Through a Glass Darkly

December 16, 2011

Two of my biggest wine-collecting regrets pertain to the same wine. A number of years ago I took the advice of a critic and bought half a case of a 2001 Côte-Rôtie which the review had described in enticing language as a powerfully earthy, old-style wine. But when I opened the first bottle and stuck my nose in the glass, instead of the funky thrill ride I was expecting, I got nothing, nothing at all. And it tasted so frail and vacant it seemed like one of those generic older red wines that might have aged just past the point of having any personality left to offer—hardly a promising attribute in a wine just released. A half case of Côte-Rôtie was a not-insignificant investment for me and I felt utterly frustrated that I had five more bottles and absolutely no desire ever to drink one again. I ended up getting rid of them one by one in the time-honored method of disposing of regretted purchases: I brought them to the houses of non-wine folk I figured wouldn’t know the difference. And that was my second regret, because years later I had occasion to drink a vintage with a quarter-century’s worth of age on it, and it was, of course, glorious and brimming with all the personality and depth one craves in a mature Côte-Rôtie.

The wine was Bernard Levet’s Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche. And since tasting that ’83, I made an effort to restock Levet’s wines in my cellar and taste newer vintages of it to see what I might have missed in the 2001. It seems to me that when a wine or a type of wine you’ve always been bored by suddenly delivers an amazing experience, one of two things usually happens. Either it turns out to have been one of those chance alignments of the stars and leaves you with a memory that’s no less true for being impossible to recreate, or it has an effect uncannily like flipping a switch and somehow activating the area of your brain that can make sense out of the stuff—and once that switch goes on it never goes off. Every subsequent bottle delivers something you’re never quite able to figure out how you missed before.

But Levet hasn’t seemed to fit neatly into either one of those categories for me. Some of the bottles I drank after the epiphany ’83 showed a textural allure I had never noticed before, maybe because it wasn’t in the popularly accepted textbook definition of Côte-Rôtie, which tends to fixate on savory flavor components like bacon and olives. But truth be told, some of the bottles seemed just as anonymous in flavor as the 2001 was years ago. Under other circumstances one might wonder if it’s another case of “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but that doesn’t accord with the history of this estate. At Levet, they make ‘em exactly like they used to.

Levet Côte-Rôtie is just one example, albeit a particularly demonstrative one. The point of the story is that a whole lot of ageworthy wines are in the same bucket: capable of transformation but not into a form one can discern by extrapolation from how they taste at a young age. And yet an awfully large amount of the verbiage generated about wine seems obsessed with trying to accomplish just that. The standard form of the tasting note has become the familiar catalogue of component scents and flavors followed by a prognostication about the wine’s “anticipated maturity,” and the fact that the person doing the prognostication has almost never personally experienced an example of the wine’s aging in that fashion is, quite astonishingly, not thought by anyone to discredit this exercise.

What’s to blame for this credulousness? Above all, it seems that many of us have some difficulty reconciling ourselves to the idea that anything in wine is truly dormant and beyond our powers of detection. We see the wine as a deterministic universe whose perceptible characteristics at two years of age will dictate what happens at every subsequent frame of development, in the manner of the character from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia who ruminated, “If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future. . . .” The problem is that wine evaluation is not algebra and the soul of a wine is not the sum total of the so-called “descriptors” one reads in the tasting notes. The things that determine how it might develop are not necessarily things you can taste or feel. I once bought some bottles of a relatively inexpensive Graves because it tasted eerily reminiscent of Haut-Brion. A few years later it didn’t. Why? Because it wasn’t Haut-Brion.

But still the idea of aging-by-formula remains the subtext in so many tasting notes purporting to see into the future. In its simplest form, the thought process goes something like this: Tannins help a wine age, and this wine is tannic; therefore it needs time. There are endless variations on the theme: As wines age they lose their baby fat, and this wine has a lot of baby fat; therefore it will be a long time before it fades. Or: Wines integrate with age, and this wine seems very disjointed; therefore it just needs some time to come together. Or: Wine ages on its balance, and this wine is perfectly balanced; therefore it will age effortlessly. You can pluck any one you want to justify any arbitrary prognostication. For example, one person tastes a heavily tannic, backwards wine and concludes it’s structured for long aging. Another person tastes the same wine, decries its lack of balance, and quotes the late Henri Jayer: “If it tastes too tannic, then it is too tannic.” Which one is right? Answer: It depends. Some wines have a track record for starting out punishingly tannic and eventually becoming exquisitely finessed, while other wines that might seem structurally indistinguishable from the starting gate never manage to shed the harshness–or, just as disappointingly, they do shed the tannin but don’t reveal anything interesting in the material that remains.

It’s true that aging is just a series of chemical reactions; it isn’t magic. So if we perceive some of the necessary inputs for those chemical reactions, then choosing to cellar a wine on the basis of an early taste isn’t an entirely blind gamble. But of course the character revealed by aging is of vastly more importance than the mere attainment of longevity. Accordingly, the fact that a wine is “built for the long haul” or “has the stuffing to age” or (insert your favorite cliché here) tells us very little about what we really care about.

