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 A Ghost in the Bottle

The longer you spend exploring the subject of fine wine, the more familiar you become with the concept that there are no great wines but only great bottles, and that with every great bottle comes an even greater story. I just happen to have one to share…  

For my wife, Jacquie, and her 40th birthday celebration, I bought two bottles of the 1970 Marqués de Murrieta, Castillo Ygay, Gran Reserva Especial.  The Spanish claim that 1970 was their vintage of the century and those who are fond of this region also recognize that Castillo Ygay is the flagship of Rioja. I have read about this wine for years and over time, collected it in more recent vintages – but to stumble upon the great 1970 vintage and coincidently that of Jacquie’s birth year was an opportunity too ideal to pass-up.  Considering the vintage, occasion, and my current marital status, I’ll refer to this bottle as ‘well aged’.  Traditionally, the Spanish age their best wine in oak vats for the better part of a decade and in some cases, much longer.  The time spent in contact with the wood adds tremendous flavour and complexity to the wine while over time softening its hard edges. The 1970 Castillo Ygay had spent an astonishing 26 years in oak casks prior to bottling. 

We chose to celebrate at Bistro Seven Seven, in Alliston – just the two of us, as a surprise group of close friends gathered upstairs.  I’ll admit that I was just as excited about tasting the Castillo Ygay as I was to see Jacquie’s reaction upon discovering her friends in the room above.

Just prior to the arrival of our entrées: beef tenderloin for me and shortribs for Jac, our server opens the bottle; I watch as the cork slides out almost effortlessly. We agree that decanting such a ‘well aged’ wine might also be detrimental to its potential pleasure and therefore I ask that he carefully pour straight from the bottle instead. If fine wine is truly half drink and half atmosphere, could this moment have been any closer to perfection? Seated across the room, is an elderly couple who curiously stare, I think with equal anticipation and perhaps memories of a more vibrant romance. I should offer them a taste – maybe later. The Ygay spills smoothly into our glasses, first Jacquie’s then mine and within seconds, the elixir's aroma explodes, filling the room with a mix of spiced earth and dark fruit. By now, the group quietly gathering above us was the furthest thought from my mind.  Instead, this was all about sharing an incredible bottle with my beautiful wife.   

With time, a fine wine can also become quite fragile, so imagine the shock when suddenly oxygen is reintroduced to the equation after 40 years.  Sealed within a time capsule for almost four decades, the 1970 Castillo Ygay was not only intriguing, but also somewhat of a risk to open on such a special occasion.  It is not unusual for older wines to fall flat rather quickly once the cork is drawn. But we were fortunate this evening, the colour of the Ygay was surprisingly deep and had I not known otherwise, I might have guessed the vintage from the mid ‘90s instead.  If the wine's aroma was breathtaking, to taste such a rarity, was even more so.  On the palate, sensations of velvet; a full body but by no means jammy; rich, red fruit characteristics abound: cherry, raspberry and currants with only a hint of age and finishing under a cloak of lingering spice. As far as I was concerned, the Castillo Ygay was bottled perfection – but as we would soon find out, it was also the first turn in a rather twisted road.

After 20 minutes or so, Ryan, our server pours the remaining contents from the flask.  As he fills our glasses for the second time, Jacquie feels a rush of cold air.  I feel it too.  The chill is enough to make us both shiver momentarily.  “Are you okay?” Ryan asks.  “Didn’t you feel that?” I exclaim.  “Ah, someone probably just opened the front door.  It’s cold out there tonight.” he reassures.  The older couple, dining across from us had left some time before, though being caught up in the moment, I can't recall seeing them leave. Just as well I suppose, for with the second pour, the great Rioja has now faded completely and in no way does it reflect the experience we had just enjoyed with such euphoria.  Instead, the wine is now sour, awkward, and rather unpleasant.  Strange, I think, the first glass remained perfect to the last drop.  Why should the wine within the open bottle be any different?   

With the second half of our evening about to unfold, Ryan tactfully convinces Jacquie to see some fictitious renovation underway on the second floor, a story we had deviously concocted the day before.  As we make our way up the stairs to unveil the big surprise, something catches my eye and I hesitate, pausing briefly to glance back at our table.  All that remains, are the two wine glasses and the spirit of a once great bottle. Otherwise, the room is empty.  As for the sudden chill in the air only moments before, when asked if someone had just opened the front door, another waiter replies, “No, it's been a while since anyone came in that way.  So far this evening, you two are our only guests downstairs”...



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