Drinking the Past

Age is something that is seen as an attractive feature in wine, although of course it is only a few wines of certain makes that have the ability to age gracefully. Older wine can indeed be fascinating: to look at, to smell, to taste. It presents something unique to the senses that young wine cannot quite rival. Then there is the romance behind an old bottle, a dusty, crinkly label from being kept in a cellar, perhaps, or just an amusingly old-fashioned design. Of course exclusivity might also play a role for some, older vintages are rarer and, almost always, more expensive than younger ones. But one key reason why older wine is appealing to us has to do with something much deeper: it is a unique way to experience the passage of time, and ultimately a way to reflect on our own past.

Without a doubt old wine is intriguing because of what is in the bottle. To begin with, that colour! When I talk of old wine I usually have in mind reds, though some white wines can also age very well, sweet wines, of course, Riesling, good quality Chardonnay, white Rioja and, one of my favourites, Assyrtiko from Santorini, a wine that few know is age-worthy. But the colour of old red wine is strikingly different from young reds. It is no longer bright and ruby, it begins to fade into this brick red, almost brown. This fading vibrancy however has more nuance and subtlety than the exuberance of young reds. I find it very pleasing to the eye, it has a certain elegance, the way an old sepia photo can be more appealing than a shiny, brightly coloured one. The same goes for the smells and textures that older red wine develops. Complexity takes the place of fruitiness, tannins that would have been forbidding in younger age have mellowed down, and those elusive tertiary aromas of earth, mushrooms, leather, tobacco, blend in with the remaining fruit and challenge the drinker into a full description of them, which always seems elusive. Older wine makes you reflect on it by presenting your senses with something you do not come across in most young wines.

But the reflecting does not stop there. Old wine makes explicit a dimension that is key to the kinds of beings that we are: time. Older wine connects us to the past in a unique way, one that allows us a different perspective not just on wine, but on our own life. In an old wine we can taste the passage of time. Such a tangible way of connecting to the past can be moving. Of course all old physicals objects do that to an extent. But those remain largely static, unchanging, and when there is change, that is always in the form of deterioration. Wine, however, has the ability to develop with time, and even to improve, just like humans do.

It is interesting to note that despite the attractive character of the notes and textures found only in older wines, a lot of the time what we seek in an older wine is traces of its youth. Reviewers declare their enthusiasm and surprise at how a wine, several decades old, still has some bright fruit showing through. We admire its resilience, just as we do that of older people who have not lost their spark and energy.

All wine bears traces of the year its grapes grew and were harvested, the ups and downs in the weather, for example, or the conditions at harvest time. Just like our own years, with their high points and low points, we never quite know what a year will sum up to until its very end. But with age-worthy wine the story does not end there. What that harvest really amounted to can only be fully revealed in the future, when the time is right and the cork is finally pulled out of the bottle. Our own past experiences also have that dynamic character. They live on not only in our memories, but in ourselves. Past events have an echo into the future and we can never quite know their significance until much later. Drinking wines from years past, then, presents the opportunity to look back on ourselves. What was going on in our life that year? Who were we dating? Where were we living? And how have all these past experiences played out into the future to make us who we are today, here, drinking this wine? The other day I was drinking not a particularly old wine, it was from 2009, and the thought that immediately came to my mind was: my father was still alive that year.

Wine connoisseurs, of course, consult guides to find out what the good years were in coveted wine regions, and, undoubtedly, drinking older wine is also a way to access exceptional vintages. But it is also often that we find ourselves looking for wines from vintages that signify a landmark year in our life: year of birth, school or college graduation year, wedding year, or just a very good year, à la Frank Sinatra. This goes deeper than the amusement factor and dinner party conversation-piece. It is a way of reconnecting to those years and the time that has lapsed between then and now, through the wine in question. Of course, sometimes, we have the opportunity to taste a wine older than ourselves. But even in these occasions, a connection with the past is a big part of the experience, and has its own existentialist dimension, drinking something that was made at a time when you did not exist yet. When recently trying a Chateaux Malartic Lagraviere, a modest red Graves, from 1975, my girlfriend and I ended up talking about what our parents would have been doing back then. As for those who have the good fortune to try a classic Bordeaux vintage like 1945, they have the chance to reflect on the history of a whole continent, and what its fate has been since then.

Hegel, a 19th century German philosopher, thought history only makes sense retrospectively, or, as he put it, “the owl of Minerva [symbolizing wisdom] spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk”. When we open an old bottle of wine, the same is true of us: Looking back in time, our past might begin to make more sense to us than it did back then. We can reflect on older projects, ambitions, relationships, see them with new clarity and measure their traces in our life today. And having a glass of wine in hand we can ask ourselves, which of the two has matured better with age?