The Importance Of Context In Wine Tasting
If the painting Water Lillies by Claude Monet was hanging on the wall of a sidewalk café, would it be treated with the same reverence as it does in the Musee de l’Orangerie? When violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played in the subway station, did anyone really stop to appreciate the glorious music? (He actually did.)
I was reminded again of the importance of context at a dinner a few weeks ago. I was invited by a friend to his home to share in some wines – “dirty wines,” to be exact. He had read one of my previous columns about “dirty” – meaning earthy – wines from the Old World and wanted to get together to share some, and I was happy to oblige.
We began with a bottle of 2011 Domaine TempierBandol Rose, which in my opinion brings its context with it. You can have this wine in a dark bistro in the dead of winter and it would shine with the warm glow of the Provençale sun. It was wonderfully gulpable and fresh – a perfect beginning for the evening.
As we were celebrating a birthday of one of the attendees, the host busted open a bottle of MV Krug Grande Cuvee. I think Champagne is another wine that needs very little context to enjoy, especially Krug. Champagne is a wine that automatically brings happiness and joy to wherever it is opened. Have you ever had a bottle of Champagne and not had a good time? Thankfully, I have not. The Grande Cuvee was its “normal” regal self, brimming with notes of fresh bread and toast, citrus and gingersnaps, a touch of butter along with lemongrass. I am partial to Krug, you know.
Next we did a 2004 Joseph Drouhin Chablis Premier Cru, which was definitely “dirty,” and in a good way. It had a slightly golden hue and reminded me of seashells melded with citrus. It was quite correct on the palate, with a medium body at best but a satisfying tang of acidity and raciness that belies all good Chablis.
We thought to follow it with a 1996 Louis Michel Chablis Premier Montmains. I brought this bottle, but unfortunately it was prematurely oxidized. The color was deep gold and the nose had no fruit, only nuts and alcohol. How embarrassing.
As the entrée of prime rib hit the table, I opened up my “backup” bottle of 1992 Chapoutier CrozesHermitage Les Meysonniers. I had tasted this wine last year, and despite it being from a lesser vintage (1992) was still showing lots of complexity and the tannins were quite soft. Unfortunately, this bottle was corked, and it was my last one – 0-for-2 loser. Thankfully, the next wine was about to wipe the taste of shame from my palate.
Our honored birthday guest’s husband had brought a bottle of 1987 La Tache to share. I’ve had this wine twice before. The first was about a decade ago in a vertical tasting of La Tache spanning from 1959 to 1995. Among the great vintages of La Tache that sing like the three tenors, the 1987 reminded me more of a drunk karaoke singer, a bit disjointed and not having much to highlight. The second time I had it was about five years ago, and that bottle was even worse. It was completely dried out, lacking even simple fruit, and showed some coarse tannin. At that tasting it also was put in a tough spot next to several other vintages of La Tache, including a great bottle of 1985 and the stunningly gorgeous 1993 vintage. Needless to say, my expectations were not high for this bottle. Did I mention that 1987 is not a highly regarded one in Burgundy for either whites or reds?
But when we opened it, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The nose was beguiling. It had these fully developed secondary and tertiary aromas of sandal-wood, sweet cherries, mocha, soy and Spanish cedar. In the mouth, it was more velvety than silky but no less sexy. The fruit was in just the right place, and the finish was quite penetrating. I continued to enjoy the aroma of the wine for as long as I could stop myself from drinking it, and over the course of about 40 minutes it never faded. I was so lucky and am so thankful to be there on this occasion where this wine showed beautifully. If it were put up against other vaunted vintages, it might have paled in comparison. But this night, in this context – a birthday, other wines just bombing, great company – it was an absolutely ravishing bottle of wine perfect for the occasion. I cannot think of a better context to have had this wine, and I do not think it could taste any better.
Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.