Sometimes, I get to taste really ridiculous wines. The other night, the Associations des Sommeliers de Paris ate at Frank Putelat’s restaurant Le Parc in Carcassonne. Philippe Pares, an organizing member of the association, brought four fantastic bottles of wine for us to share. One of the bottles was an 1861 Chateau Lafite. Ya, that’s not a typo.
I don’t do many tasting notes, but everybody keeps asking me about this bottle in particular. Understandably. And I guess that, on some level, I have a responsibility to share the experience since that might have been the last bottle of that wine on earth.
So we tasted it blind. Only Philippe knew what he brought, and the head sommelier at Le Parc, Thomas Brieux, might have known too. Philippe opted to decant it an hour or so before service.
Coming out of the decanter, it looked almost like American coffee (read: watered down). Or Florida pond water. A deep brown color. If you left it in your glass for a while, the sediment would all go to the bottom, and some of the color would sink too, leaving a very watery transparent rim. It was like the wine could separate from the water. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Anyway, we knew we working with something old.
Nose started off with something like a touch of oxidation. Then it had pretty intense tertiary notes. A sense of coffee/roast could emerge every now and then. Lots of black truffle which came out more and more as it stayed in glass. It had us all guessing that we were tasting a miraculously well-preserved wine from the 1920s or 30s. Little did we know.
Taste was of a mature and composed wine. Again, dominated by tertiary notes of forest floor and mushroom.. bit of a gamey leathery component in there. Surprisingly together. None of us thought it was so old. But then again, even in a group of experts like the Association des Sommeliers de Paris (who are used to tasting first growth Bordeaux and can tell you all about each vintage in the Medoc from 1960 to the present day), very few people have references that go back to 1861… We have little experience in evaluating such a unique wine. And it was a very very distinguished group of sommeliers, so it’s impressive to see something stump them in a blind tasting. And the look of awe when we all became aware of exactly what we were drinking.
Was it worth it?
This is the next question people have been asking. “Was it worth it?” And the short answer is yes. I will remember this night forever.
It probably wasn’t the best-tasting wine that night (lots of consensus around the 1964 Palmer). But that’s not the point. This was one of the few groups of people on earth who are so steeped in the history and culture of wine appreciation that they could truly enjoy the historical importance of opening a bottle of wine like this. It’s about experience, tradition, our forefathers, and so much more than just drinking the wine.
This thing was 150 years old!! Generations of winemakers have passed since its bottling. (Interestingly, this is one of the last vintages produced before Rothschild bought Chateau Lafite and appended his name to the property in 1868.) A bottle like this is a glimpse into French history. Wine is one of these magical drinks that can be so natural and long-lived while at the same time being a one-time ephemeral experience like theater. Tasting this bottle with esteemed professionals was like getting the opportunity to travel back in time with Kenneth Branagh to see an original performance of Hamlet.
Plus the wine actually tasted great. That’s sort of surprising. We probably would have all appreciated it even if it had been broken, corked or just weak. But it was actually good.
Finding a group of people who can share something so special is an important cultural moment. It’s best not to ask for the monetary value …. just know that a dozen people will remember this moment for their entire lives. And every time we open a bottle of wine, we hope to capture a sliver of the magic that we found on nights like these.