Quality guaranteed?

I always love the rare opportunity of tasting older wines. One thing that makes me reluctant to buy them is that they can be so hit or miss. Quality today depends not only on whether the wine itself was built to last but also the storage conditions of the bottle. Indeed, excellent storage is part of why bidders recently paid 75 percent over the auction estimates for the wine collection of Paris City Hall.

Last week at a trade tasting I had a chance to taste some 20+ year old white wines from Austria. I tasted the 1986 Roter Veltliner Scheiben and the 1983 Weissburgunder Auslese both from the producer Leth in Wagram. The Roter Veltliner is a local variation of the Gruner Veltliner and is generally subdued in its youth relying on good acidity and minerality to carry it through to a more mature age. The example I had tasted incredibly fresh with delicate notes of white flowers, slight sweetness, richness, and crushed stones on the palate. The long finish made it stunning. (find this wine, about $80)

Weissburgunder is the local name for pinot blanc (and if you want to really one-up your Sideways buddies, Blauburgunder is pinot noir). The 1983 vintage (find this wine) was hot and dry like 2000 according to Franz Leth (pictured, right) who poured me the wines. The wine had a rich, honeyed nose that was complemented by a youthful acidity making the wine taste very vibrant. Maybe this should be the unofficial wine of Hollywood since all movie stars would like to be described as seeming much younger than they are.

I asked Franz how he would explain this? He had two reasons.

Franz personally uncorks all of the older vintages as they are withdrawn from the winery’s cellar. If they are bad, he discards them. If they are good, he tops them up with the current vintage, adds a shot of SO2 and recorks them.

On the one hand, this is amazing for the consumer since it brings the risk of buying an older vintage of Leth to near zero. This is as close as you get in the wine biz to a guarantee. Buyers would no doubt be willing to pay a premium for it. And Leth probably demands it since they must pour lots of wine down the drain that other wineries might be happy to sell to consumers who didn’t know any better.

But on the other hand, how true is it to the vintage with the shots of SO2 and the current vintage? Is this adulteration? Or just delivering the best that Leth can give? Adding a less expensive current vintage could devalue the older bottling.

After tasting the vitality and freshness of the wines, as a consumer I would prefer the almost-sure-thing that Leth provides, especially if I were planning to drink it in the near future. But would I pay the premium?

Weingut Leth

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9 Responses to “Quality guaranteed?”

  1. I have no problem with an innovative method of bringing a quality product to the consumer, especially with the “guarantee” that comes with it.

    What I *do* have a problem with is the labeling of these wines as vintage wines. They’re blends, so maybe an NV designation is more approrpriate. Or call it a “1986/2005” or such. Calling it a 1986 is problematic, but only because a year denotes something very specific.

    I’d gladly drink a wine of high quality, regardless of the blending process, but I’d like to know what I’m buying.

  2. It is adulteration.

    First, you’ve exposed the wine older wine to air. Yep, that really counts no matter how quickly you do it.

    Second, it is absurd to top it off with a current vintage…it’s not like the winery doesn’t have more of the older vintage to top off with. I so do not approve!

    If doing this is a good idea, why aren’t other wineries doing this?

    Me, I love bottles with great fill levels ex-Chateau.

  3. Great points.

    I wonder what the fudge factor is for vintages in Austria? In the US it must be 95% accurate but many European countries have 100% truth claims.

    Jack, Franz told me he tops off the with current vintage. I asked, “the current vintage not the same vintage?” and he said “the current vintage.” I was surprised.

    And yes, ex-cellars with a good fill is obviously a great way to go. But there certainly are clunkers even with those. Part of the charm I suppose (in economics it’s called risk)…

  4. Re. jack’s question on why other wineries aren’t doing this – Penfolds holds regular ‘Grange Clinics’ for old bottles of their Grange/Grange Hermitage, where the bottle levels are sometimes replenished by slight additions from the current vintage, and where the wine’s checked for quality assurance.

    Of course, the difference here is that it’s done at the choice of the owner, rather than the winemaker. When it’s the winemaker doing it on his own, I don’t have a problem with it – but a label denoting the addition on the back would be a good way to go about it.

  5. Jamie Goode had an interesting article on recorking in The World of Fine Wine. Almost all collectors are firmly against the practice, since it’s not going to help a spoiled wine and may harm a good one. This is of course for wines that have been stored in castle cellars in Scotland or the like.
    Lynch-Bages also had a recorking program but discontinued it since most people were simply looking for a quality guarantee on old bottles. Which is impossible when you don’t control the cellaring of them.
    Which is why the Leth’s use of recorking sounds both highly unusual and a great idea.

  6. Just put the wines under screwcap! No need to check for cork taint, or run the risk that the new cork used is tainted. Each bottle you release will be the ‘same’ given the same storage conditions etc.

  7. I am rather new to buying good wines to lay away.

    What is SO2?

  8. Thanks for your comment. SO2 is an antioxidant. When he uncorks the wine,
    Leth exposes it to oxygen. So the theory is that he is counteracting that effect.

  9. Approximately 20 years ago, Robert Mondavi offered to recork and recapsule their older bottles. I scrounged around for them, but missed some bottles. One was a 1966 Cab. Sauv. so on 8/1/09 it was opened. Not fresh and fruity of course, just older red with bottle bouquet and not maderized. Corkscrew drilled a hole right through the wet cork which really isn’t a problem since the decanting tube goes into the hole in the cork. Redone bottles may be good for the children.


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