I will celebrate Precedent’s 10th birthday by opening the Guigal Gigondas from the 2007 vintage, a French red I set aside for the occasion. That year, I laid my first bottle down and became Precedent’s first regular columnist, writing about the joy of cellaring wine. (I retired my column six years later, after writing 185 pieces for the magazine and website combined.)
Even if you aren’t planning to found a magazine for Toronto lawyers, you can mark any number of significant beginnings with wine, from a marriage to buying a house to having a child.
Birth-year wines, in fact, have a rich history. The practice involves putting away bottles made in the same year a child was born so you have something special to open with them when they reach their 10th, 20th or 25th birthdays. Fathers of the Downton Abbey era would purchase for their sons a “pipe” of port from their year of birth, the notion being that it would reach maturity as the child became a man, and both could totter into middle age together. A pipe of wine, by the way, is over a thousand pints and equals over 700 bottles.
Even on a more modest scale, putting aside birth-year wine requires planning. Say you want to mark a milestone taking place this year. You’ll have to wait until 2019 or so to buy it, since winemaking takes time. When choosing, it’s best to aim for cellar-worthy wines. Look for bottles with enough acid or sugar to preserve the wine, and enough tannin and fruit to transform the flavours over time. I favour German Rieslings, Riojas and Sauternes (whose life expectancy exceeds the giant tortoise). I also recommend using a Sharpie to write on the label, “HANDS OFF, for Milly’s 20th.” This planning helps avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of wine storage: you either prematurely open the bottle before it has properly aged or — what’s worse — you never open it at all because no occasion seems special enough.
When you finally reach the anniversary of your milestone, the wine will be delicious. When you withdraw that cork, you’ll open a portal into the past. The magic of wine grapes is that they embody all the ephemeral conditions of their particular year: the sunlight from 10 years ago, the rain that fell, the autumn fogs. All are stored away and encoded in subtleties of taste and smell. You might return to 2003 (with its European heat waves) or to 2012 (and the beautiful weather).
I haven’t yet opened my celebratory bottle of Guigal (I intend to autograph my copy of this issue with a few flecks of its juice), but I know it will be splendid. 2007 was an exceptional year in Gigondas. The grapes had the right mix of verve and astringency, ensuring longevity and preternatural youth. Not unlike a certain magazine I know.
Matthew Sullivan, a litigator in Toronto, wrote a column in Precedent from 2007 to 2013. This is a one-off return of one of the magazine’s most popular contributors.
This story is from our 10th anniversary issue, published in Fall 2017.
Illustration by Alina Skyson