Time in a Bottle: The Pleasures and Treasures of Old Liquors

2016-04-12 20.47.39If we are lucky, we live in the present moment, enjoying and savoring the here and now, rather than constantly worrying about the future still to come. Yet, the opportunity to virtually travel back in time, uniting us with the past, can be a special experience. It is why, at least in part, we visit historic places and hold onto souvenirs imbued with memories from time gone by. Most mementos are a tangible, but fleeting glimpse, crumbling with the passage of years. For most things, we rely on museums to carefully preserve the past under lock and key and precise storage conditions.

While a stroll through an ancient site or viewing an antique document can bring the past to life, there is something inherently unique in partaking in a gustatory experience asynchronously shared with those who lived long ago. Much more than simply opening up a bottle of wine from a previous vacation destination (which momentarily brings us back to that seaside table in sleepy coastal town), older wines and spirits from decades — even centuries ago — can transport us to another era. In this way, an extremely rare tasting of 19th century Cognac, Armagnac, Port and Madeira provided the sensory time machine to visit the more distant past.

Held in connection with an auction at Christie’s featuring 39 bottles of Cognac and Armagnac, each dating to a presidential term of office, from 1789 to 1977, the tasting was presented by Old Liquors, a wine shop specializing in vintage wines and spirits.

The tasting event was hosted by Old Liquors’ CEO, Bart Laming at New York’s Brandy Library. Interestingly, Brandy Library owner, Flavien Desoblin, a specialist in Cognac, noted that, “The U.S. palate has matured to appreciate older brandies, but is still whisky focused.”

Also present that evening was Christie’s Head of Wine, Edwin Vos, who painstakingly opened each bottle and shared tips for cellaring such treasures such as the admonition to store Madeira upright due to its high alcohol and high acidity content, which would damage the cork if left horizontally.

Admittedly, indulging in such wines is an expensive and limited proposition – there are scant bottles remaining. However, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to taste these rare wines and recall the world as it once was even if none of us had been there ourselves.

For those with the means and interest in pursuing their own sensory experiences, Old Liquors bills itself as the “World’s largest Old Liquors Store,” with a robust website that accepts orders from around the world.
By Phone: +31 76 5416227
By Email: info@oldliquors.com

Madeira 1865 Café Anglais Madere Vieux, Bual
Aromas of candied ginger, honey and spice; medium sweet palate with high acidity, flavors of coconut, yeast, rancio, ginger bread and orange peel; long length.

Port 1887 Brand unknown, Unknown shipper
A slight rancio note gives way to floral, cherries and bacon on the nose; medium sweet palate, with dried red fruit dominating; much fruitier than the Madeira; long length.

Cognac 1928 Croizet B. Léon Grande Réserve
Greeted by orange peel, spice and slight honey aromas; dry palate with high alcohol, displaying spices, oak and vanilla with elegance and long length.

Cognac 1914 Maxim’s, Caves du Restaurant, Fine Champagne, Réserve
This has an intense nose with woody and vanilla aromas and flavors; it is fuller-bodied on the palate than the above Cognac.

Armagnac 1893 Jacques Marou, Vieil, Handwritten label
This spirit offers concentrated dried fruit, most notably prunes and dates, along with oak and vanilla; simply lovely.

Cognac 1811 Napoléon, Grand Réserve, Imperial glass shoulder, button ‘N’
Aromas of bruised banana, vanilla, dried fruit and orange rind; dry on the palate with high alcohol, offering up spice and floral notes.

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Grand Cru Grapevine: Portuguese Wines ~ A Fun Lesson in Diversity Awareness (October 2012)

Long known for its high quality fortified wines – namely Port and Madeira – Portugal’s reputation for its non-fortified wines was less than stellar. Thanks to a renewed focus on quality, most notably in the wineries themselves, things are changing. The country now has an expanded repertoire of quality wines, which offer diverse styles at excellent values for today’s consumer.

Part of the secret to Portugal’s success is owed to its range of climates. Despite its small size, the country has three distinct zones, which influence the styles of wine that can be produced. Due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, the coastal part of northern Portugal is lush and green with abundant rainfall. Here, temperatures are moderate and humidity is high. Continuing south along the coast, the climate becomes more Mediterranean, with warmer summers, mild winters, and less precipitation. Meanwhile, a series of mountain ranges in the interior blocks the moderating influence of the ocean and the climate becomes decidedly continental and arid. These inland valleys, especially those close to the Spanish border, feature blistering hot summers and very cold winters, with minimal precipitation.

