By: Jordan Lipp (Guest Blogger, a/k/a Mr. 10KBottles)
What could be a better present for your significant other (or yourself) than a bottle of wine from one’s birth year? There’s no other food or drink where you can literally enjoy something created the year you
or your significant other was born. I’ve written this as a two part series – the first post is about how to find and open a wine from your birth year. The second is the story of the bottle I bought Heather (your regular blog author) as a birthday present of wine from the year she was born (to protect the innocent, we’ll go ahead and leave the year undisclosed).
Before I delve in, let’s get one language thing out of the way. I may refer to these bottles as old bottles, but I’m not saying that you’re old. And, more importantly, I’m not calling either Heather (especially not Heather) or me old, even though I would call a wine bottle from either of our birth years an old bottle. So now that we are all clear on the point – I am not calling Heather old – let’s begin.
So, how do I find a good birth year wine?
Step 1 – Determine what wine to buy
Unless you live right next to Hart Davis Hart in Chicago, going to your local liquor store will likely not be a viable option to find a good bottle of wine, from a specific year, several decades ago. Fortunately, there is a website called Wine-Searcher that is basically the Google of wine. You can search for wine a million different ways on the site, but what I like to do is pick a particular wine and see what is available in the United States for a given year. For the wine I found for Heather from the year she was born, I looked at all the major Bordeaux wines from that year (in other words, the unfortunately expensive wines). I ended up choosing a wine listed on Wine-Searcher sold by Cellaraiders(1).
So, the next logical question is what type of wines should I look to buy that are still good twenty, thirty, or forty years after they were made? There are numerous wines that are built to last for decades or more. The most obvious choices (though there are many other options) are Bordeaux or Port(2).
“God doesn’t make great wines and great men [or women] in the same year.” ~old French maxim
Like Heather and me, you may not be born in a good year for wine. Not everyone can be born in 1982 or 1990 (both amazing years for Bordeaux wine). This makes picking the wine both easier and more difficult. On one hand, there is still a good supply of wine out there for purchase from excellent years such as 1982 or 1990 – as those years tend to have larger productions and people tend to save them in their cellars, so they’re more likely to be resold later on to companies such as Cellaraiders. From lousy years, less wine is usually produced, and people tend to drink what there is from that year quicker, which makes finding a bottle much harder. On the other hand, wines from good years can be many times more expensive than wines from poor or mediocre years. So, even if slightly harder to find, it will be easier on your wallet if the year you were born wasn’t a great year.
Step 2 – Get it and open it
Once you’ve purchased the several decade old bottle, the next trick is opening and tasting it. Opening and tasting an old bottle of wine is always an adventure – you never know what it will taste like – but the unpredictability can be exciting. Here
are a few step to keep in mind.
- Receive the bottle at least two to three days before you plan to open it. The jostling that occurs during shipping can cause something called ‘bottle shock’ (no, I’m not referring to the terrible movie from 2008). So, make sure you wait a few days to open up the bottle after it arrives. Want to learn a little more about bottle shock? VinePair did a fantastic blog about it a few months back called What the Heck is Bottle Shock.
- Turn the bottle upright a day or two before you open it so the sediment will collect at the bottom. Unless you particularly like gritty sediment floating in your glass… just trust me on this one.
- Open the bottle. Be prepared, this can be an adventure. After you remove the foil, don’t be afraid of a little mold on the top of the cork. That’s normal and a wet wash cloth can quickly take it off. The next trick is getting the cork out, something that I have yet to fully master. It’s helpful to have both a regular corkscrew as well as an Ah-So, as some old bottles react better to one or the other. I’m not too proud to admit that we’ve also had to resort to Japanese-style chopsticks to get little pieces of cork out of the bottle after it crumbled while pulling it out.
- Pouring the wine. Once the cork is out, I recommend pouring the wine into a decanter so you can judge the appearance and when it’s about time to stop pouring the last bit of the bottle because of the sediment at the bottom. While we have friends who think this is medieval, as soon as we get to the sediment part of the pour, we pull out a filter and run the last of the wine through that so as not to lose out on tasting any of the wine.
Step 3 – To drink or not to drink
Now it’s almost time for the best part – drinking the wine. But the question is how long do you let the bottle decant. The other way to look at the same question is what time of day do you open up the bottle. When you open the bottle, make sure you’re prepared to both drink it immediately or six hours later. In other words, don’t open it up at 11 pm. Some wines will be ready to drink in five minutes, others will take hours to open up. Being patient and sampling very small amounts as time goes by is what I recommend. That way, when it seems like the wine is getting great, you can start drinking it in earnest. Side note – Scrabble is an excellent way to past the time, if necessary.
Step 4 – Sip, savor, and enjoy
Take a sip and enjoy. The wine you’re drinking comes from grapes grown the year you were born, aged in oak as you were learning to walk, and put in the bottle you just opened well before you were potty-trained. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool concept. And, sometimes the wine may still be awesome.
Side Notes – The risks
Buying and opening a bottle as old as you has its risks. It’s always possible that a wine as old as you will be undrinkable, potentially because it was either corked or improperly stored at some point. So, if it tastes bad, it probably is bad and is not worth drinking. So, there is a bit of gambling involved, but it’s well worth the risk.
Additionally, for old bottles, there’s always the risk of fraud(3). Of course, remember that no one counterfeits the one dollar bill, rather if any bill will be a counterfeit, it’s usually the hundred. This is because it is so expensive to make a decent counterfeit, that in order for the thief to recoup his investment, he has to counterfeit a really expensive bill. The same is true for wine. So, if you were born in 1982 (a great year) and buying a 1982 Lafite (a hideously expensive wine), then it may be a counterfeit. On the other hand, if you were born in 1983 (a pretty good year, but not as good as 1982) and you are buying a 1983 Pichon Baron (a fine wine, but not a Lafite), the odds are very low that someone has bother to counterfeit the wine. So be warned, if you’re buying a notable wine from a notable year – there is a risk that it’s fraudulent(4).
Conclusion and Teaser for Part Two of This Blog
So, the next time you want to treat your significant other (or yourself) with an amazing wine experience, or want to give an awesome gift to a friend who is a wine nerd (or your favorite wine blogger), I’d suggest you try buying a bottle of birth year wine. In my next post, I’ll talk about the adventure in opening the bottle I bought as a birthday gift for Heather from the year she was born.
- As background on why these wine are out there and for sale, basically, when someone has a large wine cellar, and decides to sell some of their wine (or more morbidly, when the person dies and their kids sells off their wine), companies like Cellaraiders purchase the cellar and resell the wine. This gives folks like you and me, who haven’t been buying and storing wine for many decades, a chance to own and drink some of these older bottles.
- If you’re looking to celebrate a grandparent or great-grandparent’s birth year, and you can afford it, go with a bottle of Madeira and invite us over.
- Don’t believe me? Read The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
- A little wine fraud trivia – there were more bottles of 1982 Lafite sold in China alone than were even produced by Lafite in 1982.