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Home is where the heart is

By |  September 2 2008

You do not get to know wines that way, though, and you certainly don’t get to love them. I leaf through my domestic tasting book as through a family album. If I can read my scrawl, memories of meals come back complete. I can retaste the wines as they revealed themselves, from first sip (or, before that, the look of the bottle, the cork, or the deposit) to the morning-after recheck as I tidy away the glasses. Usually my impressions are confirmed, but not always. What seemed a whisper of volatility, for example, can show up 12 hours later as the wine falling apart. Or a seeming problem can emerge as a virtue, or at least an eccentricity to enjoy.

Perhaps biodynamic wines are especially prone to this. Nicolas Joly’s Coulée de Serrant seems dangerously liable to browning in the bottle. Don’t write it off, though. Decant it and serve it at room temperature next day. That is the taste the holy abbots loved, I’m sure of it. Sherry is not so distantly related to other white wines as we tell ourselves today in the era of anaerobicity.

Time for development, yes; but time for food, too. The wines in my notebooks have been shared over favorite dishes. Their tannins are track-tested. Friends’ remarks (attributed, when I remember) build up the picture, and the recollection. Sure, I dismiss some wines with a "too late" or "for heaven’s sake," but a skip through a few months of entries makes me think how very lucky I am. Not many of my wines are auction favorites. Most seem to be either at the beginning of their careers (a new Burgundy or German vintage, for example) or getting on for retirement. But conversing with them is a profound pleasure. Here are a few recent encounters that merit the heartthrob symbol.

The wines

I’ll start with an Israeli. Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 was an almost perfect example of the modern style of smooth-drinking red. The statement of Cabernet is forthright, uncomplicated, and consistent. Plenty of alcohol (14.3%) only helps the seamless passage from lips to throat. Firm tannin and lively acidity kept it fresh all the way. There was ham on the table; an unorthodox marriage, but a happy one.

Next on the page (the sequence is random) comes a young Morellino di Scansano, 2004 Poggio Valente from Le Pupille at Pereta. Elizabeth Gepetti finds the sweet spot between the old rough-edged style and oak treatment that makes it tediously anonymous. You are aware of oak in the smell of coffee, but you forget it when the Sangiovese scrubs your tongue and descends in a sweet juicy swallow. Pereta and its ancient tower are within painting distance of my brother’s easel. Our Morellino supplies have gone through uncertain times. This could not be better news.

If 2003 was too hot for some privileged vineyards, it gave cool and marginal ones the opportunity of their lives. Burgundy’s northernmost Pinot Noir grows round Irancy, closer to Chablis than to Beaune, on hills largely given over to orchards. The Colinot family there are passionate proponents of their different crus, of which Palotte seems to me the most impressive. I could scarcely believe its 2003. Like many ’03s, it is a dark, solid red atypical of Pinot and lies low on first opening – so much so that I decided to wait until next day to drink it. By then the most beautiful, exotically wild perfume was filling the room, an expression of Burgundy I have never met before. The recipe ran from sharp plums to figs, even dates. The whole autumn hedgerow seemed implicated, too. Can you smell rosehips? I look for cherry brandy in the best Burgundy. This went further, adding something herbal that was almost Chartreuse. Dense texture, smooth flow, and long persistence are not found every year in any vineyard.

This could be the apotheosis of Irancy; thank goodness I was there to see it. There could hardly be a greater contrast than an early-drinking 2005. You don’t expect Savigny to need long keeping, so we opened Les Lavières from the Domaine Chandon de Briailles, expecting a rush of ripe fruit. For a short while it was coltish and abrasive – not for long, though: Sweet fresh cherries soon came lilting along. It is light, only 12.5%, pale, and has reserves of flavor to come no doubt, but why wait? This is already a heavenly drink, perfect for parties. It was grilled salmon for dinner that night. Why did I only buy 12 bottles?

