Sunday, June 7, 2009 at Grand Café, Hotel Monaco San Francisco, California

A report on this past weekend’s epochal tastings in San Francisco.

There are tastings … and then there are tastings. Having participated in dozens of tastings of old Madeiras over the past two decades, it's hard to imagine tastings that stand apart from all others. But these did, both for the quality of the wines, and the history they represented.

The bottles came from a single cellar: that of William Leacock, whose family had been wine merchants in Madeira for more than two centuries. William was the last Leacock to be involved in the wine business, until he sold out to the Blandys at the end of the 1970s. But he kept his family's wines for nearly a further 30 years, until deciding last year to sell them in a single sale at Christie's in London. That sale took place on December 11, 2008.

From the moment we laid our eyes on the catalogue in early November, we began plotting our strategy. In unmixed lots there were about 25 wines, amounting to 1429 bottles of old Madeira. But the quantities were far less important than the quality: the richest stock of truly legendary Madeiras to appear at auction in the past half century … and surely the last sale of its kind that the world will ever see.

In all, 267 bottles were of the mythic variety: of legendary reputation but painful scarcity. When these wines have made rare appearances at auction in recent years, single bottles have sent collectors into a frenzy, driving prices well into four figures. Yet, here was a chance to compete for, in some instances, a case or more of a truly fabled wine.

While we ultimately bought 17 of the 25 wines in the sale, we were hypnotized by a much smaller number. Some were wines we'd lusted after for a quarter of a century, with few if any opportunities to ever buy. Others were the ultimate rarities: wines we didn't know existed but whose credentials promised mindboggling greatness.

We shipped our trove at the beginning of the year and spent the spring resisting the temptation to pop corks, knowing that the wines needed to rest. Finally, last month we quietly announced that on Sunday, June 7, we would taste 14 of the wines at the Grand Café in San Francisco's Hotel Monaco. The tasting sold out within four hours, and requests continued to pile up, and so a twin tasting was scheduled for the day before. 

The work in preparation was daunting: the corks were 60 to 100 years old, and sediment substantial, given the time in bottle. This would also be the wines' first opportunity anywhere to be tasted with sufficient breathing. (For Christie's pre-auction tasting, the wines were reportedly decanted the afternoon of the tasting—not nearly enough for Madeiras so long in bottle. See our Care of Old Wines guidelines.)

We decanted the bottles nearly a week before and gave them several double-decantings (i.e., going back and forth from bottle to decanter and back to bottle). Our judgment was good, but not perfect. Most of the wines showed brilliantly, but we suspect that many were holding something in reserve. This was most evident on Sunday, when the wines were poured late in the morning, and by evening they were still getting better.

Here's the line-up of wines for both days in the order tasted:

Leacock A
1825 Leacock Seco
1890 Leacock Sercial
1928 Leacock Verdelho
1934 Leacock SJ Leacock Malvasia VMA
1896 HFS E
1895 HFS JPW
1881 Leacock Terrantez
A.G. Pacheco
1868 EBH Very Old Boal
1845 Lomelino Quinta da Paz
1836 Lomelino Bastardo
Borges HMB Terrantez

The first eight were essentially Leacock family wines. While a couple of them may have once been commercially marketed, most were for family use, including two wines that appear to have been laid down on the birth of sons in the 1890s. These eight wines are a highly diverse group, several of unknown grape variety and origin, which was fodder for educated guesses.

But it was the last six wines that made these tastings so extraordinary—and the reason why the Leacock auction in December was so important, with each wine more legendary, important and rare than the one before it.

For starters, the 1868 EBH is probably the most revered Bual of the 19th century. Named for Eugenia de Bianchi Henriques, its rarity can be measured by just three auction appearances in the previous two decades.

The A.G. Pacheco and Quinta da Paz enjoyed mythic reputations for most of the 20th century, but they're simply too rare to be known to today's collectors. We last saw a bottle of 1845 Quinta da Paz at auction in 1986, and we know of only four bottles Pacheco being auctioned since the 1970s. Yet, the previous generation of collectors consistently paid prices typically reserved for 18th century Madeiras.

Two of the wines were previously unknown to us: the 1881 Terrantez—one of the few Terrantezes made in the years after Phylloxera—and the 1836 Bastardo, the oldest vintage Bastardo that we know to exist.

The final wine tasted was an undated H.M. Borges Terrantez. As there's no vintage on the bottles, we can only speculate whether it is—as we and others suspect—the iconic 1862 HMB Terrantez. Not only does the pattern of stenciling match many dated bottles of 1862, but a number of undated HMB Terrantez bottles were sold at Christie's London in the early 1980s. These bottles were always catalogued as 1862 or Believed to be 1862. And the provenance of the earlier bottles was strikingly similar: either the Blandys or Tom Mullins, the Leacocks' longtime partners in the Madeira Wine Association.

You can read much more about the Leacock family collection at The Rare Wine Co. Website. In addition, Roy Hersh attended the June 7th tasting and will be posting his usual incisive tasting notes on his website, For the Love of Port. But you can also look forward to more in this space, including not only notes on the wines and their histories, but observations about corks, labels and bottle variation (highly relevant, given that the wines had all been in bottle for such a long time).

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