Birthday wine 2018: A buying guide
There’s something particularly satisfying about cracking open a bottle of wine that was ‘born’ in the same year as you, says Anthony Rose. He recommends the birthday wine to go for in 2018, be it an 18th, 21st or 30th or a bottle for someone much more senior – and with greater wisdom, naturally.
Some are born in great vintages, as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night almost utters, some achieve greatness by cleverly managing to get themselves married in them, while others have great vintages thrust upon them – if they’re lucky enough to be showered with fine wine as a birthday or anniversary gift.
They say that to give is so much better than to receive, and while you may sometimes doubt the wisdom of the aphorism, let us oil the wheels for you with suitable suggestions for wine gifts in 2018.
There are years that lend themselves to the task thanks to effortless excellence across the board, whereas others come more reluctantly to the party, or don’t want to party at all. Sadly, 2018 is closer to the latter camp, with fortunes at best mixed. Broadly speaking, the finer the wine, the longer its potential. All the more so in the case of larger formats – and what better treat than a birthday magnum or jeroboam? Older wines are frailer though, and often difficult to source. So sweet wines, tawny Ports and other fortified wines such as Rivesaltes, Maury and Madeira can fit the bill if a poor vintage leaves you scratching your head for ideas.
Vintage apart, older doesn’t necessarily mean better. Even a great vintage can be marred by good old-fashioned winemaking – by which I mean, of course, bad old-fashioned winemaking. So don’t hesitate to approach a wine merchant or broker specialising in fine, rare and cult wines. A search engine such as www.wine-searcher.com can take away the pain of tracking down a mature vintage – and don’t overlook the auction houses, whose online catalogues can be a rich hunting ground for the fine and rare of the species. If still in doubt for a gift, my current favourite gadget, a Coravin Model Two (see www.coravin.com), would ensure undying gratitude.
The year that launched the noughties was a landmark in Bordeaux. At the upper echelons of cru classé, clarets are starting to open up and show their potential. You’re spoiled for choice, with fabulous wines from Brane-Cantenac, Gruaud-Larose, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Haut-Bailly, Latour à Pomerol, Léoville-Barton, Lynch-Bages, Montrose, Pichon Baron and Rauzan-Ségla. Crus bourgeois Chasse-Spleen and Sociando-Mallet are bargain basement. The 2000 red Burgundies, by contrast, were good for early drinking, and the whites have mostly fallen apart.
Champagne 2000 was a vintage for relatively early drinking, but Charles Heidsieck, Dom Pérignon P2 and Krug’s Clos du Mesnil are still bubbling under. If you want to make a bigger splash, Deutz’s UK importer González Byass has access to one of the 65 methuselahs of the flagship Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs made in 2000, numbered of course, in an individual gift box and priced from a not-inconsiderable £2,000.
A mere £200 or so will buy at auction six bottles of Fonseca, Niepoort or Quinta do Noval vintage Port, a fraction more for Graham’s and Taylor’s. For something more exotic, consider the exceptional Paul Hobbs, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville 2000 – $760 a bottle from the winery; or scour the remarkable vintage archive of P&F Wineries in Slovenia where you’ll find a tropically rich and wonderfully honeyed Puklavec, Chardonnay Spötlese 2000, at €137.85.
A little on the lean side in the Médoc but good in Right Bank St-Emilion and Pomerol, 1998 first growths weigh in at a hefty £350-£400 a bottle (Château Lafite almost double). But less-expensive gems occasionally come up at auction, such as the beautiful Château Magdelaine, St-Emilion (£105 Fine & Rare), or the very good Château Certan de May, Pomerol (£89 Berry Bros & Rudd).
