwell Campbell in a book called Wayward Tendrils of the Vine: "Although I prefer 1875 as a vintage for all round excellence, it did not in my opinion produce any one wine to equal the 1864 Lafite, the finest claret I ever tasted."

Just what was, and is, phylloxera – as Napa and Sonoma discovered to their cost in the late 1990s when wineries had to replant entire vineyards to rid themselves of the scourge? The phylloxera louse was imported into Europe in the 1860s. It came into France on North American rootstock, most likely on a labrusca variety called Isabella. Isabella is resistant to downy mildew, which is why the Europeans wanted it in the first place. The tiny yellow phylloxera aphid feeds on the sap in the roots of vines and secretes a saliva that prevents the wound from healing. Eventually the vine dies.

Phylloxera was first discovered in the southern Rhône, from where it spread like a conquering army throughout the vineyards of Europe into the 1900s. France recovered from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) in six years but it took a generation to restore their vineyards to health. The total cost of the phylloxera disaster to France was two and half the times the cost of that war.

Ironically, it was the agent of the blight that turned out to be the saviour of Europe's wine industry. The native North American rootstock that transported the aphid to Europe was immune to its destructive power. Today, virtually all the wines of Europe are made from vines that have been grafted onto disease-resistant North American rootstock. There are only a handful of pre-phylloxera vineyards in Europe producing grapes today and these were saved because the phylloxera louse can't survive in sandy soils. The most notable are three plots of Pinot Noir in Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes Françaises vineyard that produce an extraordinary champagne. (Chile, incidentally, is the only wine-growing country in the world that has not experienced phylloxera. Virtually all its vines are on their original rootstocks – cuttings that were imported from France in the 1850s. When they want to grow a new vine they just bury one cane and when it takes root they cut it off from the mother vine like severing the umbilical cord.)

I have been fortunate to taste one pre-phylloxera wine. I was living in London in the early 1970s and I used to haunt Christie's wine auctions with an American friend who was there on sabbatical. On one occasion he bid successfully for six bottles of Château Lafite-Rothschild 1865 and paid the ridiculously low price of £110 for the lot. I bought one bottle from him and determined to open it on my birthday.

Knowing what would happen to such an ancient wine when the cork was pulled I invited five friends to join me. The cork came out perfectly and immediately a bouquet of raspberries and tobacco emanated from the bottle. The colour was a pale pink, rather like a Provence rosé. The flavour was amazingly fresh and vital, still retaining its sweetness. At least it did for the first twenty minutes and then as the air got to it it turned brown and began to taste like balsamic vinegar.

Trying to capture that experience in print I described it this way: "A beautiful old dowager, dressed in her best gown and wearing a tiara, entered the room on crutches, gave the company a dazzling smile and then dropped dead." Which I suppose gives new meaning to the phrase "drop dead gorgeous."

Which just goes to show, when you experience a magnificent wine, it's like falling in love. You go a bit dotty and you begin to write like Coleridge on drugs.




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