Along with its diverse climate, Portugal has embraced a wide variety of grapes, choosing to rely on native varieties instead of the more internationally known Cabernet Sauvignon and the like. Instead, grapes such as Castelão and Fernão Pires, essentially found nowhere else, dominate the vineyards. Mostly planted in the south, Castelão can produce red wines with complex, herbaceous character, but can also be vinified in a more easy-drinking style. Fernão Pires, alternately called Maria Gomes, is a very aromatic white grape variety, made into dry and dessert, as well as sparkling, wines.

Red grapes take the lead, with two-thirds of all wine production being red. Aside from the aforementioned Castelão, Portuguese reds frequently feature one or more of the preferred Port varieties. Specifically, Touriga Nacional, capable of producing complex wines with firm structure and black fruit; Touriga Franca, with its floral, blackberry and plum notes; and Tinta Roriz, known elsewhere in as Tempranillo, with red fruit, olive and herbal characteristics. Another variety with significant acreage is the extremely tannic Baga grape, which is often aged in older barrels so as not to add additional tannins, yielding wines with robust wines with plum and tobacco notes, capable of aging for a long time.

White grapes are regionally prominent, especially in the cooler areas in the north and on the islands. In Vinho Verde, Loureiro and Alvarinho (synonymous with Loureira and Albariño in Spain’s Rías Baixas) are the stars. Alvarinho is distinctly tart and mineral in character with peach and citrus aromas and flavors, whereas Loureiro offers less acidity and more richness on the palate. Wines can be produced as single varietal wines or several grapes may be blended together. Compared to Rias Baixas wines, Alvarinho-led Vinho Verde is more petillant, mineral and tart.

Regardless of the varieties used, white (red and rosé versions also exist) Vinho Verde is generally low in alcohol, high in acidity with fresh citrus character. Also grown in the Vinho Verde area, as well as in Lisboa, Arinto is known for high acidity, with moderate alcohol and has to potential to age, especially if aged in oak.

With a wealth of wines from which to choose, Portuguese wines might be the perfect thing to help you break your Chardonnay habit. Because, not only is life too short to drink bad wine; it’s too short to get stuck in a rut.

Aveleda Alvarinho 2011, Vinho Verde, Portugal, $11.00
This is always one of my favorites when tasting a range of Vinho Verdes. While a bit pricier than some others, it delivers with floral, nectarine and citrus aromas and flavors. With its high acidity, dry palate and light body, this is a perfect aperitif wine.

Quinta da Romeira Arinto 2010, Bucelas, Portugal, $11.00
This wine hails from the Bucelas denomination, located close to Lisbon. It has notes of citrus, and yeast on the nose. Another relatively light-bodied wine, the palate has high acidity, along with green apples, grassiness and minerality.

Casa Ermelinda de Freitas Dona Ermelinda Reserva 2010, Palmela, Portugal, $13.00
A blend of Castelao (70%), Touriga Nacional (10%), Trincadeira (10%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%), this wine spent 12 months in French oak barrels. It offers red berries, perfume, oak and plum on the nose. Its palate provides vibrant acidity, dusty tannins, as well as minerality and an herbal character.

Herdade de la Malhadinha Nova Aragonês da Peceguina 2009, Alentejo, Portugal, $21.00
Unlike Rioja, which relies on Tempranillo, but usually includes at least one blending partner, this wine is 100% Tempranillo (simply masquerading under its Portuguese pseudonym). Showing ripe and jammy black berries, oak, medium tannins and some minerality, this wine seems more new world than old world, but still has nice balance.

Quinta de Vesuvio Pombal de Vesúvio 2008, Douro, Portugal, $27.00
At 803 acres, Quinta de Vesuvio is one of the largest estates within the Douro Valley. This blend of Touriga Franca (55%), Touriga Nacional (35%) and Tinta Amarela (10%) was aged in barrel for 9 months in French oak. It displays black and bramble fruit aromas along with smoky notes, both of which are repeated on the full-bodied palate, and joined by vibrant acidity.