US critic Robert Parker slated 1998 red Burgundies – wrongly, in the view of Burgundy expert Roy Richards, who recommends Grivot’s Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaux Monts (£115 ib, Mayfly Wine) or Sylvain Cathiard’s Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Aux Malconsorts, if you can track it down. In the Rhône, Jean-Louis Chave’s wonderful Hermitage (£239 Crump Richmond Shaw) is coming into its own, while in Champagne, the excellent Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1998 is a treat (£288 Fine & Rare; £568.80/150cl The Finest Bubble). 1998 was a great Australian vintage across the board, with Penfolds’ Grange an opulent, still youthful classic, while Penfolds’ St Henri, Wynns’ John Riddoch and Brokenwood’s Graveyard Shiraz were standouts, as was, from South Africa, Paul Sauer’s Kanonkop 1998.
Bordeaux 1997 was mediocre and overpriced, and best summed up by the words ‘forget it’. 1997 Burgundy was pleasing enough but now in gentle decline, although Roy Richards reports that he recently enjoyed wines from Domaine Chantal Remy. It was an excellent vintage in the Loire for Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, and in Champagne, with a cornucopia of fine fizz: Delamotte’s Blanc de Blancs, Jacquesson’s Cuvée Avize, Pierre Péters’ Les Chétillons, Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses and the extraordinarily long-lived Salon.
1997 SuperTuscans in the mould of Isole e Olena’s Cepparello, Fontodi’s Flaccianello and Fèlsina’s Vigneto Rancia are at a mature peak now, or – deep pockets alert – Ornellaia and Sassicaia. It was a great vintage in Germany, with low yields especially in the Mosel, where Ernie Loosen will let you have his fragrant Dr Loosen, Urziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 1997 for £48. It was a super-ripe vintage too for California, so good things here from Opus One, Paul Hobbs’ Cabernet Sauvignon and Ridge’s Monte Bello and, from South Africa, Boekenhoutskloof’s exceptional, ground-breaking Syrah.
Back in the Slovenian archive of Puklavec & Friends, the astonishingly fresh, youthful and concentrated honeydew melon-like Pinot Blanc 1997 (€94.65) would make an unusual and welcome present.
1997 was an excellent vintage in the Loire for Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux – and a great vintage in Germany, especially in the Mosel
1988 was the ‘classic’ Bordeaux vintage that preceded, and was subsequently overshadowed by, the great twin vintages of 1989 and 1990. Yet this ‘claret lover’s vintage’ has endured at the top level. Crus classés are on the wane in the auction room, but long-lived clarets such as Château Latour can still be found for about £300 a bottle, while Château Pichon-Longueville Baron is a first-rate buy at £108 from Ancient & Modern Wines. The best sweet wines too in both Sauternes and Loire have retained much of their freshness and vigour.
It was also a good vintage for red Burgundy in an austere, grippy style that took its time to come round. De Montille’s Volnay 1er Cru Les Mitans or Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens, or Roumier’s great Morey-St-Denis 1er Cru Clos de la Bussière in good condition will give much pleasure. In the Rhône, Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle and Chave’s Hermitage, along with Château Rayas, were excellent. Barbaresco from Gaja was outstanding; and in Tuscany, Isole e Olena’s Cepparello and Case Basse’s Soldera Brunello are stunning. From California, Ridge’s Montebello (£204 Hedonism) remains a top drop, while the gran reserva-like Penfolds’ Grange (£365 Goedhuis & Co) has lost its puppy fat and is ageing gracefully,
If the bottle is in good condition, there’s still plenty of top Champagnes to choose from: Bollinger’s Grande Année, Henriot’s Des Enchanteleurs, Salon, Deutz’s William Deutz, Roederer’s Cristal, Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, or the fabulous Krug at about £400 a bottle, and Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in magnum at £1,305.60 from Roberson. A relative youngster, the luscious Disznókö, Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos can be found at Four Walls Wine for £29.50.
Featuring prominently in the first Christie’s price index of vintage wine, the esteemed Michael Broadbent notes that 1978 Bordeaux was ‘an attractive vintage for characterful medium-term drinking’. Even now, ’78s still occasionally turn up at auction. Château Latour had ‘a nose of raisins and pepper, turning to pure dark black truffles… almost “salty” coffee, dense taste’ according to Serena Sutcliffe MW’s note in the catalogue of Sotheby’s London sale of Finest and Rarest Wines on 20 September 2017. 1978 was the turning point for Château Margaux, as Geraldine Norman stated in The Times of the day: ‘the wines from 1978 onwards are of a superior quality not yet fully reflected in the price’. The price in the 1984 Christie’s edition was £280-£340 a case; today’s average is £370 a bottle.
