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It's in Your Mind, Not the Wine (May 12, 2004)

I don't remember the year exactly, or the place, but the wine was indisputably Château d'Yquem 1921.

It was Christmas time and I had been invited for the weekend to the home of a London friend whose parents lived in Scotland. I believe it was 1966 or '67.

The other house guest was a rising young professor from Oxford named Edward DeBono, the philosopher who came up with the theory of Lateral Thinking.

My friend's father knew I was interested in wine and he said he had something "rather interesting" in the cellar.

He disappeared for a few minutes and emerged with a dusty bottle of Yquem '21, certainly the best twentieth-century vintage of the world's most celebrated dessert wine, as legendary as the Cheval Blanc 1947. The colour was so dark – almost like brown shoe polish – that we all thought it would be over the hill; but it was in remarkable shape. I can still taste its barley sugar and crème brûlée flavours in my mind's palate.

The other wine that sticks in my memory – and the one I cite when asked that most difficult of questions: what's the greatest wine you ever tasted? – is Comte de Vogüé Musigny 1964. I drank this red Burgundy the night my son Guy was born on February 13th, 1975. I confess I demolished the whole bottle myself, my wife being otherwise occupied. The wine was remarkable. When Burgundy is good there is no greater experience you can have sitting down.

The point is, I was in the mood to receive a great wine.

Not enough attention has been paid to the psychology of taste and wine appreciation. I contend that sixty per cent of our enjoyment of wine has nothing to do with the wine itself. It's all about occasion, ambiance and your own mood. Your physical condition also plays a part (if you have a cold or you're tired you won't enjoy a great wine to the fullest extent); but your state of mind is key and the way you react to your environment will transform your taste perception.

Let me give you an example: you have been invited to dinner by your bank manager. He has ordered a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982 (you're a good client!). Just as you lift the glass to your lips, he tells you that the reason he has invited you to dinner is that, with regret, he has to call in your loan.

That wine will taste like bilge water and future tastings of the same wine will be tainted by the memory of the encounter.

On the other hand, picture yourself at a picnic, alone with someone you love. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky; you're sitting on a blanket enjoying a magnificent pastoral view; you have a baguette, camembert and duck liver pâté and you have a simple bottle of Beaujolais that you've chilled in the stream below. Under those circumstances that wine will taste like the nectar of the gods.

This idea of external conditions and your psychological response to them conditioning your attitude towards a given wine was driven home to me by an experience I had the first time I visited Bordeaux thirty-eight years ago next month.

A group of six of us was having lunch in a restaurant overlooking the town of St. Emilion. It was a sunny day so we opted to eat outside. The maître d' suggested that we try the house wine, which the proprietor had purchased by the barrel from a local petit château. It arrived in a large jug and we consumed it with pleasure, ordering another. I liked it so much I asked if I could buy a couple of bottles to take back to London with me.

The following February when England was grey, drab and drenched with rain, I decided to open the bottles I had enjoyed so much seven months earlier to try to relive the St. Emilion experience.

The wine tasted thin, green, nasty and short. What could I have ever enjoyed about it? I was so disappointed that the wine did not live up to my memory of that splendid lunch al fresco that I poured the second bottle down the drain.

Moral: if you really want to enjoy a cherished bottle, make sure you're in a good mood - and the company's right.

Then there is the other psychological quirk now written in stone as an unalterable law: A wine will always taste better in the presence of the winemaker.

 

 

 

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