Pianist Arthur Rubinstein was fond of telling the story of the wine connoisseur who once invited the composer Johannes Brahms to dinner: "This is the Brahms of my cellar," said the collector to his guests, filling the master's glass from a dusty bottle. Brahms looked at the color of the wine, smelled it and finally took a taste. "Hmmm," he said after putting down the glass. "Better bring your Beethoven."
That's the trouble with old wines. Even if kept in temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions in a million-dollar cellar, they can go bad, oxidize or simply not taste very good after years of aging.
As someone who has sampled a lot of older wines, I have ceased being shocked that even a great vintage, kept under ideal conditions, can be a complete dud. Indeed, the older I get, the more convinced I am that keeping wines for decades is a very risky business.
In some cases even the greatest wines can begin to evaporate in the bottle, causing an air space at the neck, which is why some collectors have their old bottles opened at intervals and topped off under the supervision of the estate owners.
There is the possibility of the wine being corked, with some estimates suggesting that up to 15 percent of all bottles may be so damaged. For this reason none of the most illustrious auction houses like Christie's International, Sotheby's and Hart Davis Hart will guarantee the soundness of wines offered.
Restaurateurs get equally antsy about selling very old, very expensive wines on their list, which are sometimes there more for show than anything else. Many will absorb the cost of a verifiable bad bottle on their list bought by a guest.
"We can't put warning labels on our wines," says Charles Masson, owner of La Grenouille in New York, where customers tend to be very affluent and very faithful. "There is always a risk in storing old wines. But if a bottle is truly bad, we will not make our guest pay for it."
And if a guest spurns a bottle because he simply doesn't care for the taste or erroneously insists it's gone bad? "It's an awkward situation," says Masson. "We do charge for the wine if we know it's sound."
As La Grenouille replenishes its list, Masson is stocking fewer older vintages. "The prices are now so high and there is a diminished demand from our clientele," he says. "We actually encourage them to try a younger, less expensive wine more conducive to the meal rather than go for the 1998 Haut-Brion on our list that costs $2,250."
The tradition of drinking very old wines is more British than French, especially among those Brits who have been involved in the French wine trade for centuries. Now, technology and contemporary preference have made the idea of drinking younger, fresher, dependable wines more reasonable than taking a risk on an old one whose best days may be behind it.
"An average vintage will age and pass its peak faster," says Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of the first growth Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux. "But great vintages, such as 1953, 1959 and 1961 are today the best and the most moving experiences one can have and when kept by the wine experts who know those wines, might still get better with further aging."
Mentzelopoulos says modern viticulture allows her more leeway in how she makes her wines: "We can wait and pick the grapes when we believe them to have achieved maturity, which I find is one of the major changes at Margaux and in Bordeaux."
In the past, growers had to bring the grapes in before the rot set, she said. Now, in vintage years Bordeaux winegrowers can harvest at the optimum time, when the tannins are ripe and therefore softer, making the wines more pleasant to drink from the beginning.
"So, yes, they can be drunk earlier, although there are some vintages which remain very harsh when young," Mentzelopoulos said. "In good-to-great vintages it is still better to wait." She says only a few estates in Bordeaux and Burgundy make wines that improve as they age.
In other words, few wines will age gracefully.