First published in Issue 43 2014
Falling in love is something we do more readily and more often when we are young. It is the “falling” that changes with age, not the love. We grown-ups love our families and adore our grandchildren, but without the obsessiveness that makes young love such sweet purgatory.
I thought perhaps I was reaching this happy state with wine. As readers may have noticed, the bottles that start me daydreaming and writing love poems are usually mature ones-ones that carry cargoes of memories and associations. Young wines are exciting; old ones can be moving. But it's not as simple as that.
There is love, and there is lust. Young red Burgundies can be like girls in tight trousers: You can't stop your eyes swiveling as they walk by. Indeed, I am still obsessing about one I drank the other day, a 2012 Nuits-St-Georges that had no business being so delicious-not instantly, freshly uncorked at the tasting where I met it, but three days later, at a drink-up lunch. I hadn't heard of the domaine, Maison Ambroise at Prémeaux. Nor would I have recognized the wine as a Nuits; there was none of that carapace of tannin that seems to shelter the young wines of this part of the Côte. It was unfashionably dark in the glass (the smartest young Burgundies these days barely blush) but full of gentle sweet extract that flooded the palate. I ordered a grilled spatchcock with mushrooms and retired into a reverie of carnal pleasure.
Stony, sunny Semillon
When old friends come to dinner, I go to that corner of my rather depleted cellar where memories mature, hoping to find a wine full of reminiscence. The friends on this occasion were Michael and Daphne Broadbent, and the wine a half-bottle of a 1972 given to me almost 40 years ago by mutual friends, Fred and Eleanor McCrea of Stony Hill on Spring Mountain, St Helena. Why was it still there? Predestination seems a reasonable answer. Besides, the color, clearly visible though the untinted glass, was still pale lemon like a young
wine. There was no need to rush.
It was the McCreas' Semillon de Soleil, a logical hobby for a grower who, from the start, made only white wines. In the 1940s, when Stony Hill was just that, a dry hillside with goats, it was considered perverse to plant Chardonnay. The whole of California boasted only 200 acres (80ha) or so of what was thought a risky and unprofitable grape. Cabernet was the
rage. Riesling and Gewurztraminer, the McCreas' other two picks, didn't seem any too logical either. So why not an acre of Semillon, to have something to drink after dinner?
Woken from its long sleep, the sun wine didn't even need to stretch and yawn. It spoke with a gentle voice, a voice of infinite wisdom and experience. These grapes had been picked late, possibly with a touch of botrytis, possibly not, dried in a shed for a week or so, fermented in much-used oak until the yeasts were growing tired, the yeasts filtered out with the alcohol level around 13% and the residual sugar in the range of 5-10 grams per liter, then bottled the next spring-a formula so un-extreme that no one would expect a quite remarkable wine.
This is Semillon-in a sense, a mere vehicle for the little miracle of fermentation, adding little by way of aromas (certainly much less than Sauvignon Blanc); a certain style rather than a flavor, and a style that can take many years to emerge. Think of its other un-extreme manifestation, in the Hunter Valley, the way its scarcely ripe grapes give an unexciting pale wine with absurdly low levels of alcohol, mild even by lemonade standards, that 15 or 20 years later can caress your tongue with suggestions of elements no one could have foreseen. Toast, butter, marmalade-unlikely things in a 10° wine. (Michael, as you'd expect, later produced pages of notes on what he had tasted with the McCreas in the 1970s, though not this precise wine.)
One good bottle deserves another. In this case a nameless one (the label long since gone) whose shape and color said Mosel, whose capsule said the Bischöfliches Konvikt, and whose date in my memory-confirmed by the cork-was 1971. 1971 was Germany's dream vintage, when nothing checked steady progress to perfect maturity. It was also the last vintage before the government tore up the old wine laws and introduced the demotic nightmare of Bereiche and Grosslagen that destroyed our faith in German wine for decades. Most important, it gave- in important quantities-wines that still shrug off their 43 years.
Which vineyard this bottle came from has ceased to matter. I seem to remember it was Kanzemer Altenberg, one of the steepest sites of all, where in places the slate soil pitches down to the River Saar at an angle of 85 degrees. Its makers, the seminary for young priests in Trier, have scarcely distinguished themselves since-or at least until a major reorganization in the past few years. Without the label we couldn't say for certain, either,
after so long, whether the wine was classified at birth as a Feine Spätlese, or an Auslese-or Feine or even Feinste Auslese. Physical analysis would tell you very little: low alcohol, high acidity, highish sugar now somehow transmuted into something mysteriously resembling cream. The wine, with the wisdom of its years, was saying something else: God and man together gave me this immortal harmony, this resolving chord of scent and taste. Older wines provoke other emotions, from affection to awe.
Conjuring up the whole vine
There is no such relationship as this with samples in a tasting room-the worst place of all, in my experience, to meet and understand any wine. The finer the wine, the less opportunity there is to do it justice. This is my annual problem when the DRC comes to London in February and the seven domaine wines are poured in a reverential hush in the tasting room at Corney & Barrow.
A vast glass, 3mm of wine, and you are left to contemplate its extraordinary vapors. The plan, of course, is the routine Burgundy crescendo, except that it is grands crus all the way, starting not with a village wine but the domaine's new Corton, a bold contrast to the six infinitely luxurious and nuanced Vosne- Romanées that follow.
Adam Brett-Smith, the director of Corneys, has perfected, honed, and polished the ode to each of the wines. His annual eulogies deserve the words he uses so well; they are beguiling, precise, sweetly seductive, lifted, grainy, wild, structured, and heart-onsleeve. My own efforts have less polish. I was so happy with the Echézeaux that kicks off the Vosne parade (is "accessible" a faint-praise word?) that it colors my idea of the whole (2011) vintage. Oh, how sweetly plump and then how sharply focused.
Grands Echézeaux: more color (but not much), power, earth, and a little stem, dancing acidity, length. Richebourg: green-smoky fumes, cardamom(?), intensity, and length. Romanée-St-Vivant: tannin, sweeter and more volume, clinging to the palate. I try my bough-of-cherries analogy; it doesn't quite work. La Tâche: female perfume, smoke from a bonfire (the vanities?), berries, not roots, desirable, puzzling.
And Romanée-Conti: a little more red in its palest purple. Sweet, intense, clean-green more than red fruit at first. It conjures up the whole vine and concentrates it into a scent for a woman's neck. Sharpness to bring you back to your senses. The cherry-brandy kiss. This (the tasting room) is no place for such an encounter.
Back with lust
And Port. It's winter. What a waste to drink so little. I decanted Warre's 1985 the other day for my own greedy fireside pleasure. Two nights into it, my belief was confirmed: Vintage Port loves a decanter. On the third evening, the fire burning as bright as gas fauxcoals can, the smooth sweetness and the sheer boozy hit of Port revealed a truth we must never forget: Wine is exciting, intoxicating. Analysis is a eunuch's game. We're back with lust.