Madeira: Perhaps a true desert island wine

Courtesy Vinho Madeira - IVBAM


OK, yes, I wrote about desert island wines previously, but what if you were truly stranded on a desert island? You certainly wouldn’t have temperature-controlled wine storage available to you and eventually your wines would spoil in the heat. But what about a wine that was designed to withstand the heat and would even continue to improve on the voyage to said desert island? Madeira — a wine created to survive the long sea voyage from Europe to the New World– would be the perfect wine for such circumstances. 

Madeira is a volcanic island off the coast of Portugal and is the home of Madeira wine. Here, Tinta Negra Mole, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey (aka Malvasia) are grown on the steep slopes of the island. All, but the Tinta Negra, are white grape varieties.  The wine itself owes its taste and character to its fortification (through the addition of a neutral grape-based spirit similar to Port or Sherry) and its prolonged exposure to the heat. The fortification interrupts the fermentation process and, depending upon when it occurs, generally prevents some of the sugar from being converted into alcohol, thereby creating a wine with some sweetness. 

Four styles of wine — dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet — are produced, corresponding to the grape variety used. Sercial is the driest style, followed by Verdelho and Bual, with Malmsey being the sweetest. However, despite being labeled as “sweet”, these wines are drier than you might think and can actually pair nicely with savory foods, such as cheeses, wild game and nuts, as well as, if not better than, desserts. 

After the fortification, the wine is subjected to high temperatures in either a heated, concrete vat (an estufa) for several months or through prolonged storage in oak casks in naturally warm rooms (canteiros) over several years, recreating the conditions found when the wine was shipped over lengthy distances. Given the slow and steady process, the Canteiro method is considered to be of higher quality and thus generally reserved for the Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey grapes, while Tinta Negra Mole are most often heated in Estufagem. A minimum of 85% of the grapes must be from the named grape variety if it is stated on the label. 

With its ability to withstand the heat, Madeira would do well in the sans-refrigerator environment of the desert island. For those of us on Manhattan island (hot right now, but fortunately, not under desert conditions) as well as elsewhere in the United States, Madeira is a perfect wine to enjoy now. And, as some of my colleague, Rebecca Chapa, has pointed out, it is timely too, as George Washington toasted the first Independence Day back in 1776 with a glass of Madeira. 

A June tasting, sponsored by the Madeira Wine, Embroidery and Handcraft Institute (IVBAM), showcased some of the top Madeira producers, including Blandy’s, Broadbent, Henriques & Henriques, Justino’s, Pereira d’Oliveira and Vinhos Barbeito. Here are a few tasting notes from that event: 

Henriques & Henriques 10 Years Old Verdelho, Portugal
Dating back to 1850, Henriques & Henriques is the largest independent producer and shipper of Madeira. Medium mahoghany in color with aromas of honey, burnt orange and oxidation, this wine is off-dry with rich flavors of orange peel, honey and raisin that linger in its long length.  

Vinhos Berbeito Historic Series Malmsey New York Special Reserve, Portugal
Established in 1946 by Mario Barbeito, this Madeira producer has a shorter history than many other firms, but has created an historic series based on the styles of wine preferred by various colonial cities. Colonial New Yorkers preferred a richer style of wine compared to their colleagues in Charleston and Savannah, with coffee, toffee and raisin notes on the nose and medium-sweet palate, culminating in long length. 

Broadbent Madeira Malmsey 10 Years Old, Portugal
Bartholemew Broadbent imports Madeira wines under his own label. This sweet wine has aromas of burnt sugar, oxidation and dried oranges, with flavors of spice, dried fruits and dried herbs on the palate. 

D’Oliveira Reserve Sercial 1969, Portugal
A small producer, Pereira d’Oliveira is known for its large stocks of old and rare wines. This older vintage is still showing some color with notes of burnt sugar and honey. It is dry with oxidized notes, honey and spice on the palate. 

Blandy’s Madeira Vintage Bual 1968, Portugal
Blandy’s was named for a soldier who landed on Madeira in 1808 and eventually settled on the island as a general trader in 1811.  This vintage wine is pale in color, but still shows hues of mahoghany. The nose is rich and deep with notes of caramel and burnt sugar. On the palate, it is medium-sweet, with a hint of oxidation, caramel, burnt orange and treacle flavors that persist.