It was the year that saw the first non-stop flight from London to Paris, the year that saw the launch of the Titanic – and the end of the last Chinese Imperial Dynasty. It was 1911 and now I can say I’ve drunk wine over 100 years old.
A little fragile perhaps but still vivid on the nose with aromas of ginger, citrus and burnt sugar. A little less length than its younger siblings but still a force to be reckoned with. And there’s still stock available should you want to buy a bottle of this rare and remarkable wine.
These were the Toro Albalá wines, presented to the Oxford Wine Club by Antonio Sorgato and Michael Palij MW on 20 March 2014. Toro Albalá’s PX is not just any PX. Those who know the wine will know that everyday PX (if you can use such a phrase of a wine so distinctive in appearance and flavour) is not hard to come by but their PX is a wine that really has no right to exist. Many of the ten bottles we tasted came from barrels of wine hoarded as family wealth by peasant owners whom Antonio and Toro Albalá’s owner had hunted down in the villages of Montilla-Moriles in South-west Spain. These barrels gone, there is no more of the wine to bottle; no way it can be re-found or re-created. I had the privilege of drinking the very last of the 1976 and the 1939.
Harvesting starts – in hot years – at 3.00 in the morning. Then the grapes are laid out on mats to dry in the sun for a week or so. Fermentation of the sweet juice that results takes the wine only to 5-6% alcohol for 400 grams of sugar per litre kills most fermentation stone dead. For a litre of wine you need 5 kilos of grapes, rather than the usual one kilo. Fortified to 17% or more the wine then goes – unfiltered and sulphite-free – into old American oak barrels to age. For ‘everyday’ PX that’s it. For the Toro Albalá wines the winemaker adds bone dry 40 year old fino (amontillado in other words, also made from Pedro Ximenez grapes). This reduces the sugar impact and provides extra acidity that keeps the wine vital for generations. The company has wines going back to 1844. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are solera wines where the oldest component is 50 or 100 years old. These are true single vintage wines, aged in cask and then bottle
So, consider the economics…and marvel at the dedication and commitment of all concerned.
I’ll focus on the older wines (though the 2010 is wonderful – and fairly easy to find). The 1983 had a black core with a powerful yellow rim (reminiscent of turmeric). The immediate aroma – common to almost all the wines – was of vivid citrus. Then came figs, chocolate, coffee, orange peel, vanilla and a touch of gunpowder. In Britain this was the year of mandatory seat belts and Maggie Thatcher’s first visit to the Falklands.
The 1976 had the most extraordinary hand-crafted label: made from sheets of wood, with designs burnt in by hand and each bottle numbered by the two men who make the boxes and labels. Inside, a certificate from the local notary to guarantee the wine’s authenticity.
The 1962 shared that citrus note but this time it was sweet lime spiced with black pepper, cloves, cumin and marmalade plus a dash of violets. This wine had seen 50 years in cask – starting when the Beatles were singing ‘Love Me Do’ and the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding.
The 1961, rating 97 Parker points, is –since Thursday 20th – no longer available. I shared the last bottle. 1961 was of course a famous vintage in much of Europe – as well as the year of the Blackie the dog’s first space flight. More coffee and caramel, more cloves and raisins than the 1962 but still the same lifted citrus overlay. Then came a jump back in time to 1949. This was the year the People’s Republic of China was founded, and Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province. This was also the most alcoholic of the wines – nearly 20%, after the wine-maker decided the wine needed more alcoholic weight to complement its length and richness. The nose was a little more floral than the other wines but shared the same richness of spice and herbs. In the mouth it was potent, seemingly indestructible.
Then came the 1946, a year memorable (of course) for the first bikini of modern times. Like the bikini it has more than stood the test of time. Remarkably rounded with vivid acidity this wine had notes of quince and melon along with dried fruit and sweeter spices such as cinnamon. The 100 point accolade (which no-one expected) came from Parker’s ‘new man’ in Spain. Only three bottles are left of the next wine, the 1945, which was perhaps a hotter year for the wine had more menthol notes and the spices now were roasted and dried rather than fresh ground, though the turmeric edge of colour on the glass was still vivid.
The 1939 is now sold out. Though the acidity of this wine is beginning to fade it was still wholly integrated, wonderfully complex and entirely complete. This was a year of legendary debuts – Superman, Sinatra and Presley – and one memorable if unhappy ending. It was the year of the last public guillotining in France.
Lastly, the 1911. This wine was, finally, showing its age. More fragile, less balanced, more tannin-heavy and with less length in the finish but the nose was still vivid and fresh with burnt sugar and ginger notes underlying the citrus. £400 for a piece of bottled history – and there are still 60 bottles left…
These wines are available from Winetraders Ltd; they’ll keep for ever and if you want to taste wine from 50-100 years ago then you should try to get hold of one (or more) bottles. You won’t regret it.