There is a passage in one of my favourite wine novels, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which goes like this: “An ullaged bottle. Alas, but unsurprisingly ‘over the top,’ oxidized: colour dark brown; nose like pure balsamic vinegar; despite the rich components — undrinkable.” The words quoted are from British wine critic Michael Broadbent after tasting a bottle of Château Lafite from Bordeaux that was over 200 years old.
Author Benjamin Wallace’s account of the mystery behind the world’s most expensive bottle of wine, a 1787 Château Lafite — allegedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson and sold at a Christie’s wine auction in 1985 for $156,000 — is a brilliant and mesmerizing tale of the world’s richest men trying to outdo each other with a seemingly infinite amount of extremely old wines from what turned out to be dubious provenance.
It’s a captivating read that delves deep into the inner circle of hedonistic wine tastings where extravagant old bottles were lapped up like soda pop and the gratification achieved from nosing and sipping 200-year-old Bordeaux costing in the tens of thousands of dollars for a single bottle, no matter how putrid the wines were, was often gushed over simply because it didn’t taste like vinegar.
It is wine collecting gone wild. The dark side of what can be a rewarding and pleasurable experience for the more, shall we say, modest collectors among us. Older wine, slowly matured in a well-designed cellar, is the thing that really excites me. I am in awe every time I open an older vintage that has not only stood the test of time, but has benefited from a tour of duty in the cellar. I am not impressed by vinegar; I am looking for transformative wines that are better in their waning years than they were as pups.
The wines that make the earth move for me tend to be those that age gracefully for five, 10 and 20 years or more. These wines bring pleasure in the way they have grown up, integrated and evolved to reveal those interesting tertiary flavours and nuances you just don’t get in a young wine.
It is no wonder Bordeaux is at the top of every collector’s wish list. I learned the hard way that drinking Bordeaux on release was a fool’s game as they are just too tannic, too firm and out of whack. But age those wines for a few years and magic happens.
It’s the same with Riesling — the ones made with natural high acidity and some residual sugar. Try a 30-year-old German Riesling from a good producer and you will never drink a young Riesling again. That, to a lesser degree, is true with Niagara Rieslings; I never drink them without at least some bottle age.
Ditto for Burgundy, Aussie Shiraz and Semillon, Italian reds (most of them), Spanish reds, Napa Valley reds and too many others to list here.
And it certainly holds true for Niagara red blends made with the traditional Bordeaux varieties.
But how long is long enough for Canadian wines? We really don’t know. There just aren’t enough of them kicking around. There is no tradition of holding back wines for release at a later date and those who did collect those wines “back in the day” are few and far between. And then there’s this: We have a short history of wine in Canada.
We are on the patio on a gorgeous summer day, a corner table looking out into the vineyard at Niagara’s Trius Winery. Winemaker Craig McDonald orders for the two of us: hearts of romaine with Atlantic lobster and corn and peach salad, followed by potted salmon rillette and freshwater Arctic char filet.
Trius Chef Frank Dodd’s creations are stunning and pair well with the new white wine releases from the winery, but we are drawn together on this day to share some old bottles we had kicking around.
Our sommelier gingerly opens a Trius Dry Riesling 1995, a Joh. Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 1988 from Germany, a Late Harvest Vidal 1991 from Niagara’s Konzelmann and a Quails’ Gate Late Harvest Botrytis Affected Optima 1991 from the Okanagan Valley.
Our centrepiece was the nicely aged Auslese from legendary Mosel producer Prum, and it lived up to its reputation with enthralling complexity, laser-beam acidity and layers of flavour tucked neatly into sip after sip. But it was, surprisingly, the two sweet Canadian wines that stole this show.
Konzelmann’s Late Harvest Vidal, paired up with a baked caramel peach and corn bread dessert, literally shocked us. Such jaw-dropping flavours of apricot preserve, honey, penetrating layers of orchard fruits and a (still!) lively finish.
The quirky Quails’ Gate Late Harvest Botrytis Affected Optima 1991 from the Okanagan Valley was like silk on the palate, dripping with wild honeycomb, puréed tropical fruits, marmalade and caramel notes that were just emerging.
We drank and ate heartily for four and half hours on that patio, mesmerized by the wines and how the passage of time can turn silver into gold.
The moon shining off Lake Muskoka on a calm summer’s night is a comforting sight from a point jutting into Sunset Bay. Our bellies are full from a feast of barbecued prime rib, seasonal vegetables and a 1993 Château La Lagune from the Haut-Médoc in Bordeaux.
