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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FORTY THREE An Extraordinary Suvival

The Crown of Frankfurt (c)kuechengoetter

There was rather a lot of sitting this morning, my limbs are pleased to report. Also my stomach because we were in a cafe in the Unter Markt forking in large slices of Frankfurter Kranz. This is a remarkable cake: the name and shape come from the city where the German Emperors were crowned, hence a circular cake with a hole in the middle adorned with rubies in the form of glistening glace cherries. I particularly like the glaze of buttercream and Krokant - almond and hazelnut flakes toasted in caramel.

Of course, this confection was balanced on the palette by a dry Riesling from the local Wurzburger Stein vineyard. The Stein is the oldest vineyard in Germany and from the 1540 harvest comes the oldest vintage ever tasted.

In 1540, the witch trials in this part of the world had only been over for eight years. This was undoubtedly fortunate for many women who might otherwise have stood accused of turning that summer so hot and dry that the Rhine stopped flowing. In this aberrant break from the medieval mini-ice age, people drove their carts on the riverbed - surely a sign that the black arts had been at work.

Magically, too, that summer produced a magnificent harvest of grapes. The winemakers recognised their luck: they filled several celebration casks with this extraordinary vintage and gave one to the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg (who, three years later, was to build the Hofbrau brewery for the Swedish troops occupying his town).

The Wurzburger Stein (c)wikicommons

The vintage rested in barrels for another 150 years before being bottled. These bottles were highly prized even then and some, of course, were laid down in the cellars of the Bavarian King, Ludwig I.

After the death of King Ludwig II in 1886, the Simon wine merchant family from Wiesbaden bought the last two bottles at auction. In 1937 Henry Simon, fleeing from the Nazis, brought them to London and cellared them at Ehrmann & Ehrmann. Miraculously the wine survived when the vintner was bombed by the Luftwaffe.

There the two bottles rested until 1964, when Simon uncorked one of them. Old wine cannot be exposed to air for long without becoming vinegar – only a few seconds for a wine of this age - so a party that included Hugh Johnson could only have "about two sips of the centuries-old substance before it passed through contact with the air and gave up its spirit."

Johnson's verdict: "Nothing has ever demonstrated to me so clearly that wine is indeed a living organism, and that this brown, Madeira-liked fluid still held the active principles of the life that had been conceived in it by the sun of that distant summer. In an elusive way, this wine even gave a hint of its German origin."

the oldest wine in the world (c)buergerspital wurzburg

Had he been Robert Parker, the distinguished American wine critic, Hugh Johnson would have marked this ancient Stein out of a possible hundred – XCIX perhaps. But Johnson despised this numerical mode of comparing wines, blaming it for easing the slide in good taste away from the understatement of Bordeaux and Burgundy to the booming vulgarity of California and the Antipodes. On occasion his spleen spilled out - as in his grandiloquent broadside at Parker: "Imperial hegemony lives in Washington and the dictator of taste in Baltimore".

My own, and not even comparable, tasting excitement happened on Orkney where the best single malt, Highland Park, is distilled. My father in law and I had gone to the bar in our hotel - a fishing hotel full of locals - and there on a shelf was a bottle of 50-year-old Highland Park. I ordered two drams in a vaguely Scottish accent - and the bar went very quiet. I thought at first that my effort at the vernacular had given offence. But then the barman said: “That will be one hundred and ten pounds, sir” - and the silence was explained.

I have a feeling that every alcohol as it ages turns to Madeira – and so it was with this whisky. But it was incredibly special, so delicious in fact that we could ignore the miasma of smirk and envy that enveloped us all the way to the last drop - and then lifted when my father-in-law said, 'Shall we have another?

The Highland Park Distillery is currently offering a new 50 year old from its 1964 barrels: “an intensely rich whisky with sweet notes of ripe black cherries and Muscovado sugar giving way to dried autumn fruits and warm toasted wood. It delivers the merest hint of cedar wood, wrapped in our signature light and peaty aromatic smoke.” Only 274 bottles were released, each at £13,500 – which makes a £55 dram something of a bargain.

The Race Marshal once wrote at length about Heraclitus who famously insisted that you can't step into the same river twice. Certainly with 50 year old whisky, you step in a little way upstream each time - but with the 1540 vintage Stein, there is no stream.

So, what is exciting, more so even than a second slice of Frankfurter Kranz, is the knowledge that Henry Simon brought the last bottle from that medieval summer back to the city of its birth. It rests now in the cellars of the Bürgerspital, a charitable foundation that has been tending vines on the slopes of the Stein for over 700 years.

This is a nice film about the Bürgerspital - in German, but what is being said is obvious -

Here is Hugh Johnson talking about the famous tasting -

While Hugh was sipping the 1540 vintage in 1964:

- Dionne Warwick was singing -

- and The Shangri-Las -

- and Hugh had only a year to wait for Marianne Faithfull -

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