I didn’t say that. It was Anthony Hanson in the first edition of his book “Burgundy,” published in 1982 in the old Faber & Faber series about wine regions. Hanson was trying to get at the essence of a particular quality about red Burgundy wines, made from pinot noir grapes, that other writers tiptoed around with such terms as “earth,” “barnyard,” “beet-root,” “old saddle” or, with Gallic flair (attributed to the great winemaker Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac), “your mistress’s armpit.” “Not always, of course,” Hanson continues, “but frequently there is a smell of decaying matter, vegetable or animal, about them.”
Quite an uproar ensued about Hanson’s forthright statement — “sacre bleu!” — and many of his critics said that he was wrong. In fact, researchers determined that some portion of ancient cellars in Burgundy were rife with brettanomyces, a versatile, resilient and highly undesirable form of yeast that thrives in old, dirty barrels and other cellar equipment difficult to clean and that produces spoilage in wine that to some degree smells like the qualities mentioned above but in a more or less unpleasant manner. More uproar — “zut alors!” — there goes the whole romance and mystery of Burgundy, flying out the window with a scientific and pejorative explanation; the essence of Burgundy is the result of a flaw!
The truth surely lies smack in the middle of those brutal assessments. Great Burgundy doesn’t exactly smell like shit; earthy, yes, “barnyardy,” of course, “your mistress’s armpit” (but apparently not one’s wife’s armpit), I dunno, but the unspoken factor in this issue so far is that all of these elements must be clean, scintillating, provocative, touching both a depth of minerality and an elevation of freshness with a hint, excusez-moi, un soupÃ§on, of autumnal dissolution and death.
So, anyway, these important matters were brought to mind because Sunday was a beautiful day in Memphis, a bit chilly in the shade, warm enough in the sun to require the divesting of sweaters, and featuring like a banner on high, a clear, brilliantly blue sky. The day was also almost windless, and we had about half an acre of last season’s fallen leaves to rake, blow, bag and get out to the street, an activity that took most of the day.
Now we have five dogs, and while they are often corralled in their own yards, they sometimes have the free run of the big backyard. To speak as frankly as Anthony Hanson, they shit. And the shit gets rained on and dissolves, gets dried by the sun, gets transmuted by time and the elements. It’s all profoundly philosophical.
And, while working in the backyard, raking, stooping, lifting, filling bags, occasionally came to my nostrils an earthy, organic, slightly decayed yet not unpleasant scent that reminded me of something. This phenomenon occurred often enough that I had to stop and think about it, probing my sense memory, and then it struck me: I was smelling something that had to do with red wine, something evoked by the combination of old leaves, some of them dry and some a little damp, scrapings of earth and the funky yet clean scent of dessicated dog shit. Voila! Burgundy!
The image of the bottle of old Burgundy is from monmillesime.com.
I’ve been looking through wine auction catalogs, those playgrounds for plutocrats. I mean, swoonability, big-time. The wines are legendary, iconic, names with which to conjure the cultural and historical annals of venerable regions and hallowed vineyards. Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Bordeaux First Growths. Guigal Cote-Rotie. Gaja Barbarescos. California cult cabernets. Vega Sicilia Unico. Penfolds Grange. Page after page after page. The mouth waters; the mind reels.
I love the formal language of the wine auction catalog — quoting from the Hart Davis Hart catalog of “Finest and Rarest Wines” offered September 29 and 30 in Chicago — and its decorum. “Magnificent California Wines of a Distinguished Gentleman Collector.” “An Exceptional Collection of Bordeaux … from the Cellar of a Respected Connoisseur.” “A Small Yet Extremely Impressive Collection of French and American Rarities from the Cellar of a Long-Time St. Louis Collector.” (If one is to be small, one certainly wants to be extremely impressive.) And — my favorite — “A Stellar Group of Fine European and American Wines Including Numerous Rare Cult Wines from the Collection of a Doctor.” Well, that’s a relief; they must be good wines if a doctor bought them!
What’s most interesting in this catalog, besides the monumental wow-factor, are the descriptions or evaluations that accompany most of the lots. These are not written by the staff at Hart Davis Hart but culled from the writings of Robert M. Parker Jr., either from his bi-monthly journal The Wine Advocate or from various editions of his books about Bordeaux. True, occasionally the quotations are from Allen Meadows’ Burghound.com or Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, but the vast majority of comments are from Parker’s writings and include the ratings on his 100-point scale.
Which leads me to wonder: Are American wine collectors so deeply attuned to Parker’s weighty and influential opinions and the iron-clad supremacy of his 100-point scale that they would not heed or even pay attention to other ratings and evaluations? And do the Boys with the Bucks — because you have to have Big Bucks to play this game — collect wine on the premise that they will not purchase what Parker does not rate over 90 points or, preferably, 95 to 100? And doesn’t this notion carry the implication that these players, endowed with unimpeachable fiduciary prowess, collect wine because of its status, because of the high Parker scores attached to them in a manner that makes study, research and thoughtfulness unnecessary? And — final question — do American auction houses recognize these factors and tailor their operations to the realities of a Parker-fueled world of wine?
Well, I like to tar with a broad brush, no question, but basically the answer to those interrogatives is “Hell, yes.”
It’s interesting to turn to three catalogs from wine auctions that Christie’s held in November in Paris, Amsterdam and Geneva. The catalog from the auction in Amsterdam — “30th Anniversary Fine and Rare Wines” — offers all sorts of intriguing lots, many of the same sorts of great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines offered at American auctions but with the addition of fascinating mixed lots where a collector could spend, say $350 or $400 and come away with 18 bottles of Burgundy from various producers and vintages. Wise buyers could take home all kinds of interesting and potentially exciting wines — or real clunkers, but that’s the risk involved.
What’s particularly interesting about this Christie’s catalog, however, for the purposes of this brief essay, is that there’s not a single note or evaluation or rating of any wine, only the usual description of the condition of the bottles. Guess what? You’re expected to be a grown-up and do a little research on your own, without depending on Robert Parker’s authority and rating. Gosh, could we actually take that kind of responsibility? Apparently they do in Europe.
The catalog from Paris is much the same, though the concentration is on fine and rare wines; even the typography is less crowded and cluttered to emphasize the seriousness and elegance of the situation. Except for a few notes (but not ratings) by Anthony Hanson for some older Burgundies, this catalog avoids evaluations and scores.
The situation is different, though, in Geneva — “Fine Wines Including a Magnificent Private Cellar” — because this catalog includes notes and ratings by Parker and by the British Michael Broadbent, the long-acknowledged dean of the world’s wine auction rooms and the creator of the wine department at Christie’s. (Broadbent’s notes are impressionistic and speculative; Parker’s are rigorously detailed and dogmatic.) I have to wonder: Were more Americans expected at this auction of truly magnificent wines from awe-inspiring vintages? Were European bidders endowed with new money there, confident in their ability to buy but not confident enough to make judgments unless guided by experts? My hunch is that the answer to those questions is “Yes,” but that would be supposition.
The cartoon image of the wine auctioneer is from winesquire.com.
The image of bottles of Bordeaux is from wine-selects.com.
The image of Michael Broadbent is from elmundovino.elmundo.es.