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Contextual Pleasures

By |  September 7 2009

Moments of high expectation, by their nature, run the risk of disappointment. It’s the three-starrestaurant syndrome: Anything less than perfect is a fault-and a fault you resent like a splash of red wine on your white tuxedo.

All the more thrilling, then, is the wine of which you had little expectation but a thread of knowledge to give it context. Without context it could be a golden throatful, or a slug of brambly warmth, but leave nothing but a string of unanswered questions. I am aware (who isn’t?) that a fashionable school of wine writing disdains context, despises culture, and disregards history, tradition, sympathy, and all the things that give wine dimensions beyond a mere drink. I despair of it. It does an immense disservice to enjoyment and appreciation by distracting attention from everything except the senses. It is like asking only one question about a person: Is he or she good in bed?

What bottle, then, started my reveries this time? Of all things, a Dão that I found in the "miscellaneous, old" rack in my cellar, where I go on a Monday evening when Judy and I are alone. The peeling label said Pedras d’Orca 1994. I must have put it there on the basis that it was a pretty dull and rigid wine that might conceivably achieve some charm in old age. It had. Oh my, it had.

The good, the fine, and the great

I argued in the opening chapter of Wine, when I was trying to clear my own head, 45 years ago, that there is a continuum of quality in wine that can conveniently be calibrated as ordinary, good, fine, and great. "Ordinary" wine today is no longer what was once called ordinaire. Wherever it comes from, it routinely makes more or less lofty claims about its origin, grape varieties, ideal growing conditions, and the skill of its winemaker. In this, it invades the territory once earmarked for "good."

I wrote then, "Whereas ordinary wine is not worth tasting with any attention, has no scent or characteristics of its own, good wine begins to be worth thinking about." Does this distinction still apply? I think it does. I defined "fine" wine then as all wines that tell their own story-their vintage, vineyard, and maker-a definition made obsolete by today’s marketing. Isn’t this the way almost all wine is sold? For the purposes of this magazine, fine wine is wine worth talking about-at some length, of course.

"Great" wine, then: Does this remain a separate category? I think so. Not all fine wine is (as I put it) "the rare and exquisite result of perfect conditions in a perfect vineyard, perfectly handled by the grower, and carefully matured. […] A great wine is a work of art, capable of giving aesthetic pleasure of the highest order to anyone who will be attentive. As an everyday drink it is as fitting as Hamlet is for cabaret in a nightclub."

Great wine, you might say, is fine wine that succeeds to the highest degree in its own terms. But this leaves interesting questions unanswered. A wine, surely, can be fine without being good. And indeed good without being fine. Examples rush to mind. The other day we compared two top Right Bank wines of 1996: Cheval Blanc and Vieux Château Certan. The latter was a supreme example of internal harmony, spicy warmth, and vital acidity perfectly matched. Elegance can be a headturner when mere assertiveness leaves you unmoved. The Cheval Blanc would be classified as fine, but not really as good-at least in Cheval Blanc terms. It tasted rained on (as indeed it was). It was fragrant, but lean and short.

The converse, of course, is common. There was nothing fine about a gutsy bottle of Marcillac from the Lot that we drank with Michael and Daphne Broadbent recently, but it made a rustic statement, like a grassy but tannic Bourgueil, that gave the perfect context to a creamy leek tart and some hard ewe’s-milk cheese. (The Fer Servadou, its one-off grape variety, is one they might try in South America-if they haven’t already.) Michael, who believes in perfect equilibrium, said we needed Tawny Port to round things off. Andresen’s 40 Year Old, antique oak oozing raisins, did the trick.

Groggy boxers and wild birds

But back to the Dão that got me going. It needed a context. It could be difficult without memories of Portugal as it used to be, and a winemaking idiom going (but not yet gone) the way of the dodo. Portuguese table wines used to be elevado by local merchants, weaned of their formidable tannins, blended and barrel aged for years, then bottle aged for improbable periods, finally to emerge as garrafeira, which pretty much translates as "reserve." The modern aging periods are two years in cask and one in bottle, but you used to find 15-year wines on the shelves-like, indeed, my ’94 Dão.

