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Sale of the Century: World’s Oldest Wine Goes Under the Hammer

Every now and again, the wine world begins buzzing with excitement over a particular upcoming sale. It could be that the bottles or cases in question belonged to a particularly esteemed private collection, or that they were made during a highly regarded vintage year in a famous appellation. However, nothing gets wine collectors and enthusiasts salivating with anticipation quite like the sale of record-breaking wines… and when the records being broken are those regarding age, you can be sure of global attention, and wine collectors worldwide packing their suitcases and booking tickets to wherever the fêted auction is being held.

This month, the news broke that an auction house in France is to sell three bottles of wine which are believed to be the oldest in existence in the world. While it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that these bottles are indeed the oldest on earth (who knows what might be squirreled away in an undiscovered cellar somewhere?), it can be confidently stated that—at least as far as auction records go—the bottles coming up for sale do indeed hold that coveted title for the time being.

A chance to own a true unicorn

The bottles in question are a trio of vin jaune (orange) wines from Jura in eastern France, which date back to 1774. Jura wines have long fascinated wine lovers and collectors, not least due to the fact that orange wine has always been part of the viticultural tradition in this mountainous region. Known as the “wine of kings, and the king of wines,” vin jaune saw something of a resurgence in popularity over the past ten years, meaning that there is perhaps even more excitement surrounding this historic auction than there perhaps would have been at an earlier juncture.

The auctioneers have put a fairly conservative estimate price of 20,000 euros for each bottle of wine, although it’s widely understood that an actual price of more than double this is widely expected. After all, what wine collector worth his or her stripes would be able to resist having the oldest known bottle of vino on earth in their cellar?

Tasting history

The trio of 87cl bottles are said to be in stunning condition, as a result of being meticulously protected by successive generations of the legendary Vercel family. Pierre Vercel was a 17th-century winemaker who more or less put Jura on the map, and made this region a favorite with the crowned heads of Europe. The bottles coming up for auction are the very last from the family cellar.

In 1994, a bottle of Vercel’s wine was opened and tasted by an excited group of wine aficionados, scientists, and oenologists, all keen to sample a wine which had aged for over 200 years. The praise which the wine received was rapturous, with the bottle declared to be in excellent shape for its age, and packing a fascinating array of flavors and aromas. The amber-colored liquid was said to be filled with notes of curry spices, cinnamon, vanilla, dried fruits and nuts, and the assembled experts even suggested revisiting the cellar in another 100 years hence.

During the 2012 sale of bottles from this unrivaled collection (at which the top-priced bottle was sold for 57,000 euros), Michael Ganne—the head of Christie’s in Geneva—claimed that the wine was “extraordinary… probably the oldest unfortified example of what is to be still an astounding wine and another true rarity for wine lovers and connoisseurs.”

Historic connections

The vin jaune on offer also has a surprising connection with a famous historical figure, too, making it even more tempting for collectors seeking something truly unusual and noteworthy for their cellars. Jura native Louis Pasteur, who we know as one of Europe’s greatest scientific minds, was actually a close family friend of the Vercels. When he was initiated into the French Academy in 1881, he toasted his success with a bottle of vin jaune from the very same vintage being sold. At that time, the wine was 107 years old—a relative youngster compared to those being auctioned later in May.

When it comes to vin jaune, there is no winemaking dynasty which compares to the Vercels. Pierre Vercel came from a family of highly celebrated vignerons who had been producing wine in Jura since the 14th century and is credited with the invention of this wonderful wine style. Similar in many ways to dry Fino Sherry (despite not being fortified), vin jaune is matured in the barrel beneath a film of active yeast, which is said to enormously improve its longevity in the bottle.

The upcoming auction will feature 99 other bottles of wine from the Vercel family collection and is expected to break a number of records. The auction itself will take place in Lons-le-Saunier on May 26, 2018.

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Written by Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris

Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris is a wine and luxury lifestyle journalist from Bristol, UK. He splits his time between England, Hungary and Romania, and is deeply involved in the wine scenes of each country, which he endeavours to champion in western Europe. He is also a published poet and author, and the co-editor of an influential international arts and literature journal.

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