A liquid tribute to the joys of getting older

Wine is our compensation: the soft landing as we tumble on to the wrong side of 30.

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A birthday is a cause for celebration – until the year comes when it’s not. Nine was joyous. I well remember my great age, etched in Smarties, glowing impressively atop a chocolate poppy-seed cake. I had a party, of course, although I now think birthday parties are wasted on children; it’s adults who need the distraction, and most of us wouldn’t say no to a magician, either.

Wine is our compensation: the soft landing as we tumble on to the wrong side of 30. Before that, drink is alcohol – a cheap if unhealthy route to a good time, consumed by those whose youthful high spirits really should remove the need for the bottled version. I did drink some good wine in my twenties, and I began to learn, but that takes time, and money. One of the many lovely things about a bottle of good wine is that it distils the truism that knowledge is born of experience: the more practised your palate, the more you will enjoy what you’re drinking. If that’s not a comfort as we acquire experience and lose skin tone, I don’t know what is.

Nor does it hurt that many of the best wines improve with age. Red wines, waiting patiently in oak barrels, soften and open as their tannins mellow; in whites, which have fewer tannins, acidity eases and fuller, rounder flavours become apparent. A great old Riesling, Bordeaux or Barolo at the height of its powers is a delicious rebuke to youth’s bold clumsiness. “You may look good because you’re young,” it seems to say, “but I’m old and I look better.” The parallels with humanity may be faint but they are clear, and even if you argue that, to age well, wine must be kept away from oxygen, sunlight and other aggravation – not a fate that befalls most human beings outside the royal family – there is still the satisfaction of drinking a living, liquid tribute to age’s greatness.

In search of diversion from a coming birthday, I riffled through memories of tastings past for a match for lamb stewed in its own juices, chosen less for its suitability as a gastronomic metaphor for ageing than because I happen to love lamb.

A while ago, I attended a dinner showcasing the ageability of Gigondas at the Clerkenwell wine bar 28-50, where the wood and the brick-lined subterranean decor are about as close as I’m likely to come to experiencing the actual maturation process of a wine in barrel. These spicy, dense red wines are made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes grown on the slope of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a mountain range whose 200 million birthdays should perhaps put human worries about mortality in perspective.

They can age, these wines; they are not as long-lived as great Bordeaux, which was designed, long ago, to suit the English taste for decades of cellaring, but they are not nearly as expensive, either. The 2006s were still distinctly youthful: fresh and bright, they brimmed with ideas but spoke without thinking and, occasionally, answered back. Domaine du Pesquier was the more interesting, opening up through the evening; but Domaine des Bosquets went better with the Parmesan and truffle arancini.

This pleasing contrast, between a companionable wine that enhanced the food and another that demanded more dedicated attention, applied to the best of the 2000s, too, and that is where I found the juices to accompany my stewed lamb: a bright, berry-filled Château de Saint Cosme and a richer, spicier Domaine la Bouïssière that was mellower, autumnal, offering the memory of fruit long picked. Here were two oldies that had gravitas, yet lived up to the name Gigondas, from Jucunditas, Latin for “delight”. It remained only to choose the guest list, but there were starter and dessert wines still to figure out – and, as I have at long last learned to say, first things first.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?