You think you’ve found the perfect present. A vintage wine is like something caught in a time warp, a snapshot of the weather that year and techniques from a bygone era. It is much more than a simple nod to a date, it’s a welcome opportunity for some nostalgia. Here are some of the reasons, though, why it is not a good idea to succumb to the trend, along with some other gifting suggestions.
People live longer than wine
The reason why wine does not carry a ‘minimum storage life’ (previously known as shelf life) is because wine growers have no way of predicting its lifespan. It is a challenging task and also depends on how the bottle is stored – temperature etc – which the grower has no control over. But wine is a living product and inevitably will go downhill until it is totally lifeless. A top red wine is no longer the velvety fruit bomb but dry, acidic and lacking fleshiness. It is a mere shadow of its former self. Even when it comes from a prime terroir and a great vintage, after forty years for a red wine and twenty-five for a white, it has probably become a collector’s piece that people will refrain from drinking.
The older the beneficiary of the gift, the worse the idea!
For those who insist on giving wine for exceptional birthdays – 50 etc – this is where it gets very risky. The only wines that still hold a little hope of enjoyment are unaffordable – these were the absolute top wines that are now in extremely short supply and therefore very sought-after. There is also a chance that they might be counterfeit or, at best, wines that have been sold and resold many times and whose storage conditions cannot be guaranteed.
Fortified wines, brandies and oxidative wines to the rescue
For a grape-based drink to be flavourful many years down the line, it is essential to ensure that it contains a lot of the customary preservatives that are sugar and/or alcohol, or that it is immortal at birth.
Up to 50-60 years old, fortified and noble rot wines are viable options. Some Ports are vintage and contain both sugar and a good amount of alcohol (around 20%) but they are difficult to find and expensive. The French equivalent – Maury in Roussillon and Rasteau in the Rhone Valley – are more affordable but equally rare. Noble rot wines – Coteaux du Layon, Sauternes and Jurançon for instance – contain a lot of sugar. Admittedly, they are easier to come by, but only really withstand the onslaught of time (over 30 years) if they come from the top estates and famous years, thus making them equally as expensive.
Over 50-60 years old, the choice has to be brandy. Armagnac, with an ABV of over 40%, has the double advantage of sporting a vintage and being cheaper than Cognac, which is not vintage. Pomace brandies from regions like Burgundy are also made from grapes and can be good alternatives, provided they are vintage. Lastly, wines made with lots of oxygen – oxidative wines – are naturally resistant to the passing of time, but rarely show a vintage. Jura’s ‘vin jaune’ is an interesting exception, but you have to like its unusual flavour.
All this goes to show that, not only is the price tag often hefty, a lot of thought is required to find THE right bottle for a gift.
Written by Alain Echalier