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 last year, 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 such as 1998 and 2001. However, to stumble upon the great 1970 vintage that’s coincidently also Jacquie’s birth year, was an opportunity impossible to pass up. 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, Ontario – just the two of us, as a surprise group of close friends silently 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. So with the arrival of our entrées, our server opened the bottle. The cork slid almost effortlessly from the bottle and with the absence of any sediment, we agreed to a straight pour rather than to decant the ‘well aged’ potion. I tend to get rather excited in a moment like this and while I do maintain my composure, inside I am bursting at the seams. 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. 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 stared curiously, I think with equal anticipation. Perhaps I should offer them a taste as well, I thought to myself, then decided maybe later.
After four decades of captivity in a Spanish bodega, the 1970 Castillo Ygay was not only intriguing but also somewhat of a risk to open on such a special occasion. With time, a fine wine can also become quite fragile so imagine the shock when suddenly oxygen is reintroduced into the equation. It’s not unusual for a ‘well aged’ wine to fall flat very quickly once the cork is drawn, but we were fortunate this evening: at 40 years, the colour was surprisingly deep and had I not known otherwise, I might have guessed the vintage from the mid 1990s.
The aroma was absolutely breathtaking, but tasting such a rarity, was even more so. On the palate, the wine was velvety smooth and full-bodied; not jammy but just the right amount of fruit, followed by a lingering touch of spice. As far as I was concerned, this moment redefined perfection but as we would soon find out, it was also the first turn in a rather twisted road.
After approximately twenty minutes, Ryan, our host poured the remaining contents from the bottle. But as he filled our glasses for the second time, Jacquie said she felt a rush of cold air. I did too. In fact, the jolt 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 assured us.
The couple dining across from us had left some time before this 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 in a way — 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…”
Tyler is the founder of North of 9 Fine Wine and also writes about wine in Footprints Magazine.
Together with his collection of wine aficionados, the North of 9 Tasting Group gather once per month to sample and discuss wine from around the world. He endeavours to promote and educate those who enjoy a really good glass of wine through his non-biased tastings.
Note from Tyler: Rarely do I publish a review of a wine that I did not enjoy. My taste is purely individual, as is your own. If I write about a particular wine, I do so because I also want you to try it.