Waxing lyrical about aged wines


I would love to be able to write about aged wine all the time, but the reality is that most wine is consumed young, and most wine is sold even younger. But, every now and then I beg your indulgence as I rhapsodise about some lovely aged wine that has wandered across my path. I’ll begin gently. And finish with a bang.

A friend produced out of his magician’s hat a magnum of 1980 Lindemans St George Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (tasting). This is a wine that I have shafted mercilessly in the past. When released (far too young, of course) it was excessively oaky, but the main thing I disliked was its green, capsicum-like herbaceous aroma. A product of the minimal pruning era of both Coonawarra and Lindemans, it was a left-field wine and I always had a hunch that its different-ness was one reason it won so many show awards, including the Jimmy Watson Trophy. Lindemans’ chief winemaker at the time, Phillip John, and I used to argue about it, and I’m even sorrier that Phillip died recently, before I could tell him how much I enjoyed this magnum. 

At 35 years old, it was no longer at all oaky, but the lifted herbal notes were still there, albeit transformed by age. But it was the palate of the wine that seduced me so. It was superbly elegant and balanced, finely textured and harmonious, and endowed with marvelous complexity of flavour. No doubt a 750ml bottle would have displayed more age development, depending on the temperature of the cellar and quality of the cork. 

The second wine was an imperial of 1989 Chateau Haut-Brion (tasting). This was simply breath-taking. A great vintage of a great chateau – a first-growth Bordeaux – from a very big bottle, starting to drink beautifully at 25 years. An imperial holds six litres of wine, or eight bottles. The fact that our group was reasonably small, meant we could all actually imbibe a decent quantity – we could actually drink it rather than taste a teensy pour. What an indulgence! 

This was a thoroughly wonderful wine, and it seemed that it would live and thrive for another 25 years at least – especially in an imperial. How much more slowly the wine would age in a six-litre bottle is open to conjecture. There is little of detail published on the subject and even the Oxford Companion to Wine is sketchy. 

What’s known is that a 1.5-litre magnum doesn’t live for twice as long as a 750ml bottle. It should last longer, but whether it’s by 10%, 5%, 2% or less depends at least in part on the wine. The greater the wine’s potential longevity (eg. red Bordeaux or port), the greater the difference is likely to be. And the older the wine becomes, the wider the gap is likely to grow. We do know that half-bottles are not good for cellaring, as ageing is accelerated significantly in bottles smaller than 750ml. Anecdotally, the magnum is widely regarded as the optimum size for aging.

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