Wine Condition: Beauty in the Beast April 18, 2016 10:02
When it comes to wines, especially older vintage wines, the received wisdom has always been that condition matters. A wine’s condition – the state of the label, the level (how much is in the bottle), the condition of the capsule etc. – can tell you much about how the wine has been stored and give you pointers as to how well the wine will be drinking. In recent years, however, this received wisdom seems to have morphed into paranoia so that anything that isn’t out-of-the case pristine is shunned as unacceptable or discounted to within an inch of its life. Such a mania is not only misplaced – wines, especially Vintage Ports, are remarkable hardy – but can leave wine lovers to miss out on extraordinary, affordable drinking opportunities.
Wine Condition Paranoia: The Gift of Giving
Wine Condition paranoia is a phenomenon that has come to the wine trade from a new breed of wine buyer, many of whom wanted to buy bottles of fine wines such as Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Domaine de la Romanee Conti as fine wine gifts. For these buyers the perception of the gift, and therefore the associated appearance of the wine, was more important than the quality of the wine inside. As these buyers became more dominant in the fine wine market from the mid-1990s, so the wine trade became consumed by their desire for perfection. Wines that would have previously been happily bought and sold under such caveats as ‘bin-soiled’ or with levels ‘below shoulder’, became hard to sell for no good reason.
Fine Wine Condition: A Reality Check
The slowdown in fine wine prices post the financial crash and the subsequent plunge in demand from all over the world has, however, brought sanity back to the world of fine wine, and a much-needed fine wine reality check regarding fine wine condition has begun to occur.
The fact of the matter is that condition is important: but to dismiss a bottle of fine old Bordeaux, Burgundy and especially Vintage Port because it is not pristine is, as I have said, to miss out on some wonderful wine experiences, often at affordable prices. I remember vividly opening a bottle of Cockburns 1970, a bottle that was unprepossessing to say the least. The label had long since rotted away, plastic capsule of the cork had perished and the level was barely low-shoulder. The wine inside though was a delight: full, sweet, loaded with dense, black and red fruits and spices and cost half the money of a prettier looking bottle. Also some 5 years ago I purchased an entire wine cellar, one where the cellar was next to a river. Every bottle had damp damage to the labels but the wines were outstanding. 10 year old Muscadets and Macon Blanc were in lovely condition drinking like 3 year old white wines. So much for appearances!
Modern day wines are generally better presented than their older siblings. In the days before EuroCaves and other modern storage methods, wines used to spend their lives in dark, dusty, often damp cellars where labels would fade, capsules discolour and, over years, levels slowly fall as the natural process of evaporation took place. Did this mean wines were not drunk and enjoyed? Of course not.
Vintage Port: Born Ugly
Perhaps the greatest casualty of this obsession with the perfectly presented is Vintage Port. As anyone who has ever opened a case of mature Vintage Port will know, the chances of finding a set of 12 bottles all with their labels on are slim. You are much more likely to find them in a state of decay, if they are there at all, and many will fall away as soon as moved. The long ageing in cellars that is required to bring these wines to maturity makes such incidents inevitable – this is why Port shippers emboss vintage statements on the capsules of their wines. Does this make them any less compelling, brilliant and generally wonderful wines…?
Beauty in the Beast
Over long and pleasurable drinking experiences we have discovered that many an ugly duckling can turn out to be a swan. Indeed from the current MWH Wines list there are any number of wines that possess beauty in the beast and which are superb value for money. Take the glorious Cockburn’s 1935, the Château Lafite 1962 or the 1958 d’Yquem, would you turn a glass of any of them away if you’d seen the bottle first? Trust me, you’d be wise not to: in wine terms, there truly is beauty in the beast.