04 June 2013

When I drink great wine

When I drink great wine I’m usually with great friends. Last weekend I traveled back to Minnesota and spent an evening with a few friends at Dan and Anna Lisa’s home. Dan has turned into a real artisan of pizza, and his pies rival those of the great pizza joints that we both love eating in throughout the country. He seriously needs to build a wood-fired oven in his backyard, because even with his 500­°F kitchen oven he makes ethereal, baby-bottom soft dough, and tops it with the finest, straight forward ingredients.

Most of the Chablis I’ve drunk has been young, mineral-rich and bracingly delicious. The way Chablis expresses chardonnay matches my own sense of this grape: I like its ability to be restrained and flinty, and love the long pull of fruit. I was not prepared for the transformation the 1998 Domaine Laroche ‘Les Clos’ underwent while it sat in storage for the past fifteen years. After my first taste I wasn’t even sure if the wine was still good. We tasted and looked at each other, wondering if we were in for a disappointment. Turns out it needed about five minutes to open up and send us over the moon.

You know, I’ve always admired the focused senses that bird lovers bring to their hobby. Whether they hear a slight pip or see a fleeting rustle in thick leaves, they have the skill to say, oh, it’s a blah blah blah! And that knowledge thrills them because they may be seeing a certain bird for the first time in their lives. The birders I know bring the joy of discovery with them every time they walk through the woods or down a country road. Wine tasting, on the other hand, sometimes feels like it’s been taken over by technocrats who want to prove that they’ve identified something previously unnoticed by the more pedestrian palates of the world. Some tasting notes read like technical fact sheets represented by ever more obscure tastes and images. Now, I’ve been at tastings where someone has identified flavors that, once named, open up with the precision of a well-turned double play, giving me words to notice something that was just beyond my palate’s vocabulary. A wine drinker with a good palate and an expansive word hoard can give us tools for better expressing what we’re tasting, just as a birder can help us identify a mere disturbance in tall grass as a rare Henslow’s sparrow.

The Laroche ‘Les Clos’ was a swooning bottle, and the candied fruits and caramel sugars were tastes we kept noticing, a slow chant of recognition as we pressed our noses deeper into the bowls, hoping to infuse our memories with a permanent record of this ephemeral event. How does a grape do this? we asked over and again. We were seduced by this just-out-of-sight wine that brought utter silence to our group, a church-like stillness as we inhaled the incense of a High Mass.

After we left the church of Chablis we indulged in a few pies that Dan crafted before us, a deft hand moving dough, cheese and his own pulse of tomato-garlic-basil that he spoons on with a sparseness that celebrates the fullness of each earthborn ingredient. A sprinkle of olive oil and sea salt on this pie, and Brussels sprout leaves on the next. Yes, we all said in chorus.

And then we swooned again, driven deep into the forest of a 1985 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. This Dionysian Bordeaux (my favorite appellation) is, right now, perfect for drinking, so if you have one in your basement, go home and share it with your lover, drink it with friends, or gulp it alone and contemplate the mysteries of earth. The fruit that once ripened on branches returned to humus and made a bed for mushrooms, tobacco, and the funk of soil that nourished these vines in Graves. We lingered over this wine, as certain of its power as we were of fleeting time, knowing that as long as this purple juice swirled in our glasses, our time together would not end. So we sipped slowly, spinning the night longer and onward with wholesome food and endless talk, reveling in friendship and our shared passion for this fruit of the vine and work of human hands.

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