The old and rare wine conundrum: are the wines (and the prices) really worth it?

tre terre quintarelliAbove: the 1977 Recioto della Valpolicella Classico Vigneto di Tre Terre by Giuseppe Quintarelli (left) was the oldest wines and one of the most stunning I’d ever tasted from the estate. The fruit was vibrant and sexy and the wine very much alive and delicious. I tasted the wine and other “old and rare” Italians last week at a dinner hosted by Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan to honor wine writer Walter Speller.

“If you’re sitting on a bunch of wines from the 1980s,” said one of the leading Master Sommeliers in the country last year at a tasting of “old and rare” Burgundy, “you are going to be disappointed when you start to open them.”

A gentleman in his mid-60s and not exactly a new kid on the Master Sommelier block, he had just told the crowd of well-heeled collectors that he prefers to drink 2008 Burgundy over older and rarer vintages.

“Some of these [older] wines are still drinkable,” he told the surprised and somewhat shocked guests, “but they don’t have a lot of life in them.”

One of his colleagues, another Master Sommelier who was also presenting on the same panel, quickly moved to resolve the awkwardness.

“There are a lot of us here who love those wines,” he assured the group of 30 or so high-rolling wine lovers who had shelled out a pretty penny to attend the event. “It’s a matter of taste.”

His older colleague quickly backpedalled, making a joke. “If you’ve got any wines from the 80s that you want to get rid of,” he told the crowd, “send them my way!”

antoniolo gattinaraAbove: the 1964 Gattinara by Antoniolo was spectacular. Its fruit was rich and it had healthy acidity and tannin for a wine older than me. The year was especially good in Italy. I don’t have a photo of the bottle but the 1964 Cappellano Barolo we tasted was also phenomenal, lithe yet confident in the glass, a truly compelling wine.

The exchange was a harmless one, of course. After all, these are first-world problems.

But the anecdote underscores the tension between those who regularly seek out and pay handsomely for “old and rare” wines and those who think the wines are overrated.

In the King James Bible (first published in the early 17th-century), Isaiah 25:6 is translated as follows: “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”*

barbi brunello 1964Above: the 1967 vintage was a challenging harvest in Montalcino but the Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello poured the other night was impeccable. Light and bright in color, with the classic tones of old Sangiovese, the fruit in this wine was brilliant, the acidity confident. One of my favorites of the night (a wine made by my client Stefano Cinelli Colombini’s mother Francesca).

Both the primary text and the translation give us an indication of the way that old and rare wines have been perceived over the centuries (over millennia, really).

The “aura” of these wines, as Walter Benjamin might have put it, is (literally) awesome and powerful in the human psyche. The privileged among us are often ready to pay hefty sums to taste them.

Of course, the rest of us rarely get to taste wines like the ones poured at exclusive “old” Burgundy and “old” Italian events like the gathering where the Master Sommeliers wrestled or the dinner I attended last week in Manhattan honoring wine writer Walter Speller.

I am extremely fortunate to be invited occasionally to such summits. They are far above my pay grade (last week I was the guest of my friend Jamie Wolff, owner of Chambers Street Wines in New York City).

italian wine merchantsAbove: the 1968 Taurasi Riserva vineyard-designated Pian d’Angelo by Mastroberardino, third from left, was another highlight for me. Powerful fruit and gorgeous tannic made delicate over the years. It was really interesting to hear what Walter had to say about the Mastroberardino legacy. We and Campania winemakers owe so much to the Mastroberardino for their choice to cultivate native Campanian grape varieties after the Second World War.

“Pulling the corks” on these wines, as they say in the trade, is always a gamble. So many factors have to align for these wines to “show” their best. Even if the wine left the winery in impeccable conditions, they face so many hazards on their way to our tables and palates. Shipping, storage, and the test of time all shape the wine’s final performance. And when you consider that some of the wines I tasted the other night in Manhattan were 40 and nearly 50 years old, it’s only natural that not all old and rare wines will deliver what the prices promise.

The hosts of dinner the other night had to replace a few of the wines at the last minute after Maialino’s wine director Jeff Kellogg expertly opened them only to discover that they had turned. In the case of at least one of the wines, of the two bottles that arrived at the restaurant, one was good and the other not.

In my view, that’s the bottom line: if you can afford it, you have to consider the old and rare wine experience as a sort of wager.

The other night, not every wine rendered the pleasure that the label pledged. But of the nine lots poured, four were among the best wines I’ve ever tasted.

And man, that 1977 Quintarelli Recioto riserva, a wine harvested when I was 10 years old and raised over the course of the better part of my life, was earth-moving for me! Even its brother wine, the classic Recioto from the same year by Quintarelli, began to show beautifully as it opened up in the glass, only to be eclipsed by its sibling, an unrivaled champion among wines.

I’ll probably never get to taste either again. And such is my lot in life (excuse the pun).

The good news is that when we pass from this life to another, to G-d’s kingdom, the righteous among us will enjoy “a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”

* The Oxford Annotated Bible translates the same passage: “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

Here’s how the Orthodox Jewish Bible translates the same: “And in Har Hazeh [i.e., Mt Tziyon] shall Hashem Tzva’os make unto kol HaAmim a fat mishteh (feast), a mishteh (feast) of finest, aged wines, of finest meats, of the best wines of finest vintage.”

5 thoughts on “The old and rare wine conundrum: are the wines (and the prices) really worth it?

  1. Mark, thanks for the comment. Great to see you here. Honestly, I had never seen the Vigneto di Tre Terre before. I need to email Francesco at the winery and ask him details about it.

    Alfonso, if you would be so kind to help me find my mind, I’d gladly thank you in advance… (remember the song?). Walter was so sweet. Great guy. Jamie’s the best.

  2. Ciao Jeremy.
    In the same days (October 19th) I was in Bolzano (Sud Tirol) guest of Giorgio Grai for dinner.
    He brought a bottle of 1977 Alto Adige Lagrein Kretzer (rosè). There are no words to decsribe the perfection of that bottle of wine. Almost 40 years old for a rosè which (starting from the colour) was so amazing in terms of integrity. The colour, the nose (after minutes from the opening in a crescendo of bouquet), the taste (perfect and very enjoyable) made another great experience of how good wines born to be drunk in the supposed youth can evolve and become bettere and better.

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