Monday, July 13, 2009

Chateau Lafite 1966: First in a Series

It’s a rare treat anytime you open a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux. A privilege, really. These are wines, after all, that have literally stood the test of time, even if the cork you’re popping has been used to seal off a more recent vintage from the world outside the bottle. Indeed, these greatest chateaux of what is arguably the world’s most famous wine region have been making the hearts of wine-lovers flutter for hundreds of years. Even our founding fathers knew of the superiority of these wines; Thomas Jefferson was—and remains—famous for his love of great Bordeaux. (Incidentally, for a riveting, wonderfully written account of the so-called Jefferson bottles, Benjamin Wallace’s excellent book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, has just come out in paperback.)

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to taste a dozen or so vintages of what has become my favorite First Growth, Chateau Lafite, going back more than 70 years. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be posting occasional tasting notes on these wines, discussing where I tasted them, and comparing them to one another. I’ll even have video from the day I tasted the 1995 in Lafite’s barrel room during the Wine School’s recent trip to Bordeaux.

I’ll start, though, with the Lafite I enjoyed most recently—the 1966. As is the case with so many of the great old wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste, this one was courtesy of my friend Scot “Zippy” Ziskind, owner of the My Cellar wine storage facility and of ZipCo Environmental Services, Inc., one of the country’s most respected custom storage, cooling, and humidification specialists. He is also a great collector of wine in general and Bordeaux and Port in particular.

His main goal in opening up a great bottle of wine has nothing to do with the so-called prestige of the vintage and everything to do with the pleasure of sharing it with friends and family. His enthusiasm for wine is contagious, and his desire to enjoy it with those close to him is unmatched. Which is why he brought a bottle of the ’66 to lunch that Friday—because he wanted to experience it with family and friends, and he wanted to see how it was evolving.

So after getting settled at our table at Philadelphia’s Café Estelle with his wife, my wife, and my parents, he ever so gently extracted the cork and poured small sample glasses. With very old vintages, the saying goes, there’s no such thing as great wine—just great bottles. As the years tick away, minute differences in cork quality, storage conditions, and the like can be magnified tenfold, meaning that you never quite know what’s waiting for you inside the bottle.

But from the first smell it was clear that this one was in absolutely pristine condition. The brownish, age-typical color led to an almost shockingly vibrant nose that exploded from the glass with notes of blueberry, smoke, leather, black and oolong tea, tobacco leaf, and violets, and led to a silky palate kept lively by amazingly fresh acidity and flavors of raspberry, grapefruit skin and oil, and a whiff of gentle vanilla.

As is the case with so many older vintages of Lafite that I’ve had the chance to taste, this one was yet another example of the incredible longevity of the great wines of Bordeaux, a testament to how beautifully they age over the long-term, and, perhaps most important of all, proof, yet again, that enjoying even the most prized bottles with family and friends, in an atmosphere full of camaraderie and devoid of any sense of pretense, is the best way to make the most of whatever it is you’re drinking.

Even with great bottles—especially with great bottles—it’s the way they were meant to be enjoyed in the first place.


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