I have often been asked what is the most amazing or memorable wine I have ever tasted. While this is, in my view, an unfair question and a difficult, alcohol-challenged memory task, there is one wine that will always stand out.
In 2002 a number of sommeliers, wine writers and wine personalities were invited to the RACV Club in Queen Street for a rather early morning tasting. I nearly declined the invitation but it promised to show a very ancient wine for tasting. The wine advertised was from Madeira, which at the time was more known to me as a cooking wine rather then something you get up early to taste!
Madeira is an island off the coast of Morocco that belongs to Portugal. Historically, it was a popular port of call for ships on the trade routes between Africa, Asia and the Americas and it is said that even Captain Cook stopped there to stock his ship. The original Madeira wines were made as a powerful white wine, however to protect them during transport they were fortified - alcohol is added before fermentation is complete, which stops the process and leaves residual sugar in the wine. Sea captains discovered that long ocean voyages actually improved casks of Madeira. Unlike other wines, heat and oxidation are essential to Madeira and so the wine is virtually indestructible and biologically stable.
James Halliday – Australia most influential wine writer – cancelled a trip to WA in order to attend and the late Mark Schields said he would crawl from Ballarat over broken glass in order not to miss this opportunity. Channel Nine News was also present during this event, setting the scene with excitement and anticipation. Needless to say it was the oldest wine anyone had ever seen or tasted and I then felt stupid for even considering giving it a miss!
The wine in question was a 1795 vintage Terrantez Madeira from the house of Barbeito and I couldn’t believe that it was sitting in the bottom of my glass.
When the news camera turned on me with their bright spotlight, I recall that I did everything to look my best and demonstrate the perfect swirl in the glass only to realise that sweat had started to pour from my forehead – surely a combination of stress and spotlight heat – ruining my rare television appearance opportunity.
What I gained, however, is access to a drink dating from before the invention of electricity, when the blood on Mary Antoinette’s neck was still fresh and 17 years after the First Fleet settled in Botany Bay.
It seems almost sacrilegious to even open such a bottle but I was rewarded with an ethereal display of an exotic bouquet evocative of toffee, molasses, roasted nuts, and honey, leading to a rich, chewy, but supremely elegant wine, with flavours that simply do not quit. Drinking a wine this old is humbling; the fact that it is so delicious and still full of life is mind-bending.
Only four bottles were imported, one was opened for tasting, one was bought by James Halliday, one by Ian Riggs and the last one by the importer himself. Sorry guys, nothing to see here!