Old wine -- What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Aww, say it again. Huh! Right, while many bottles of old wine are indeed worth quite close to absolutely nothing, that's not reason enough to ignore them.
In fact, I spend a lot of time looking at, thinking about, and drinking old wine. When I'm talking about old wine I'm thinking of wines 20, 30, and even 40 years old or more. Most of the old wine that I see that's worth nothing tends to be on the younger end of that spectrum.
People always ask how much that bottle of 1995 Chateau Le Cache Flow might be worth. I mean, it has to be worth something, right? It is after all old wine, and old wine is worth plenty. We're talking big bucks. Well, not always. There are so many issues to take into account, the demand for that particular old wine, the way it's been stored over the years, what it looks like and if it's authentic. While thinking of all these old wine issues, I realized I have to write about really, really old wine. So, allow me to introduce you to some of the oldest wine, and wine-related topics, around.
Oldest remains of wine: 6,000 B.C.
Pottery jars discovered in the Republic of Georgia have been found to contain the remains of wines that date to somewhere around 6,000 B.C. Yes, that’s more than 8,000 years ago! Of course, there was no liquid left in any of the jars, but the sediment of an ancient vintage was enough to prove that wine once graced its interior.
Even more fascinating was the discovery of tree resin mixed in with the wine residue. Now that resin might have seeped in through a hastily prepared closure (cloth saturated in resin works a lot like duct tape!) or, as the scientists who discovered it prefer to believe, it was intentionally added to the wine as a preservative. Uh-huh. In any event, looks like Greece’s retsina is actually an import from Georgia. Sounds like the Yugo of the wine world!
Oldest wine still in production: 800 B.C.
The eastern Mediterranean makes some great wines, and while retsina doesn’t exactly make my list of those wines, Commandaria does. In ancient times, Commandaria was known as Manna -- manna from heaven, baby!
This luscious dessert wine, produced from sun-dried grapes, reputedly made such an impression on Marc Anthony that he gifted the entire island of Cyprus to his lover Cleopatra!
Whatever truth may lie in the story, the sweet wine of the Commandaria region of Cyrpus was being written about in 800 B.C., making it the oldest wine still being made more or less as it once was.
Oldest bottle of wine: 325 A.D.
The oldest bottle ever found with something resembling wine in was unearthed in Speyer, Germany, during the excavation of a foundation for a new house. The bottle dates from circa 325 A.D. and was discovered in 1867.
Tests performed on the liquid that makes up a portion of the contents of the bottle has proven that there is wine in the bottle. The majority of the liquid seems, improbably, to be olive oil. But the fact that there is olive oil in the bottle is not at all unusual. As olive oil floats on wine, it’s able to form a barrier and protect the wine from oxidation and decay. What seems entirely improbable is that someone only filled the bottle one-third full and then topped it off with so much oil. Could this actually be a cruet of ancient salad dressing? Think about it!
Oldest wine-producing region in the U.S.: 1550
OK, so this is going to come as a surprise: New Mexico. Not only is this state the location for one of the best domestic sparkling wine producers, but it’s also the location of the earliest vineyards for wine production in what was to become the United States. So, this is going to be hard to prove, but Spanish missionaries did bring vines with them to the New World. We do know this is fact, and we still have some mission vines around the state that can trace their roots back to those earliest imports.
Oldest Champagne producer: 1584
Established in 1584, the house of Gosset is the oldest wine producer in Champagne. In those days, however, the wine wasn’t the sparkling product that we know and love today. That process didn’t begin until the late 17th century, and for 125 years or so the practice of producing a sparkling wine by a second fermentation in the bottle was an inexact and accident-prone science. In any case, the Gosset family was certainly there at the creation of the Champagne wine industry.
Supposedly Pierre Gosset was known to produce mostly red wines in those early years, a surprising fact in light of the difficulty modern winemakers have with red varieties in Champagne, farmed as they are at the edge of viability. It’s cold there and the growing season is short, so the wines tend to be light in body and high in acidity, which is ideal for… you guessed it! Bubbles!
Oldest wine barrel: 1594
This is one gigantic barrel It holds about 144,000 liters and is five meters in diameter, took two years to build and was completed in 1594. Constructed in the German town of Gröningen, this behemoth was filled with wine to celebrate Danish King Christian IV’s royal visit. You would think these guys really knew how to party!
Wrong. It took these guys 12 years to drain the barrel. Man, talk about a hangover. After that debacle the barrel sat empty for hundreds of years. It was saved from ruin in 1781 when one Lord Ludwig von Spiegel discovered the barrel and moved it to his hunting lodge, where it has sat, empty, for more than 200 years.
*News Flash* July 30, 2010 – Some crazy restaurateur got the wacky idea to use the barrel once again! This past summer, 4,000 liters of Dornfelder were served to some lucky guests during a special celebration. It’s a good thing he stopped at 4,000 liters. Lord knows how long it might take to burn through 144,000 liters of Dornfelder!
Oldest family-owned winery in Spain: 1647
Bodegas Julian Chivite is the oldest family-owned winery in Spain. Eleven generations of Chivites have watched over this operation as it has expanded from its home base in Navarra to encompass estates in Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
Historical archives show that in August 1647 Juan Chivite Frías and his sister-in-law María Rubio borrowed 100 ducats for a land lease, guaranteeing the loan with collateral that included a winery able to produce 150 cántaros (1 cántaro equals roughly three gallon-barrels) and with vineyards that covered some 1,320 square feet, give or take. Well, I’ll tell you, 100 ducats don’t go nearly as far today as they used to!
Oldest South African winery: 1685
Oh, and maybe the most freaking beautiful too. Holy s%^t, Simon van de Stel must have crapped his pants when he arrived in the Cape of Good Hope region of South Africa in the late 17th century as its first commander. Having had viticultural experience in the Netherlands (not exactly vinous nirvana you know), Simon took one look at this place and said, “Let’s celebrate and tie one on”… in three or four years.
Vineyards were planted here in 1685 and Simon named his property Klein Constantia. In short order, the dessert wines known as Constantia emerged to compete with the world’s finest. I mean this stuff had some serious fans. We’re talking Napoleon, Dickens, and Baudelaire! And while all that is true, I included Baudelaire because it’s fun to say Baudelaire, even in one’s head while typing! Not that I do that kind of stuff. Baudelaire!
Oldest wine for sale: 1727
The oldest wine currently for sale seems to be a 1727 Rüdesheimer Apostelwein from Germany’s Rheingau region,and now in the Bremen Ratskeller.In this day and age of forgeries and adulterated wines, it’s good to know that one can fly down to the Bahamas and check into the Graycliff Hotel, and saunter over to the restaurant for a bottle of this nearly priceless nectar. You see, this wine was only bottled in the 1950s, so its authenticity is almost undeniable!
So next time you’re feeling like Bond, James Bond, head off on a tropical adventure. Just be careful, these things have a habit of turning nasty pretty quickly. Oh, and in case you’re curious, no, you can’t afford it. It’s $200,000, and that’s for a half-bottle!