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29 September 2017

If any grape can conquer mortality, it is surely Cabernet Sauvignon

Sun-loving, late-ripening, high in tannin and acidity, it makes wines that can take decades to soften.

By Nina Caplan

In the picture I’m very young: plump cheeks, terrible hairstyle, unsullied smile. My father’s hair is barely grey and he, too, looks young to me, although he’s about the age I am now. I don’t remember who snapped the photo, nor what it felt like to be 13. Only the image, and an emotional residue both sweet and bitter – how happy we look! How long ago it was! – remain.

At lunch, I am served a Chilean wine that was 26 when that photo was taken: Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon, from 1959. We compare two other wines that are also all, or mostly, Cabernet: Reserva de la Familia 2007, brash and excessive, and a much more restrained wine from 2012 called Luis Pereira. The latter probably costs £100 a bottle. The 1959, like so much whose time has past, is impossible to price.

If any grape can conquer mortality, it is surely Cabernet Sauvignon. Sun-loving, late-ripening, high in tannin and acidity, it makes wines that can take decades to soften, much less open. It is the principal grape of the Médoc, where Bordeaux’s most famous vines live: on the boats bringing precious “claret” to the thirsty English, the wines were buffered by their hardy composition like kings lounging on barge cushions, and when they reached land they matured in cool cellars while the owners drank their ancestors.

“A Pauillac before 10 years is too early,” says Nicolas Glumineau, general manager of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, which is a second-growth Bordeaux with a history nearly as long as its name. He opens the 2009, and while the wine is magnificent it proves his point.  In the late 1980s, a disgruntled former winemaker stole all the Château’s archives. Very annoying, and surely futile: a wine’s true archives are in the bottle.

Drink the 1996 Reserve de la Comtesse now, Glumineau tells me, as if I had that option. I do have a couple of bottles of good Bordeaux, inherited from my father, and occasionally I eye them nervously, weighing the value of their presence against the possibility of their obsolescence. I know that when they go, my father will feel even more lost to me than he does already – but that if I leave them too long, his disappointed ghost will haunt me.

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The Comtesse de Lalande revived her inheritance in the 19th century; she had the advantage of Bordeaux’s centuries of experience, and few New World wines stand comparison with those named for her. But, while Chilean wines have tended to seem terribly adolescent – all bounce, muscle and uncontrolled force – the country’s young winemakers are eager to learn.

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In 2010, a terrible earthquake disrupted the vineyards and uncovered in Santa Carolina’s cellars a forgotten stash of very old wines, including the 1959 Cabernet Sauvignon we have just tried. The company’s winemaker, Andrés Caballero, treated this rediscovered cache as an instruction manual: “We changed the entire range!” he says, cheerfully, and his so-called lesser Cabernets – Reserva de la Familia, Dolmen – are now terrific. Caballero has learnt from his elders, pulling back from all that fat fruit and alcohol, searching for a bygone elegance.

We each take what we can from the past, whether a tradition, a lesson or the richness of fruit preserved, miraculously, if not indefinitely. Or simply, a recollection of happiness.