With its exuberant fruit and crystalline purity, 1978 was the great Henri Jayer’s favourite red Burgundy vintage and on a par with 1949 and 2005. The ’78s are fully mature now and odd bottles occasionally come up at auction. Roy Richards reports recently buying a Delagrange-Bachelet Chassagne-Montrachet from a Beaune caviste for €30 ‘and it was stunning in its precision and freshness’.
1978 was excellent in Barolo, the Rhône and California, but bottles are thin on the ground. Kopke’s gorgeously toffee- and caramel-rich Colheita Port can still be found, in presentation box (£94.95 Vintage Wine & Port), and spirits lovers take note: the Jarnac-matured Hine 1978 (POA The Whisky Exchange) is beautiful now: smoky, honeyed, distilled fruit richness personified.
Truffles were much enjoyed in 1968, a year of slim pickings for wine. It’s a shame that such an important vintage in the anniversary calendar should have been such a rotten one in so many wine regions, notably Bordeaux and Barolo. When the Nahe region’s great Helmut Dönnhoff was asked for his view on the vintage, he held his head in his hands, muttered something unrepeatable, then said that the only memorable thing was the ring mark that a glass of the Riesling ‘burnt’ on his French-polished dresser.
So how to help 50-year-olds recover from the trauma? Well, 1968 was the vintage that kick-started Sassicaia, a sensation at the time that launched a thousand SuperTuscans. Last time I looked, Fine & Rare had a bottle going for a mere £1,314, but don’t expect mint condition. Blandy’s Bual Madeira is a safe bet, and you may even still get some mileage out of the famously long-lived Marqués de Murrieta, Castillo Ygay Especial, Rioja 1968 (£318.20 Hedonism) or Viña Tondonia’s Gran Reserva Rioja (€400 Vino Vintage Santander).
While 1958 is regarded by many of the old-timers as one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century, the wines are now as rare as a dodo’s teeth. In the unlikely event that you can get your hands on one, two iconic wines featured on www.wine-lister.com are Gaja’s Barbaresco (score: 970/1,000) and Château La Mission Haut-Brion (921).
A relic of the past, Penfolds’ Grange 1958 – one of the so-called ‘hidden Granges’ because Max Schubert made it in secret – still commands huge prices at auction. The nutty and caramel-rich Cossart Gordon, Bual Madeira 1958 (£200 Davy’s) is still wonderful.
1948 was magnificent for Ports, with Taylor’s one of the greatest that noted taster and educator Michael Schuster has ever drunk and, along with Fonseca, ‘now about the only reliable wine in my birth year’. To celebrate her husband’s birthday, Rosemary George MW selflessly drank an ‘utterly delicious’ Domaine de Rancy, Vin Doux Naturel 1948 which she found in Latour-de-France near her Languedoc home. Penfolds’ Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon 1948 is a true legend, but the last-known bottle was probably drunk at the Sydney Wine Show about 25 years ago.
80th (1938) & beyond
On the brink of World War II, 1938 was the year of both Howard Hughes’ record-breaking 91-hour flight around the world and the first international surrealist exhibition in Paris.
It can be celebrated with Sogevinus’ amazingly venerable, hugely concentrated and nutty Kopke, Colheita Port 1938 (contact firstname.lastname@example.org). If you were born in 1918, the only wine needed to accompany your centenarian birthday message from HM the Queen is the seriously fabulous Seppeltsfield, Para Liqueur Tawny 1918, A$700 direct from the winery (www.seppeltsfield.com.au).
This article originally appeared in Decanter magazine. This page has been updated from an original version featuring wines for birthday celebrations in 2017.