We taste 19th century Cognac, Armagnac, Port and Madeira
By ALAN J. WAX
It was a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of liquid history.
Twenty plus connoisseurs, spirits merchants, and media gathered in the cellar tasting room of the Brandy Library in Tribeca on April 12 to sample three rare Cognacs—one produced in 1811, an Armagnac, a Port and a Madeira.
The bottles belonged to Dutch history buff and collector Bay van der Bunt, who has gathered more than 6,000 rare bottles over 40 years and who had planned to sell a 39-bottle collection from his cache at a Christie’s auction on April 13. Alas, van de Bunt’s bottles failed to sell. But for those who attended the $250-a-ticket tasting, it was an evening that would not be forgotten.
Upon entering the Brandy Library, owned by Frenchman Flavien Desoblin, that descended a narrow spiral staircase to its cellar, a dark room illuminated by a handful of incandescent lights hung from the ceiling by copper tubing. At the front of the room, atop an old oak cask, stood the evening’s wares. Behind them, a flat-panel TV flashed a power point presentation about the collection and its sponsor, Old Liquors of Brede, Netherlands.
Greeting guests was Bart Laming, CEO of Old Liquors, van der Bunt’s trading and investment companies, who arranged the tasting to mark the Christie’s sale. Laming has worked closely working with van der Bunt since 2010 to develop a business plan to sell his collection.
Edwin Vos, head of Christie’s wine department in Amsterdam, assisted by Christie’s Noah May, played sommelier for the evening, carefully prying corks from bottles untouched for more than a century. “It’s a challenge opening old bottles,” Laming noted.
And all were opened without harm and glasses filled with a few sips were distributed.
Here. In order of their presentation, are notes from my taste of history:
Madeira 1865 Café Anglais. Café Anglais opened in 1802 and today is known as the world famous Tour d’Argent. This bottle, found buried in the restaurant’s cellar below the Left Bank, was bottled late in the 19th Century. It was purchased in 2012 for $900 and now is estimated to be worth $1,800. The wine is golden, proffers a sweet cigar-like/Acacia honey nose with notes of nutmeg, vanilla, citrus and coconut. There’s a bit of a sawdust on the finish.
Port 1887 Brand Unknown. This fortified wine from northern Portugal’s Douro Valley was produced, we were told, from a classic vintage. Bought in 2000 for $115, its value now is estimated at $1,900. The color is a hazy, light reddish orange. The nose is smoky bacon. It’s soft and elegant with notes of sweet chocolate and nuts.
Cognac 1928 Croizet B. Léon. Croizet is one of Cognac’s oldest companies, founded in the Grande Champagne appellation by Léon Croizet in 1805. This bottle, purchased in 1999 for $220, now is worth an estimated $1,200. Amber hued with a powerful nose with suggestions of banana. The palate offers orange peel and spice notes and a bit of Speculoos biscuit.
Cognac 1914 Maxim’s, Caves du Restaurant. A bottle from the cellars of the famous Paris bistro, known for its Art Nouveau decor and beautiful women. Purchased in 2003 for $310 it might sell today for $2,350. Golden, amber hue. A nose of prunes and musk melon. Hot and spicy, a broad palate with notes of biscuits and passion fruit.
Armagnac 1893 Jacques Marou. This spirit from Armagnac-Ténarèze appellaton is from a family producer that’s been around since 1650. Ténarèze is considered the strongest-tasting Armagnac, reaching full flavor at a later age than those of Bas- and Haut-Armagnac.
Cognac 1811 Napoléon. 1811, the Year of the Comet, was considered the greatest vintage in Western Europe of the 19th Century. Though produced in 1811, when Napoleon was at its peak, Vos said, this Cognac may have remained in cask for 50 years. Purchased in 2000 for $1,700, today it’s worth $8,000. Amber colored with a rich, caramel nose. It’s a tad floral with notes of spice, oak and brown sugar.
All told, an amazing experience.