In a sense, the maturity of Burgundy matters less than that of Bordeaux. For all the tannin polishing that goes on these days to make young clarets (I must be careful how I use that word) more "accessible," the fact remains that Cabernet Sauvignon needs years to become more than a big red, and for the best Right Bank wines to reveal their inner nature. "Access," in any case, is not what I am looking for in fine wines. Oddly enough, I want finesse. Côte d’Or wines will certainly reveal more later. It is counterintuitive how they can acquire the very qualities of deep color and dense flavor that we (I anyway) wait for claret to shed.

Although it varies (and to an astonishing degree) from village to village, young Burgundy is nearly always drinkable, if not delicious. The exceptions are Pommard and Nuits (unless they have started microbulling them). We drank one at the perfect age the other day, neither young nor old; "village" Chambolle-Musigny 1999 from the Domaine de Vogüé. Eight years have given it deeper color and refined the nose to a smoky, beety purity. It still has tannic impact, bringing on palatefilling fruit. "As racy as Cognac and smooth as milk," I read in my notes. Would it have rewarded me less three or four years ago? Will it reward me more at twice this age? Good Burgundy offers all these alternatives. And so does Riesling.

One good surprise from the dire years of the early ’90s was Château Latour ’91. I have struggled to enjoy the ’92 and ’93 (all these vintages were made on my watch on the conseil de gérance). The ’91 was different: a vintage much reduced by spring frost. That concentration was its salvation. It is a lovely looking wine, clear, strong red fading to mahogany, and immediately pungent on opening. "Accessible," even. Red fruit and berries, cedar and a touch of incense bespeak fully ripe Cabernet, faintly etched with a green streak. Concentration is never in doubt: A potent mint-fresh entry leads to iron tannins and salivating acidity. This is totally Latour, virile and uncompromising, with many years to run. Will it finish with the honey of great vintages? Perhaps not, but it perfumes the palate for minutes at the age of 16.

A change of pace

Prejudice against dry white Bordeaux finally seems to be in retreat, thank goodness. It has been replaced by statements that very few châteaux make a good job of it. Compared with red, of course, but we are still looking at it through blinkers. Only Pessac-Léognan, convention tells us, merits our attention, and beyond the appellation Graves, nothing at all. Certainly nothing from the Médoc.

My notes on the white that Jean- Michel Cazes makes at Lynch-Bages give this the lie. And recently we drank a ten-year-old magnum of Caillou Blanc de Château Talbot that was only too light to take seriously in the sense that you might say the same of good Hunter Semillon. It is the way lemony freshness marries with the soft density of lanolin that makes these wines rewarding. Is it really lanolin in Semillon? Is it related in some way to wax?

Someone else who understood the charm of the Sauvignon/Semillon blend was the late Dr John Middleton at Mount Mary in the Yarra Valley. His Triolet has the same third ingredient as Graves: Muscadelle. Middleton was his own man, uncompromising to bloodymindedness. His annual mailing, if you could read the tiny type, was a clear statement of Australia’s problems, from climate to administration, with his sometimes radical solutions. Happily, his widow and children have no intention of changing the plot: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Bordeaux blends as good as any in Australia in their quiet-voiced way.

All Mount Marys need patience. It would be interesting, I thought, to compare Triolet ’98 with the Caillou Blanc ’97. It was a fair match, the Triolet more nervous with Sauvignon Blanc, but ending with the same waxy texture. Mussels were not perhaps an inspired accompaniment; the subsequent sole was better.

The author responds

Do you never, a reader asks, step outside the magic circle of conservative winemakers and French grape varieties? Of course I refute the charge. French grapes dominate because the world has done so much with them.

But happy notes with the ink still wet also include Tokay (often), Argentine Chardonnay (Catena ’04, delicious but monotone), Taylor’s ’77 (when we discovered the perfect accompaniment: blackberry tart). Then there are Priorats and Penedès, Napa Cabs, Syrah from Chile (Montes Folly, not for wimps), Cullen’s wonderful Cuvée Diana Madeleine from the Margaret River (impressive, but the volume still conceals the detail), countless German Herzensangelegenheiten in almost kinky quantities, and a remarkable Petit Verdot from Virginia I would like to see again. I’m not prejudiced. I just don’t have enough meals in a day, and wine without food is a half-told story.

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