I recently opened some newly released Barolos and Brunellos from the 2006 vintage, trying to decide whether I wanted to buy additional bottles of any of them for the cellar. I’m not sure exactly what I was hoping to see. Some of the bottles were beautiful, especially Brovia’s Barolo Rocché. Others were so tough and backwards they hardly offered any pleasure at all, such as the Francesco Rinaldi Cannubbio and Conti Costanti’s Brunello di Montalcino. And this tells me . . . absolutely nothing at all about which ones I will be glad to have bought fifteen or twenty years from now. The 1985 Rinaldi Cannubbio is one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe the 2006 will end up in a similar place. But tasting the wine now doesn’t give you any hint of how it might get there.

My proposal is this: Let’s put an end to this silly and misleading practice of opening young wines for the sake of science. Let’s instead resolve that every bottle we open will be for the sake of the satisfaction it can deliver on that day. That doesn’t mean I plan to give up drinking young, newly released wines. That’s not something I’d want to do even if I had an unlimited supply of mature stuff. But I will make an effort to avoid listening to that devil-on-the-shoulder that keeps trying to trick me into trying to sneak a preview of those wines that everybody knows aren’t designed to offer any reward for a long, long time.

For further reading:

  • Importer Neal Rosenthal’s profile of the Bernard Levet domaine, concluding with the much-needed warning that “Bernard Levet’s wines are well-structured wines that are built for aging and experience significant improvement with time in bottle.” It is interesting to observe that Levet owns old vines in the La Landonne vineyard which comprise his Côte-Rôtie Les Journaries bottling and which would cost a few hundred dollars if, for whatever reason, you felt like buying the version from Guigal instead.
  • A book by a famous wine critic characterizing Levet’s wines as “vegetal” and “mediocre,” rating them in the 70s, and advising against aging them.
  • Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in print, or on CD.
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9 Responses to “Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. Andrew Hall said

    What separates (we like to think) us wine freaks from garden-variety alcoholics is the narrative and that is what you propose eliminating. Had that Haut-Brion wannabe been, you would have a great story to share in the community, made all the better for showing off your acumen. As it is, still a good story and a part of the fabric which make HB special.

    The trophies, the ones-that-got-away, the virtue of restraint in aging – all those things are part of what separates wine from everything else. There are a bazillion artisan products nowadays whose creation myths are annoyingly similar. Wine is one of the few where we can narrate a personal, sensory experience from the ‘baby-killing,’ the “closed” bottle, the ‘open but will last for years,’ ‘a point,’ ‘past its peak,’ and ‘over the hill.’ Even the arguing over other people’s insane drinking windows is a necessary part. I submit that social process is *exactly* the pleasure in wine for many (and not excepting myself.)

    A.

    • Oh, far be it from me to propose eliminating all the narrative and navel-gazing! It’s just the type that comes with a heavy scoop of BS and no humility at all that we have to be careful about.

  2. Very interesting, and such great writing as always. Thanks, Keith, for making us wait 2 months between each post. You are helping me to learn patience…

    I remember that 83 Levet and it was remarkable. When that happens to me, drinking a bottle of mature wine that I’ve never had as a young wine, and when the wine is mind blowing, I find that it can lead to silly behavior on my part. I look for other examples of the wine, I want to relive that greatness, and the experience is never the same.

    It reminds me, and your piece does too, of how the story of a wine happens at the level of the bottle. There are generalities about vintages and producers, etc, but the actual experience of drinking is the individual bottle, and all of the variables that impact it. That 83 was properly cared for – it sat undisturbed in a temperature controlled warehouse for 25 plus years.

    There is some science to all of this, but it feels good to submit to the large degree of unknown that comes with drinking wine a lot of the time. To just be curious about the one bottle in front of you.

  3. Keith, to your list of reads I’ll add:

    Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

    As Brooklynguy says, “There is some science to all this…” but I doubt it’s the area of science that wine geeks universally consider applies to them.

  4. strad said

    Kieth,
    Here’s another data point that confirms just how unpredictable a wines evolution may be. Last night I had the 1989 Chapoutier La Sizeranne and it was a delight! Both the nose and palate were fully engaging. Textbook Hermitage that I scored 93pts. Here’s your review from just 3 years ago of the same wine from CT:

    https://www.cellartracker.com/wine.asp?iWine=14206

    Tasted by Keith Levenberg on 10/20/2008 & rated 70 points: Deep in color and seemingly heavy in weight — but totally mute on the nose and correspondingly vacant in material. A ghost town of a wine. Life’s too short to drink this — dumped in the sink.

    Bad bottle or shut down hard?

  5. “Peak of Maturity” story: I once had the experience of opening a 55 year old bottle of a ‘village’ Volnay. It created one of those moments, when time stops, all the world stops and kneels down before that thing of ethereal beauty.. purity, delicacy…
    It shimmered softly there for a moment and, a few minutes later, it was dead: burnt, ashy, bitter, undrinkable.
    Was it over the hill? Was this the perfect time to drink it?

  6. Marshall Gelb said

    I had a similar experience with the 1985 Levet when it was rather young. It just seemed thin and “dirty.” Years later I brought a bottle to a “Thanksgiving leftovers” party and it had truly blossomed. Nonetheless, it was still an extremely controversial wine as it is quite rustic in style and not what everyone looks for in Cote Rotie. It engendered some lively conversation as people either loved it or hated it…no one thought it was “just OK.” I wish I could try another one but sadly, although my CT says I have more…I just cannot find them. Maybe, just maybe, I will get lucky.

  7. [...] Cork Report, Evan Dawson brings attention to “a truly outstanding piece of wine writing” from Keith Levenberg – and explains why it got him thinking about New York wines and why it’s impossible to predict [...]

  8. Glenn Gallup said

    Thank You.

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