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The Elephant in the Tasting Room

By |  June 2 2009

We can’t, to be fair, expect the whole wine trade to show us its wares only when they are ripe to be plucked. It is not the tradition. We all have cellars, don’t we, where we groom our own prospects? It is expecting a lot that the producer should also be the affineur, bringing his bottles to the table as prime as a perfect Epoisses.

Tradition says it is only wine traders, rather than producers, who fill this role-substantial houses in Jerez and Porto and Champagne who supply prêt à boire. Port shippers get away with unfinished Vintage Port, but we would look askance, and rightly, at a Champagne house that said, "It’s a great vintage; tuck it away for ten years, and disgorge it when it’s ready."

Time is money, and the wine trade sees it that way. It was common, years ago in Bordeaux (and sometimes elsewhere), for a grower to sell his vintage sur souche, the grapes still on the vine, to bank his takings as quickly as possible. When there was competition for a good vineyard in a good harvest, it could be the best trade to make. When the château (or the négociant) started bargaining for the next two crops as well, it was more like gambling. Nowadays, the question is, Who will play banker for the finished (or not-quite-finished) wine?-the game known as primeurs.

With interest rates for cash close to zero, it could be that bottle interest is the smartest move. I’ll leave banking (though without much confidence) to bankers and come back to Monsieur Defaix, or indeed Monsieur Ampeau of Meursault, who has the same philosophy: Keep your wine in your cellar until its perfect moment, take the risk, and revel in the pleasure. The wine industry spends too much of its energy these days trying to convince us (indeed, trying to believe) that freshness is wine’s greatest virtue.

Half the appeal of screwcap bottles is in the implied assurance that the wine in them won’t mature, or change at all, between bottling and drinking. Is this really what we want? "Best before" is a tag that has never been attached to good wine in the past. It radically simplifies our ideas of what qualities we are looking for, it ignores the potential for development that defines fine wine and makes even standard wines delicious accompaniments to food.

An example? I tasted an excellent Valpolicella at a recent fair: excellent in structure, brimming with the almond flavor of the Verona hills, but to me distressingly sharp and bitter. The joy of Valpolicella is a soft, warm flow, a mellow sweetness of style that defies you to stop swallowing. It doesn’t take long to achieve this: perhaps a year in barrel and one or two in bottle. The sample I saw had been put on the market within six months of harvest. Yes, said the producer, perhaps you’re right, but everyone wants young wine now, and cash flow these days is critical. So critical, I asked, that you abandon the very thing that attracts us to your region in the first place?

How do you put a price on time? Time and motion studies can save more than pennies by planning shorter journeys, fewer treatments, better insulation, more efficient yeasts, earlier bottling, and quicker turnaround. Marketing can work to convince your customers that crisp is good and a bit of a rasp a sign of authenticity. Label it minerality and you get a bonus point. What has to happen for maturity to enter into the equation to slow down the process? Any accountant can tell you: It must show up on the balance sheet- which is not as simple as it sounds.

Which are the best bets today: mature Bordeaux, say the vintages of 1989 and 1990; promising still-young wines of 1996 or 2000; safe but not gold-plated ones like 2001; the starstudded ’05s; or the still-ambivalent primeur ’08s? The Internet has made the market so transparent that you can watch the question being played out before your eyes. The blue-chip market takes its positions early; depletion of the stock drives it inexorably to its outof- reach conclusions. The iron rule still applies, though: Unless someone else wants what you have in your cellar, its value is precisely the pleasure it gives you to drink it.

Heightening that pleasure is the only true philosopher’s goal in opening his bottles-philosophy that peaked the other day (can philosophy peak?) when an old country friend and neighbor asked me to choose some birthday bottles from his cellar to drink with his children. Dig deep, he said. I did, and I found two bottles I would never otherwise have had together in one evening (and possibly never again at all): Krug 1928 and Quinta do Nova Nacional 1931. Iconic is a prostituted word, but I’ll use it here. Did the 20th century produce any wines that better deserve it? To drink these two (for practical purposes) contemporaries was to revisit an era that closed before I was born. Could they live up to the legend? Did such investment (to be mercenary) in time pay its dividend?

