Caleb Harris/Fairfax NZ | Last updated February 10, 2016.
After 113 years in a farmhouse cellar, a bottle of wine believed to be the oldest ever opened in New Zealand has astonished critics by still tasting great.
“It’s superb. Amazing, really … It’s still hanging on, shaking its fist at you out of the glass,” was how wine writer John Saker summed up the 1903 Landsdowne Claret opened in Wairarapa on Wednesday.
Early Wairarapa settler William Beetham made the wine on land the family owned in Masterton, after his homesick French wife Hermance planted vines.
The 1903 blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and syrah is poured at Brancepeth Station in Wairarapa.
The vineyard stopped producing around 1908, but some bottles have been cellared ever since in the Edwardian homestead at Brancepeth Station, east of Masterton, which Beetham’s descendants still own.
On Wednesday, Saker convened a panel of 12 other local and international wine writers at Brancepeth to sample the valuable vintage, a bottle of which once sold for $14,000.
Beetham’s Masterton vineyard was revived under new owner Derek Hagar in 2009 and won an international pinot noir award, so the tasters compared Beetham’s 1903 wine with a contemporary bottle produced by Hagar on the same land.
Brancepeth’s current custodian, Edward Beetham, said seeing his forebear’s pioneering role in Wairarapa winemaking acknowledged was “a great occasion”. “We’ve always sort of dreamt of doing this.”
Although called a claret, the wine is actually a blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and syrah.
Breaths were bated as the crumbling cork was pulled, but once the venerable wine was swished, sniffed and sipped, the consensus was that age had not wearied it.
“This wine is like … a 100-year-old human which is still not ready to die,” German sommelier Markus Berlinghof said.
“There was this sort of dried citrus-peel acidity that just made it feel alive, still, and that completely shocked me,” American wine writer Sara Schneider said.
Saker found the wine not only surprisingly fault-free for its age, but also redolent of an “Edwardian summer” at the dawn of New Zealand’s wine industry. “That’s what makes it wonderful.”
BETTER WITH AGE?
1. John Saker, Wine editor Cuisine magazine
Tasting notes: “Slight faded rose, a hint of reduction … that lovely elegant passage across the palate, just a suggestion of sweetness. This is a Wairarapa pinot to be proud of.”
What about compared with the 2009 Landsdowne wine? “I thought there was a family resemblance … both have a finer, lighter, red fruit notes and a steely acidity.”
Rating (1903): 5 out of 5
2. German sommelier Markus Berlinghof
Tasting notes: “A lot of dried fruit character, dried orange zest. Elegant, a very feminine mouth feel. The colour is still in very good condition, a deep garnet, very fresh.”
What about compared with the 2009 Landsdowne wine? “I wasn’t a friend of drinking the other wine afterward, I don’t want to compare them.”
Rating: Doesn’t believe in ratings, but in a word: “Superb”.
3. American wine writer Sara Schneider
Tasting notes: “That first red fruit is really gone by now, but has sort of turned into a dried fig character, kind of an earthy tang, with the tannin texture … dried rose petals … a terrific wine.”
What about compared with the 2009 Landsdowne wine? “There’s a wet loam, forest floor, mushroomy, savoury character in both wines.”
Rating: High 19 out of 20 (1903); low 19 out of 20 (2009).