May 23, 2016 / 3:58 PM / in a year

Wines hidden in Czech castle offer rare taste of 19th century

BECOV NAD TEPLOU, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Proving the adage ‘well worth the wait’, experts enjoyed a rare taste of fine wines from the 19th century, discovered under the floorboards of a Czech castle in a treasure hunt that pitted Communist-era police against aristocrats.

The stash of 133 bottles was found in Becov castle in 1985, 40 years after being hidden by its then owners the Beaufort-Spontin family.

The wines include Chateau d‘Yquem vintages from 1892 - valued at up to 750,000 crowns ($31,000) per bottle - and 1896, and the whole collection is worth at least 30 million crowns, according to early estimates.

Sommeliers tasted several bottles on Sunday using technology that extracts a sample through a needle, piercing the cork without damaging it.

Andreas Wickhoff, a Master of Wine holder who joined master sommelier Jakub Pribyl in the tasting, said the age and size of the Becov stock was unique, especially given wines half as old often turned up spoiled.

“If you smell these wines they still have this purity of fruits. There is acidity there, there are refreshing elements in these wines (that) will absolutely be an enjoyment,” he said.

The wines, most from 1892 to 1899, are the oldest to be worked on by the Coravin device launched in 2013. Its developer Greg Lambrecht said he used an extra-thin needle and lower pressure for the Becov tasting.

“It takes longer to pour the wines as a result, but they took a hundred years to get here so we can wait,” he said.

Anyone hoping to get a hand on their own rare bottle is likely to be disappointed, however, as they remain the property of Czech authorities, which first dusted them off last year to get expert opinion on their value.

A castle manager takes a bottle of 19th-century wine out of the shelf in a cellar of Becov castle in Becov nad Teplou, Czech Republic, May 22 2016. REUTERS/David W Cerny

CAT-AND-MOUSE GAME

The Beaufort-Spontins, owners since the early 1800s of the castle in the lush hills 60 km (35 miles) from the German border, fled to Austria at the end of World War Two, having hidden the wines and the Shrine of St Maurus - said to hold John the Baptist’s bones - under the chapel floor to keep them from plundering soldiers.

After the family were labeled Nazi sympathizers, the castle was taken over by then-Czechoslovakia and remains in state hands under decrees from 1946 that expelled ethnic Germans and others and confiscated property.

Slideshow (5 Images)

After unsuccessful attempts to recover furniture and art works, the family in 1984 approached an American businessman, Danny Douglas, who then applied secretly on their behalf to retrieve an unknown object from an unknown location.

He offered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a permit, attracting the attention of the then communist state’s secret police.

Police eventually learned Becov was Douglas’ treasure site, but after coming up empty handed in a search there, were ready to give him the permit.

Then a final question led his adversaries to the long-lost treasure. “They asked me what tools they should bring, and when I said we wouldn’t need any tools, they knew... it was inside as it was winter,” Douglas told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper in 2015.

Douglas has since been a visitor to Becov, where the shrine is on display. As for the wine, its keepers will still care for the bottles and may re-cork some, said Becov castellan Tomas Wizovsky.

“Overall, the tests show the wines are still in top condition,” he said.

editing by John Stonestreet

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