Age is just a number, unless…

A 113 year old bottle survived the Great Depression, two world wars and even the lack of a wine industry

By Joelle Thomson

“Age is a just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine,” said the actress Joan Collins, who looks uncannily youthful at 82 years old.

I set the expectation dial low when bracing myself for the first whiff of a 113 year old wine from the rural backblocks of the Wairarapa earlier this month.
The 1903 wine was pulled from amongst the spiders, the dust and the mustiness of the relatively small underground cellar at Brancepeth; a 30,480 square metre homestead and once one of New Zealand’s largest sheep farms in the rural back blocks of the Wairarapa.
In its glory days, in the second half of the 1800s, Brancepeth was home to a school, a blacksmith’s, 300 staff and a 2000-book library, replete with its own librarian who delivered books to the farthest flung staff living on the vast estate.
Today, Brancepeth has been significantly reduced in scale, if not in grandeur.
It remains home to several bottles (‘a few dozen perhaps’ was the estimate given) of that 1903 wine.
“At least we think it’s 1903; we can’t be absolutely certain, but I used to play hide ‘n seek down in the cellar when I was a little kid, and I never touched the bottles – or saw anybody else touch or move them either,” says William Beetham; descendent of the wines’ makers, William and Hermance Beetham.
This suggests that the wine on the shelves labelled ‘1903 Claret’ are in fact exactly as the fading tag states.
Beetham and his father, Edward, decided to open two of these rare old bottles for a small group of winemakers and media this year; the decision followed a request from writer John Saker, who was intrigued by the wine’s existence.
“We knew the wine was special but we were unsure if it was still of any quality,” says Beetham.
The tasting took place in the dining room at Brancepath where wine makers, writers and a small number of media were poured the wine from two different bottles. Neither bottle was decanted through muslin or a sieve to filter fragments of cork, which were a factor to contend with.
Aside from the cork floaties, the first bottle was in immaculate condition, in my view. Its fresh fruit flavours of red cherries and dried red fruit flavours, such as cranberries, were held together by tight acidity; it was staggering to taste so fresh, given its age; even the complex tertiary flavours – of smoked mushrooms and earthiness – tasted clean, adding hugely to its appeal. It was light bodied, but had a lingering finish. Talk about a great old wine. Those red fruit and earth aromas strongly suggested that this was an old Pinot Noir and one that I, for one, would love to have enjoyed a couple of glasses of.
Shame about the second bottle, which wasn’t a patch on the first. It tasted stale, lacking the freshness of that first, remarkable bottle.
The identity of the wine remains a mystery. While it tastes unmistakably Pinot Noir-like, the wine was most likely a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Syrah, which records show were the grapes planted by William Beetham and his French wife Hermance, between 1890 to about 1908.

Find out more about Brancepeth…

* The history of the property is further detailed in Boar’s Path: Brancepeth; a book written and photographed by Alex Hedley and Gareth Winter, which was published in 2012.

Lansdowne Vineyard today…

The original Beetham vineyard is now called Lansdowne Vineyard and was planted in 2002 by Derek Hagar snr and his late son, Derek Hagar jnr, who died from a brain haemorrahage in 2013; the night before harvest that year.
They – or rather their winemaker-neighbour, Karl Johner – made the first vintage in 2009 and has made every vintage since.
Hagar junior’s brain haemorrahage is thought to have been the result of a severe head injury a decade prior when he was living in Southampton in the United Kingdom where he was the victim of a random act of violence one evening.
“He was a great believer in this piece of land and had a strong conviction that we should do everything we could to minimise our intervention in the vineyard and allow the grapes to grow unirrigated and to express what he believed was – and is – a great piece of vineyard land,” says his father, Derek Hagar senior.
The 2010 Lansdowne Pinot Noir won the International Wine & Spirit Competition trophy for Best Pinot Noir in the world.

Find out more about how to start your own wine cellar here… 

Chateau Musar

Meet Lebanon’s most famous winery

The 2007 Chateau Musar costs about $68 and is available in very limited supplies from Negotiants New Zealand… It is pale ruby in colour but the intense flavours of spice, red fruit and a seductive earthiness all make up for that.

