The faces of the friends surrounding you beam with anticipation as you unwrap your birthday gifts. When you finally make it to the heavy box, you smile, shake it and the group gasps, "Don’t shake it! It’s glass!" You peel away the wrapping paper to find a fancy bottle of Armagnac that’s vintage-dated to match your birth year. Now, that’s an outstanding birthday gift.
Best Bets for Vintage Wines and Spirits, 1945-1986
|1986||Bordeaux (Left Bank), California Cabernet Sauvignon, Port (Colheita), Sauternes|
|1985||Armagnac, Barolo, Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, Port (Vintage), Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1984||California Cabernet Sauvignon|
|1983||Bordeaux, German dessert wines, Port (Vintage), Sauternes|
|1982||Barolo, Bordeaux, Champagne, Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1980||Armagnac, Port (Vintage), Sauternes|
|1979||Bordeaux (Left Bank), California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne|
|1978||Barolo, Bordeaux (Left Bank), California Cabernet Sauvignon|
|1976||Champagne, German dessert wines, Sauternes|
|1975||Bordeaux, Brunello di Montalcino, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, German dessert wines, Port (Vintage), Sauternes|
|1974||California Cabernet Sauvignon|
|1973||Armagnac, Champagne, Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1972||Armagnac, Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1971||Barolo, German dessert wines, Sauternes, Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1970||Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, Port (Vintage), Rioja|
|1969||California Cabernet Sauvignon|
|1968||California Cabernet Sauvignon, Madeira, Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1967||Sauternes, Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1966||Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, Madeira, Port (Vintage), Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
|1964||Barolo, Bordeaux (Right Bank), California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, German dessert wines, Graves, Rioja|
|1962||Bordeaux, Madeira, Sauternes|
|1959||Armagnac, Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, German dessert wines, Sauternes|
|1958||California Cabernet Sauvignon, Madeira, Port (Vintage)|
|1956||California Cabernet Sauvignon|
|1955||Bordeaux, Champagne, Port (Vintage)|
|1953||Bordeaux (Left Bank)|
|1952||Champagne, Madeira, Port (Colheita)|
|1951||California Cabernet Sauvignon, Madeira|
|1950||Bordeaux (Right Bank), Sauternes|
|1949||Bordeaux, Champagne, Madeira, Sauternes|
|1948||Bordeaux, Madeira, Port (Vintage)|
|1947||Bordeaux (Right Bank), California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, Port (Vintage), Rioja|
|1946||California Cabernet Sauvignon|
|1945||Armagnac, Bordeaux, Champagne, Port (Vintage)|
For enthusiasts, vintage-dated wines and spirits eclipse other types of presents. Pulling the cork, releasing the aroma and then pouring a fine brandy, wine or whisky created the year of one’s birth provides a unique sensory experience.
Not only one’s own birthday, but also anniversaries and other significant events can be marked in this way. Or perhaps you want to lay down bottles in your children’s birth years, looking ahead to a time when they are of age and can enjoy them.
Following are the major categories of wines and spirits that age well while retaining their power and character. Each is followed by shining examples of the best of the breed; the prices given are averages from several retailers and online sources. At right, you’ll find a year-by-year breakdown of the best in vintage wines and spirits.
While Cognac may be France’s most famous brandy, Armagnac is that nation’s oldest grape-based distilled spirit. Armagnac hails from France’s Gers departement in the balmy, bucolic southwest region known as Gascony. Of the three demarcated districts in Gers that produce Armagnac, the finest are Bas-Armagnac and Tenarèze. The principal grape varieties are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard and the hybrid, Baco 22A. Because the wines in Gers that are used to make Armagnac are very good wines, not high-acid, timid wines as in Cognac, Armagnac vintage-dating denotes authentic worth and validation. Among seasoned imbibers, Armagnac is viewed as a more idiosyncratic and pedal-to-the-metal potable than Cognac. Armagnac, in fact, is the ideal "strong statement gift" for individualistic Baby Boomers who have hacked their own life path with gusto and determination.
· Château de Laubade 1945 Bas-Armagnac, $400.
· Château du Tariquet 1985 Bas-Armagnac, $75.
· Darroze 1965 Domaine de Peyrot Bas-Armagnac, $290.
No beverage of any kind is more inherently celebratory or can splash smiles across people’s faces faster than France’s superstar effervescent wine. While some misguided souls blanch at the thought of old vintage Champagne, savvy aficionados comprehend that in superb vintages this most stylish of wines can improve with bottle age, sometimes even advanced bottle age. Some older Champagnes display the charming habit of growing more biscuity, stately and rounded with age, while others seem to pick up citrus and spice notes and even more explosive bubbles with maturity.
