Tuesday 19 April 2011

Chateau Leoville-Barton 1989

This is about not drinking Chateau Leoville Barton 1989. Readers unfamiliar with the Sediment blog, and its somewhat idiosyncratic approach to wine writing, may well observe that there are probably thousands of wines I could write about not drinking. But bear with me.

I was recently taken aback by a statement on the US wine website Snooth which said that "Fact is, almost no-one cellars wine. Something north of 90% of all wine purchased in the USA is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, and this number fast approaches 100% if the period is extended to two weeks from purchase to consumption."

Well, I cellar wine. I would say that I cellar a little wine, but my Affianced, who monitors its insidious expansion, would disagree. CJ describes it as "a small cellar, which he maintains assiduously" – well, if keeping a cellar book, and tying little brown tags to the bottle necks to remind me of their provenance, is assiduous, then I plead guilty. And in that cellar is my Leoville-Barton 1989, which I try not to drink.

I always wanted a wine cellar. It seemed something which a gentleman should possess, a simultaneous indication of taste, achievement, knowledge, bon vivant and generosity. My Dad had a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream in the sideboard. My College had a cellar. Without the help of a printed arrow, I knew which way was up. 

I was then invited for a meeting at the house of a fairly celebrated Englishman, who had just appointed me to a new job, but who had been extremely ill, and couldn’t manage stairs. “Can you nip down to the cellar and bring us up a bottle of white?” he asked me. “Nothing too special…”.

In those three words – “Nothing too special…” – lay an entire labyrinth of English social etiquette. The understated, throwaway remark which assumed a great deal of knowledge. The subtle declaration that, of course, he had a wine cellar. The suggestion that some of its content was special. And the expectation that someone he had chosen to work with knew which wines were special, but which not too special.

What did I bring up, everyone always asks? A Sauvignon Blanc. And my host smiled, and said “That’s fine.” Because, of course, he was a gentleman.

Anyway, this month the 2010 Bordeaux en primeur offers are emerging. There are places better than this to find out exactly what that means – but twenty years ago now, I had decided that I needed a cellar, and this offer, despite my impecuniousness, was surely the place to start.

In November 1990, I bought my first ever case of serious Bordeaux, en primeur. It was, of course, that Leoville-Barton 1989. And thanks to my assiduousness, I have not only the invoice for this case, but the Bibendum  tasting notes which inspired it. “The wine represents everything that is so deservedly popular in St Julien,” they said. “Terrific fruit encased in a firm structure, with this year an extra richness that brings more depth to the wine.”

The case – the entire case – cost me £132. Now, there was tax and delivery to pay on top of that when it arrived, but even so we are talking about something like £160 when it was delivered eighteen months later. Bear that sum in mind.

Now, the only problem was that I had no actual cellar. I couldn’t afford professional storage – and, in any case, I wanted this spiritual cellar, this presence of fine wine in my home. So for the next 20 years, this wooden case of claret, virtually the whole of my original “cellar”, followed the movements of my life. It was lugged between three properties; spent three years in household storage along with my furniture; and four months in an in-law-to-be’s garage. Sadly, my “cellar” has not always been the climate-controlled haven recommended by the experts.

And even as the years passed, the right occasion to prise open the case never arrived. Big occasions were marked with big celebrations, with too many people to share what I had. Others were marked at restaurants, or catered events, with punitive corkage charges. And was the wine actually ready? It never seemed the right time to start the case. And abstinence made the heart grow fonder.

Anyway, two years ago, I was invited down to my future father-in-law’s for Christmas. Here was a chap, and a future brother-in-law as well, who really appreciated good wine. Earlier that year, the wine critic Tim Atkin had said in one of his last pieces for the Guardian that he would be drinking precisely this wine at his wedding, describing it as a “mature, complex claret”, terms which struck chords in my heart, and persuaded me that the wine must be ready to drink.

Here was an occasion on which I really wanted to appear knowledgeable, generous etc etc. Here were people I could share it with. Here was the special occasion for which to breach the case at last.

And it was truly gorgeous velvety claret; the bouquet rich, the tannins resolved in a soft, full flavour, great length – oh, all the things you want from old Bordeaux.

But… this is the Sediment blog, and there are others who write tasting notes on great wines like this; there are far more important points to make within our unique remit.

