John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly
Sippin’ wine older than Howdy Doody!
After rummaging around my very disorganized cellar for a suitably mature wine to pair with a celebratory meal, I came upon a bottle which had obviously been lying in repose for quite some time. After blowing the dust off the label, I was incredulous to discover that the wine was a 1947 Borgono Barolo!
Say what? That’s older than … Howdy Doody! (By the way, there is no truth to the rumor that Howdy Doody was the illegitimate result of a union between Little Orphan Annie and Pinocchio).
Anyway, it turns out my brother, who had prompted me to look in that particular area of the cellar and with whom I share a passion for the fruit of the vine, had years before slipped the Barolo into a nook instead of a cranny, and I was unaware I possessed this museum piece.
I had actually consumed one other wine from that ancient vintage and, according to the wine cognoscenti, it is perhaps the greatest Bordeaux ever produced. The 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc was undoubtedly the best wine I had ever consumed, but I wasn’t expecting this wine (from the Piedmont region of Italy) to be anywhere near the quality of that legendary Bordeaux.
However, my recollection of Borgono Barolo is that I had uncorked a 1978 version of the wine a couple of years ago and had been surprised by its youthful flavors and amazing aging potential. But this wine was more than 30 years older than that wine.
Since the wine actually belonged to my brother, I magnanimously sought his advice about when we should open it, knowing full well that we would need to stand the wine in an upright position for several days to assure that decades of sediment would settle to the bottom of the bottle.
In its youth, Barolo is a purple monster with huge dollops of mouth-puckering tannin and searing acidity which can completely mask the earthy, rich flavors hidden underneath. There are some Barolo producers who are now making wines which are more approachable in their youth, but wines produced in the old-world style like the Borgono can improve for decades. And so I had some hope that there would be something more than vinegar left in the bottle.
On the appointed day, I began to gingerly open the bottle with a traditional waiter’s corkscrew. Mistake! Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the cork began to disintegrate as I attempted to pull it from the bottle. In fact, I was forced to push a hole through the cork so I could get to the wine.
I should have used an “Ah-So” which is also known as a “Butler’s Friend” to remove the cork. The Ah-So is a twin-pronged device that is placed on either side of the cork and then rocked back and forth until the prongs grip the cork along the sides of the bottle. Once inserted, you pull and twist the Ah-So until the cork is removed.
Pouring the 1947 Barolo through a coffee filter!
My unsatisfactory solution to the cork debris problem was to insert a coffee filter into the decanter and then pour the wine through it. The problem here is the filter just might also strip out any flavors left in the wine. Also, as I poured the wine ever so slowly through the filter into the decanter, I was immediately concerned by the brownish-orange liquid that came out of the bottle.
I quickly poured myself a few ounces of the wine and put it to my nose. At first, the Barolo had a pungent, almost unpleasant raisin/beet nose that slowly- over 15 minutes - morphed into an aroma redolent of earth, mint and prunes. In the mouth, this amazing wine still had life with layered flavors of cola, caramel and spice with a solid acid backbone. It was also silky smooth and continued to develop over the next hour that it took us to savor and consume the wine.
What a remarkable experience and one that I’ll always remember. It also reminded me of the reason we age wines from great regions in exceptionally good vintages. In the meantime, you can enjoy that glass of ready-to-drink wine while both you and your special bottles mature.