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When you open a 51-year-old bottle of wine and this happens …

By Rick VanSickle

In 1966 I remember clearly (without giving away my age) my mom and dad dancing wildly and singing way too loud to the melodious song These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ by Nancy Sinatra.

You know the one …

You keep lying, when you oughta be truthin’
and you keep losin’ when you oughta not bet.
You keep samin’ when you oughta be changin’.
Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet.

These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do
one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.

I was very young, but that song has remained with me, well, to this day. When I got a portable turntable for Christmas years later that was the album I played over and over and not just because it was the only album of my parents that I half-assed liked … I truly enjoyed it. When I left home at age 17 for B.C. and the Yukon to go to school (a long story) that album, along with Let It Be by the Beatles (the one with the poster of the Fab Four), Who’s Next and a few other gems from the late 60s and early 70s came with me along with that cool little portable turntable.

Other than Nancy Sinatra’s album Boots and a protracted protest in the U.S. over the Vietnam War, not a whole lot was going on in 1966 that I can remember.

But unbeknownst to me, and an ocean away in Oyon, Rioja Alavesa, some winemaker from Bodegas Faustino was into the winery’s 106th vintage of solid wines that he/she may or may not have realized could possibly stand the test of time 51 years later.

Or maybe they did.

I’m leaning that way after uncorking the Faustino 1 Rioja Gran Reserva 1966 with friends just recently.

The Short Story

I was blown away, stupefied and absolutely, unconditionally dazed and confused.

Can a 51-year-old wine taste this good?

The Long Story

Mike Lowe (who writes for this website and is a very fine — “don’t call me a” — chef) and his wife Lynda sent the invite out: Dinner, their house, 4:30 p.m. We were given one job: The red wine for the main course, something that goes with red meat.

OK, sounds easy, right? Nervous as hell, we don’t want to screw this up so my wife Maureen and I decide on Faustino 1 Gran Reserva Rioja 2001, but also remember an older version of that wine, a really older version, that’s been sitting in the cellar gathering dust. It was the 1966 vintage of the same bottle, a wine that long, long ago most would have given up on. Fifty-year-old wines, I don’t care where it comes from, are just not that interesting.

I’m a fan of older wines: Bordeaux, Aussie reds and Semillon, Spain, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Niagara red blends, Rieslings and Icewines, Okanagan reds, and German Rieslings, but rarely have I found pleasure in one as old as the Rioja languishing in the cellar. It was time to bust it loose and hope for the best.

Mike and Lynda’s five-course gourmet dinner (that’s Mike preparing the pork belly course and the main dish, above) was sensational: The first course was a melt-in-your-mouth glazed Berkshire pork belly with crispy panchetta served expertly with Kacaba Pinot Noir. Next came a collection of beets served on a bed of black garlic and Icelandic yogurt puree that also went with the Pinot. The seared scallop dish, paired with Tollgate (Stratus) Sauvignon Blanc, was gorgeous with pea puree and a bacon emulsion that was as daring as it was good. The pièce de résistance was a well-marinaded flank steak cooked to tender perfection and served with a three-root-vegetable puree and pan-cooked Brussels sprouts cut in half.

It was here, before Lynda’s delicious Tiaramisu, that the pair of Faustino 1s were introduced.

Now, let’s be honest, Faustino does not have the pedigree of a First Growth Bordeaux or Napa Valley cult wine. You can hit up Vintages and grab the current 2004 vintage for $35. It does have some history, dating back to 1860, and its iconic frosted bottles and portrait labels make it one of Rioja’s most recognizable brands.

It’s also one the largest holder of vineyards in the region, and with nine million bottles of Reserva and Gran Reserva Riojas cellared at the estate dating back decades, it has to be considered a mass producer of the largest scale.

But somehow it has not diminished the quality of the wines and certainly not the nature-defying cellarability of the top wines.

Bodegas Faustino began its exporting endeavours in the 1960s with a first shipment to Austria. Today it sells its wines in more than 70 countries across the world. Its main market is the European Union, which accounts for more than 70% of exports.

Other major countries where Faustino is present: United States, Russia, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, the Baltic estates and, more recently, China.

Faustino I is the most sold DOCa Rioja Gran Reserva in the world, with nearly 40% of wine sales in its category.

The Cold Opening

Liberating the old bottle of the 1966 Faustino requires cutting away the thin gold lace that surrounds the bottle. The capsule is made (at least back then and until the 80s) of lead and forms a tight seal around the neck of the bottle. As I removed that is was what was underneath that was remarkable.

The top of the cork had formed a mouldy yet perfect seal on the top of the bottle, which bodes well for any old wine. It had obviously found damp, cool cellaring conditions for the past 51 years. I used the trusty The Durand two-pronged attack on the bottle, one part corkscrew, one part Ah So that I always employ on older bottles.

Faustino 1 Gran Reserva Rioja 1966 from Rick VanSickle on Vimeo.

The cork was firm and slid slowly out of the bottle in perfect condition and without a struggle and zero cork crumble. This was a very good sign. It should be noted the wine’s neck label had long ago severed from the bottle, but I had kept the original box the wine came in with the vintage written on the top of the box. Somewhere along the line I lost the original neck label.

Mike and Lynda documented the wine in photos, while Maureen was responsible for the video.

The Pour

At first I was skeptical … the wine initially had a musty/mouldy/corky aroma, but once it breathed and was poured, and the colour was nowhere near as brick-ish as one would expect; hopes were rising. It poured a farily healthy brilliant red, almost Pinot Noir-like, and was perfectly clean and lacking sediment from beginning to end. I poured four glasses and waited …

The Wine

Faustino 1 is usually a blend of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo with 80% of the wine aged in American oak barrels for 20 months. The aromas were intense and as I looked over at Mike, his eyes were lighting up in approval. I was in shock. Can a wine this old smell this good? It was all rich red fruits, some dried herbs, leather, cedar and another note, earthy/animal/compost that added intrigue and interest to the wine. It was vibrant on the palate, youthful even, like it still had life to give.

The wood had melted into the fruit, the tannins were resolved and it was in perfect harmony with the sum of its parts. It was damn tasty, not in a curious way that a 50-year-old wine can be, but tasty because it WAS tasty. Such wonderful red berries and dried fruits with woodsy spice notes, coffee bean and earthy bits and still benefiting from its vibrant core of acidity. It complemented Mike’s steak brilliantly, in fact, in my opinion, was a better match than the 2001 Faustino 1 Gran Reserva I brought as a backup. This was a majestic wine, totally and undeniably enthralling from first sip to last — and trust me, every last drop was consumed by the four of us. It was not the star of the evening, the extraordinary meal prepared by Mike and Lynda took top billing, but the wine played a pretty good supporting role.

The Close

I cannot remember what I paid for this wine or the exact year I acquired it. Searching around the Internet I found only one bottle for sale in the entire world, it was in the UK with an asking price of $196 Cdn. If I saw this on a wine list I would not hesitate to buy it, just to relive the experience of this magical wine.

Uncorking an older bottle of wine is one the great experiences in life. Sometimes it just makes you think back to a different time …

These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do
one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.