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Great Expectations

By |  September 13 2010

No sublimity, no satisfaction. Three-star restaurants know the problem well. The second is a personal thing, a private moment. Perhaps only you recognize a perfect meeting of taste and memory that speaks as profoundly as we all know wine can. Profound? It doesn’t have to be; utterly delicious is good enough. When I turn the pages of my tasting book, deciding which wines qualify as coups de coeur, certain names need no notes; the pleasure floods back at the sound of the word.

Set-piece excursions into diva territory rarely raise expectation higher than a Bordeaux Club dinner with John Avery. Last time around, it was his favorite vintages of Pétrus; this time, Cheval Blanc. (Perhaps I should add that these are by no means nightly entertainments.) I can do no better than recount the whole wine list. It counts, I suppose, as one coup de coeur — though at heart-attack level.

Very-late-disgorged Bollinger in a Jéroboam started the evening in John’s garden near Bristol and revived memories for me of his father, Ronald, who introduced me to some of the best bottles of my life. Ronald Avery was of the school of English merchants who drove a Rolls-Royce to see their suppliers. (Most waited for their suppliers’ agents to come to them.) He did better than that: In the 1960s, he owned a powerful motorboat, built for the German navy, which took him from Bristol to Bordeaux very much faster.

The Bollinger? 1969 Grande Année disgorged in 1991. Some argue that bottle age after late disgorging is counterproductive — the flower goes off, so to speak. I don’t know how much of its elegance and complexity to attribute to which era of its long career; it was plumper, certainly, in its youth, and fresher. But more intriguing? John called the dinner "A Visit to the South and Return to the Right Bank."

"The South" was hardly the Midi; a short walk south of Bordeaux, and the wine the white Domaine de Chevalier of 1949. Our host would never stoop to such a base feeling as smugness, but I caught an expression on his face as he passed the first decanter that suggested confidence that we were in for a treat. In my experience, the very few outstanding white Graves never show their form young. They can take longer than their red counterparts to express themselves. At 60 years, this showed no sign of oxidation, let alone weariness.

You could still taste the fresh grapes — and they were still Sauvignon and Semillon, flavors that don’t really grow more complex, as Chardonnay and Riesling do. In appearance, texture, and flavor, it was as close to melted butter as it was to wine. Are there many bottles left of old white Graves? Will anyone nowadays lay it down for its full term? Will the Chevalier of today perform in the same way over time? The 2009 might be one for your grandchildren.

"Return to the Right Bank" in Averyspeak means a vertical of Château Cheval Blanc running from 1983 to 1921. 1983 was a good starting point: hugely impressive, fully mature, and just the clear brown-red color by which gardeners recognize the marvelous late-flowering Salvia splendens Van Houttei. It was rapidly put in the shade, though, by the 1982 — first, I thought, on the starting grid, and certainly on the podium at the end, though whether in first, second, or third place was a matter of some debate. To me it had an extra layer of color, a nose of extraordinary concentrated richness and such poise in the mouth that it was hard to read — still a young wine, and in a different phase of maturity from the 1961. How was the ’61? "Ridiculous" is an imprecise color description, I realize, but that is how dark it was at 49 years. Blind, I might have groped at the notion that it was South Australian — even Shiraz in its creamy texture and faint hint of caramel, or at least sun-burned grapes.

As we were to note later, a very ripe vintage at Cheval Blanc brings an almost Port-like sweetness to the wine. John Avery had the excellent idea of letting us discover the next trio of wines for ourselves. He told us they were the ’49, ’48, and ’47, but not which was which. Easy, you may think. Over time, yes, as their character emerged in the glass, but at first sniff each was so completely Cheval Blanc that I hesitated. We took our time (distracted by the temptation of more succulent lamb) before we made our comments.

The first was claret-like, almost a Médoc, I thought, in its bell-like ring, keenness, and transparency. The second was so sweet and firm, poised (like the ’82), potent, complete, and creamy that it could only be the legendary ’47. The third was almost suspiciously (if not ridiculously) dark but growing sharp on the nose: a good wine but a tired one. Does the ’47 resemble Port, as many have said, with various qualifications?

Not this bottle, at least to me. It was potent but not remotely raisined, a marble (or, at any rate, stone) column without a flaw — nothing I could describe precisely as a particular fruit, tar, licorice, or any of the conventional ingredients. What characterized it was impenetrable perfection.

Cheval Blanc 1934 is rated by Michael Broadbent MW (who was busily scribbling in his notebook across the table) as the best Bordeaux of the best vintage of the 1930s — not the ultimate encomium, perhaps, in a generally miserable decade. It has survived, is a brilliant scarlet tawny, and is clean and lean if relatively simple — no match for the youngsters of the ’40s but a charming sorbet in its context.

