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Lessons of the past

By |  December 4 2012

Think of it as 1,200 bottles of wine for every 1,000 square meters of vines. Unkind though it may be to mention it, this was the peak period for high-input viticulture, when wines were bottled with high sulfur levels … The producers themselves could not have been happier. François Raveneau insisted that a bumper crop like this could sometimes produce spectacular Chablis. But to the starry-eyed neophyte that I was back then, quantity could never mean quality. Thirty years later, it turns out that he was right and I was wrong. The Chablis 1983 was a real stunner: dazzlingly white (it is a Blanchot after all) and even more impressive on the nose-wonderfully subtle, with aromas of ferns, moss, and just a dusting of powdered oyster shell.

Powdered oyster shell? Absolutely! It’s a taste I remember well from my ten years pairing food and wine with the great Alain Senderens-powdered oyster shell was one of his secret ingredients when he was chef at Lucas Carton. Here, that flavor brings out the subtlety of the aromas but the palate remains beautifully pure-light and airy, with no trace of thinness. What we have is a magically balanced wine that perfectly expresses its terroir thanks to harvesting and winemaking practices that have stood the test of time. Who would think that there are people out there stupid enough to abandon traditional techniques for what they grandly call "naturally made wines"-that is to say, wines with no aging potential and all the character of badly fermented grape juice.

Absurd vintage snobbery

The next wine was a Château Latour 1953. As any Latour aficionado will tell you, its 1953 has always been regarded as rather disappointing for a wine from one of the most elegant vintages of the post-war period. I remember that the venerable Harry Waugh, penning his delightful tasting notes in the late 1970s, didn’t think much of it either. Likewise, the Barton family is none too proud of its Léoville-Barton 1961, and Jean Sanders, of Chateau Haut-Bailly, really dislikes his 1982 vintage. It turns out, of course, that the truth is in the glass, or rather the bottle-proving the old adage: "There are no great wines and no great vintages, only great bottles."

Bordeaux wine merchants got it right there. Our Latour 1953 had transcended time, the spicy aromas of the Cabernet- Sauvignon making way for an exquisite fragrance that defied description. One can well imagine how such ineffable delicacy might have bothered Latour…

The palate displayed the same balance, elegance, and apparent lightness-a taste perfectly suited to the light and warmth of summer. After the Latour came a full-bodied, firm, and forceful Cheval Blanc 1950-a reminder that young wines from this great terroir are too easily dismissed as "light." And after that came a fabulously intense Haut-Brion 1955, with irresistibly smoky tannins. The greatness of the Right Bank 1950s as we find them today makes all the snobbery attached to vintages seem even more absurd.

But the highlight of the meal was the very last bottle of red, served blind of course. Firm, dense color, turning slightly brown at the edges but still quite bright. The nose was sheer perfection-a symphony of floral, spicy, animal, and autumnal notes worthy of the greatest perfumer. It was the kind of nose you associate with really great Burgundy, except that the texture was too velvety, too smooth for Burgundy. Origins, grape variety, vintage? None of us had a clue. It was like all the great old wines of the world rolled into one, but more than that we could not say.

So where had this masterpiece come from? Having kept us dangling with tantalizing tidbits for fully ten minutes, our host finally put us out of our agony. The wine was a Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1911… Its precise origins must remain secret to prevent the last remaining bottles from falling into the clutches of speculators. But I can offer a few clues. The winemaker was a vicar of Châteauneuf who owned a few vines and made it a point of honor to produce his own wine. His savoir faire soon became legendary in the region, proving a huge inspiration to Baron Le Roy, founder of the AOC system, and even more so to the very Catholic Raynaud family of Château Rayas. I have never tasted a wine so great or so old from the Northern Rhône-proof that great Grenache has more staying power than great Syrah. Apparently (and fortunately) this wine remains unknown to that very influential taster (and personal friend) from Maryland… But who knows, he may one day share a bottle with us!

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