Wine With Soul

My brother-in-law, an unerring trawler of troves (and a crack builder of new ones), sagely gave me a box of dusty old wine pulled from the corner of somebody’s purged basement. Most of the bottles haven’t been drinkable since the ’80s (if they ever were at all), just mantel decor at this point. But I noted a couple that might still have life in them. Recently, my wife and I cooked a simple rosemary roast pork loin with potatoes, and I opened one of the bottles: a 1983 Saint-Émilion (a Right Bank Bordeaux appellation) called Château La Tour Figeac.

The 1983 vintage has been somewhat overlooked because 1982 was a legendary year in Bordeaux, bulldozing its neighbors under its reputation. But ’83 produced excellent, well-structured wines, and the Figeac showed well 30 years on. It had all the traits of proper, classic Bordeaux—a wine the English used to call “claret,” which gets at its clarity.

The Figeac was weathered, highly aromatic and graceful, with a lovely restrained propriety that is impossible to find in any bistro gulp or new trophy wine. I had never before heard of Château La Tour Figeac, an estate of no especial esteem. That only goes to show that a good old wine, born of good rootstock, is, in time, no miracle. It’s just doing what it’s supposed to do, if you leave it be and let it live. Just like a human.

The vogue nowadays is for young, fresh, light wines. There is certainly much to be said for the straightforward pleasures of these daily drinkers, but it sometimes seems as if we’re about to stop drinking good, old wines altogether.

It’s unclear whether the endangerment of old wine is evidence of historical-cultural backlash, economic necessity or the vanishing of an antiquated tradition. Yet the character and pleasure of aged wines simply can’t be duplicated. There’s no shortcut to their remarkable combination of lightness and power, mellowness and immediacy, complexity and clarity.

Moreover, by abandoning old wine, we rob wine of its greatest asset, which is the same as humans’ greatest asset: the ability to grow into a better version of ourselves over time. This is what wine at its best, and we at our best, are born to do: to supersede ourselves in our maturity. There are very few things we consume that we can subject to such long evolution and treatment; wine is virtually alone in this, and so represents our strongest dietary connection to ourselves as long-lived creatures.

Old wine plays into language, too. The very notion of the word vintage, with its appreciation of the classic, the unique and the deeply authentic, has its origin in wine. Think of the other applications of the word to, say, stereo equipment, cars and clothing. We use “vintage” to hearken back to rich and plush sound and fabric, to powerful, attractive, sturdy transport. If we stop drinking old wines, we orphan the word vintage and sap its associative power.

More practically, old wine actually represents good value. Over the last generation, the world’s most famous fancy-wine regions have been seized upon by the hedge fund set (and by the Chinese, but that’s another story). As a consequence, the prices of top Bordeaux, Rhones, Barolos and other esteemed wines have skyrocketed, and younger releases of the great estates now represent some of the very worst values. They are for people with lots of money and little knowledge.

Older vintages of these same wines, which you can find on the secondary market, are often cheaper than their younger, inferior imitators.

The great wine writer Peter Liem, who visited the Triangle earlier this year, told me he no longer even bothers with Bordeaux made after 1990. Many of the crus classés have succumbed to big money influence; they now make indistinct, heavy, artifically attractive wines meant to be drunk soon after their releaseor in any case unlikely to improve or evolve much with cellaring. These wines have lost precisely what made them so famous in the first place: their longevity.

A more immediate reason to seek out old wine: Autumn is the best time to drink it. As leaves turn and fall, and as colors and temperatures fade, it’s time to open an old bottle and taste what might someday become of those grapes just now ripe on the vine. The classic, cool, old-wine aromas of dried leaves and blossoms, preserved fruits, licorice and herbs all match the season’s flavors. It’s too hot in summertime to really savor old wine; spring wants light, young, fresh wines, and winter needs brash and bold ones to warm and wake the dead time of the year. Autumn, the most complex seasonone of both rich harvest and formal solemnitiesis old wine’s season.

But where can I get old wine, you want to know? It isn’t as if venerable, musty old vintages line the shelves of your local stop-and-slurp. You might want to head out to Hillsborough for Leland Little’s quarterly wine auction. (If you miss the one on Sept. 12, visit for information on the next one, in December.) Wine Director Mark Solomon consigns bottles from collectors not only here in North Carolina but elsewhere, too, and he has quickly turned what began, in 2010, as a hopeful side venture into the largest wine auction in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states. It’s a lot of fun waving your bidder’s card in the air like you just don’t care, to the soundtrack of Little’s polished auctioneering (don’t get carried away); more to the point, there are bargains to be had if you do your homework. Just try not to bid on the ones I have my eye on, please.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Living to a ripe old age.”