Christine Austin uncorks a few semi-hidden gems which make perfect big birthday wines

It was my birthday last week – quite a big one – the sort of birthday that people generally make a fuss of. I would tell you the number of years, but some time ago I decided that it was extravagant having a new birthday each year so I started to recycle previous birthdays. It means that all weekend I kept up the pretence that this was yet another edition of my 40th birthday.
The occasion was important enough to bring our far-flung family together to celebrate the passage of years, and naturally we enjoyed one or two wines with dinner. Selecting those wines made me raid the far end of the wine rack, and even drove me to pillage long-held stocks, most of which had a story attached to them.
Among the wines consumed over the weekend there was the magnum of Roederer Cristal 1999 that I won as Regional Wine Writer of 2006 for articles in The Yorkshire Post. It has been stored out of reach on a high shelf in the air-conditioned storage unit that houses my best wines while waiting for the right occasion. There were a few near misses when it came close to being liberated by an over-enthusiastic new graduate son, but it survived and was earmarked for my special birthday.
Then there was the 1983 Ch. Latour that was given to me as a leaving present by the members of a wine society that I founded and ran. That bottle has moved house three times and has been carefully stored in each residence. It has been winking at me for many years, and only narrowly escaped being opened when a visiting winemaker found his way into my cellar and rifled through the racks.
And then there was the d’Yquem 1999. This was a surprise gift that arrived by post one happy morning a decade ago from a wine merchant. I had never visited him but we had talked about wine on several occasions and after several years of passing mentions in various columns, he sent me a half bottle of Ch. d’Yquem as a thank-you. At that time he was in the process of closing down his business for health reasons. Had it come from a merchant who was hoping for future reviews I would have returned it, but this came with thanks and no strings, so I tucked it away and resolved to think of him when I drank it.
These special bottles, and a few others, were selected, carefully packed and transported to the venue for the weekend of celebration. Thankfully the restaurant in question imposed only a small corkage charge, and the sommelier was delighted and intrigued to be part of our celebration.
Did the wines live up to my expectations? Absolutely. They brought together memories of people, events and places, which is what a birthday is all about. The family have always shared my journey with wine, but haven’t really got to grips with the importance of some bottles and memories. They enjoyed the stories, and the theatre of opening and drinking them.
The Cristal was surprisingly tight. A magnum ages more slowly than a bottle, and while the 1999 is generally thought to be drinking well right now, this magnum was still refreshingly youthful. It started out with fresh apple and white floral notes, then very slowly added some depth with brioche, hazelnuts and a touch of pepper. It was clean, pure and had a vibrant acidity that showed it was still on an upward curve of development. Maybe I could have left it for another significant birthday, perhaps even a recycled 50th?
The Latour 1983 was perfectly mature. Its crumbly cork provided a few challenges, but once decanted the wine filled out in flavour and depth. Deep in colour, it still had a hint of crimson on the rim and the aroma evolved magnificently over its three hours in the decanter and at the table. Starting out rich and slightly farmyardy, then cassis and blackberry fruit emerged and sang gloriously for a while before being joined by cedar, liquorice, forest floor and leathery notes. It lasted on the palate, still vibrant but mature and it partnered a rare chateaubriand perfectly.
The Ch. d’Yquem 1999 was stunning with layers of sweetness balanced against pure fresh linear acidity with essences of peach, apricots and honey edging on to the palate.
So apart from sharing my birthday extravagances with you, is there a point to this story? The real lesson is that it is important not just to look at our special bottles but also to open and enjoy the contents. Wine is for drinking. Admittedly some is for buying and selling as an investment and a lot is for storing until it reaches maturity, but then the corks should be pulled, the wines poured and tasted with friends and family. There is nothing more sad than hearing from someone whose partner has left a cellar of wine that was waiting for the right special occasion. Those bottles almost never get the right audience again, so don’t let your precious bottles linger too long. Plan a dinner, invite the family and share those flavours with the people you love. That occasion may be just around the corner, to mark a birthday, an addition to the family, a marriage or even a new job. Life and wine is for celebrating now.
Meanwhile my foray to the far end of the wine rack has unearthed a few more gems. I shall wait until the right occasion presents itself, then recycle another birthday and pop the corks.

About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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