November 18, 2012

a ghost in the bottle

The longer you spend exploring the subject of fine wine, the more familiar you become with the concept that there are no great wines but only great bottles, and that with every great bottle comes an even greater story - I have one to share…  

For my wife Jacquie’s 40th birthday celebration, I bought two bottles of the 1970 Marqués de Murrieta, Castillo Ygay, Gran Reserva.  The Spanish claim that 1970 was their vintage of the century and those who are fond of this region also recognize that Castillo Ygay is the flagship of Rioja. I have read about this wine for years and over time collected it in more recent vintages, but to stumble upon the great 1970 vintage and coincidently that of Jacquie’s birth year was an opportunity impossible to pass-up.  Considering the vintage and the occasion, I’ll refer to this bottle as ‘well aged’.  Traditionally, the Spanish age their best wine in oak vats for the better part of a decade and in some cases, much longer.  The time spent in contact with the wood adds tremendous flavour and complexity to the wine while over time softening its hard edges. The 1970 Castillo Ygay had spent an astonishing 26 years in oak casks prior to bottling. 

We chose to celebrate at Bistro Seven Seven, in Alliston – just the two of us, as a surprise group of close friends gathered upstairs.  I’ll admit that I was just as excited about tasting the Castillo Ygay as I was to see Jacquie’s reaction upon discovering her friends in the room above.

With the arrival of our entrées, our server opened the bottle.  The cork slid out almost effortlessly and we agreed that decanting a ‘well aged’ wine might be detrimental to its potential pleasure and therefore we poured straight from the bottle. If fine wine is truly half drink and half atmosphere, could this moment have been any closer to perfection?  The Ygay spilled smoothly into our glasses, first Jacquie’s then mine and within seconds, the wine’s aroma exploded, filling the room with dark fruit and earthy notes.  By now, the group quietly gathering above us was the furthest thought from my mind.  Instead, this was all about sharing an incredible bottle with my beautiful wife.  Seated across the room, an elderly couple curiously stared, I think with equal anticipation; perhaps I should offer them a taste as well – maybe later... 

With time, a fine wine can also become quite fragile, so imagine the shock when suddenly oxygen is reintroduced to the equation after 40 years.  Sealed within a time capsule for almost four decades, the 1970 Castillo Ygay was not only intriguing, but also somewhat of a risk to open on such a special occasion.  It is not unusual for ‘well aged’ wines to fall flat very quickly once the cork is drawn, but we were fortunate this evening: the colour of the Ygay was surprisingly deep and had I not known otherwise, I might have guessed it from the mid ‘90s.  The wine's aroma was absolutely breathtaking, but to taste such a rarity, even more so.  On the palate, the sensation was of velvet; full bodied but not jammy - just the right amount of fruit followed by a lingering touch of spice. As far as I was concerned, the Castillo Ygay was bottled perfection.  But as we would soon find out, it was also the first turn in a rather twisted road.

After approximately 20 minutes, Ryan, our host poured the remaining contents from the flask.  As he filled our glasses for the second time, Jacquie said she felt a rush of cold air.  I did too.  In fact, it was enough to make us both shiver momentarily.  “Are you okay?” Ryan asked.  “Didn’t you feel that?” I exclaimed.  “Someone probably just opened the front door, it’s cold out there tonight.” he reassured us.  The couple dining across from us had left some time before though I don’t recall seeing them leave; I must have been engrossed by the meal. Just as well I suppose, for with the second pour, the great Rioja had faded completely and in no way reflected the experience we had just enjoyed.  Instead, the wine was sour and rather unpleasant.  Strange, I thought, the first glass remained perfect to the last drop.  Why should the wine within the open bottle be any different?   

The second half of our evening was about to unfold as Ryan convinced Jacquie to see some fictitious renovation underway on the second floor; a story we invented the day before.  Making our way upstairs to unveil the big surprise, something caught my eye causing me to glance back at our table. I hesitated for a moment but all that remained were the two wine glasses and the spirit of a once great bottle. Otherwise, the room was empty.  As for the sudden chill in the air, when asked if someone had just opened the front door, another waiter replied “No, apart from the group upstairs, you two are our only guests so far this evening…”


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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine