Forced by circumstance to isolate from the virused world, we celebrate today as best we can, which in wine terms means breaking out a sipper and cherishing it with some wisdom of wine lore that reminds us how venerated is this elixir we revere.
Fine writing on wine goes back centuries, the majority emanating from Great Britain, which has a long, steadfast (and financial) connection to the great wines of France, Germany, and Portugal.
Wine writers like H. Warner Allen, Prof. George Saintsbury, and Charles Walter Berry may be long forgotten by most of today’s wine lovers, but the scant remaining copies of their works command exorbitant prices. (One reason: You can consume a book and still have it around afterward.)
These writers’ paeans to wine inject vivacious illusions that animate and illuminate lifeless liquids.
One delightful vin-essayist whose works aren’t hard to find was Harry Waugh, wine merchant and former director of Chateau Latour, and a man who spent lots of time touring the Napa Valley with local friends, often detailing his travels in Baedeker-like volumes.
In his 1973 work “Winetaster’s Choice,” Waugh (who died 19 years ago at age 97) wrote this tale of a Christmas-time outing he attended, likely to bag some game birds.
“Most of us have at least one extravagance – mine is shooting,” he wrote, “but at least this is a comfort to my wife, because it gets me out of the house on Saturdays during the three months of the season and this gives her some time to get on with things.
“There are eight of us guns in the syndicate and we shoot over a large estate some sixty miles north of London. And although this used to be a famous partridge shoot in the days when this table delicacy abounded, 90% of the bag nowadays is driven pheasants, most of which have been hand-reared.
“From fifteen to twenty beaters come out every Saturday…” (Beaters are hardy souls willing to trek through rugged scrub lands scaring the birds so they’ll take flight and are easier targets.)
One of the more delightful adjuncts of a day’s shooting is the break for lunch, and after a really cold morning exposed to the east wind or whatever it may be, what could be more welcome than a warming drink (even if it is a cold one!) and something hot to eat. In some places, as for example in France, the shooting lunch can be a rather grand gastronomic affair, but ours is pretty simple…
“One of the more amusing days of the season is the Christmas Shoot, only half a day in fact, but more memorable because on this occasion we concentrate more on the ‘goodies’ for lunch. Our most affluent member usually brings a magnum of Champagne, either Dom Perignon or Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, as well as a Christmas pudding from Fortnum’s, accompanied by the essential brandy butter.”
(Fortnum & Mason, https://www.fortnumandmason.com, is a highly regarded culinary-oriented London institution.)
“[On one special occasion] I could think of no more agreeable, nor more appreciative with which to share my very last bottle of Taylor 1927 [Port].”
(This was a monumental offering. In 2016, Decanter Magazine’s Stephen Brook wrote, “Other than the rare Nacional bottling from Quinta do Noval, Taylor’s vintage is the most sought-after and expensive of all vintage Ports, and this wine, from an acclaimed vintage, is the epitome of the style.”)
Waugh decanted the classic old 1927 wine early in the day, and sealed the decanter, taking it with him as he was driven by “the most affluent member” to the shoot.
The group started the postprandial period with a “warm-up” Port, 1960 Warre. “But as good as this was, what we had all really been looking forward to was the pièce de résistence, the 1927 Taylor.
“Naturally confident that our ‘affluent’ member had brought the bottle. . . [along with] the food, I then asked him to set 1927 on the table. There was a deadly hush – he turned quite white and exclaimed, ‘Gosh, I gave that bottle to the beaters for their lunch as I thought it was a Christmas present for them.’
“Since the assembled company were all enthusiastic Port lovers, it was hard to convince them that this had really occurred and one even rushed out to endeavor to retrieve the bottle, but alas, it was far too late and had all been consumed. All we could do was to laugh and my great consolation came later on when our head keeper Frank Dickens, a teetotaler himself, had told us that one of the beaters had tasted it and exclaimed, “Cor, that’s a drop of good stuff!”
Waugh’s most oft-quoted line was his answer to a question: Someone asked if he had ever mistaken a Burgundy for a Bordeaux?
His reply: “Not since lunch.”
Great old Burgundies often elicit paroxysms of delight, and it is also alleged that Waugh coined the phrase: “The first duty of wine is to be red — the second is to be a Burgundy.”
As to Burgundy, one of the most prolific of the Brit wine-prose creators was André Simon, an author and wine lover who lived nearly a century.
In one of his books he wrote, “Burgundies, on the whole, do not keep nearly so long as Clarets. They have more to give, more bouquet and greater vinosity, at first, but they exhaust themselves and fade away sooner than the less aromatic, more reserved Clarets.
“It is somewhat like carnations, which possess a far more pungent and assertive perfume when first picked than any rose; yet the more discreet, the gentler and sweeter perfume of the rose will abide with the bloom as long as the bloom will last.”
French-born André Simon was a wine merchant and prolific writer. The International Wine & Food Society, of which he was a founder in 1933, wrote of him, “He believed that ‘a man dies too young if he leaves any wine in his cellar’. There were only two magnums of claret left in his personal cellar at his death,” at age 93.
The late winemaker André Tchelistcheff also alluded to the greatness of Burgundy when he suggested that to discover its true aroma, smell a dying rose.
The aforementioned H. Warner Allen, an author of detective novels, also penned this in his book, “Through the Wine-Glass,” 1954:
“The Wine-Glass tempers the ruthlessness of the Hour-Glass; wine smoothes the asperities of Time. Seen through the Wine-Glass, the past is purified from many of its regrets and unhappy memories, in the specious present ‘present mirth has present laughter,’ and the future which the Hour-Glass reveals with dark and menacing obscurity is gilded with the light of hope... The Wine-Glass can lend enchantment to, or at least veil the horror of, the grimmest moment in this century.”
Particularly apt considering what so many have lived through.
One of the most famous quotes about Champagne was reputedly said by Lilly Bollinger of the Champagne house of that name:
“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
Much wine writing is devoted to allusion and one of the most enjoyable phrases appeared in the third edition (1961) of writer Julian Street’s book titled simply “Wines.”
Hidden in the text is this lovely passage:
“Rhônes are important wines, particularly friendly and accommodating. The Rhône Valley being in the south has fewer bad years than Bordeaux or Burgundy and because of this its wines are less expensive and one feels justified in using them more freely. A good [red] Rhône will stand up handsomely to venison, a game bird, a rabbit, or any other dish with which Burgundy or a very ‘big’ Claret [red Bordeaux] is usually associated.
“But whereas Burgundy is King and Claret is Queen and Champagne is a gay old multimillionaire, the maid of honor from the Rhône Valley is not above sitting with you on a grassy bank and adding magic to a lunch of bread and cheese.”
Traci Dutton of the Culinary Institute of America’s education department is a frequent judge at wine competitions who often describes wines transmogrifyingly by using cultural references. Recently (and fittingly) she described one excellent but subtle wine as Debussy and said another wine was Elton John.
I’ll add one mundane reflection.
Occasionally you find Chardonnays or white Burgundies that really are red wines without color — and Pinot Noirs or red Burgundies that really are white wines with color.
Wine of the Week
2018 Langhart & Hill Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($34) — A striking raspberry/cherry aroma is enhanced by notes of tea and oak, but not enough to make the wine unbalanced. Indeed, the balance between fruit, acid, and barrel aging is ideal and the medium-weight wine opens handsomely after it’s decanted for an hour. Good value.
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