Picture the evening: a medieval house in Suffolk, parkland with towering trees, great galleried hall, snug candled dining room; in the library, smoking jackets, bosoms and jewels, family jokes; Pol Roger 1996 for refreshment while we opened the red-and-gold-labeled Krug. Old Champagne corks are rarely a struggle. They become mere stoppers in time, steel-hard, yet with the residual carbon dioxide in the bottle they still protect the wine.

You don’t expect to see the gas in an 80-year-old Champagne, but you hope and expect to feel it on your tongue. It was there, but no one even mentioned it. Grand old Champagnes grow simpler and more straightforward as they draw to their end. They become gentle (and hugely drinkable) Madeira. The Madeira moment had arrived in the Krug but focused in the power and sheer vinosity of something quite exceptional. A tiny sip filled your mouth and resonated for minutes.

There was acidity to freshen it, but sweetness was the main impression -sweetness and extraordinary concentration. Was this the greatest Champagne of the 20th century? My memories of Pol Roger ’21 are equally sweet, and of Perrier-Jouët 1911 perhaps even sweeter. Our host was certainly pleased a week later to read that someone had paid the highest recorded Champagne price for a bottle of it in a saleroom.

We drank Bonneau de Martray’s Corton-Charlemagne after that, the 2000, with satisfaction at what seemed its Chablisian lightness after the epic Champagne. To stimulate discussion after that, I chose Mouton 1990 and Margaux 1989 from my host’s wellstocked cellar. Each time I visit this pair of vintages-and they are both well within their drinking windows- I am less certain which deserves the palm. In this instance they perfectly exemplified, I thought, the stylistic difference between the two châteaux, Mouton emphasizing ripe, even slightly overripe, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Margaux arguing eloquently for elegance. It is important, with such classic wines, to allow long enough to hear them out (another aspect of time routinely neglected these days).

When we decanted them two hours before pouring, the Mouton seemed open and performing, the Margaux tight and subdued. By the end of the evening I felt we had heard all the Mouton had to say, while the Margaux was still dancing, to change the metaphor, on its points.

(Two weeks later I made the same trial with Latour 1990 and Haut-Brion ’89. The Latour is a smooth smiler, about as ready to open its heart as the Mona Lisa. Haut-Brion ’89 is as eloquent as claret can be-the expression of a sun-baked September. "Energy" was the word uppermost in my mind; the glass was throbbing with it.)

What of the ’31? There was no record in the cellar book of where this wine was bottled, alas, and no indication visible on the cork, which disintegrated as I drew it. I should have remembered to bring my Port tongs, the only reliable means of opening ancient Port. You heat them in the fire, clamp them around the neck of the bottle, then quickly wipe it with a wet cloth (or a swan’s feather for theater). A sharp snap tells you that the glass has broken, in a clean line just above the bottom of the cork, which you then lift out like a stopper.

I filtered off the cork fragments but had the satisfaction of decanting the whole bottle without disturbing the splendid encrusted sediment. It had lain quietly in its bin since our host’s father had laid it down.

It is a truism, but worth mentioning, that Port doesn’t hide its age in the way claret and sometimes Burgundy can. You can be decades out on a claret vintage. I saw someone on television recently (it was a program about Berry Bros & Rudd) miss the mark by 60-odd years. Port, even Noval Nacional, eventually shows its component wine and spirit, as it were, side by side. In the greatest Port, the wine dimension seems almost to revert to grape juice, a fresh and even flowery flavor, while the spirit underpins it. (To add to the paradox, the best early-landed Cognac reverts to wine-like freshness.)

I realized as I drank my second glass that my pen, never far from my hand, was lying beside me unused. Instead of unraveling the wine (or trying to), verbalizing its jostling sequence of flavors, I was simply enjoying it. Monsieur Defaix, I am certain, would have done the same.

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