December 2010 will always be remembered with a particular clarity. In early December, an Arctic wind pushed freezing air south, causing temperatures to drop dramatically - it was recorded as the coldest month in Britain since records began. Predictably, London ground quickly to a halt. The airports shut down as the city was wrapped in a thick blanket of snow. The area of London that houses Christie's historical offices has a quaint, antiquated charm
on the warmest of days. On Friday 3rd of December the frozen streets of St. James's looked as Dickensian as any 21st century city could hope to - a fitting backdrop to a Christie's dinner of 19th Century Wines.
Thankfully, all was warm and bright inside 8 King Street. In the kitchen a goose lay gently roasting, whilst a team of Christie's Wine Specialists began to carefully decant a selection of the world's rarest, most singular wines. The wines for this dinner had been carefully chosen - bottles that could reasonably be expected to have stood the test of time. For me, this was a new experience. I had tasted older wines - Bordeaux from the ‘40s, Port and Cognac from the early decades of the 20th Century, but nothing much older, certainly not Madeira that was bottled in the early years of the Napoleonic war. I decanted in eager anticipation, but in honesty, it was anticipation tinged with the assumption that there would be some compensating to be done. I expected a line-up of fascinatingly frail old wines; I was ready for curiosities that, like an ageing relative, needed patience and understanding. I was wrong, misguided in these assumptions. Most of the wines I tasted in that candlelit dining room were astonishingly complex and vibrant. They were wines that needed air and food, complemented, rather than overpowered, by the rich dishes that we'd chosen to mirror 19thcentury tastes
settled down in the ornate board room and started with a wine that transpired
to be the biggest surprise of all. Manzanilla - that fresh, floral aperitif, lovely
when five years old, taken with salted almonds on a warm Spanish balcony. This
one was different. This Manzanilla was bottled in 1865 for The Duke of
Wellington's London residence, Apsley House. This was the riskiest bottle of
the night - Fino sherry isn't known for its ageing
potential - but wow, in this case the risk paid off! In the glass, the sherry was a lovely, golden-straw hue. The palate was fresh, dry and pleasingly nutty. Most of the table agreed that it outclassed the honeyed, medicinal 1860s Tokaji that was poured alongside it, and that it worked as a perfect foil for the buttery sole à la meunière.
The next wines were two ancient ports: one, simply marked ‘Vinho do Porto 1893', poured pale and clear from an ancient flute bottle, the other, a Cabral Tawny Port - its embossed wax capsule stating 1871. Each wine had interesting qualities of its own and both suited the smoky depth of the game terrine that was served to accompany it. I think one of my dining companions summed it up best, simply stating ‘I have never tasted anything like these before, and I'm confident that I never will again'. Next we moved to a flight even more astounding than the early selection of fortified wines. Dry, red wines can show great fortitude and live for decades, the very greatest a half-century or more, but any longer and almost all start to deteriorate. Here, alongside two magnificent roast geese, we had the unique pleasure of tasting three of the greatest red wines of the 19th Century - each one more enthralling than the last. Gruaud-Larose 1870 was fresh, elegant and firm, with a noticeable tannic bite - a perfect bottle, which needed food and the two hours in decanter that it received. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1899 is a Michael Broadbent five star wine - Lafite 1870, a rare example of the elusive six-star wine. These were without doubt two of the greatest wines I will ever taste. The wines were sturdy, almost indestructible, but each with lightness and finesse that left the room in silence. Each quality that you would look for in a great wine had endured, leaving a perfect balance of fruit, tannin and acidity.
Some excellent Colston Bassett Stilton enjoyed the company of a richly spiced, multilayered Sandeman 1897 and a mysterious bottle of Madeira - Quinta da Paz 1845. None of the connoisseurs sitting round the table was quite sure of this wine's story - but most were in agreement that alongside the Lafite 1870 it was a contender for wine of the night. The final wine of the evening came with an extraordinary back story. In 1840 the good ship ‘Able' was shipwrecked off the coast of Georgia, USA. On board was a small consignment of ‘1800 Madeira'. The contents of the Able were left undisturbed on the ocean floor until 1979 when an amateur diver happened upon the wreck and was able to extract two bottles of this ancient Madeira from its briny hull. The bottles were sold in 1980. One was immediately consumed to rave reviews, the other; the final bottle of this ancient stash lay undisturbed until 9pm on December 3rd 2010. From the squat, hand-blown bottle we were able to extract a short, 2cm deep cork - all that had kept one hundred and thirty nine years of saltwater and seaweed from this precious nectar. The liquid poured dark and viscous, and had pronounced aromas of caramel, coffee and treacle. It was sweet and spicy, but had that classic, searing Madeira acidity. The consensus was that it could be Malmsey, or possibly Bual, we'll never know for sure, but all I can say is this - they just don't make them like they used to...
In case this account sparks your interest, e-mail Noah to find out about future dinners held at Christie's: firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture courtesy of Christie's