The perils of decanting 37 year old dry reds

8.39am, Friday 6th May, Yalumba Clocktower, Angaston, Eden Valley, The Barossa
A very chilly morning to you folks, I have a couple of good things to report. First, we have a group of American and Canadian sommeliers visiting the Barossa, and as part of their program, there was a winemakers dinner at Murray Street Vineyards over in Greenock last night. Louisa Rose suggested that we show these wine professionals an example of what we did the last time that we had a ‘difficult’ vintage in the Barossa due to having a significant amount of downy mildew come into the picture – which was 1974. So I drew a bottle of our 1974 ‘Christobels’ Signature Cabernet Shiraz from the museum on Wednesday afternoon, let it stand upright overnight to settle any sediment, and I decanted it yesterday afternoon.

Now here’s the thing. With wine of this sort of age, a lot of things can go wrong with the decant:

  • The corkscrew splits the cork as soon as you put it in.
  • Or the corkscrew ‘cores’ the cork when you put it in, and as you start to extract it the corkscrew comes straight out with granules attached because the cork has collapsed and left a nice clear column hole in the cork, depositing heaps of cork bits into the wine – and you still have to get the cork that’s sticking to the inside of the neck away and out! Not good!
  • Or the corkscrew goes in OK but as soon as you start to draw the cork, it breaks away and you have to try and surgically remove the remaining chunk of cork without it breaking up further and dropping into the wine! Also not good!

So it’s not always a bonus job to get, being the decanter of such a valuable ‘time capsule’ bottle of wine. So I thought I’d take you through it step by step – no matter which way it went. Here’s the label – 1974 Christobel’s Signature – 59% local Cabernet Sauvignon & 41% local Shiraz.

The 1974 ‘Christobel's’ Signature

First step – take the wax seal off and clean up the cork. We have about 27 bottles left of this wine in our ‘museum’ wine library, and I chose one in which the level was just below where the shoulder meets the neck. That way the wine should still be in reasonable shape – all things considered.

Wax off, cork clean

Next step – put the corkscrew in really gently – these teflon coated numbers are the best – and hope like hell it doesn’t ‘core’. Then keeping a steady pressure, try and ease the cork out without any breaking away. Here we are under way and still complete.

Starting to move nicely

Yay! Got the whole thing out and it’s 100% intact! Mission accomplished.

Made it intact!

Next step is to decant the wine into a clean glass vessel, leaving any sediment behind. This was a really clean bottle – no sedimentation into the shoulder from being cellared so long, and very little granuley material left behind at all. Then you rinse the bottle with stinking hot water until it’s crystal clean and let the glass dry and cool.

Not only did the wine look bright once it was in the jug, but there was an immediate lifted aroma with no baked characters evident – both of these good omens that our ‘time capsule’ is in good shape. Then you pour the wine back in without spilling a drop, and seal the bottle up with a new stopper cork, keeping the original cork to show what sort of seal was made.

Nice colour and bright too

Then you get to the interesting bit: How did that wine fare over the 37 years in bottle, and what does it reflect on the 1974 vintage – always recognised locally as the last ‘downy’ vintage?

In the Barossa Winemakers’ Vintage Classification book, 1974 is summarised as “the wettest growing season of the 1947 – 1997 period, with 1974 being the second wettest year on record. The rain and cold conditions extended right through vintage leading to big losses from disease and produced mostly thin wines from unripe grapes”. Now that doesn’t sound too promising. Well hang on to your hats, because what also happened was that there was a reasonable amount of wine made from this vintage that went on to win awards right through to 1981. So I asked Kev Glastonbury, current Signature winemaker, to come and have a look at the decanted 1974 with me, and here’s what we found.

The wine in the glass is bright as a button – no hazes or suspension. That’s a good indicator of wine health and condition. The colour is brick red and only just starting to go into its brown ambers at the edges. Another good indicator. And the aromas? Well it just doesn’t seem to show its age. There’s dark sweet caramelised fruit on the nose – not baked or burnt or showing oxidation. There’s cedar and camphor in a good way without being dusty with still a bit of leafy freshness. And the palate – “dark chocolate chewy sweetness with tight succulent acidity. The palate fades away, doesn’t drop off and finish hot or tannic” – KG’s comments. It shows ripeness but is 11.8% alcohol – reflecting something that we’ve seen with a lot of the red varieties this vintage. They’re high in acid, low in pH, and have reasonable fruit ripeness without the sugar levels that usually go with it.

So we took the 1974 Signature to dinner last night to show the visitors and locals alike what can happen with such a vintage – it can be very interesting times, and this wine has held together really nicely as a ‘time capsule’.

The first response that we got from the sommeliers was great: “This wine is older than everyone in our group!” Then the general response was one of pleasant surprise and acute interest, as most of the sommeliers had not seen an Australian red of 10-15 years age, let alone 37. Therefore again I think we can say ‘mission accomplished’ and we have a lot of folks leaving The Barossa with a much better picture of our winegrowing world. They are up at Pewsey Vale right now trying Riesling, will have a picnic at Heggies for lunch, then go out to Hill of Grace to talk very old vine shiraz with Prue & Stephen Henschke. All the good stops!

PS There was another good thing that happened in the Barossa in 1974 – John Duval did his first vintage at Penfolds winery Nuriootpa – thus embarking on a career that was to see him babysit one of the great names in Australian wine – “Grange” – for a long and prestigious run.

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