Saturday, June 24, 2006

It's only a drink!

If you want to hurt a wine lover, interrupt a discussion about wine, and remind them that "it's only a drink." This will offend a wine lover very deeply; you will never be forgiven; and it will be decided there and then that you are a complete idiot.

At a certain moment in their lives, wine lovers have had a mind altering experience, and they make a vow to revere and honor this wonderful liquid for ever. (I almost wrote drink.) Imagine a friend that you have not seen for a long time, and when you meet you find (s)he has fallen in love. One of your first questions is how they met. So it is with wine. The Wine Spectator regularly publishes a column where they interview a celebrity who loves wine. The response is almost predictable, and it almost always goes something like this:

Well, I was a beer drinker, and then I was at this dinner given by Even More Famous Person. They were pouring Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 1959. [Robert Parker rates this with 100 points!] And that was a turning moment for me. And since then I have built a cellar with probably more wine than I can drink in my lifetime.

People sometimes ask me why I am so fond of Bordeaux in general, and of the wines of Pauillac in particular, and it all goes back to my own turning moment in about 1972. I had received one of my first pay checks, and decided to celebrate with a nice bottle of wine. So I went to Berry Brothers & Rudd in St. James's Street in London. A very helpful assistant talked to me about wine for about half an hour, and he finally sold me a bottle of Chateau Batailley, 1966.

And when I shared the bottle with some friends, I almost went into a swoon. I marveled at how fruit could be turned into such magical liquid. Like a drug addict looking to recreate that first "high", I live for the moments that approximate the taste of that Batailley.

Although this was certainly a good wine, it certainly was not a great wine. Batailley was classified as a fifth growth in the classification of Bordeaux in 1855, and it is generally agreed that it is consistent and reliable, bur not a wine that bowls you over. Like most wines in the Medoc, the vineyards are dominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (70%). The balance is Merlot (25%), Cabernet Franc (3%), and Petit Verdot (2%). But this was my first experience with serious wine on which I really focused my attention.

I was reminded again of the Chateau Batailley because I decided to spend an hour this morning browsing around that excellent bookshop in Columbia, Daedalus Books. I came across a really interesting book by Michael Broadbent, a Master of Wine, and for years the head of the wine department at Christies. The book is called, Vintage Wine, and it intrigued me because it collects notes accumulated through "fifty years of tasting three centuries of wines," and I wondered what he wrote about the 1966 vintage of Batailley.

Always dependable, certainly very good, possibly at its best in 1966 beause its comfortably fruity style enriches the leanness of the vintage. Still fairly deep; a leafy arboreal nose -- or perhaps it was the influence of Hugh Johnson's arboretum -- which opened up deliciously. Rich and moderately mouthfilling, with attractive Cabernet Sauvignon to the end taste.

Certainly it was not the 1959 Mouton, which he describes as "magnificence piled upon magnificence," but Chateau Batailley was the wine that changed my life, and I have been a devoted follower of the grape ever since.

Incidentally, in 1972, I paid 1.95 UK pounds for the Batailley, which seemed like an enormous amount then particularly if you consider that a pint of bitter at the time cost around 12p. So I was paying about the equivalent of 16 pints for my bottle of Batailley. Today a pint of beer goes for around 2.50 UK pounds, and Berry's sells half bottles of the 2000 vintage at 12.77 UK pounds, the equivalent of 25.33 pounds a bottle. So, even though we all complain about the price of wine today, it costs only the same price as 10 pints of beer, a bargain compared to the 1972 price! Interesting!

I would love to hear about readers' magical moments. What was the wine that turned you from being a wine drinker to a wine lover determined to spend the rest of your life in pursuit of that perfect glass? Or is wine, for you, just another drink?


Mal said...

I have only recently discovered the Bordeaux wines - doing a Bordeaux wine course last year. We tried the Ch Batailley as well - fantastic.

I have had the very good fortune to have tried a 1964 and a 1984 Ch Mouton Rothschild (alongside a 1964 and a 1984 Grange Hermitage - at a friend's 40th birthday) - the 1964 Mouton is simply the best wine I have ever had and maybe ever will have. However, it will be fun trying to top it. If I don't - oh well - it is just a drink!

Moyey said...

Very interesting comment. I have only had a first growth twice in my life. One was a 1987 Lafite; and the other was a 1984 Latour.

In a decade of amazing vintages, 1987 and 1984 were the only weak vintages, but, at least they provided opportunities for people like me to try first growths.

You may be interested to know that Robert Parker gave the 1984 a score of just 80. I thought that that might be the worst ever rating for Mouton so I looked the 1964, and saw the following comment:

"The 1964 Mouton is a notable failure because it was picked late in the deluge of rain that wiped out those chateaux that were waiting for extra ripeness. One wonders why Bordeaux's best chateaux do not declassify the entire crop when they produce a wine such as this. A sweet, cooked bouquet is followed by equally sweet, disjointed, flabby flavors. Last tasted, 1/91."

He gave it a score of 55!

Doesn't it just show that is is better to follow your own palate rather than rely on the scores of the experts?

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