Vintage Wine

What Does a Fine Wine Taste Like After 150 Years?

And what about a sherry that pre-dates the French Revolution? Specialist Noah May reports from a Christie’s Wine Department dinner in London at which leading collectors sampled wines spanning three centuries

On a cold December evening last year, a group of seasoned tasters from around the world gathered in the historic boardrooms at Christie’s in London to assess a rare grouping of wines crafted in a broad range of styles that spanned three centuries.

It was the latest in a long history of wine dinners curated by the Christie’s Wine Department, in which we have attempted to communicate the longevity and singular charms of the finest wines over time.

The evening began with one of the greatest flights of ‘white’ wines that I should ever reasonably expect to taste, and went on an extraordinary journey from there. These are some of my tasting notes from a memorable occasion.

White wines

We got off to a slightly inauspicious start with a 1905 Arbois Blanc that was just a little too funky — too feral and jarring, so we swapped it for the back-up: 1896 Château Chalon. From there, we cumulatively covered four and a half centuries, and a kaleidoscopic, deeply evocative range of sensations.

Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay whites are wines of legend. Deep-coloured, oxidative and always generous in character, they can last many decades, yet rarely does one have the opportunity to taste back to 1878, especially in half-bottle. Our hand-blown, diminutive beauty came directly from Murrieta and had been prudently re-corked three times (1928, 1957 and 1988) during its long life.

On tasting, the merit of all that hard work was immediately apparent. The wine was magnificent. There was an oily pungency to its honeyed, waxy core and a sense of layered complexity, which was enchanting and lasted long after the wine had gone.

Manzanilla sherry is typically drunk young, shortly after release, and is enjoyed for its fresh, floral, salty tang — ideally with Spanish ham in warm weather. This bottle was different: bottled at Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, in 1865. We decanted the wine and it poured straw-yellow into the carafe.

At over 150 years of age, it looked almost like a young en rama Manzanilla. On tasting, the 1865 was well-balanced, chalky and lightly nutty with a characteristic smoky edge. Its colour and youthful gait made it hard to believe it was bottled when Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States.

The last wine of the flight, another sherry, took us back almost a century further to 1779 — 10 years prior to the French Revolution. This was a historic and humbling experience. The label simply stated Jerez 1779: faded text on an ancient, irregular bottle. Whether the wine had ever been re-corked was unclear, but the cork we drew from the bottle could very reasonably have been original — so short, shrunken and saturated was it.

Surprisingly, the wine poured with beautiful clarity — deep, golden amber in the glass. Tobacco, tea, leather and notes of old furniture characterised the nose. The wine was akin to an old Amontillado in style — fully dry, oxidative and with a touch of alcoholic heft. The table was silenced as we savoured this beautiful, haunting moment.