Sun 15 Nov 2009
Number 25 in this chronicle, one-quarter the way through. At this rate, it will take six more years. I’ll try to move along more speedily.
Now, this, friends, is a wine label. For about a decade, the Chateau Lagrange 1926, from Bordeaux’s Left Bank commune of St.-Julien, was the oldest wine I tasted. I encountered in it October 1984 (I didn’t record the day) at a special dinner at American Harvest, a restaurant in Germantown, a municipality abutting Memphis on the east, owned by John Grisanti and helmed by his son-in-law, Peter Katsotis. The event was organized and hosted by Ed Chidester, then owner of Mt. Moriah Wine & Liquors in Memphis, a store where I regularly went looking for unusual wines.
It constantly amazed me at the time, and was a source of gratification, that even though I had been writing my newspaper wine column only for three months that doors were continually being opened, giving me the opportunity to try all sorts of wines. This was largely due to my new association with “Big John” Grisanti, who promoted me, nurtured me, educated me and, yes, badgered and browbeat me.
I also didn’t record what courses were presented at this dinner, so I can’t tell you what the 58-year-old wine was paired with. It was, not surprisingly, fully mature. A bit of mustiness blew off after a few minutes, and the wine, which displayed a modestly diminished garnet color, stood up like a soldier with a complement of dried spices, that St.-Julien signature of cedar and tobacco, and gently macerated and fading red and black fruit flavors over some mossy earthiness, before making an honorable retreat. What a treat!
Ownership records for Chateau Lagrange go back to 1631. The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 ranked Lagrange as a Third Growth, at which time the estate consisted of about 700 acres. The Cendoya family bought the estate in 1925 and sold it to Suntory in 1983; by then, the property had been reduced to about 392 acres, and the quality of the wine had been in decline for decades. Suntory spend million of dollars upgrading the estate and the facilities and replanting vineyards.
The label from 1926 is a work of art, of its kind, clearly based on late Renaissance models of printmaking craftsmanship. Notice how the pair of soldiers-at-arms is carefully differentiated, from their armor and helmets and plumes to their magnificent mustaches and beards. A riot of typefaces and curlicues, the image is indeed busy, but elegant and authoritative for all its doodads and devices. By comparison, the contemporary label is bland and generic.