Friday, June 2, 2023

Clarion Vines: A Column for the Future Wines of History

December 5, 2014

by Jonathan D. Price

We are proud to introduce here a new column, to appear with some regularity, from Executive Editor Jonathan D. Price. After you’ve seen these introductory notes, don’t miss the first wine he reviews: a 2010 Château Talbot.

Fresco - Pompeii

Some wines are said to be ageable, reds even mythically so. When I used to work in a wine shop, I would from time to time be pulled aside by a customer who wanted advice on when to drink a ‘great’ bottle. Commonly, the bottle in question was a wedding, birthday or anniversary gift that had been languishing under a bed or in a wet cellar, or even standing in a kitchen window, for a couple of decades. The answer I gave, and would still give if asked, was: ‘Yesterday, last year, ten years ago, anytime but now! It’s almost certainly too late.’ Since wine has storybook cred for improving with age, lots of fairy tales remain in circulation about its indefinite improvement, the goodness compounding slowly year to year, like a savings bond, until that magic day when it is ready. But when is that day? Unlike a savings bond, vintage wines don’t tell you when they are redeemable at their greatest value. For this reason most ageworthy wines which are not consumed too young, are consumed far too late—and so not fully or ever truly enjoyed.

Old wine, indeed, has presence, in the same way a visitor from a bygone age might. When a mature enough wine is presented at a dinner party, guests gasp at its vintage. They comment on being ‘in school’ or ‘still in diapers’ when the wine was yet grapes on the vine. Its presence often gets the better of our higher faculties. I have seen many – even those who should have known better – convince themselves that the undrinkable was the nectar of the gods, when the vintage was old enough and the setting sufficiently serene. Even when the wine happens to be potable, the temptation with older vintages is to ‘read a lot into’ the wine, I suspect, in a pious suspension of judgment before something that is supposed to be sublime. Put simply: vintage wines cause people to do, think, and especially say, stupid things. This is in part because it is consumed so rarely and, perhaps consequently, so often in bad taste, namely, too soon or too late, and with wildly absurd expectations.

Those expectations, I posit, are misplaced expressions of something uniquely good about wine: the wonder it induces, which can sometimes attain contemplative heights, but more often flounders in the fleeting. Even mediocre vintages pique the rhapsodic in us; the quiet, too, grow tongues after their palates are whetted. But the subject of the wonder is often confused about its proper object. Good vintage wine makes us curious first about the wine itself and its provenance, its story, the land, and the hands it has passed through since being bottled. But to dwell too much on any item in that list, especially the first, would be to confuse transit with destination, and proximate with higher, if more distant, ends. Wonder at the sensual pleasure and the history of the wine are stages – albeit important ones – on the way to the wonder about the nature of things. That is the real end of the intoxicating influence of wine, even if it is rarely achieved and often subverted. One great usurper is the pleasure-fetishism that is a cultural marker of contemporary wine consumption, illustrated best in the wine-rating syndicate. Gluttony of excess is most commonly decried in the Anglosphere. Think of American fast food. But the wine-point industrial complex feeds a more refined and individualizing vice: the gluttony of delicacy. Here one must really demur, both by scorn and by way of reflection on the nature of pleasure and the pleasures of wine, including the social pleasures that can never safely be severed from wine without risking masturbatory solipsism, without devolving oneself into Cleopatra trying before dying.

Plato’s famous thoughts on love in the Symposium are articulated at a temperate wine-drinking party – and for good reason. King David tells us in a Psalm that the Lord gives wine to make the heart merry; recall that the heart for the Hebrews was also a place of contemplation. Jesus offers eternal life together with the source of all by means of sharing wine. Although wine is forbidden in most Islamic settings, the holy book of the Muslims says that the rivers of paradise flow with it. The connection of this drink to the very stuff of existence is almost everywhere where civilisation has overtaken barbarism. And where it is not, one should beware. Vintage wine has the additional advantage of having lived a life of sorts on earth before lifting our thoughts from the glass to the heavens – you might call it an aspect at once incarnational and ascensional. With any wine old or new, we do well to do well by it. And, if we do, it will do well by us.


Consuming reflections

The classic saying is of course ‘in vino veritas’. Now the truth that is rumoured to be in wine is in fact not, at least not under its more interesting aspects, in what an infelicitously loosened tongue might reveal. But nor is it mostly – or in any event not merely – in its taste and smell. Too much of ‘the wine community’ is obsessed with the pleasure of drinking, by which they mean the sensations that buzz through the mouth and nose. Points are assigned to those and other tactile or visual sensations or impressions. Imagine if sex were rated on a similar point scale, based on physical stimuli alone (now that I think of it, this may be the way that many of the Sex and the City generation actually think about it – ‘good’ and ‘great’ sex being things on a continuum that could be, should be!, must be!!!, numerically represented). Good wine is pleasurable in the most visceral way. However, it tempts those sensitive to its affect to a higher and more humane pleasure, namely, reflection, and that ideally with others.

