As a critic, I get to taste many hundreds of wines each year and sometimes get invited to events, many of them involving wine regions, wineries or importers presenting their latest releases. Sometimes the wines are memorable and I write about them; sometimes not.
One of the more unusual experiences of this kind came not long ago when I was invited to stop by Morrell & Co., the well-known New York retailer and wine bar just across the street from my office in Rockefeller Center. The occasion was an updating of the store and bar and a chance to taste a few wines. There was a rosé from Provence, a red Bordeaux and a California chardonnay. Good wines, but hardly the stuff of which memories are made.
Fortunately, there were more wines to taste. There, on the counter, sat three very large bottles that towered over the others around them. Each was a Barolo, the famous wine from the region of the same name in Piedmont in northern Italy. Not only that, they were from the 1970s -- a ‘79, a ‘76 and a ‘70 to be precise. They represented an unusual chance to go back in time.
Wine is all about connections -- to those with whom we enjoy it and, for me, connections to wines themselves and their histories. The most interesting and vital of these old Barolos was the 1970, which was clearly a very good vintage for Barolo.
To put the year it in context, Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles broke up and the computer floppy disk was introduced, all of them relegated to history long ago. In Barolo, on the other hand, Giacomo Borgogno would make a wine that would remain vibrant for decades to come, the 1970 Barolo Riserva “Antichi Vigneti Propri.’
The nebbiolo grape attains its greatest expression in Barolo and the wine is made for aging, gradually losing the strongly tannic character of its youth and evolving, in the best vintages, into a transcendent experience in which fruit and wood and sense of place become one.
As I stood at the counter, David Johnson, Yung Leung and Jura Almeida carefully poured small quantities of wine from the big bottle, which held 3.78 liters and would cost more than $500 today, into a decanter for aeration. Then they poured a half an inch or so into our glasses. The color was light brick red; the aromas conveyed red fruit, roses and cedar.
This is the kind of wine that makes you want to talk about it with anyone around you, and I found myself doing just that – describing how it was still very much alive after all these years, with vibrant acidity, still-firm tannins and beautiful fruit.
With each small glass I found myself focusing on something different: in one glass an emphasis on the secondary tastes of leather, meat and beef bouillon cube; in another hints of raspberry, blueberry and a long, mineral-driven finish.
We all had the sense on this evening that we were tasting something unique, something that could not be replicated. I found myself transported back to another era, thinking of the images and the history of the time, and in my glass, enjoying something old that was still very much alive.