UC Davis ‘Vintages’ wine tasting event shows changes in time, technology and tastes

UC Davis’ research winery may have all the latest equipment – including stainless steel fermenting tanks with high-tech sensors that download data in real time – but the vintages being poured there last week represented a blast from the past.

An Oct. 29 event, dubbed “Vintage Wine Tasting,” featured Bordeaux wines from the 1960s, a time before computers were used by winemakers. Stainless steel tanks weren’t even part of the winemaking process then, which now seems primitive by comparison.

The evening, hosted in part by renowned grocer and wine expert Darrell Corti, was more like a research seminar than a boozy bacchanal for its two dozen participants. What could these grandfatherly wines teach us about the durability of wine, and the pros and cons of contemporary winemaking methods?

“This is not necessarily a wine tasting for pleasure,” Corti said as he led the class. “This is a wine tasting for information.”

Then again, it was tough to not feel just a bit giddy, with the chance to sample some of Bordeaux’s signature wines from a time before man landed on the moon. Among them: 1962 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron; 1963-64 Chateau Latour; 1964 and 1966 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.

The $200 event was co-organized by wineCentric, a wine education company founded by Sacramento sommelier Matthew Lewis. The bottles were donated to the university and stored in the school’s special-collections cellar, which holds bottles for research and teaching. Proceeds from the event benefited UC Davis’ department of viticulture and oenology.

“These wines certainly aren’t being made anymore,” Lewis said. “Darrell (Corti) went into great detail about the fact that nobody has any interest in making these 50-to-100 year wines anymore. This might be the last chance to try them.”

That’s to say the bulk of contemporary wines are geared toward immediate gratification, versus the long-term pleasures from a bottle evolving for many years in the cellar. Over time, a well-made wine sheds its puckery tannins and the fruit can blossom with complex secondary flavors not found in their youth.

Given the technological limitations of the decade, these Bordeaux winemakers didn’t necessarily have much choice but to build wines for the long haul.

“Those wines were made specifically with longevity in mind,” said Mark McKenna, winemaker for Amador County’s Andis Wines, who participated in the seminar and poured local semillon as an arrival wine. “Everything was slower – storage, transportation – and the wines almost had to be tougher. The wines are not only a product of place, but of time.”

Roughly 50 years later, and more then 5,000 miles from their birthplace, these Bordeaux wines offered plenty to ponder at UC Davis.

The wines were uncorked a few hours before the event and checked for flaws. None was found. Each bottle was then decanted for sediment before being served by Lewis and a small team of assistants.

The wines were poured from oldest to youngest, starting with the 1962 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron and concluded with 1970 Chateau Guiraud, a stunning and honey-sweet wine from Sauternes that showed no signs of fading.

Tasters were also privy to a pour of non-vintage Lanson Black Label Champagne, which was disgorged in the early 1980s, as an example of mature Champagne. This wonderful sparkling wine was far from flat, with a pleasing fizz, dark golden color and flavors of baked apple.

The red Bordeaux wines all featured various shades of brownish-red, a telltale sign of mature wine. Like all flights of wine, some examples show better than others, and the 1962 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron was slightly one-dimensional with its acidity.

But overall, none of the wines was D.O.A. Most were enjoyable, with heady notes of cedar, tobacco and tea as common flavor profiles.

The 1966 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande emerged as a favorite for many, with a eucalyptus character that suggested classic cabernet sauvignon. While such herbal notes were once embraced by winemakers – including those of California in the 1960s and 1970s – this approach has mostly fallen out of favor contemporary winemakers in favor of jammy and chocolate-ish expressions.

Mature wines such as these aren’t going to hit the palate like the flavor bombs of today. Enjoying decades-old wine is a more subtle and ponderous experience – but that doesn’t mean tasting them has to be a stone-faced experience.

The fun continued at Tucos Wine Market and Café in downtown Davis after the event. Joe Harbison, the former Sacramentan who owns Harbison Wines in Napa, shared a bottle of 1959 Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron with fellow participants. The wine was impeccable and intact, especially with its rich color, and easily could have passed for a 20-year-old wine instead of one that could have its own AARP card.

“It was cool that the group of people weren’t a bunch of wine snobs,” McKenna said. “It was a whole cross-section of abilities and experiences, and all of whom were riveted and engaged. There was conversation, and laughter and enthusiasm all for that love of wine.”

UC Davis and wineCentric are now exploring future vintage tastings, including detours to Burgundy, more Bordeaux and California circa the 1960s and 1970s. Check or call (970) 376-1222 for information.