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1400 Bottles of Wine… and Mrs. O”Leary’s Cow

n 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned over 3 square miles of the centre of the city, with the cause of the fire, at least in legend, being laid at the hoof of Mrs.
n 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned over 3 square miles of the centre of the city, with the cause of the fire, at least in legend, being laid at the hoof of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow which purportedly kicked over a lantern as she was being milked that fateful day.  
Fast-forward about a hundred and forty years to 2010, and a friend of mine began construction on his home on Lake Michigan in Muskegon County.
Then, a year later, his contractor came to him and said that, in honour of that new home, he had a special gift for him – and presented him with a bottle of 1911 fine French wine.
An avid collector – and appreciator – of good wine, as well as being a member of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, a world-renowned wine club, he was flabbergasted and intrigued.
But what’s the connection with the cow?
Apocryphal though the cow might be, the Chicago fire was very real, and one of the outcomes was the need for lumber – and lots of it – to rebuild.
This created an opportunity for the lumber industry, and as a result, more than a dozen were established in Muskegon County, close enough to the Windy City to help to meet those demands.
One of the Muskegon County lumbermen, who later became co-owner of an innovative office furniture company, made his fortune; along the way, he developed a taste for great French wine, primarily the great growths of Bordeaux, and the very best of Burgundy.
His fine collection which held about 1400 bottles at the time of his death, passed  with the house to his son… a man who didn’t seem to really have an interest in the wine, for when he himself passed away, the bottles were left moldering in the basement of the home.
The new owner of the house hired the same contractor and architect to re-do the place, and they encountered the abandoned wine, some of it dated as early as 1906, covered in dirt and dust – and they were told to move it aside.
When he learned of it, my friend got permission to check it out, and sadly most of it was no longer drinkable.
Still given its curiosity value, he went ahead and purchased it to see what he might salvage.
Why was it no longer good?
Even under ideal storage conditions, wines which otherwise might be good for aging will only last for a certain period of time, following a curve during which they improve, reaching a plateau, and then, gradually entering into decline.
The length of that timeline depends not only on the integrity of the cork and the storage conditions, but also on the quality of the wine to begin with, as the better the vintage and the better the wine, the greater the potential for aging.
The great wines are made impeccably from excellent fruit and mature vines given the best of care and management, with no pains spared in the cellar to create something wonderful.
Even those, however, will have their aging limits, with cork quality and storage issues being central factors.
From what I understand, the basement was likely cool enough – though perhaps temperatures got a little high during the summers - but another crucial factor is humidity – too much, and there could be mold issues; too little, and you can be absolutely sure that evaporation will occur in the bottle, especially if the end of the cork adjacent to the wine is allowed to dry out.
Over time, ‘ullage’ occurs and the level of wine in the bottle drops: this can eventually result in oxidation - not good.
That was the fate of 85% of the wine languishing in the Muskegon County basement, and, as corks were pulled, much of it disappeared down the drain.
Of the remaining 15% - some from the 1930’s, 40’s and on – about one third is also proving to be shot, one third remains decent… and one third is good to great!
Findng out which bottles are which, from the great Chateau Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion to the legendary Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, is an adventure, one my friend is enjoying all along the way.
For example, at a recent meeting of the Commanderie club, he opened two bottles of 1943 Haut Brion Bordeaux: one, he said, was no good, one was decent.
For wine lovers, having a wine from the year of your birth is something yearned for, seldom achieved – unless someone had a tremendous amount of foresight and more than a little luck.
At 69, with a birth year of 1945 – one of the greatest French vintages of the 20th century- possessing such a bottle has only ever been a “wouldn’t it be nice if” wish for me.
But as of last week, I now possess a bottle of 1945 Nuit-St. Georges “Clos des Corvées” Burgundy, thanks to my friend.
The level in the bottle is way down, but that doesn’t matter a drop – I could open it and probably be disappointed, or I can keep it as it is, and be happy in our mutual survival.
Sounds like a no-brainer to me!
The March 29 Vintages Release has many enticing options, beside the fact that there remain many fine choices in the stores from earlier offerings.
This will be a good release for those who enjoy Sauvignon Blanc to experience different styles from around the world, beginning with the “uber” style of New Zealand’s Cooper’s Creek Select Vineyards Dillons Point 2012, $19.95 which carries on the Kiwi style with intentional full-bodied extraction of musk and acidity and passionfruit.
Contrast this with a Loire classic from the Cave du Haut-Poitou, $16.95, with vegetal, fruit and mineral elements, or Chile’s Casa Silva Cuveé Colchagua Reserva, 2013, $14.95, with some citrus and grassy notes.
Then there’s the American take on the grape pioneered by Robert Mondavi, with Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc 2011, $19.95, which will be a bit lighter in style with some of those mineral and citrus notes toned down, perhaps – if the “fumé” still applies, by a touch of gentle char from an oak barrel.
If you prefer a different white, two high scorers, Australia’s D’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne 2012, $19.95 or South Africa’s Bayten Chardonnay 2012, $17.95 should really strike the right note.
Apricot and peach flavours, creamy texture, and some nutty notes characterize the D’Arenberg wine, while the chardonnay, which earned a 91 from the Wine Spectator, is refined and flavourful with power and complexity.
Turning to reds. Australia leads the way on this release for gob-smacking flavour with The Black Chook Shiraz/Viognier 2012, $17.95, Yalumba The Strapper GSM 2011, $19.95, and Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, $17.95
The Black Chook (it’s a chicken), a perennial winner, offers blackberry, white pepper and a hint of oak with good balance and complexity.
The Strapper has that perfumed bouquet we often find with Grenache, and follows through with red and black berry fruit and; soft tannins on the finish.
The Wakefield Cab, dazzling with gold medals from several competitions, is intense, with cassis and eucalyptus notes with cigar box, (cedar) dark chocolate, and spice coming through on the after-taste.
The latest entry in the “coffee” wine parade, The Bean Coffee Pinotage 2012, $14.95, is one more example of a style of wine that really does capture coffee flavours, all by the toasting of the oak barrels.
Barista Pinotage 2012, $14.95, and Café Culture, $12.95 (the latter on the general list) are two other examples currently in stock: these wines would be great with ribs or other full-flavoured barbecue meats - as to which is best, try them all!
While there are four very good Spanish reds on the release, consider the two Portuguese reds, the Lua Nova Em Vinha Velhas 2010, $15.95  and Quinta Dos Carvalhais Colheita 2010, $17.95.
Roger Voss of the Wine Enthusiast gave the former a 91, lauding its concentration and “dark brooding fruit and dense structure” – he suggests aging it for another couple of years.
There are only six bottles of the latter, so you might want to put in a private order by Tuesday; it, too. is age-worthy, and will give loads of fruit, all in harmony and with all aspects beautifully integrated.
If you’re simply looking for something decent and acceptable, and certainly useful for large gatherings, the Wine Rack is featuring Naked Grape Pinot Grigio and Naked Grape Malbec Shiraz for $8.95 for the next week.
Both are simple, but the Pinot Grigio has a pleasantly refreshing crispness -  though it’s not bone-dry – while the Malbec Shiraz has good fruit, even if it is a bit soft.
Happy hunting.