Bipin's Wine Notes, by Bipin Desai.

 

"Top 100+ Wines of the 20th Century"

1a. Introduction

It was back in early 2003 that John Kapon, of Acker-Merrall auctions, called me up and told me quite excitedly that he wanted to do a tasting of top 100 wines of the previous century. He wanted to schedule it the following year in New York. As one can well appreciate, my immediate response was “Wow, that’s quite an audacious plan!” But knowing John, and the dogged determination he has shown time and again to see things through, I knew that if anyone could carry out this ambitious project, he could.

Also I knew that he had a full year to work on it, during which time he could count on getting help from a large band of collectors with whom he had become friends with through the auctions. He had also amply demonstrated to me, through his auction activities, that he was extremely meticulous in selecting the bottles to ensure that they had the correct provenance and were genuine.

I told him I would be happy to help him in any capacity I could and share with him what I’ve learned from my own wine activities

After John announced the tasting to his friends and clients, some of my friends asked me “Is this Decanter’s 100 or Parker’s 100 or someone else’s 100?” I replied “No one’s in particular”, because collectively, or even for some of us individually, we have had more than sufficient experience with old vintages to make the decisions. And that’s exactly how we proceeded to select the wines for the top 100.

For about ¾’s of the wines there was unanimity in the group that John had been consulting. For the rest, we had to make hard choices.

One of the major questions was in dealing with such a large span of years. On the drinkability curve the wines in the 1900’s, 10’s, 20’s, 30’s, and even the 40’s are on the downside today or are beginning to be so, no matter how great they were at one time, while the wines from the 50’s through the 80’s are, for the most part, at the plateau. On the other hand the great wines in the 90’s are nowhere near maturity. How does one put all of them together and make a fair, comparative judgment? A hard question, but we knew that those coming to this event would have already attended vertical tastings in the past with this type of juxtaposition and would know how to cope with this question.

To obtain the bottles, John relied almost exclusively on the collectors. He could have taken the easy way out and checked the websites which gave lists of where one can buy old wines. To his great credit, he didn’t. Instead he crisscrossed this country, as well as Europe, to search for the wines from the collectors he knew and spent time examining each bottle individually before selecting. The only time he did buy from outside was when he bought a few bottles from Christie’s auction of the extraordinary Doris Duke cellar.

As the date of the tasting got closer John began to realize that it was going to be impossible to confine the tasting to just 100! One major reason was the young vintages. Wines like La Tache, for example, have a great track record and there was little reason to doubt that, in spite of its youth, the 1990 easily qualified for the top 100 and should be included. But the question was about the young, so-called “cult”, wines that had not yet established a clear track record. But he decided to include them anyway because of the fame they had already acquired.

Initially we were thinking of three sessions to cover 100 wines over the weekend, but then a fourth session had to be added to accommodate all the wines. It was now called a “tasting of the top 100+ wines.”!

By the time the big day arrived, apart from about 10 wines that we wanted but couldn’t find (particularly old vintages of Ch. Ausone, and old wines from the Rhone valley), the rest were successfully accumulated, two bottles or a magnum per wine. That was a remarkable feat, a testimony to John’s yearlong, relentless, hard work. What was also remarkable was to find that, except for two questionable wines, all of the 300 odd bottles were genuine-again a tribute to John’s enormous care and attention

There was concern expressed by some about tasting so many wines in such a short time, over a weekend, not just any wines, but wines that were considered the greatest in the world. Unfortunately, the logistics of getting together people from all over the United States and countries abroad made it impossible to do it any other way. At the end almost everyone joined in, probably because no one wanted to miss being part of what was likely going to be one of the most remarkable tastings of one’s lifetime. There were about 40 people at the tasting, a vitual Who’s Who of world’s greatest collectors.

The event was held in New York on October 29-31, 2004. A complete list of wines that were served is enclosed.

Having been into wine for almost 30 years I was one of the lucky ones to have had almost all the 100+ wines at one time or another in the past; some only once before, while others many times, some (particularly the old legends), literally dozens of times, often in pristine conditions. During “my time” it was not such a big deal to regularly taste or collect the 45’s, 47’s or ’61’s, because, even though decades old at the time, they were still relatively inexpensive (even compared to the price people pay for “futures” today!). Therefore, I had some perspective of what to expect at this tasting. What was thrilling for me was that I was going to taste ALL the great wines together over one weekend.

There were some wines that were corked or oxidised which happens at any tasting. There were some disappointments also, like ’47 Cheval Blanc, ’45 Mouton Rothschild and ’49 La Tache. Though they were very good, a bit of the edge was gone. Often for cases like this the problem was re-corking which, from my long experience, tends to change the true character of the wine. Every single collector I know who has had extensive experience with old bottles agrees with me on this.

If I were making decisions, unless there was clear evidence that the cork was about to disintegrate, I would ban any re-corking and ask whoever wants to do re-corking to first take elementary physics course to learn about air flow and vacuum!
An overwhelming number of wines, however, were simply extraordinary. It was particularly awe inspiring to see the old wines, coming from all different wine regions, that not just survived the long journey in time but were complex and full of verve. And then there were wines like ’29 Les Gaudichots. ’25 Marques de Riscal, ’49 Hermitage La Chapelle, ’41 Inglenook and a whole bunch of old Bordeaux and Burgundy that were not just extraordinary but impossible to find anywhere else.

Almost two years of hard work that John put in for this project, and all that tenacity he showed, had been brilliantly paid off . Bravo!

Separately, I have listed the wines which received 4, or the maximum 5 stars from me (those that received 3 stars or less are not listed).

 

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© 2004-2005 Bipin Desai