The Curious Case of 1928 Gaffelière Naudes

Staff Writer
… and what’s 'ullage' got to do with it?
Maryse Chevriere

Despite the long-standing belief that the history of the wine (provenance) is the most important thing in evaluating an old wine, it is the thing that most new wine buyers have ignored. 

This case is all about provenance and storage.

Despite the long-standing belief that the history of the wine (provenance) is the most important thing in evaluating an old wine, it is the thing that most new wine buyers have ignored. This is their first mistake. And, sadly, this includes the buyers and a lot of the auction houses and other wine merchants. Witness the recent controversy regarding a Spectrum auction of old wines, many of which were thought to be fake. In fact, I would say that most people who are inexperienced and looking to buy old wines (either to drink or re-sell) put ullage (the amount of empty space between the level of the wine and the bottom of the cork) at the top of their list for things to look for and pay little or no attention to storage and provenance at all. These fill levels (the greater the ullage, the lower the fill), the color, and the condition of the label, cork, and capsule are the primary things that are sought out by collectors, merchants, and consumers alike. It is, in fact, an unholy trinity. The accepted wisdom is the higher the fill, the better the color (dark for red wines and light for white wines) and the better the condition of the label, cork, and capsule, the more valuable the wine. In other words, the perception is that the "newer" the wine looks, the more likely it is to be great and, therefore, more desirable and valuable. In my view that is totally wrong and lost on many of the new entrants in the wine game. But, once again we have to differentiate between collectors who are buying wines as an investment versus experienced wine drinkers who are knowledgeable and are buying wines to drink.

Moreover, many recent collectors (many of whom I think are of the "investment" variety), in their desire to buy old "perfect" bottles have been duped by counterfeiters using the above criteria. That’s a real problem. Now, old wines that are "perfect" should be viewed with great suspicion. You see, the most important thing to look for by far is provenance. Indeed, a very large percentage of the greatest old wines I have ever experienced have been wines that exhibited one or more "flaws."  I’m talking about old wines with low fills and destroyed labels and/or capsules as well as light-colored red wines and dark-colored white wines. But, of all my old wine experiences, by far the most unusual one of all is — The Curious Case of 1928 La Gaffelière Naudes.

But before I delve into that story, let me give you a little background on Château La Gaffelières Naudes. It is located in the St. Emilion area of Bordeaux between the hills of Pavie and Ausone. The vineyards and buildings here date back to the Gallo-Roman era. And, while none of these remain today, part of the current Château dates back to the 11th century. In the 17th century it was the site of a leper colony and shortly thereafter it was acquired by the Malet Roquefort family. The estate was very large and portions of it were rented to sharecroppers who farmed the land and harvested the crops in return for a portion of the harvest. By the mid 18th century, the vineyard plantings were extensive and a significant amount of wine was being made. During the 19th century the Château underwent a large expansion and restoration. Near the end of the 19th century, the estate was divided. Part of it was retained by the Malet Rouquefort family and combined with other vineyards into what became Château La Gaffelière Naudes. The other part went to the Boitard de la Poterie family and became known as Canon-Boitard. In the 20th century, Canon-Boitard became known as Canon La Gaffelière.