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It is a gamble that can end fatally. The odds are one in... (depending on the revolver). But it's not about people here, it's about wines that may - if the outcome is bad - have to be disposed of as "corpses" The players themselves stay healthy - but not always quite lively. And yet the game is played again and again. The stakes are high now and then, so high that they can hurt.

Young and old wines% ready to march into a tasting room (Photo: P. Züllig)

If the outcome of the game is lucky, every wine lover is proud to have drunk a Pétrus 1945, a Cheval Blanc 1947, a Lafite-Rothschild 1928 or even a Margaux 1900 once in his life. In the world of great wine experts and lovers, the game is played again and again, with all the so-called good vintages, with all the top wines of the old wine world. So I know quite a number of wine lovers - including, of course, wine popes - who can't even count their old trophies any more. At best, they have recorded and/or published their experiences in points, often also in tasting notes. As a rule, it is big names that one associates with old wines, not "grey mice in grey clothes" that nobody talks about. Wines from the Bordelais are particularly often asked to play Russian Roulette, probably out of a wine culture tradition. After all, Bordeaux wines - from the Left Bank - were classified as early as 1855 on the occasion of the first World Exhibition in Paris, based on the prices achieved in the preceding hundred years.

Tasting with the "Revue du Vin de France" - on the trail of old wines (Photo: P. Züllig)

In wine-blissful hours, I often dream of the great fortune of being able to taste or even drink and finally admire an ancient wine. The oldest wine I have ever tasted (eleven years ago at a tasting of the "Revue du Vin de France" on the occasion of the millennium change) was a Grave Trigant de Boisset, 1921, so not one of the really big names. And yet a fantastic ancient wine. It whetted my appetite for more, for new nuances of an experience I will never forget. Since then, I have been a self-confessed old wine drinker.

It is not so easy to follow up this confession with action. Not every old wine is an "old wine". Old, yes, but not endowed with subtle aromas, with a melting of maturity, a clearly altered acid structure, lots of herbs, deep sweetness and a fine palette of fruit aromas. I realise that it is difficult to describe the special characteristics, the uniqueness of old wines. Sommelier Michael Lippert writes on the subject of old wine in his blog: "Old wine tastes different. [...] My experience in many seminars and discussions shows me that hardly anyone has an idea of what mature wine tastes like. And many can't really get excited about it either."

Ancient wines in the cellar of Château Clos Fourtet% Saint Emilion (Photo: P. Züllig)

But there is one thing everyone agrees on: mature wines command respect. This respect, even a certain reverence, does not make wines more enjoyable, but ultimately more significant. 1961 is an important wine year in the Bordelais. There are sometimes shiny little eyes in front of a glass filled with '61 wine. Stop! One more thing: in 1961, fifty years ago, I had just passed my school-leaving exams, I had my first heartbreak, I had to enlist in the recruit school, and I sat in a lecture on German Baroque for the first time (amazed). And there's more: in 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first man to go into space, the Berlin Wall was built in Germany, John F. Kennedy took office as President of the USA, ZDF went on the air, and so on and so forth. Wine does not convey history, but as a "contemporary witness" it can bring history to life. In the memory or knowledge of events that have long since faded, events reappear and return to our lives... in a good case, even as a pleasure.

Actually, one can never close oneself to the historical dimension when drinking old wines. If this is then combined with wine enjoyment, possibly even with a so-called century vintage, a myth can arise that for many wine lovers becomes a dream of dreams, a once-in-a-lifetime.

Old wine round in Bonn: in search of old wine experiences (Photo: P. Züllig)

But now comes the flip side of the craving. Old wines are becoming increasingly rare, whether because they have been drunk in the meantime, have disappeared into treasure troves or have become undrinkable. True to the laws of the market, rare and sought-after goods are becoming more and more expensive. In Hong Kong, the auction house Christie's recently auctioned 300 bottles of Lafite Rothschild from 1981 to 2005 for more than five million euros, i.e. an average of 17,000 euros per bottle. And yet these are not even ancient wines.

No wonder that drinking old wine has become an expensive game of chance. The ominous cellar finds - cellars from the years 45, 47, 55, 61 have long since been emptied - have also been a thing of the past. Real gold-digging cellars have become rare.

Where there is a lot of money at stake, the counterfeiters also come onto the scene. Fake top-class wines are in circulation more than we think. Precisely because the business with expensive wines has become so unmanageable - expensive wines often travel around the world several times - but above all because good fakes are difficult to recognise, we are moving here in a grey area that turns every game with old wines into Russian roulette: wine fakes or/and degraded, often even undrinkable wines that one has usually bought for a lot of money. The truth - at least in terms of enjoyment potential - is only decided when the cork pops (if it pops at all!). But then fate takes its course.

Three expensive% but bad% undrinkable wines - probably fake (Photo: P. Züllig)

Luck or bad luck. As I said, there are only wine corpses and often bounced people. Bounced for money and for the belief, for the hope of experiencing a piece of wine history.

Even for me, as a self-confessed old wine drinker, this game has become too dangerous. It is not so easy to play with the greats of wine history. But with little ones that have survived somewhere and somehow, mostly because they are small, an incredible love game often develops. A small Cos Labory 1947 becomes a real old wine discovery. A Figeac 1959 reveals - for me - its quality. It is usually the "cellar children" that make old wine drinkers happy and keep them from playing Russian roulette. For the experience that even with a careful selection of three wines, at best only one is still enjoyable is part of the everyday life of old wine drinkers. Luck - even wine luck - is rarely predictable.


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