Tue 2 Oct 2012
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …
When John Keats wrote these opening lines of “Endymion,” he was thinking of the Platonic and transcendental beauty of nature, not a bottle of wine, though he wrote some fine, brief descriptions of wine here and there in his body of work, notably in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he calls for “a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth…” Later in this stanza, he calls again, ecstatically: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,/Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And the purple-stained mouth …” I taught this poem for years in the second semester of English Literature survey, and every time I read those lines, I thought, “Damnit! I want some of that wine!”
Unfortunately, unlike the endlessly melodic and unchanging song of the nightingale — “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — a bottle of wine is not immortal, though some wines are capable of aging into mature beauty. In fact, Keats hits on both of the themes that have dominated the world’s wine industry since the ancient times of the wine-loving Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, and that is that some wines are intended to cool their heels “a long age in the deep-delved earth” until they attain a plateau of subtlety and nuance, while other wines, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And purple-stained mouth,” something like 95 percent of all wine produced in the world, are meant for more or less immediate consumption. In the wine-reviewing business, we don’t often have the opportunity to try those lovely, old, fully developed wines — and we are jealous of those who do — because our focus is on wines in current release, which we taste too young and have to evaluate more in terms of potential — “Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 or ’27” — than for their ability to deliver pleasure in the present. The truth, though, is that nowadays many winemakers are producing wines, particularly reds of course, intended to be drinkable soon after release as well as 15 or 20 or more years later.
Paradoxically, and perhaps perversely, the wine that inspired this post was not a fine old vintage — though I’ll get to a few of those in a different post soon — but a just released cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, a region widely and justly acclaimed as having one of the best climates and geographies for the grape. The wine is the St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc that aged 19 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Danielle Cyrot. A portion of the grapes for Oroppas ’08 came from the valley floor, in Rutherford, but the majority derived from higher altitudes in Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.
The color is pure intense dark red-ruby, while the bouquet presages the perfect balance and harmony that characterize the wine; no edges here, no risks, just the sheer beauty of a wine that’s so totally poised and integrated. Aromas of licorice, lavender and potpourri, warm and slightly roasted and meaty black currants, black cherries and a touch of wilder mulberry are permeated by hints of cedar and thyme, graphite and bittersweet chocolate. Yes, there are tannins and they grow more powerful or at least evident over 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re tannins of the finely milled, minutely sifted variety, sleek and suave as the oak influence on the wine is sleek and suave and almost invisible. Who said that oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible? Why, that was me! And so it is here! I mean, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into another dimension. This cabernet sauvignon is, in other words, an absolutely lovely, pure and intense expression of the grape, delivering the immediate gratification that’s so important for consumers in these times yet possessing enough backbone and grip and earthy minerality — and nothing overdone, nothing too ripe or opulent — to allow the finish its quiet and slightly demanding moments of dignity and austerity. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $55.
Why did this wine inspire the post you’re reading now?
To corral another poet to my purpose, Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems written in the 20th Century, said “Death is the mother of beauty.” Though that sentence sounds like a grim sentence indeed, Stevens means that beauty is born of its inherently fragile and inevitably ephemeral character. We value beauty all the higher because its very nature embodies its impermanence, its decline and final dissolution. Keats’ nightingale is not immortal in the individual bird; they all die, but the identical song lives on in each generation of nightingales. The greatest wines ever made — Margaux 1900, Mouton-Rothschild ’29, Cheval Blanc ’47, Petrus ’49, Lafite ’59, Latour ’82 — however extravagantly lauded and loved will soon be gone from this ever-changing earth, faded, weakened, cracking up, fled, departed. That G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 that you’ve been holding onto like Silas Marner his hoard of gold (a wine that shook me to the core when I tasted it from barrel in December 1999, as it happens on my birthday); drink it, my friend, because it will soon go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. That last bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’74 in your cellar, you lucky bastard (depending on its condition, of course)? Gather your loved ones, roast a chicken, sit down together and eat and drink. It will not last much longer nor was it meant to.
St. Clement Oroppas 2008 is an absolutely gorgeous wine, fine and beautiful in every small detail and broad stroke, and when we drank it, we felt privileged. I would love to try the wine again in 10 years. It is not immortal, nor does it stand among the greatest cabernet wines ever produced. It was made for pleasure, both now and through the next decade, and that is a goal and accomplishment not to be disparaged, and a great deal of its pleasure lies in what Keats, so wise for one so young — he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 — wrote about in another poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Melancholy, he wrote, “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Dissolution and decay dwell with the beauty of great wines, and tasting them, drinking that lambent, plangent liquor, we feel the death inside them and the beauty, and we are made glad.
Image of John Keats from Bettmann/Corbis; image of dusty old wine bottles from rapgenius.com. The St. Clement Oroppas 2008 was a sample for review.