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Time Travel – Tasting Liquid History

Time Travel – Tasting Liquid History

It’s always a fascinating experience to taste a wine that’s older than you are, but inevitably as time goes on, well, it becomes increasingly difficult (and/or expensive). A few weeks back over a wonderful themed dinner with winey friends who were all somewhat older than me, the culmination of our meal was a wine older than all of us.

The 70-year old bottle was one of a case of Massandra Gurzuf Rose Muscat 1939 I purchased at the very first Sotheby’s auction of the Massandra Collection 19 years ago. At the time I developed a somewhat rash urge to buy into an exciting story to which I felt connected in several ways, and I was able to buy with my palate pre-tuned, as the very wine was available to taste at the amazing pre-auction tasting.

The Massandra Collection refers to a unique collection of mainly sweet and fortified wines from what was originally the Tsar’s vineyard in the Crimea. Built into the cliff-side, the huge and valuable cellar, which held significant quantities of each wine produced from every vintage back to the 1880s, was protected through the Russian Revolution and later by Stalin and beyond. Eventually in the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s, they decided to put some of the collection up for sale. For the full history, read the introduction to more recent auction sales held by Bonhams in both London and California in 2007.

My personal connections were tenuous, but important to me. My parents had travelled to the Crimea as part of an exciting longer trip in the USSR in the 1970s and my mother remained fascinated with anything cultural to do with what was then known as ‘Russia’. In 1989 I was working part-time on my first publishing project on a wine book being written by the then wine director of Sotheby’s David Molyneux-Berry MW. He related to me the whole fascinating experience he had when going to visit the cellars and taste the collection of wine for the first time. In order to judge whether the wines were fit for sale at auction, over the course of three days, David tasted hundreds of wines going back over a century. He tasted in the cellars themselves, with a plate of apple slices laid out to refresh his palate between wines – all of which were sweet. I was inspired to buy, and chose what I could both taste and just about afford (if I recall correctly, I paid about £60 a bottle all in).

The first bottle I drank was a few months after purchase in 1990 having taken it to share with wine friends in California, who were offering me hospitality on a big trip there. It was amazing. The following year we drank a couple of bottles to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday and then at the end of the decade we had a couple of bottles to see in the new millennium. The wine, which was re-corked before shipping to the UK has never, ever disappointed – quite the opposite in fact. But, this time I was nervous. Since 1998 the wine had been moved about a little as I had moved house several times, and the packaging on this particular bottle had been damaged along with the wax seal over the cork and it was slightly ullaged (the level of wine being at the top of the shoulder).

After an excellent series of wines from vintages all ending in nine (the theme of the evening), which accompanied a simple, tasty meal, we moved towards the Massandra with increasing anticipation. We matched some personally imported mature Comté cheese with a youthful, but stunning Jacques Puffeney Arbois Vin Jaune 1999. I had opened the clavelin bottle earlier in the day, decanted it and served it at room temperature – and it had the desired effect in surprising our guests who had never before really enjoyed a Vin Jaune, even though they had tasted other examples.

We opened the Massandra fairly late having chilled it just slightly, nibbling at various desserts. The wine stunned us all with its liveliness, persistence and its general deliciousness. It’s a credit to the staying power of the wine and to the restraint of our friends, that I was able to re-taste it the following day and write the following detailed note.

The colour was of a bronzy-gold with a hint of pink in the middle (the Rose Muscat refers to a pinkish clone of the Muscat grape, not to a rosé wine). The nose revealed an incredible melding of maple syrup, toffee and caramel with some simple perfume (was it rosewater?). On the palate it was sweet but not cloying, light in alcohol (this was not a fortified wine I believe) but rich with an exquisitely creamy honeyed texture. The acidity was pretty imperceptible though there was an almost sweet appley freshness that came through on the finish, which made me almost beg for the next sip.

Apparently these days you can take a tour around the Massandra cellars in what is now Ukraine and several prominent wine writers who have visited have written favourably about the terroir and about recent bottlings. Perhaps we will have an ‘Around the Crimea’ guide to plan a private wine tour there one day.