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What to drink for National Day holiday
2013-04-03
By John H. Isacs

A long autumn break combining two of China's most important holidays is soon upon us. This year an unusually late Mid-Autumn Festival on September 30 and National Day (October 1) holiday will offer people in Shanghai a weeklong break from the toils of work, an offer of opportunity to share good food, wine and cheer with family and friends.

Earlier this month, in a section dedicated to the Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes, I wrote a column on the ideal wines for moon cakes, so this week I'll focus on wines that are most appropriate for the National Day holiday.

One essential in understanding wines is realizing that good wines are not merely products; rather they are special reflections of the cultures and history of a specific place and time. On October 1, 1949, at Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, an ancient culture witnessed the birth of a new nation. At the same time in France, the chateaux of Bordeaux were finishing the harvest of a rather difficult yet promising vintage. That year a rainy spring gave way to a summer heat wave that saw temperatures rise as high as 43 degrees Celsius.

Many younger vines perished from the extreme heat while most of the older, more established vines with deeper roots survived. September storms further reduced the crop but the grapes that survived the ordeals where of superior quality, making 1949 a very low yield, but an excellence to great vintage. Most important, the best wines made that year are still quite drinkable.

Celebrate history

Budget permitting, what better way to celebrate National Day than popping open a bottle of 1949 wine? As you savor these collector wines, you may want to reflect on the trials and tribulations yet ultimate triumph of both the People's Republic of China and the 1949 vintage in Bordeaux.

Though they'll cost you a pretty penny and you must selectively pick only the most age-worthy wines of the vintage, delicious 1949 wines can still be purchased in Hong Kong, London and New York.

As long as they were properly stored, the best 1949 wines should still be drinking beautifully this National Day holiday. I can personally attest to this as I've been fortunate to taste several 1949 wines from my father's collection. As a student at Princeton from 1947-1950 and into the decade of the 1950s, he started collecting wines when a first-growth Bordeaux from the trio of great vintages in the 1940s - 1945, 1947 and 1949 - could be purchased for US$4 or US$5.

Chateau Latour may well have been the wine of the 1949 vintage. Its unique position on the riverbank undoubtedly helped mitigate the excessive heat of 1949 and the result was a hugely structured wine with ample fruit and massive tannins. As tannins act as a preservative, it's no surprise that well-kept bottles of 1949 Latour are still drinking beautifully today.

Chateau Cheval Blanc was another very successful wine of the 1949 vintage. Like other right-bank wines of the vintage, it is extremely dense and almost Port-like in concentration and ripeness. The Cabernet Franc fruit in the wine is both seductively perfumed and gloriously velvety on the palate. This is truly a great wine eminently worthy of a historic celebration.

Other right-bank Bordeaux chateaux that made great wines in 1949 and should still be delicious are Petrus, L'Eglise Clinet, Lafleur and Conseillante from Pomerol and L'Evangile and Figeac from Saint-Emilion. Right-bank standouts include Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, La Tour Haut Brion from Graves and Mouton Rothschild and Grand Puy-Ducasse from Pauillac.

Over six decades ago there weren't many wine regions making wines that would last until today. Vintage Ports are some of the longest lasting of wines, but unfortunately 1949 was a lousy year for Port.


Other than Bordeaux the best drinking wines from 1949 are probably the top Barolos from Piedmont in Northwest Italy. Often referred to as the king of Italian wines, great examples are very long-lived. Made of the red Nebbiolo grape, Barolo wines in fine vintages are some of the world's most refined and complex wines.

Two excellent 1949 Barolos that I tasted about a decade ago were made by Pio Cesare and Mascarello. At the time, both featured remarkably fresh and lively fruit with elegant soft tannins and these wines should still be drinking beautifully today.

You may be somewhat surprised to know that several 1949 vintage Champagnes are also quite drinkable and still available on the market. A Taiwan friend purchased a bottle of Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Rose at a Hong Kong auction recently for 8,850 yuan (US$1,402) and while I didn't get a chance to drink it, he told me it was delicious with quite fresh red fruit flavors and a few very tiny bubbles.

The high acidity in Champagnes allows the best examples to age very well. Other Champagnes from the 1949 vintage that should still be drinking well are Bollinger Special Cuvee, Dom Perignon and Krug Private Cuvee.

Lower budget fests

If spending an arm and a leg on a vintage 1949 wine isn't realistic, then there are other ways to stylishly celebrate National Day. One way is to pick a later vintage of one of the great performing chateaux of 1949.

While many of the aforementioned Bordeaux wines of 1949 are extremely expensive in any vintage, the fifth growth Pauillac wine Chateau Grand Puy-Ducasse is still quite affordable.

The 2007 vintage of this wine may not be as great or historic as the 1949 wine, but it still offers a quintessential Pauillac drinking experience for about 1,000 yuan. The second wine of this estate Pelude a Grand Puy-Ducasse is even more affordable at about 500 yuan.

One of the most popular songs of 1949 was "Only a Glass of Champagne" sung by British actress-singer Gracie Fields.

Another great way to celebrate the National Day is to download this gem of the past from the Internet and enjoy it with a bottle of reasonably priced Champagne.

Two of my favorite good-value, non-vintage Champagnes available here in Shanghai are made by Bruno Paillard and Louis Dubrince. Both offer plenty of elegant fruit flavors, good acidity and lively bubbles to uplift and brighten your holiday mood.

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