Earlier this month, on August 18 of 2022, I celebrated my 27th birthday. It was a very special occassion, as it also marked 5 years since I’ve been living in San Diego. To make the situation juistice, I ordered five bottles of wine from the 1995 vintage: wine that is as old as I am.
Old vintages give the experience of studying wine an entirely new dimension in both sensory and emotional ways. Most people associate old bottles of wine with exorbitant prices, but the truth is that age alone doesn’t make wine expensive: despite being 27 years old and quite good, my birthyear bottles all cost somewhere between $20 and $40 USD. Age alone cannot make a bottle expensive, so I will dedicate this post to explain what exactly makes some bottles so spacial that some people will pay multiple thousands of dollars for them.
Terroir, or a sense of belonging to a place and time, is one of the most sought-after qualities in fine wine. The assemblage of elements that make up the environment in which grapes are grown and vinified is unique to every vineyard and year, and masterful winemaking carries them all straight into the glass. This is how a great wine can actually taste like a time and place, and revisiting old wines can be like a window to past conditions that will never come by again.
At the same time, the flavor of wine changes when it’s aged, as some compounds agglomerate into sediment, thus leaving room for some of the finer flavors and smells to shine. This is why many people who drink an excellent young wine will try and get a few bottles to age: maybe they love its flavor now but know that there’s still much else to be revealed, so saving a few bottles for a few years will reveal more and more about the wine.
Now, when we’re talking about wines that cost a fortune (say bottles that go for 10X their old retail price) are the stories tied to the regions, producers, vineyards, and years they come from, and how well those stories may be represented by the wine itself. Let me explain with an analogy:
Put yourself in the shoes of a sports fanatic before the age of the internet and international video broadcasting. Think, for example, that you’re sitting in your living room and listening to a radio broadcast of the 1986 World Cup Quarter Finals between England and Argentina, when Diego Armando Maradona single-handedly (pun intended) created two of the most memorable episodes in the history of World football. Back then, of course, you wouldn’t have known that this game would be so consequential, but the commentator’s enthusiasm at the 54th minute may have tipped you off about the transcendence of this moment:
Maradona has the ball and two defenders on him. He steps on the ball, runs down the right side of the field.
A genius of world football, he’s left a third man behind him. He’ll pass to Burruchaga … but it’s still Maradona.
GENIUS! GENIUS! GENIUS!
TA-TA-TA-TA-TA GOOOOOAAAAL!!!!!! GOOOOAAAAAL!!!!!
I WANT TO CRY! HOLY GOD, LONG LIVE FOOTBALL!
GOLAZO! DIEGO MARADONA!
THIS IS WORTH CRYING OVER, FORGIVE ME! MARADONA!
AN UNFORGETTABLE RUN, THE GREATEST PLAY OF ALL TIME, A COSMIC KITE.
WHAT PLANET DID YOU COME FROM TO LEAVE SO MANY ENGLISHMEN IN YOUR PATH? TO TURN THIS COUNTRY INTO A CLENCHED FIST THAT SHOUTS ARGENTINA?
Argentina 2, England 0, Diego Armando Maradona.
Thank God for football and thank God for Maradona.Victor Hugo Morales (Uruguayan commentator, watch the video here)
Sitting in the comfort of your living room, you’re shocked. What could have happened that made the commentator cry and thank God for what he had just witnessed? He didn’t even explain what Maradona did, he just started shouting and crying out of nowhere. Whatever happened on that pitch, you think, may have been so great that no set of words would ever do it justice, and raw emotion was the commentator’s best way this commentator managed to convey what has happening on the pitch.
Now, in the real world, it is very easy to go online and look up a video of Maradona’s legendary goal. But imagine you couldn’t do that so easily. For years, maybe you’d hear from people who saw the goal live or somehow got their hands on a rare video recording. Over time, the tales would accumulate and references in popular culture would start being made. After all those years of mysticism building around a goal, the only think you could say for sure is something like “everyone who saw the goal says they had never seen anything like it before.”
Legendary wines, are like unforgettable goals that only a few lucky people ever get to watch the recording of. As wine journalists and consumers comment on specific producers, vineyards, bottles, and vintages, they build up their reputations and sometimes create a mystique so powerful that a specific bottle can become a pivotal moment in the wine culture of a region or the entire world. For example, California wines included in the Tasting of Paris marked the moment when critics realized that exceptional wine didn’t only come from France and Italy. Decades later, when enthusiasts learn about the innovations and events that define the winemaking styles of today, they have those legendary wines as signposts for the direction that entire regions took afterward. See for example James Suckling talk about Sassicaia 1985, a wine that created the legend of “Super Tuscan” wines:
There is a common misconception that a bottle of wine worth $100 should be 10 times better than a bottle worth $10, but that’s not the right way to think about wine prices. At some point, the price-quality relation starts having diminishing returns, so the extra cost needs to pay for something else. As I’ve explained above, that “something else” is often the reputation of regions, years, and producers. When we pay lots of money for a bottle (specially if it’s old), we’re paying to be part of the story: to educate ourselves about the possibilities of winemaking beyond what the tales of others can tell us.