Who, though, would have expected the 1921 to be apparently decades younger? Answer: those who have read the literature. It looked older — clear brilliant tawny, with only a blush of red. It smelled older at first, even a touch sharp. But then it unfurled a rich balsam nose, more than memories of ripe fruit, consistent light sweetness, a still-creamy texture, the nuttiness of old oak and the sweetness of wallflowers. It had what Len Evans called "line" — consistent presence from lips to throat — and emerged, with the ’47 and the ’82, as one of the three imperishables of an evening of glory.

To finish? Château Sigalas Rabaud 1897, appreciated by me, I felt, more than by my fellow diners. Perhaps they were put off by its color, but I have enjoyed younger Yquems as dark as this. Perhaps it is my love of old Tokaji that makes me relish the absence of overt sweetness, the smell of marmalade, the hint of cigar, the just-detectable fat of botrytis of a long-forgotten vintage.

If that evening was expectation amply satisfied, what can I offer in the opposite corner of delight — a private moment that engages you at a deeper level than you expect? To my delighted surprise (in all candor), a wine I made myself in my now-defunct vineyard beside the Forêt de Tronçais. My friends were pleased to say that I should stick to growing oak trees. I was cussed enough to plant Chardonnay and Sauvignon Gris in my gritty sand and granite. In 2002, the wine reached 10.5 degrees of natural alcohol, smelled sweet and fresh, and gave us modest pleasure.

When I found a few bottles still in my cellar eight years later, I had no high expectation. So much the better. It glowed with a mature completeness I had never tasted in it. It had something of the wax-and-lemon character of white Bordeaux. I looked for faults and found none (but after all it was my child). A coup de coeur, indeed. Somewhere in between come those experimental forays where expectation is neither high nor low — the finding, for instance, of an ancient forgotten bottle (I am telling you the secret of my cellar) that has no business still to be lurking. A dusty bottle of Meerlust Cabernet of 1975 set the theme. (Was it the first vintage in which the Myburgh family bottled what has become one of the treasures of Stellenbosch?)

The South African excursion started with Chenin Blanc from a fairly new winery in Swartland called Mullineux. The broad dry Chenins of South Africa have always appealed to me as wines of muscle and grace: antelopes, perhaps, or some big cats. There is no distinct Chenin Blanc aroma — more a feeling in your nostrils as though you had walked into a (in this case, sun-warmed) cavern. The Loire version, in contrast, is often more the dripping cave. Rather than question the glass with your nose, therefore, you hear the story through texture and potency and glowing length. And you (or rather I) find more in it to enjoy than in many more eloquent wines.

The wine of expectation on this same South African occasion was Rustenberg’s Peter Barlow Cabernet of 1999, contributed by Steven Spurrier. I wish there had been a direct comparison with, let’s say, Opus One or (better, and) a mature Cabernet from Coonawarra (and, come to that, the Médoc or Graves). For full, ideally ripe fruit, firm tannin, fresh acidity, palpable texture, and sweet afterglow, the South African would be a match for any. What could a wine from South Africa’s Dark Ages say to that? A lesson, is the answer, in the kind of benign lived-in dignity that Nelson Mandela has taught us.

A book can make you skip a heartbeat, too. Terry Theise is always a persuasive writer. It is hard to miss his arguments if you are a habitué of this magazine. But in his new book, Reading Between the Wines (every wine writer must wish he/she had thought of that), he sets out his philosophy of wine without reservation. And it is a tough one — a powerful defense of elitism. He refuses to endorse any definition of "good" that tries to be "inclusive and democratic," as many writers do today. "Some things," he insists, "are better than others." (I’m not sure how he would react to my public and private moments of pleasure.)

I applaud his aesthetic, though, and love the near-poetry in which he expresses it — glass, no doubt, in hand. His focus is on the German and Austrian wines he imports with such success to the USA. In their hardy producers, he finds a sort of rural idyll to contrast with industrial wines "marketed" to "consumers" (rather than sold to drinkers). It is tempting to apply the pathetic fallacy to wine, to find purity and meaning in wine from simple farmers’ cellars. What it tells us about the critic’s state of mind is sometimes the most meaningful part, but I not only follow TT’s argument, I applaud it.

His opinions are worth chewing over — and his book is a small delight. Indeed, an old species of wine book (dating back to leisurely prewar times, to CW Berry and Morton Shand) seems to have been revived recently, perhaps driven by information overload. Now that the Internet offers us all possible data, however trivial (and a surfeit of opinion besides), memoirs, confessions, analysis, philosophy, and even satire are having their turns. Randall Grahm’s Been Doon So Long is an extreme example. Desert Island Wine by Miles Lambert Gocs is less frantic but funnier, a series of sardonic essays and sketches by a scientist and historian whose Greco-Hungarian background gives him a usefully tangential view.

He uses (for one example) the form of the Socratic dialogue with hilarious effect. His book and Terry’s both play with many of the same critical questions, and both are worth reading. One might even give you a coup de coeur.

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