If I didn’t know better… five words I almost had to eat this week when Ralph Hochar poured the unconventional wines from Lebanon’s most famous winery; Chateau Musar, which he has spent the past week tasting with New Zealanders in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
Ralph is one of the third generation of Hochars to run their family winery and I invited him to visit a wine class I was teaching at the New Zealand School of Food & Wine for Celia Hay (school founder) where a handful of students and I were privileged to taste the current release of the winery’s top red wine, ‘Musar’ – from Chateau Musar in Lebanon; one of the world’s oldest wine producing countries, despite its under the radar wine profile.
The winery was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar in Ghazir, Lebanon, and today it is run by third generation members of the Hochar family, but its reputation for top reds was forged by the late Serge Hochar. A winemaker trained in Bordeaux, Serge learnt about wine from Jean Gayon Riberau and Emile Peynaud; two highly respected (to make an understatement) wine men, whose influence has far reaching effects into many unexpected corners of the wine world. The great ‘Super Tuscans’ (blends of French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with classic Italian Sangiovese) came about as a result of Emile Peynaud’s influence on a young Italian winemaker; Giacomo Tachis, who brought Italy back onto the world’s wine stage, post World War II. Far from being a digression, this point illustrates how great the influence of Peynaud has impacted on the wine world.
The impact that Peynaud (inadvertently perhaps) had on Lebanese impact is somewhat less known, but the Hochar family members are working to change that. And the quality of their wines support the prices. If anything, these outstanding reds are under-priced in a world that is so deeply divided by bargain bin, low priced bottles and the high priced wines on the market today.
As I say, if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that the 2007 Chateau Musar red was from Piemonte; Italy’s great north west and home to some of the world’s most silky, elegant wines.

Humble homes with wine cellars

Wine Cellar Case Study  

Inside the former state house or brick bungalow lurks a brand new kitchen, a flash bathroom and… a wine cellar

Humble homes are no barrier to wine cellars today, says a man whose work as a refrigeration expert is seeing him design a growing number.
The newest is a new 2×2 metre room in a brick and tile bungalow in Mt Eden, Auckland.
The house in question may not fit the bill as the iconic designer home where Italian marble bench tops, river stone pathways and lush gardens tend to hold sway, but New Zealand wine cellars can be found in a surprisingly wide range of homes these days, says Paul Grbich, sales and project manager for White Refrigeration.
This company specializes in refrigeration but has a growing sideline in designing wine cellars.
Many of them are in less than illustrious neighbourhoods (not that Mt Eden qualifies for that moniker) and often the words ‘wine cellar’ apply to what is just as likely to be an oversized cupboard as a walk-in room replete with smoked glass doors, temperature control panels and aluminium wine racks.
Owners of both upscale homes and regular houses are looking for purpose-built wine storage areas, says Grbich. It is not cheap to create such a space regardless of the type of home it is going to be in. But if the owner has a collection of good wine to store, he suggests that the investment is worth it; to maximize the ultimate enjoyment of that wine.

One of his newest clients is an exile from Christchurch who is shifting to Tauranga and wants a purpose built space in which to store his wine.


The brick and tile cellar

The newest cellar that Grbich has worked on is in a brick and tile home and is a 2×2 metre square wine cellar. It was included on the plans of the extension prior to construction commencing.
This timing is crucial because it saves money and makes for a tidy fit-out because the plumbing, wiring and concealment of other electrical panels are easy and smooth this way; it looks neater and tidier than if these pragmatic elements need to be included later.
The owner of the home redesign and new cellar employed a plasterer to plaster over the colour steel walls once the refrigeration had been incorporated in the cellar. This gives the interior a sand stone effect rather than the stark white panels.
“He has gone for a more modern look on the wing by putting in a polished concrete floor and exposed timbers and he has also added a Vintec into the island kitchen, which he purchased from a kitchen fit-out company as part of an overall kitchen package, although White Refrigerations is an agent for Vintec wine fridges.

Benefits of getting in early

Neatness is the big one. If a cellar is designed on the plans rather than after the construction, then the bulk heads and false ceilings enable the blower to be hidden so that the refrigeration unit is concealed. There are also trades on site; plumbers, electricians and other sub-contractors are there anyway. They can always come in later, but it adds to the cost.
When we get in early on a project, we can allow for insulated panel walls and install all of the wiring and plumbing inside the walls so that it is concealed. The alternative is to create an industrial look with tubing on the outside. It’s do-able, but it’s not desirable.”

Entry into the cellar

The entry door to this cellar is a large full height solid timber door which stretches right to the ceiling; 2.4 metres high. It appears as a feature in the room.
“Quite a few people choose double glazed glass doors for their wine cellars to make it a feature but this look creates a seamless feel to the room. It looks like it goes into another room of the house,” Grbich says.
A wooden door is not showy and it also eliminates light, which is the enemy of wine.

Who wants a wine cellar?

“Wine rooms are for people who really care about their collections of wine and often I put them into very tight spaces, like the back of the garage. The smallest we have done is extremely narrow but long enough to house a fair bit of wine,” says Grbich, who estimates that the starting point for a modest sized cellar with correct temperature and humidity control is $13,000 to $20,000.
“That’s a starting point and I find that most of the people I am designing cellars for have a fair bit of wine, which they don’t want to keep in storage somewhere.

What does the cost cover?

That starting point of $13,000 to $20,000 will cover some shelving, an insulated room, all of the electrical work, the plumbing and the refrigeration.

How to start cellaring for less cost

Even if you want to just start a small cellar, it pays off to have a temperature controlled, dark environment in which to keep them. Enter the 40-bottle stand-alone Vintec wine fridge. It has a temperature display, humidity controls, smoked glass door and slatted wooden interior shelving. And it is portable or able to be installed into an existing kitchen; either in a concealed manner or as a feature.