Anniversary Wines For A Big Celebration: What To Drink When The Year Is More Important More Than The Price
by Ken Gargett
Wine can be so much more than just an enjoyable drink. It can link us to times, people, and places. Sometimes the mere smell brings back forgotten memories.
I’ll never forget the pleasure on the face of a friend trying a bottle from a vineyard near Bordeaux a few years back. Turns out, he had once owned the vineyard and lived there. So many great memories from his time there came flooding back as he drank.
There are so many examples of this sort of thing. I am sure readers have many of their own stories – feel free to share in the comments.
For me, a bottle of Moulin Touchais from 1929 is one like that. My father had suffered a series of heart attacks and we had him home from hospital, for the last time if I recall correctly. We celebrated his birthday and I brought out this wine. I’d bought it many years previously while studying in London when it was a fraction of the cost it would become – I never mentioned price, knowing that would have almost certainly brought on yet another attack.
My dad was born in 1929. He had no interest in wine and could never really understand my passion but was truly stunned to learn that some wines could last so long (good cellaring conditions for certain wines can have them lasting even longer). Dad loved it. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
Moulin Touchais is made from Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and it is a white that can age brilliantly for many decades; 1929 was a great vintage.
On the day the wine was not in perfect condition, a little tired, but I don’t think any of us minded. That was not the point. It thrilled my father, and consequently all of us.
Another time, an old girlfriend and I decided we’d celebrate her birthday with a great bottle from her birth year. We were keen to find an Yquem – before you think I had won the lottery, in those days great wines were much cheaper.
The problem was that she was born in an absolutely horrid year, not just for Yquem. Good luck finding a region that excelled, and even better luck then finding a decent bottle from that year.
In the end, we compromised. We would buy the wine (we did get a half of Yquem) from my birth year and share it – and, no, there is no chance I am divulging either vintage, but suffice to say my mother had the good sense to hang on and deliver me late, just slipping into the year after I was due, which happened to be one of the all-time great vintages for many regions.
If you have suffered the ignominy of entering this world during a poor vintage, try what one of my friends does. If the previous year was a good one, celebrate “year of conception,” though that only works if you were conceived the previous year to birth. If you were so careless to arrive in October, November or December, I can’t help you.
On another occasion, a good friend came up with a novel concept for a major birthday. He would supply a bottle of wine from every year of his life. It meant a lot of bottles and a long and difficult search to source them. His idea was that they’d be served like a buffet. You were not expected to try them all (just as well, he was not that young), but simply take your pick.
His concept was that there would be a wine from a top region that had enjoyed a great vintage in that year for every year since he joined us. Great fun. So 1961 was obviously going to be a top Bordeaux; 1977 a fine Vintage Port; and so on.
Some years proved very problematic. Not just finding a region that had performed over and above, but then sourcing a wine from there. Friends chipped in where they could, and auctions were a useful source.
The more traditional concept for so-called anniversary wines is to celebrate a milestone, perhaps a birthday or wedding, with a fine bottle from that vintage. With that in mind, here are some broad suggestions.
Anniversary wine suggestions
10 years: 2011
One assumes that ten-year-old children will not be cracking the good stuff for a few years yet, although when they do they might be less than pleased with their parents for their timing as 2011 is not much of a vintage in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and others.
A cooler year in the Napa with some fine wines. A bit of a shocker across much of Australia, although – and this is pretty much the mantra of the region – Margaret River had had yet another superb year.
All is not lost, though. Italy had a fine year (that is, of course, very much a generalization). Germany was very good. The Rhône and Alsace outperformed other French regions, with one exception: Sauternes. This was a great year for these wonderful wines. Stock the cellars for future anniversaries.
Finally, Vintage Port: 2011 is a must-have year but at this stage, the bottles should perhaps simply be gifts to celebrate the anniversary with the intention of drinking them many years from now.
20 years: 2001
Avoid 2001 Champagne if you are ever so unfortunate to encounter any. Forget Port. Burgundy and Bordeaux might claim to be a mixed bag, but if that is the best you can say it is hardly inspiring.
Again, go with Sauternes; 2001 is one of the greatest of all Sauternes vintages. And Château d’Yquem 2001, certainly the greatest young Sauternes, perhaps greatest young wine, I have ever seen.
It was also stellar in both the Rhône and California. Tuscany and Piedmont performed exceptionally well. Rioja in Spain had a fine year. Australia was mixed, although inevitably excellent in Margaret River. One of the great years for Napa Cabernet and one of the very best ever from Germany.
21 years: 2000
Champagne from 2000 has proved to be a real surprise. What seemed an early average year has gone under the radar and proved to offer some stunners (2000 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, anyone?). Port offers a small vintage, but a solid, concentrated and very fine one.
Legendary in Bordeaux. This would be the obvious choice for most of us. Burgundy could have been worse. Barolo is worth exploring. Australia? Here’s a shocker – Margaret River was exceptional.
25 years: 1996
The problem for those celebrating 25 years of whatever is not finding a region, it is finding the wines after so many years. Nineteen ninety-six was perhaps the finest all-round vintage since 1959, although 1990 may also make that claim.
Champagne of 1996 is legendary, though aficionados will argue its merits, many for and not quite so many “not for” – try the Krug or Pol Roger or so many others and it is impossible not to love the year. For Bordeaux it was a classic year, as for Sauternes. Burgundy may not have quite hit that level but was close. Forget Port. Australia had some brilliant wines from the Barossa, Coonawarra, and McLaren Vale. Solid in Napa.
30 years: 1991
1991 is not a year that springs to mind for many regions but Australia: while it was largely overshadowed by the great 1990s, there are many superb wines. It was also largely exceptional for Napa Cabernet. Rhône exceeded its more illustrious siblings, Bordeaux and Burgundy. A very fine year for Vintage Port.
50 years: 1971
A fiftieth anniversary should not be this problematic, but unless you have access to some great cellars or get lucky at auctions, 1971 is a challenging vintage to locate.
A stunning year in South Australia. Bordeaux gets mixed reports with some claiming great and others far less excited. Personally, I’m in the latter camp. But Burgundy: just wow! Italy was also good though you won’t find many these days. The other region to offer wines for the angels was Germany.
60 years: 1961
Okay, as some may have guessed I’ve included the sixtieth anniversary simply so I could rave about the glories of the 1961 Bordeaux vintage. Also very good in Burgundy – the La Tâche is superb – but it is Bordeaux where the real magic is.
100 years: 1921
To prove we are anything but ageist at Quill & Pad, for those celebrating a centenary this year, there is good news. A very hot year, 1921 produced many great Bordeaux, however the region that excelled above all was Germany. The wines are legendary. Some amazing champagnes though not easy to locate and they need to have been very well cellared.
If there is one wine that stands head and shoulders above every other wine from 1921, it is the Yquem – English critic Michael Broadbent described it as the greatest Yquem of all time (hard to argue, but I’ll make a brave prediction that in a few decades the 2001 will top it).
I’ve only ever tasted it once and it was certainly as good as advertised. In fact, I’d happily swap my letter from H.M. Queen Elizabeth (for those not of the British Commonwealth, every citizen who reaches 100 years gets a letter from the queen on their birthday), should I make it, for a glass of this wine.
Happy anniversary, whatever you are celebrating.
* This article was first published on February 23, 2021 at Anniversary Wines For A Big Celebration: What To Drink When The Year Is More Important More Than The Price.