First published in Issue 44 2014
What makes a wine hard to resist? Origin and vintage, maturity and bottle size, mood
and taste? And which of America’s most appetizing wines set the heart aflutter?
There are different kinds of perfection in wine. One is the glass so stunning, so complex and sensuous, that it goes beyond your normal experience and makes you reach for words like "transcendental." Another is the glass so utterly satisfying, so perfectly tuned to your taste that you can imagine nothing better than another glass.
I met the second kind the other day. Happily it arrived in a big bottle-a double magnum-so another glass, and another, was there for the taking. A coup de coeur indeed.
What were the elements that made this wine so hard to resist? It was mature, from a good vintage, and it had spent its time-24 years-in a very large container. "Madeira improves in its own society, as greatness is apt to do." (It was Mr Wilmington who made the remark, in A Madeira Party.) But is it not also true of claret?
Not that the bottle in question made any claim to greatness. It was Duluc, the second wine of that admirable property in St-Julien, Branaire Ducru, which has recently been making particularly elegant wines, vintage after vintage. Being a St-Julien was certainly in its favor; seasoned claret drinkers know that for pleasant and harmonious drinking several of its properties rank with Bordeaux's best. Someone (was it Roald Dahl?) wrote that Beychevelle was "consoling and feminine, with a certain blithely generous quality that one associates only with the wines of St-Julien"-and Branaire is next door.
Being the second wine of a château with high standards is not a matter for shame, either. But being 24 years old and the fruit of one of the best vintages of the past quarter-century is the clincher. Slowly reached maturity, preferably in a large bottle, shows the best profile of any wine. More's the pity that we so rarely encounter it.
How much of our appreciation is a matter of mood? As readers have probably guessed, I am a cheerful sort of chap in a quiet way, not one for ear-splitting discos, vast spectacles, any sort of violence (which rules out most movies), or red-hot curries. X-tracted wines full of alcohol don't often appeal to me either. I love the vigor of a well-made young wine, the clean strike of acidity and tannin on my palate alerting me to the flavors to come. There is a moment during the day (once known as the sun going over the yardarm) when lively refreshment is essential. It is, after all, the secret of Champagne.
Then comes the craving for fuller flavors, white wines with more body (there's another term you seldom hear these days; something more scientific is called for), and very soon the extra dimensions of red. It is when I settle down, though, busy with talk, palate satisfied with protein, that wines with a blithely generous quality are exactly what I want.
For impact and heft, there is little comparison with, for example, the spots-knocking 1990 Léoville Poyferré from the other end of a commune that divides naturally between the hamlet of Beychevelle to the south and the lordly Léoville estate on the Pauillac boundary to the north. Léoville for luxury; Beychevelle for beauty.
Stars and slurps
You can fall for the diva, of course. But sometimes you can fall for the whole show. It happened the other day when I tasted a range of American wines chosen for The Wall Street Journal by my colleague Thomas Woolrych, an Englishman who has been set loose in the USA to look for the most appetizing wines America makes today. I grant you "appetizing" is a personal measure. The point of this tasting was to see if my appetite and Thomas's coincide. Little did I think he would be setting my heart aflutter. There were wines I really loved from the Columbia Valley to Carneros, and Lodi to the Finger Lakes.
I have been one of those drumming their fingers for California to come alive after decades of monotony. True, I am not in the middle of the action. Forty years ago, when Bob Thompson and I wrote The California Wine Book, I was as big a booster as anyone for the great California revival. More recently, like many people, I have found more interest in less self-confident wine regions.
Who knew that the Columbia Valley is making a true vin gris of Pinot Gris? I didn't, but tasting it made me ponder how truly forgettable America's rosés have been and how possible it is (at least given one vineyard 1,400ft [425m] up in Walla Walla) to make a substantial, intensely lively, totally dry pale pink wine, just hinting of strawberries, stimulating on entry and whistle-clean on exit. The 2013 Nine Hats is certainly a rosé to remember.
Finger Lakes Riesling is another matter. I have seen it emerge over decades as the front-runner in the wine list of the North East. The wine was Red Newt 2012 Dry Riesling. Is this America's Mosel? It has the fruit-acid zing, the lightness (11.5% ABV), and a hint of forecourt (which in young Riesling betrays a hot summer), but it finishes dry in a way German Rieslings rarely do. Perhaps not quite a heartthrob but an excellent portent.
A third white wine came as a total surprise: Albarino from Lodi. Could anywhere be as unlike rain-washed Galicia as the dry country between Sacramento and Stockton, due east of San Francisco Bay? Or any wine less typical of California than this mouth-burst of pear and grapefruit flavors, fresh but spicy and searching? It was Bokisch 2013 Terra Alta Vineyard Albarino, and the price less than $20. No surprise at all, on the other hand, with a truly classic 2012 Napa Chardonnay from one of Napa's most respected old-timers, Walter Schug. Schug is the Geisenheim graduate (class of '53) who put Joseph Phelps Vineyard on the map. I remember my astonishment in the '70s on visiting Phelps's magnificent redwood barn in St Helena, built of retired railroad trestles (Joe was a builder) with gilded handrails. It told a story about the wealth and imagination of the new generation of Napa winemakers.
Schug's own wines have always been gentle and understated. Carneros gives him perfect fruit for velvet-textured Chardonnay, acidity perfectly balanced with the mildest oak, lively and long, leaving a taste of golden mirabelles.
Buena Vista is a name from the history books that pops in and out of my consciousness. I only realized, I admit, that Jean-Claude Boisset has added it to his portfolio of California wineries when I tasted its 2012 Carneros Pinot Noir. California need get no nearer the Côte d'Or than this. By Côte d'Or standards, it is super-ripe and easy to read. But this vivid, brilliant cherry character, subtly oaked, building from initial bright intensity to deeper flavor and texture is a marvelous alternative model. Black tea comes into it; maybe pomegranates, to an imaginative palate; and certainly a sweet perfumy finish. Yes, a raised heart rate.