Its color had certainly not faded. It was deep, glowing, blood red with a mahogany edge. Nor had its nose lost the crisp edge that denotes tannins still full of zip. A clean, crisp frame of tannin instantly forms in your mouth, as appetizingly as chili in a curry, focusing, in this case, a nugget of sweet, mature grapey warmth.

The grape flavor was recognizable: There are Port grapes here, the supreme Touriga Nacional and the Tinta Roriz (or Tempranillo) among others. The wine, in essence, was a sort of claret made from the grapes of Port. It was the rediscovery, and understanding, of a long-ignored idiom (Australians would say "style") that made the bottle memorable-in fact, rather a treat.

I am preaching indulgence, I suppose, for underprivileged wines with a story to tell. What is your attitude, though, to thoroughly privileged ones (the Cheval Blanc ’96 is an example) that underperform? Here are my notes on a bottle of Pétrus ’73 we shared the other day. (Our daughter Kitty was born in ’73, which provided plenty of context.)

"Is this a groggy boxer or a lawyer groping for an argument?" I asked rhetorically. Either image fitted its uncertain state. It was (or had been) rich enough in flavor, but its structure was distinctly wobbly and its finish short. Technical knowledge might give you something more coherent to say, but only human sympathy can make it enjoyable.

Some comparisons are purely academic but none the less enjoyable for that. In the days before château bottling, it was a frequent exercise to open the same wine bottled by different merchants to see how each had, as it were, interpreted the original. I remember visiting Burgundy with the late and legendary Ronald Avery, who used to take back Bristol-bottled wines to compare (always favorably) with the same wines bottled by his principal supplier, Remoissenet.

Not long ago, I found among my rapidly dwindling stock of 1961 Bordeaux two bottles of Château Léoville Barton-one bottled by Justerini & Brooks, the other by Berry Bros & Rudd, the two merchants that smile ambivalently at each other across St James’s Street in London. The 1961s are, with rare exceptions, reaching the end of their glorious careers now. Bottle variation makes it unwise to draw conclusions from single examples. One of these, though, recalled the glory days of the vintage with its exotic, penetrating, evocative nose and its warmth, balance, and extraordinary length, while the other lay inert in the glass, hard to fault exactly but expressing very little. Did they choose different casks at the château? Did one cross the Channel in a heat wave or a storm? Was one bottled early and the other given six months to settle? We should have had a châteaubottled wine there as referee.

The longer you keep a wine in your cellar, the more it accumulates associations-depending, of course, on the power of your memory. Sooner or later, the process reaches the point where no guest except your oldest friend can (or wants to) follow you. It makes old friends all the more precious.

Plenty of new wines, I hasten to add, have found their way to the Coeur spot recently as well-one thanks to our editor, Neil Beckett, and his imaginative networking. Its name meant nothing to me: La Bota de Manzanilla 16 from Equipo Navazos- except, of course, for the enticing word Manzanilla. It is notoriously difficult to find Fino Sherries in what you might call bodega condition, with all their freshness intact. They are wild birds, elusive, soaring, flickering against the sun. The cage closes on them when they are filtered, fortified, and bottled.

La Bota is a program for hurrying such highly strung wines directly to those who appreciate them, without delay. The result? Beach-fresh, deeply savory wine, a mere 15% alcohol, magically locking grape and yeast flavors into something drier than a Martini. With Serrano ham, with olives, let alone prawns, it places Fino back among the world’s very finest wines.

Is there nothing on my list that you can actually go out and buy? Indeed there is-Mosel Riesling Kabinette from the 2007 and 2008 vintages, for example. To Chardonnay (let alone Martini) drinkers, they count as soft drinks, with their 8 or 9% alcohol content and their lemonade acidity.

Von Hövel’s Oberemmeler Hütte 2007 from the Saar is as crisp an example as I have found, with the fruit/acid snap and balance of an apple-perhaps an Ellison’s Orange. I am impressed, too, with recent wines from Louis Guntrum, an ancestral estate in unfashionable Nierstein that has moved on a generation. There is real liveliness and pure Riesling fruit in his Oppenheimer Sackträger Spätlese Trocken 2007 that should revive palates jaded by overly heavy Rhine wines.

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