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Those Were the Years (March 25, 2010)

The license plate of my car is CLARET, which, I suppose, speaks to my partiality for red Bordeaux. This particular vanity plate was given to me over thirty years ago as an anniversary present. Back then I could have chosen any number of wine names, but CLARET is suitably non-committal and obscure enough a reference (for non-Britishers) as not to arouse the sensibilities of the local constabulary. And, besides, it speaks to the wine I first fell in love with in the 1960s, although I confess here that I have since conducted serial affairs with other regions.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, "What's the best wine you ever had?" Which would be rather like asking Casanova which of his thousands of lovers was the best. I calculated that, for my work as a wine writer, I have to taste at least 300 to 350 wines a month, so you might think it's an impossible question to answer.

But I can tell you without hesitation that the best wine I ever tasted was – no, it was not a claret – it was a red Burgundy: Comte de Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes 1964. I drank it on February 13th, 1975. I remember the date exactly because that was the night my son was born. The point is that 60 per cent of the enjoyment of wine has nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with how you feel, the company you're in and the general ambiance. (In this case I drank the bottle alone, as my wife was otherwise preoccupied, but I showed her the label later just to be sporting.)

Let me further illustrate this mood factor with a story: imagine that you have been invited to dinner by your bank manager. Unlikely, but for the sake of argument, let's pretend. He has brought up from his cellar a bottle of Château Cheval Blanc 1947 – a legendary wine, the kind of wine only a banker or a rock star can afford. And just as you raise the glass of this rare and costly beverage to your lips and begin to taste it, he says, "The reason I invited you here tonight is to break the news as gently as possible – but I have to foreclose on your mortgage."  

That wine will taste like bilge water, and should you ever have the misfortune to encounter it in the future, the memory that it invokes will turn it to vinegar in your mouth. On the other hand, picture yourself at a picnic with someone you love. The sun is shining; there are cows in the field and the birds are singing. You have a baguette and a round of Camembert and some slices of salami. You've chilled a simple Beaujolais in the stream and you're both drinking it from plastic cups. That wine under those circumstances will taste like the nectar of the gods. It's all about mood and timing.

I had the reverse story. The first time I visited Bordeaux was the summer of 1966. An importer friend in London had introduced me to his colleague in Bordeaux, William Bolter, who toured me around the region. Our first visit was to Château Palmer, where Peter Sichel showed us the dormitory on the second floor where German troops had been billeted during the war. Then we went down to the cellar to taste. I cannot say I enjoyed tasting the new vintage out of the barrel. I was a neophyte and young Bordeaux is no fun. Tannic and hard, it tastes like green peppers infused in strong tea; and the 1965 vintage was one of the worst in the history of winemaking. The wines of that year, according to Michael Broadbent in his Great Vintage Book, ranged from "insignificant to execrable." 1965, incidentally, was the year that Winston Churchill died and the year that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote "I can't get no satisfaction." So avoid 1965 and also 1968. Other vintages that fall into the same category of awfulness are 1991, 1992 and 1993, with 1997 marginally better. If you were born in any of these years, may I offer you a piece of advice? When you visit a Bordeaux château, or any other European wine region for that matter, and the winemaker asks you the year of your birth, lie through your teeth. If you can get away with it, say you were born in 1928, 1945, 1947, 1961, 1970 or 1982. Any younger and you should be chaperoned.

On that trip in 1966, at an al fresco lunch in St. Emilion, Bill Boltner ordered the house wine. It came to the table in a bottle with no label. We drank it with pleasure along with a simple country meal, so much so that I asked the maître d' if I could buy a couple of bottles to take back to London with me as a memento of the occasion. On a grey, rainy day the following February I opened one of the bottles hoping to recapture the memory of that lunch in the sunshine. It was awful. Maybe the wine suffered from agoraphobia being uprooted from its natural home, maybe it got travel sick, maybe I had stored it too near a heat source, but it tasted awful. I thought it might be corked, so I opened the second bottle and that one was as bad as the first. It must have been the 1965 vintage. Both bottles were dispatched down the sink. You can't go home again? Maybe but I still cherish the memory of the lunch in St. Emilion on the hill overlooking the town. That's where my love of claret began, vintage notwithstanding.

The problem is you can't get this kind of information reliably from the vintage reports. According to the Universal Wine Grower's Lexicon, there is no such thing as a bad vintage. There are "difficult vintages," "challenging vintages" and "useful vintages," but no bad vintages. Only diplomats and James Joyce scholars can understand the nuances of these euphemisms. "Difficult" actually means catastrophic: "We had howling gales and frigid temperatures during harvesting and the pickers were hospitalized with frost bite." "Challenging" translates as "How are we expected to make wine from grapes so green they make lemon juice taste sweet?" "Useful" means "It's a mediocre vintage which we have to sell anyway and since it has the ageing potential of a rack of bananas let's tell the restaurants they can put it on their wine lists and pretend it's ready for drinking now."

Even more bizarre are the circumlocutions that winemakers go though when they compile their annual vintage reports for the wine merchants and the press. Somehow, miraculously, every year, the treachery of the weather gods is thwarted at the last moment and the harvest turns out to be "much better than anticipated."

The vintage projection for the year of Noah's flood probably read: "Early prospects for an abundant harvest have been revised due to unseasonal rainfall in the Mount Ararat region. However, with the appearance of a rainbow and some late summer sunshine, Ark Wines predicts a good quality crop once the snorkelers have gathered it in."

 

 

 

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