· Charles Heidsieck 1985 Champagne Charlie Brut Champagne, $125.
· Dom Pérignon 1973 Oenothèque Brut Champagne, $350.
· Louis Roederer 1979 Cristal Champagne, $550/magnum.
The red wines of Bordeaux carry more cachet than any other still wines when it comes to vintage-dated birthday presents. Year in, year out, Bordeaux vintages are eagerly awaited on a global basis, and for good reason: The annual fluctuations of France’s notoriously fickle south-central coastal climate dictate the overall vintage quality for scores of the world’s most historically important wine estates and vineyards. Reel off a short list of names—Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Cos d’Estournel, Pichon-Lalande, Trotanoy, Palmer, Cheval Blanc, Ausone—and you’ve cited many of the brightest stars in the grand constellation of Great Red Wine.
· Château Latour 1959 Pauillac, $2,250.
· Château Cos d’Estournel 1982 Pauillac, $325.
· Château Haut-Brion 1961 Graves, $2,300.
· Château Pétrus 1948 Pomerol, $2,100.
A vintage-dated gift of California Cabernet Sauvignon is the true modernist’s choice in this collection. Not yet equal to Bordeaux in terms of prestige and pedigree, Napa Valley’s Cabs are arguably the best regional red wines of the New World, and that that alone earns them a place in this roster. Further, many winemaking and vineyard management innovations spawned in Northern California in the last half-century have now been emulated across the world. The decades of the 1970s and 1980s, especially, witnessed the Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley coming of age as world-class wines of merit, grace and stature. Make no mistake. These are superlative gifts born in the USA.
· Beringer 1980 Chabot Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), $75.
· Caymus 1982 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), $200.
· Dunn 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), $110.
· Heitz 1972 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), $200.
Madeira—Island of Madeira
Madeira is the fabled fortified wine that originates on the mountainous Atlantic Ocean island of the same name that lies 400 miles west of Morocco. Before brandy started being added to it in the 1700s, Madeira was placed on long ocean voyages through the tropics in order to make it thick, intensely sweet and unctuous. The concentrated heat made the wine heavy and honey-like. Today, Madeira is fortified with grape brandy to raise the alcohol levels to between 17 and 20 percent, making the wine even richer. Vintage Madeiras must, by law, mature in oak casks for at least 20 years and then age further in the bottle for two years before being released.
· Blandy’s 1968 Verdelho (Madeira), $250.
· Blandy’s 1974 Sercial (Madeira), $175.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky— Scotland
The recent surge in interest in these seductive spirits, comprised of barley, yeast and water, alone justifies their inclusion in this assemblage of extraordinary, vintage-dated birthday presents. When a vintage is indicated on a bottle of Scotch whisky, it indicates the year in which the whisky was distilled, not necessarily the year when the barley was harvested. Since each barrel of whisky matures at its own pace, orchestrating a harmonious and representative whisky from multiple barrels is nothing short of an art. The rarest vintage-dated malts are single-cask varieties in which but a solitary barrel is involved.
· Auchentoshan 1973 Limited Edition 32-Year-Old, Sherry Cask Finished, Lowlands Single Malt Whisky, $699.
· Duncan Taylor 1981 Glenugie 23-Year-Old Sherry Cask, Rarest of the Rare Series, Eastern Highlands Single Malt Whisky, $228.
· Scott’s Selection 1974 Macallan Speyside Single Malt Whisky, $250.
· The Balvenie 1971 Single Cask Speyside Single Malt Whisky, $599.
Long viewed as an insider’s favorite for birthday gift-giving because of their graceful longevity, vintage Ports are dream gifts since there are so many excellent vintages still available. When a vintage is deemed to be of particularly good quality, producers officially "declare" it a vintage, meaning that they will be offering vintage Port from grapes grown, harvested and vinified in that specific year. The wine is first aged in casks, called pipes, for two years. Then it is bottled and allowed to rest for another two years before being released to the public. An alternative to vintage Porto is Colheita Porto, which is a single-vintage tawny Porto that has been matured in casks for at least seven years (often much longer). True Colheita, the rarest of all Portos, must sport the vintage date.
· Barros Colheita 1957 Port, $235.
· Cockburn’s 1963 Vintage Port, $200.
· Dow’s 1970 Vintage Port, $170.
· Quinta do Noval 1985 Vintage Port, $75.
· Taylor Fladgate 1945 Vintage Port, $2,600.