About twenty years ago, we began a tradition of making a family event out of decorating the Christmas tree about a week or two before Christmas. And on that evening, after dinner, I would uncork a suitable dessert wine, or port, while we all decorated the tree. It has been a lot of fun, and gives just our immediate family a chance to get closer again after a year of leading separate lives. So I usually make it a point to open something special that needs to be consumed.
Twenty years ago the kids were all under 18, so my wife and I would share the bottle. Today however, between the four kids and their spouses, we are often ten people sharing the bottle, so I am finding more pleasure from the good company I am keeping than the contents of that special bottle of wine I just opened.
This year it was time to uncork my only remaining bottle of 1976 Bischofliches Konvikt Eitelsbacher Marienholz Riesling Beerenauslese, made by the Bischofliches Konvikt (which translates to mean the Bishop’s Convent) winery in the city of Trier, in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer district of Germany, and located on the banks of the Moselle River. I bought three bottles of this wine in 1980 for about $20.00 each, today if you can find this wine for sale anywhere, the 1989 vintage retails for about $150.00, and the 1976 would cost over $200.00, but I highly doubt anyone would be still selling it.
I tasted the first of these three bottles in 1986 when the wine was 10 years old. It was marvellous then, but still very young, chock full of layer upon layer of luscious fruit, and was quite sweet. I then waited another 10 years before trying the second bottle in 1996. At 20 years of age the wine seemed to have improved from my previous tasting of the wine at 10 years of age. The additional age had rounded out the fruit edges, and softened the sweetness so that now it was powerful yet thoroughly balanced. I remember thinking at that point (which I wrote into my tasting notes at the time) that if you could freeze the wine’s development at its optimum point of maturity, this would surely be that point in time, at 20 years of age.
So having left the last bottle for another 23 years, of course my first thought was whether I had left it too long. Would this wine still be any good at all? Well I needed a proper occasion with the family to justify so long a wait to open that precious last bottle, so this Christmas tree decorating evening was to be that chosen time.
So on Sunday December 8th after dinner I uncorked our 43 year old German Beerenauslese dessert Riesling wondering what treat or torture awaited us. The cork was moist but so very delicate that any conventional corkscrew would tear it apart, so the Ah-So came to our rescue and worked flawlessly.
The wine poured into the glass in a deep rich golden yellow colour, leaving tears on the inside rim as it slowly settled into the glass. A couple of gentle swirls in the glass gave rise to an explosion of frangrances on the nose. Lemon, orange, black licorice and Grand Marnier are just a few of the immediate sensations that jumped out of the glass. It was immediately obvious that we were going to have one of those memorable tasting experiences.
On the palate another surprise awaited us. The wine was not sweet, at least not sweet like it used to be in 1996. The typical Beerenauslese sweetness level that one comes to expect in wines that rich had faded away to the point that it was actually off-dry. In that off-dry state all of the fruit flavours were still there, just as strong and vibrant as ever, but no longer hidden or cloaked in sweetness. So often when a dessert wine ages well past its prime and it losses its sweetness, the wine falls out of balance and tastes clumsy and awkward. This was not the case with this wine. The fruit flavours were huge, multi frangranced, on full display, yet perfectly balanced, soft, elegant and lasting what seemed forever. The aftertaste was just grand, with an orange tang left on the palate where sweetness once prevailed. This wine had evolved into something quite different to what it once was, and this incarnation was so powerful it was spell binding.
I lingered over this wine all evening, even though I only had two small glasses. I saved the bottle, and I saved the cork. To my total amazement, the fragrance embedded in the cork was so intense that it completely filled my office with all those wonderful scents for the next 2 weeks. At the time I am writing this now, on December 29th, the dried up cork is now 3 weeks out of the bottle and continues to dazzle my nose with scents of black licorice, lemon and orange.
I have never had a cork continue to accurately display a wine’s frangrance longer than about a week out of the bottle. This was a first for me!
I would rate the wine at 98 points. The only reason I chose not to rate it at 100 points was that I do not know if it was a little better 10 years ago, or if it might still improve over the next 5 years as the fruit fades away that much more.
Should you buy this wine today if you can find it for sale? Maybe, but only if you can be sure the wine has been cellared properly, and not owned by too many different people.
I am often asked about cellaring wine, and frankly I am very surprised how many wine collectors have limited experience cellaring white wines for extended periods of time. I was recently asked if a 1976 Hugel Riesling Sélection des Grains Nobles wine would still be good, and the answer is a very big “YES”, provided the wine was properly cellared. The same holds true for other dessert wines like German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines, most Sauternes and Barsacs, Moulin Touchais, and most Icewines from Canada and Germany. Fortified wines such as vintage ports and madeiras are also made for long storage.
Previous blogs I have written about drinking older white dessert wines include my blog # 66 (tasting the 1983 Bernkasteler Graben Riesling Eiswein), my blog # 6 (tasting the 1976 Hugel Gewurztraminer Sélection des Grains Nobles), and my blog # 5 (tasting the 1976 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Beerenauslese. All of these wines were opened at between 35- 40 years of age and were fabulous.
However, I must emphasize the importance of proper storage or cellar conditions, and the importance of you knowing your own cellar’s shortcomings. No two cellars are exactly alike, so you need to take the time to experiment with older bottles from your cellar to keep track of your wine’s evolution, to see how your wine cellar is performing. If your friend has an expensive cellar, with temperature and humidity control, a backup generator to deal with power failures, darkness and is vibration free, chances are they have perfect storage conditions. If at the same time you have just a cold room in the basement exposed to the concrete foundation that is cool in the winter and warmer in the summer, with no cooling system, you have relatively poor cellar storage conditions, so you should expect your wine to age faster, a lot faster.
I have found through experience that the better the storage conditions, the longer your wine will age, and the slower it will evolve. This means that if a wine critic says your wine will be ready to drink by 2025, a reader with poor cellar conditions might find their wine is ready by 2023, while their friend with the perfect cellar might find the wine is not ready to drink until 2030. So you must understand how your cellar performs, this is critical to getting the best results from your cellar. More on this in a future blog.
I really enjoy decorating the Christmas tree with the family, and a good bottle with which to celebrate the approach of the holidays. There is something magical to sipping on a luscious dessert wine or port while watching the young grandchildren hang all the ornaments on the lowest branches of the tree all packed tightly together.
As an added bonus, and in partial compensation for 3-4 ounces of priceless wine that I was limited to, I still have that dried up cork to keep me company,
and to remind me as I write this blog, how wonderful a tasting experience that was.
Cheers and Happy New Year to all,