For some people, being a wine-lover is all about bagging the big beasts—Petrus, the world’s finest expression of Merlot; Screaming Eagle, the cult Napa Cabernet to which Robert Parker gave the first vintage 99 points; or, the rarest of all, anything made by Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy. Others take the opposite approach, seeking out the obscure; that Vin Jaune from a producer that nobody has heard of. For me, however, the greatest thrill is serendipity. I had a remarkable case of this last month. My father had been to his local auction house, a place that specializes in house clearances, and he bought a lot of wine, unseen, for about $100. Among the filthy bottles of sweet sherry and Chilean merlot was a 1975 Rioja Reserva from Berberana. First signs looked good, the level was high, the cork came out cleanly and the wine... well, it was undoubtedly one of the finest riojas I’ve ever had. The fruit was so pure and vibrant, bolstered by layers of tobacco and cedar with just a little tannin.
After we’d finished the bottle I decided that I wanted to drink more excellent-quality old wines, but for not much money. You may say I’m a dreamer; but this is not actually an impossible task. A few weeks after my encounter with the Berberana, I visited a London wine bar called Vinothec Compass, which opened in North Greenwich this summer and is owned by wine buyer Keith Lyons and Arnaud Compas, a Frenchman who founded Bedales Wines and later became head of business development for Robert Parker. The wine bar stocks the usual big names, but Arnaud has picked up taste for something a little different. He likes mature left bank Bordeaux: “French people generally drink wine after 10 years, so when I first came to England I was amazed to try really old wines.”
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He opened a bottle of 1985 Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, which he sells for £55 ($80). It’s a good vintage but from an often neglected part of the Medoc, Moulis. There was a scent of tobacco and a good vein of ripeness running through the wine. Age means that “you can see the soul of the wine,” Compas told me, sounding extremely French.