Thu 11 Feb 2010
(Readers, this is the 600th post on BTYH.)
I had not seen 1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die (Universe Publishing, $36.95), even though the book was released in 2008, but happening upon it in a local bookstore, I picked it up and was intrigued. My thought, of course, was, “How many of these wines have I tasted?”
One does tire of the 1001 … Before You Die phenomenon, which seems to proliferate with the speedy generation of the sappy Chicken Soup for the Soul books and the endless Blankety-Blank for Dummies series. What I’m waiting for is the snappy 1001 Ways to Die, surely a definitive wrap-up to the concept.
Anyway, I bought the compact but hefty tome, brought it home and began to go through it methodically, marking the wines I have experienced with little yellow sticky-note things. Soon the book absolutely bristled with little yellow sticky-note things, like a pale spiky punk hair-do. And yet when I counted the little yellow sticky-note things, they totaled only 232. Sacre bleu! 232! A mere 23 percent! What have I been doing for the past 25 years?
The book’s essential wines, the ones we must taste before we shuffle off this mortal coil, were chosen by a panel of 43 experts, 25 of whom are British, so it’s easy to understand the book’s bias in favor of French wines, with which the British have a relationship going back 800 years and more. In fact, of the 1001 wines mentioned, 323 are French, and of those 104 are from Bordeaux. Not that that’s a bad thing, and I would say that the French wines are certainly balanced by worthy, interesting, intriguing and obscure picks from other parts of the world. If only because the book inspires curiosity and the desire to seek out new and unknown wines, we must count it a (rather intimidating) success.
Here’s the scheme: The book is divided into these sections — Sparkling wines, White wines, Red wines (by far the biggest segment) and Fortified wines. The order within each section is alphabetical. The entry includes some historical detail and a description of the recommended wine, which is always, where appropriate (that is, not a nonvintage product), vintage specific. In other words, the expert doesn’t say, “You must taste Chateau Leoville-Las Cases or Stefano Inama Vulcaia Fume Sauvignon Blanc before you die,” but Leoville-Las Cases 1996 or Stefano Inama Vulcaia Fume Sauvignon Blanc 2001. This method works with a wine like the Leonetti Cellars Merlot 2005, which is available all over the Internet from about $70 to $90, but not so well with, say, the Domaine Hubert de Montille Volnay Les Taillepieds Premier Cru 1985, which I have to say, we should all taste before we die, but good luck with that unless you find some at auction and possess the fiduciary prowess to purchase it.
Certainly a wine like Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is a necessity for anyone with pretensions to a well-rounded palate and historical perspective, but the vintage recommended in the book for Mouton is 1945. Now Mouton-Rothschild 1945 stands loftily among the greatest wines made in the 20th Century, and it should be obvious that, 65 years later, the supply is dwindling. In 2006, a case of Mouton ’45 sold at Christie’s in Beverley Hills for an insane $290,000; you see individual bottles priced from $5,000 to $12,000. So, ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, yes, we would taste Mouton 1945 before we die — and the CVNE Corona Reserva Blanco Semi Dulce 1939 and other old wines — but our chances of doing so are about as remote as Lady Gaga singing Tosca at La Scala.
What’s interesting about the book, though, is that not all the selections are esoteric, expensive or unattainable. There are, for example, two of my favorite inexpensive red wines from Spain, Castaño’s Hecula Monastrell 2004 from Yecla and Borsao’s Tres Picos Garnacha 2005 from Campo de Borja. Must we taste them before we die? I don’t know about that, but they’re damned fine, completely accessible wines that you can buy for 10 or 11 smackers. You would want more recent vintages, of course.
And then there are the book’s provocative eccentricities. Mateus? Blue Nun? Surely the title of that book would be Wines I Would Rather Die 1001 Deaths Before I Tasted. Mateus is described as “one of the few truly global wine brands,” while Blue Nun is called “a triumph of marketing and rebranding.” Aren’t those precisely the reasons why thoughtful consumers don’t drink some products?
So, about my 232 wines, you could say that I cheated in some instances, but I will justify my claims. For example, I have not tasted Domaine Jean Grivot Richebourg Grand Cru 2002, the vintage recommended in the book, but I did taste the 1998, from the barrel, in Grivot’s dim cellar, my toes numb with the chill on a blustery, rainy December afternoon. I have not tasted Chateau Haut-Brion 1989, but i have tasted Haut-Brion 1975, ’67, ’66, ’64, ’62, ’60, ’59, ’57, ’55 and ’37. I have not tasted Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow 1978 (and where the hell would you find it now?), but I did taste Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace 1977 “First Pick” and Red Rock Terrace ’77 “Second Pick,” Volcanic Hill 1979 “First Pick” and Volcanic Hill ’70 “Second Pick,” and the Three Vineyard Blend 1981 and ’84, with Al Brounstein, sitting at a picnic table on the property. My point, Readers, is that you take your cred where you can, and add up the score later.
On the other hand, I was surprised, if not downright pleased, at how many of the wines I had tasted in the specified vintages. Salon 1996? But of course, my dears. Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1982? It goes without saying. Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 1971 (or Grange Hermitage as the wine was known originally)? Not only 1971 but every vintage going back to 1955. And so on, blah blah blah, that’s all fine, but the humbling factor remains the 769 recommended wines I have not tasted, tons of fascinating wines from Italy, Spain, Australia, South Africa, Portugal. Time’s a-wastin’. I had better get busy.
And I’ll conclude with a dozen perhaps slightly eccentric recommendations of my own, wines that I believe deserve attention, for the book’s next edition (without specific vintages):
Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley.
Tres Sabores Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley.
Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Los Carneros, Napa Valley.
Robert Sinskey Vandal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Los Carneos, Napa Valley.
Porter Bass Zinfandel, Russian River Valley.
Tenuta di Valgiano, Colline Lucchesi Rosso.
Reale Andrea Borgo di Gete, Colli di Salerno.
Albet i Noya Lignum Red, Penedes.
Domaine Beauthorey Bella Parra, Pic Saint-Loup, Languedoc.
Champagne David Léclapart Cuvée L’Apôtre. (A vintage blanc de blancs that sees oak.)
Champagne David Léclapart Cuvée L’Amateur. (A vintage blanc de blancs sans oak.)
Peter Jakob Kühn Oestrich Doosberg Riesling, Rheingau.