Friday, February 20, 2009

Price, Provenance and Patience

There are lots of people who collect wines and plenty of ways to go about it, but the true art, what makes it all worth it, is knowing how to enjoy and share them. Recently Joe and I spent an evening with a good friend who has certainly mastered it! The venue was Cafe Panache in Ramsey with a small group, so there was plenty of wine to go around. During the evening, aside from the star quality of the wines and company, there were a couple of recurring themes to the conversation: price, provenance and patience.

Price - yipes! You just don't want to know! These wines were all purchased on release, back when they were merely expensive. Today, by nearly any one's measure, they have moved to beyond expensive, which again points to the generosity we enjoyed! Looking at auction prices (although there is some softening) and release prices for current vintages of the wines we drank - if you can get them - is wallet crushing! How long this will last is open to speculation, but the reality is that great Burgundy is still still expensive, and the super-star growers are out of reach for all but a few. Finding value and seeking out the new, up and coming talent is so important!

That fact that they were all purchased on release brings me to the next point: provenance. These were all stored in a very cool cellar, and they were brilliant. They were in perfect condition, and while of a certain age, they were all still lively, with well defined fruit and acids, un-muddled by any hint of poor storage, showing purity and absolute clarity. I can't emphasize provenance enough, having recently opened a series of wines from my own cellar purchased when buying wine took priority over storage (young and broke so stored wines in ambient apartment temperature) that all had a dullness I have to attribute to storage conditions. Even though I have a stake in this, I truly believe that you need to know your merchant, know the history of the wines and how they were stored, and if at all possible, buy on release from reputable sources! Overall, I think shipping conditions have improved, but how many stores are temperature controlled?

And that brought us to patience - it really is a virtue when were are talking about wines of the caliber we drank! The hard part is keeping your hands off until they mature. It's tough, but well worth the wait, again hats off to our host! But even more telling, what we all noticed throughout the evening was how much the wines evolved over time in the glass. Enjoying a reasonable number of wines enjoyed over a leisurely dinner, with food and conversation, allowed the wines to evolve, change and really express themselves. I read about some of these massive tasting events where dozens of wines are tasted and wonder if any of them really get a fair shake (and if anyone truly has the palate and alcohol tolerance to enjoy them all, let alone remember?) While all the wine evolved in the glass, the Lafon Meursault Charmes underwent a complete transformation from closed and awkward when first poured (to the point where we though it might even be off) to lovely, aromatic, and complex, but it took an hour and longer! It could have easily been overlooked and written off if we had not spent some time with it -chalk one up for the mystery and joy of wine! Anyway, the moral of my story is to slow down, take the time to enjoy the wines, savor them with good food and friends. Again, thank you Doug!!

The wines:

1988 Krug - At first pour seem a tad advanced; toffee and touch of caramel along with lovely creamy toasty tones. Mouth filling, full style, rich; seemed to get fresher quickly in the glass as the fruit underneath woke up. Great bubbly, great way to start the evening!

1990 Lafon Meursault-Charmes - Again, this was almost neutral and completely shut down when poured, but ever so slowly throughout the night (over a period of a couple of hours!) this wine eventually came out of its shell and developed quite a bit of character, richness and complexity.

1990 Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet - great right out of the gate and just got better and better. An hour after opening it was truly mind boggling, with mouth filling, layered flavors and textures. Wow! Lobster Bisque with mussels was little assertive with the wines, others had a raw scallop dish that really rocked with the Chevalier!

1990 D'Angerville Volnay Clos des Ducs

1990 de Montille Pommard Pezerolles

A great pairing, the Volnay perhaps edging the Pommard by a bit. Pommard was classy and fine, especially for Pommard. This wine from Montille seems to have an elegance and fineness, the Volnay Clos des Ducs was spectacular, with great structure and deep complex tones that took time to evolve in the glass, and hung right in there with the Grand Cru flight to follow.

1990 Chambertin Clos de Beze A Rousseau

1990 Dujac Clos de la Roche

Ah! Grand Cru! When they are "on" there is simply another layer, another gear, that just ain't there in other sites. These two wines lived up to the hype and reputation. The Dujac very flashy right out the bottle, showing red and dark fruits, leather, sweet and spicy oak and a bit of thoroughbred horse tack, modest tannins, lovely length. Continued to improve throughout the dinner; decidedly feminine (the PC - ness of labeling this wine feminine vs the Chambertin's masculine style was duly noted during conversation and I think we agreed it's ok!) The Chambertin Clos de Beze was deeper, darker, more closed at first, still youthful in color, structure and flavor, with plenty of life ahead. Brooding, broad, and yes, masculine, tremendous! Both have ages left in them. A few of us had Saddle of Venison with woodear mushrooms and grilled polenta, a bit too much pepper and an assertive sauce strained the wines a bit, others had a terrific seared breast of duck with confit legs, wild rice and baby bok choy, which was perfect with the wines.

And finally, with a selection of cheeses and then desserts, the 1990 Quintarelli Recioto della Valpolicella Riserva was wonderful: deep and dark still, with Amarone-like aromas of dried black fruits, a whiff of acetal notes, off dry and liquer like, rich, dark and winey on the palate. Thanks Doug!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Perils of Poor Storage

My obsession with proper storage for wine began about 20 or so years ago when the ship "Carla", laden with wine and other cargo was essentially broken in two during a violent storm between the coast of Spain and the Azores. Half of the ship went to the bottom, and the other half, miraculously, stayed afloat and was towed to safe harbor in the Azores. Here the cargo sat, waiting to be sorted and shipped on. While in port, average temperatures were in the 70's, and most importers of wine had no reason for concern. But one of our importers had already begun shipping year round in temperature controlled containers that failed during the transfer in the Azores. When the wines arrived, he noticed a marked difference in other samples of the same wines which were shipped at 56 degrees and those from the Carla where temperatures again reached the 70's (the low range of ambient temperature of your typical distributors warehouse and local retailers wine department!). He notified his insurance agent who sad this was the only complaint they had with regards to the Carla wines, and that the wines were fine. They dispatched their own wine expert who tasted the wines and said they were in saleable condition. Weinrott contended that that "saleable" was not the only condition: his wines tasted different, with less freshness than those shipped temperature controlled, were dull and less vibrant. It was part of his commitment t his clients and a crucial element in setting his wines apart from others who were not a meticulous as he in their shipping methods.
The end result was that I was retained to do a blind comparison with Carla wines and their temperature controlled counterparts: the results were dramatic. Clearly the temperature controlled wines were fresher, brighter and considerably better - a fact that could have been over looked if not done side by side, one would have thought the Carla wines o.k. but a bit dull.
While I knew that extreme temperature swings and high heat could impact a wine permanently and immediately, the slow loss of freshness even at moderate temperatures was new to me. However it made sense. Think about lettuce or other produce: handled correctly, it stays fresher longer, leave it out of the fridge and it rapidly loses its snap, and this was what happened to the wines. As a result, we temperature controlled the entire shop: not just for the high end expensive wines, but for all the wines.
The problem became more apparent when I had some guests for dinner and we were into a bunch of wines that had spent some time in my apartment during a time when priorities demanded that all disposable income be spent on wine rather than temperature control. One after another of pretty high caliber wines were opened, only to disappoint. Moral of the story is keep it chilled!