It’s 20 years since Gusbourne was founded. To mark this special anniversary, we’re delving into our cellar to release some of our oldest wines from those first vintages. Each of these bottles helps tell our story: they’re living, breathing examples of how our blends and winemaking have evolved.
Here, Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier and our Global Ambassador, talks us through exactly what a library release is and what we can expect from these special wines.
Firstly, what exactly is a library release?
Simply put, a library release is an older vintage. At Gusbourne, we first release our wines when they’re ready to drink – for some still wines, this could be a few months after they’ve been crafted; for a prestige sparkling, it will be years after the wine’s made.
But, for every wine we release, we hold back a few bottles to keep in our winemakers’ library. This means we have the chance to revisit a wine and see how it’s developing over time. And, of course, it gives us the opportunity to release older vintages on special occasions. When – and if – we do come to release these library wines, we know that they’ve been stored in perfect conditions, with minimal movement, minimal exposure to light and consistent temperature and humidity. The wine should be in beautiful condition.
So, how do wines age? What’s going on in the bottle?
Once a wine is in bottle, it continues to change and develop through micro-oxygenation. Regardless of how the bottle is closed – crown cap, classic cork or agrafe – minute quantities of air pass into the wine, helping to evolve and change its structure. The fruit profile of a wine, the acidity, the tannin and the structure will change with age.
For a wine to age gracefully, it needs to have the right structure to start with. Softer, fruitier wines don’t tend to age as well as those with fresh acidity or firmer tannins.
If a wine is still on its lees, then this is when one of the real building blocks of flavour, those autolytic notes, develop and the Maillard reaction takes place. This is when you get those lovely, toasty, baked bread flavours.
If a wine has been recently disgorged, which is a pretty tumultuous process, then it will need time in the cellar, on cork, to recover and knit back together.
And what can we expect from the library releases?
It will be fascinating to see how these wines have developed. Generally speaking, age brings softness, roundness and complexity. But each bottling will be different, as will each vintage. That’s what makes wine so incredible! Of the wines we make, the sparklings have the most ageing potential. They have incredible acidity and structure.
Are mature wines right for everyone?
There’s a lot of personal preference when it comes to how you enjoy your wine. It’s good to know whether you love those toasty, sometimes nutty, notes which develop in sparkling wine. Or, in Pinot Noir, do you love the bright cherry and red fruit notes, or do you like the forest floor notes which come with age.
What are the characteristics of Gusbourne English wine which make it suitable for ageing?
Ultimately, it’s the fact that we make our wines using the traditional method, so they develop a lot more of these tertiary characters over time. And then there's the acidity, which helps form the structure which a wine needs in order to "hold together" over time Our wines are characteristically quite weighty and structured and generous. This is a great foundation on which to develop those complex notes that come with time in the cellar, while you’ve got that lovely acid profile to hold the structure.
Why is a wine like Fifty One Degrees North more suited to cellar age than, say, Brut Reserve?
Well, the short answer is because of the way the blend has been constructed. When we’re looking at blending a wine like Brut Reserve, we’re choosing those components which are going to be delicious and really easy to enjoy on release. With the prestige bottlings, we’re putting together a wine that has the structure and finesse to develop over time, and which will gain complexity.
But it’s worth saying that our older vintages of Brut Reserve were a different blend to today: they have a notably higher percentage of Chardonnay, which is well suited to cellar age. I’m really excited to revisit these wines because I’m expecting great things!
When should you open a bottle of cellar-aged wine? What’s its perfect drinking window?
Every bottling is different, so I can’t give an easy answer to this one. It’s always lovely to have a few bottles of the same wine from the same vintage so you can see how it’s developing. If you’re a Gusbourne member, then our tastings are good opportunities to try older vintages and see how they’re developing.
And it’s not just every bottling which is different: everybody’s taste is too. As wines age, you have this trade-off between fruit flavours and complexity; it’s good to get to understand where your preferences lie.
What are the oldest vintages of English wine you’ve tried?
The first Gusbourne ones: the 06s and 07s. And it’s an amazing experience to try them – the elegance is amazing. And it’s really exciting to see what these library wines will be like. I can’t wait to taste them – and, actually, it’s quite emotional thinking about having to part with them! They are such a precious part of our history. Once they’re gone, the chapter is closed.
We will be offering our Library Releases to friends of Gusbourne over the coming months. For the opportunity to taste a selection of these wines, join us for our First Vintages Masterclass here.