Those who practice reflective drinking will have noticed that consuming different wines brings about different sorts of reflection. And, returning to the same wine time and time again (if it is worth returning to, about which more in the first Clarion Vines wine reviews) can intensify the experience and even improve reflection. Once you know a wine through experience, it can be returned to – not always in the same vintage – like a friend who reminds you of time gone by but has changed and grown with the years. Wines, like words, gain auras around them from their lives among sentient beings. And the (hi)stories of the wines, châteaux, geography, seasons and vinification, all become part of these auras. The accretion of reflective thought on a topic or theme may be the result, as the wine becomes a ‘place in the world’ – a terroir of and for a particular set of thoughts or way of thinking.

It is true that such variegated reflections arise not only because you consume each wine at a different time, and with different friends or family, when you view the world from an inescapably novel perspective, but also because of the singularity of the glass before you, with its chemical compounds and molecular structures which have never before been tasted, and never again can be. (Anyone who has seen Sideways knows where this sentiment can lead, and I intend to cut it short.) But, especially here, beware the lurking expert. Beware of the learned ‘vinese’, a language of wine shamans and charlatans, a Gnostic distraction, a priesthood of delicate gluttony. Their pseudo-mystical, technocratic spirit is alien to the ways of wine. For, most of us are not sensitive enough to notice those minuscule changes (I certainly am not), and unless you are either a chemist or the sort of person for whom the consultation of laboratory reports is synonymous with contemplation, preoccupation with them will only ruin your attunement to higher-level yet still subtle qualities awaiting discovery.


The mindfulness of the glass

Whilst we do find new scents and tastes in wine, those only truly become important when they are assumed into the larger pattern of the life of reflective drinking and consuming reflections that I advocate. We rightly – and at the beginning often shyly or with trepidation before the expert – tend to connect the wine before us to what we have tasted or smelled elsewhere, in everyday foods and fragrances, fruits, minerals, forests, pinewood-derby cars, and cedar boxes. What we all are sensitive to is those familiar things in a novel instance, here and now – in a place, the terroir, where we ourselves have never before been nor can ever visit again, but recognize as ours as soon as we are there: it puts us ineluctably in the present. While ‘mindfulness’ is all the rage as a soft Eastern-import religion and pseudo-psychology, the mindfulness of the glass seems to me a more authentically Western way to access the permanent in the ephemeral, in the compass of which full-blown memories or even coy experiential auras, sometimes acquired unbeknownst to us, can surge up in, say, a smell from the glass, hidden as if corked itself until that moment of recollection.

Thus, the tobacco I find in my glass of Pauillac bears with it the memory of the first cigar my father ever gave me; the citrus in my Sancerre participates in the freshness and newness of a summer at Virginia Beach; the caramel in my glass of well-cellared Sauternes carries the Werther’s Original candies my brother and I used to fight over and sometimes share. In bringing me back, I am not only transported to other, earlier pleasures, but I am also thrown into reflection on the differences that attend a human life – the child and young man that are ‘me’ but are now so long lost to me that I barely recognize having been them. And to others who both are and will not be – to those whom I love. The ache of cherishing the things that are temporary, and only being able to cherish them temporarily, and within time, and finally losing them, has its analogy both in the vintages that can be enjoyed for a time, but not forever and eventually not at all, and in the movement of the wine in the glass through its brief fiery affair with oxygen. If you wait too long it will all go sour and be gone.

I have by now gotten far from wine itself, but not too far in a direction to which wine does not take reflective souls. Sentimental? Perhaps. Nostalgic? Certainly. What longing is not nostalgic, in the sense of seeking a ‘nostos’, a homecoming? The search for truth at the heart of anything properly called philosophy is often charged with nostalgia. It is seeking in what is transient a homecoming in permanent things, whether it finds them or not. And if that is so, I stand before you, glass in hand, a guilty nostalgic.


How then to drink vintage wine?

So the problem remains: How does one know what to drink and when? Within these pages, by way of a toolkit of simple tricks and a few years of experience in tasting vintage wines, I’ll with some regularity try to answer the question of which wines, at least which wines in my orbit, will hold up best over time, and which should even improve by slumbering in the cellar, under the bed, or wherever the reader squirrels away his tipple. To that end, both the near side and the far side of the cellar need to be considered: what to buy for the future, and when to harvest it.