I could not drink wine of that price now. The wine which cost me £132 a case currently retails for £70–£80 per bottle – and I would wince to pay that. I didn’t buy it as an investment; I bought it so that I would be able to drink wine I could not otherwise afford, which is indeed now the case. But actually it is, in those words I remember, “too special” – and it is not drinking it which is really important.

My Leoville-Barton ‘89 is the backbone of my cellar, the wine I could serve to the grandest person who might cross my threshold. It captures and illustrates, in a single wine, all of those spiritual aspects of a cellar which I described earlier on. And it demonstrates that twenty years ago, I looked forward in life with optimism, to a point at which I have now arrived.

My assiduous cellar book contains a cutting from The Observer, 13 May 1990 – long before online archives – by Paul Levy, which helped persuade me into my purchase. His concluding paragraph applauds Leoville-Barton for honest pricing, and ends by praising owner Anthony Barton: “[His] reward for his integrity will come in the future, when his claret will be one of the few outstanding ‘89s that people can afford to drink rather than trade.”

Or, in my case, afford not to drink, rather than trade.

Now that my cellar is finally physically extant, it has a rolling content; I bought en primeur again in 2009. Perhaps some unquenchable optimism buried within me believes that there will come more occasions, in decades or two, which merit wine like this. And ultimately, that’s why I cellar wine. Some say, life is too short to drink bad wine. But hopefully life is too long to simply quaff the good.


Tuesday 12 April 2011

Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie 2009

At what point did Pinot Grigio start to colonise the space once occupied by Sauvignon Blanc as the default safety white? I mean, this post wasn't even meant to be about Pinot Grigio, but so invasive has this drink become that a stern intention to write about Piesporter Michelsberg has to make way for the great Pinot Grigio taste: a whiff of town gas, followed by about a second of citrus aftershave, ending with a 'long dry finish' as promised on the label, or rather, a blotting-paper sensation around the uvula. A lightly frustrating headache rounds things off, accompanied by an inability to understand why Pinot Grigio seems to have colonised so much of the space once occupied by Sauvignon Blanc, and so on and on.

So, why? Because it was free, is why. The wife's uncle gave us a fistful of bottles of wine which he had been given by his Bournemouth neighbours over the years, announcing to everyone's astonishment that he didn't like wine, never drank it, was much more into cake. Actually, my brother-in-law shrewdly made off with the reds, leaving us some Rosé d'Anjou (which seemed to have no flavour at all), the Pinot Grigio, a bottle of white Viňa Sol, and the thing I was really interested in, a bottle of Piesporter Michelsberg Qualitätswein.

And the Piesporter was all about nostalgia. I can't remember the last time I drank a German wine, but it might well have been when I was sixteen and still living with my parents. Because that's what we had, if anything, back in the Seventies, apart from the odd rogue bottle of Nicolas that crept in as a dangerous experiment. PK has been threatening to write about the Blue Nun revival for some time, so I thought I'd crash his party by getting weepily sentimental over the Piesporter ('Perfect balanced fruitiness' it said on the label, no frilly metaphors, just the sound of a car boot lid shutting efficiently) and the hallucinatory strangeness of German wine, generally.

After all, even I can take a look at the label of a French or Spanish or New World wine and take a half-informed guess as to what it might taste like. But Piesporter Michelsberg? Apparently, it's made in industrial quantities from Riesling grapes and tastes, as a rule, of scented tapwater. But I couldn't have hazarded even that much - and my teenage self would have been no use as a guide, since everything at that age tasted of mashed potato or Instant Whip, apart from the roast beef with which my Dad would painstakingly serve an eggcupful of the room-temperature Riesling.

So I grabbed the sexily slender bottle, panting slightly at its caressable, brown, unfamiliar shape, took a look at the cork, found it to be gnarly, slightly depressed and crowned with blue mould, thought, That's a guarantor of sheer quality, tapped it with the corkscrew and watched as it fell straight down the neck and into the booze. Turns out the wife's uncle not only didn't drink wine, he liked to store it upright and fairly near the gas boiler, as a form of punishment. The Piesporter was thus corked to destruction, and although I tried to get some benefit by drinking a tiny sip with my eyes closed, it was too close to (I'm guessing a bit, here) rabbit urine to be a lot of fun.

There the matter rests. The nostalgia binge has been postponed, the German wine is still waiting for PK and all we are left with is the unsurprising intelligence that elderly people in Bournemouth give one another Rosé d'Anjou, Piesporter Michelsberg, Pinot Grigio and other controversy-free wines as a way of saying thank you. And then leave them on the boiler.