I am not much for ceremony or pomp. I am a pretty firm believer that every night is a potential “Open that Bottle Night“. I think it is rooted in a crippling fear of disappointment. On “special” occasions I would rather open a bottle of wine I am fairly confident will be good (and have a potential backup in case it is not good) than a bottle that might be more “special” but there is a higher risk of a flaw.
There is another factor of perhaps greater importance–I would prefer opening that “special” bottle with people who would appreciate it even if the wine is not showing well. Why? Well, I have been in a few situations where we have opened special bottles for people who do not “get” wine and let’s just say they did not hide their disdain when the wine was not what they considered “good’.
I get it—it is not my fault. I did not make the wine and other than ensuring that the wine was stored correctly, I have little to no responsibility for what is in the bottle. Nonetheless, I take it a bit personally when people don’t enjoy, or at least appreciate, the wine I serve, particularly when it is one of those “special” bottles.
Is that ego-centric?
Or is it more likely some sort of latent performance anxiety?
Regardless, I had a couple of bottles that needed to be consumed and so I invited a few people over that I thought would enjoy the experience even if the wine turned out to be vinegar. I actually had high hopes for the wine, though, given their pedigree.
The first was a 1980 Château Mouton-Rothschild, one of the five First Growths in Bordeaux. We got the wine from a friend of my father-in-law, a very generous gift, and quite unexpected. The ‘80s were probably the greatest decade for Bordeaux with several outstanding vintages.
Unfortunately, 1980 was not one of them. It was a cold, wet year and the harvest was one of the latest on record—not usually a good sign in Bordeaux.
I knew this bottle was not getting any better, so….
It was time.
The second bottle was another first growth, a 1964 Haut-Brion. Now ’64 was not the vintage of the century (or even the decade), but it was much better received than ’80.
And the wine was 50 years old.
It was time.
Maybe it is the math geek in me, but drinking a 50 year-old wine sounds a lot better than drinking a 51 year-old wine. It is a big deal when you turn 50 (so I have been told), but no one really cares about years 51-59.
It was time.
I invited a few people over, but in the end, there were only three of us (plus my wife) who partook in the evening—Frank, a good friend of mine who is a fantastic cook, and my buddy Jeff from PA Vine Co.
The plan was rather straight forward: start with a bottle of champagne (naturally), followed by a rather simple meal that would accentuate the wine but in no way compete with the wine.
Well, at the last minute, there was a slight deviation from the plan when Frank asked if I wanted him to bring over a pork belly.
Um, yes please (if you learn one thing from this post: never say no to a pork belly).
Jeff introduced another welcomed deviation as he brought over a wine “to get the juices flowing” so to speak, what he called a “lesser Bordeaux”.
Once we were assembled, the champagne popped, and the pork belly well on its way to golden brown deliciousness, Jeff opened his “lesser Bordeaux”. While I am no Bordeaux expert, I do know that not many would consider a 2005 Châteaux Lascombes a “lesser” anything.
2005 Château Lascombes: Retail $80? A bit of green pepper on the nose but only slight. Rich dark fruit. Rich and luscious on the palate with grip this is still a relative baby, from one of the best vintages of the past decade. Whoa. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
Next up was the Mouton. This was by no means a blockbuster, but it was a treat to drink—we all realized that we were born the same year, so we were all the same age in 1980, which led to a few laughs as we swirled and sniffed.
1980 Château Mouton Rothschild: Retail $250-300? Green notes dominate and divulge the weakness of the vintage. Not a ton of fruit but a bit of pepper and a hint of pomegranate. A wonderful wine from a pitiful year. Outstanding, if for no other reason it was 34 years old and still a pleasure to drink. 89-91 Points.
Last, we popped the Haut Brion. As I coaxed the cork out with my Ah-So, I thought that wine has a humbling effect—it is quite possible the person who put the cork in the bottle has died, as have many of the vines that produced the grapes. My mind certainly went in dozens of directions as I delicately dislodged the cork, including the story of how I acquired the wine.
1964 Château Haut Brion: Retail $300-500? Whoa. Nose is crazy. Mocha? White pepper. Burnt caramel or is it crème brûlée? Whoa. I have only had a few old Bordeaux but this is amazing. Still some tannin even on the back-end. Whoa. A bit of stewed fruit but in a good way. Whoa. On the verge of mind-blowing. Unique (and four “Whoas”). 94-96 Points.
I don’t know if the other tasters that night thought as highly as I did about the Haut Brion, but for me it was about more than the wine. I know as a “wine writer” (or whatever I am) there is an emphasis on analyzing only what is in the glass, but I have always felt that was rather asinine—wine has the ability to transcend the glass, to make us think of other people, different events, multiple contexts.
Not always, certainly, but when I open a “special” bottle I can’t help but appreciate all that it took to get that wine to my glass.
In fact, the tasting of the wine itself is almost secondary—what is truly “special” is how the wine causes me to reflect, recall, and reminisce.