The far side of other people’s cellars also needs to be considered, if you are buying wines that have already been aged and want to know how to do it well, with minimal risk and optimal enjoyment. Wine is sometimes suggested as an ‘investment’ or something to be ‘collected’. Clarion Vines is, alas, more of a column for current (or aspirational) vintage wine drinkers than collectors or investors; although I suspect that much of what I offer is applicable all round, and the categories are rarely exclusive. Here, in CV, I’ll offer tasting notes and thoughts on older wines – mostly as a way to indicate which properties reliably produce ageworthy wines. All this is, nevertheless, meant to serve firstly those who want to enjoy vintage wines, and wish to learn – or learn more – about how best to do so.

On various websites, or via smartphone apps, there is a lot of, sometimes valuable, information about how well a vintage has generally done, with aggregate and individual scores from professional tasters, as well as when they think the wines will be ready to be consumed. Some even give ranges of years in which certain wines should be consumed. Invariably that is general information, which does not often tell one what to do with the bottle he has before him. It also may not help him to know whether to buy a specific wine for future consumption. All of those skills take phronesis, a practical wisdom that is gained by, and honed through, experience. CV will offer as much of that experience as can be communicated in words, the rest being left up to practice. It is my hope that, through CV, the diligent reader will be able to source and select wines at both ends of the cellar, as well as knowing what to do when a vintage wine is placed before him: Buy it? Drink it? Walk away?

Technē and the art of wine tasting

Over time I shall introduce a few simple techniques I have learned or discovered for selecting and enjoying vintage wines, or wines that will someday be ‘vintage’ in the best sense of the word. For starters, I offer one that is well known to vintage wine drinkers, which tries to solve the chief problem of buying young wines in order to age them: we lack clairvoyance. Not only can we not see into the future, but we also cannot ‘taste into the future’. How do we know whether to buy a few bottles of a certain wine before committing to it and being stuck with the result, good or bad, ten years down the road? One way is to buy a single bottle, go home, and then stick it in the ‘oxygen microwave.’ The principle is based on an imperfect analogy with the relative advantages and disadvantages of a microwave versus a tradition oven. Microwaves are fast but they are not the best way to cook, say, a lamb chop. For that, you need an oven to bake it slowly. But if you did for some reason decide to cook the lamb in the microwave, and it was still quite tasty, then you would have a good indication that it would be even better from an oven. (Nota bene: Please do not actually cook your lamb chops in a microwave.)

Think of a wine cellar as an oven that slow-cooks a wine to perfection. Oxygen is the efficient cause of wine aging, a tiny bit of it over a very long time.  The ‘oxygen microwave’ is a way to fast cook a wine, by giving it a lot of oxygen over a short time. The result should be some indication of which young wines may benefit from cellaring, or which older wines may benefit from more time in the cellar, or even which older wines are really ready to harvest. Generally, wines that stand up longer to the oxygen microwave will last longer in the cellar. If they improve from this quick shot of oxygen, chances are that they will improve from time or more time in the cellar.

Getting the time-ratio between the microwave and oven right requires some trial and error and educated guess-work, not unlike cooking. Additionally, there may be more or less oxygen in the air in your environs, depending, say, on the altitude. A chemist could perhaps determine an idealized ratio between time a bottle is opened and how long that mimics in a cellar. However, the general principle can be put into practice immediately without bothering the chemists. And, the chemist’s recommendation would always be idealized, not based on the air that is really flowing through your house.


How to use the oxygen microwave

Here is what I do: cork a bottle, pour a bit into a glass to taste, and re-cork it. Then I let the oxygen do its swift work, returning to the bottle periodically over a day or two to see how it is developing, typically at intervals of one, three, six or eight hours, depending how young the wine is (younger can often take more oxygen before falling apart). I take notes each time on its taste, smell and colour – as well as any reflections it leads me to. Now as the bottle becomes emptier, there is more oxidation happening. For that reason, after it is about half empty, I pump out some of the air between tastings with a Vacuvin (or similar product). I continue tasting until the wine peaks and begins to decline. They I serve it up to whomever is still around.

And now: off to the cellar, where I shall use this method to taste a young wine that may grow gracefully old.

Jonathan D. Price is Executive Editor of the Clarion Group. He tastes from England and the Continent. 


One Response to “Clarion Vines: A Column for the Future Wines of History
  1. HP says:

    Loved this article. Especially this thought “The ache of cherishing the things that are temporary, and only being able to cherish them temporarily, and within time, and finally losing them, has its analogy both in the vintages that can be enjoyed for a time, but not forever and eventually not at all, and in the movement of the wine in the glass through its brief fiery affair with oxygen. If you wait too long it will all go sour and be gone.”
    good work,

Care to comment?

You must be logged in to post a comment.