Retiring to a roaring fire is what you do in cottage country; one of the great pleasures of Canada’s outdoors. It is here that stories are told and retold while the kids roast s’mores on open flames.
My friend Bob is big on Italian red wines, a committed fan of all things Brunello di Montalcino, so I used the moment to open up a special treat for him (that had nothing to do with Brunello).
I had carted a Gaja Barbaresco 1986 to Muskoka for a moment just like this. Once settled on the rocks around the fire I poured a generous glass for Bob. And we drank.
That older-vintage allure was clearly at work here as I lost myself in the glass of truffles, forest floor, crushed berries and rich, savoury spices. It was profound, one of the most complex and interesting wines I have had in my life. The aromas and flavours were alarming.
We sipped this incredible elixir on the shore of that serene lake under a starry, starry sky, and, as I looked over at Bob in the glow of the fire, I knew exactly what he was thinking. It was the greatest bottle of wine he had ever tried.
Old wine is like that.
The best examples of well-aged Ontario wines have come from, understandably, the oldest and most-established vineyards.
Vineland Estates is famous for its Riesling especially from the 42-acre St. Urban Vineyard. The vineyard showcases the Weis 21 Riesling clone, brought to Canada from Mosel, German by the winery’s founder, Hermann Weis. The first plantings went in the soil in 1979.
So what a treat it was to come across a bottle of the 1989 Vineland Estate Late Harvest St Urban Vineyard Riesling made by Allan Schmidt, winemaker at the time and now president of the winery.
The aromas were immediate and profound, running the gamut from tropical-apricot puree and sweet marmalade to petrol and caramel. At the forefront of this Riesling was its freshness, still lively after all these years. It was lush, unctuous and concentrated on the palate with flavours of chunky tropical compote and candied fruits with a vibrancy that was hard to believe.
Then the tertiary notes kicked in, the kind of flavours that only come with age: Toffee, creamy apricot, honeycomb and that sliver of sweet petrol. What an extraordinary experience, such integration and length through the finish. I can still taste it.
I asked Schmidt what he remembered about winemaking in the early days of the industry and the work that went to producing such a long-lived wine.
“I wish I could tell you it was because of great planning and winemaking,” he said. “We were flying by the seat of our pants, with minimalist equipment and using garden hoses on tanks to cool fermentations. One of the only reasons we made a late harvest Riesling in 1989 is because we could not get all the fruit processed in time for the regular wines and had no choice but to leave the fruit hanging. So, as you know, the best Rieslings make themselves anyways, and this was no exception.”
It just doesn’t get any more historic than the Marynissen Lot 31 Cabernet Sauvignon. Located at the base of the Niagara Escarpment in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Lot 31 vineyard was planted by viticulture pioneer John Marynissen in 1978.
Marynissen had purchased the property in 1953 and was the first grape grower in the region to plant vinifera varieties, when most people said it could not be done. He set out to prove them wrong.
Marynissen, who passed away in 2009, always pushed the limits of what was perceived to be possible with grape growing and in 1978 he planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the Lot 31 Vineyard, which are the oldest commercial Cabernet vines in Canada.
For former Marynissen winemaker Jeff Hundertmark, all it took was one sip of the legendary 1991 Marynissen Lot 31 Cabernet Sauvignon to steer him into the world of winemaking. “It was an epiphany for me,” he told me a number of years ago when he was still the winemaker at Marynissen, before the family sold the winery to a group of Chinese investors.
From that first taste, Hundertmark started following the wines made by Marynissen while also working his way through various wine-related jobs and ventures in Ottawa.
To this day, Hundertmark says that the 1991 Lot 31 Cab “was the wine that put me where I am today (he’s now the winemaker for Mike Weir Wine and Stoney Ridge). It was the most inspiring wine I had tasted way back at its release in the early ‘90s, and the first collectible Canadian wine I had in my cellar at the time,” he said.
The 1991 Marynissen Lot 31 Cabernet Sauvignon bottle I tasted was in pristine condition.
This is an extraordinary example of well-aged Cabernet from Niagara. The nose was attractive with notes of blackberry, cherry, cigar box cedar, leather cocoa and sweet oak spices that were perfectly integrated and not one hint of the mustiness that age can bring.
It simply blew me away when I took the first sip. It was soft and mellow but showed bright black cherry fruit, an array of interesting spice notes with a touch of liquorice and earth. The tannins were round and smooth and everything had totally integrated into a seamless and thrilling wine.