Older wines

Those madcaps at Renaissance Vineyard and Winery have done it again, releasing a wine that’s not only unique but sort of crazy. If you think you have tasted everything, you must try this.

The wine is the Da Vinci Petite Sirah from the Sierra Foothills. (Da Vinci is a second label that Renaissance uses occasionally.) Notice that no vintage is stated on the label. That’s because this petite sirah is a “cross-vintage” blend from 1979, 1980, ’81 and ’82 — 70% from 1982, 20% from 1981, the remainder from 1980 and 1979. (Federal regulations state that if a label carries an American Viticultural Area designation, then 95% of the grapes must come from the stated vintage.) The wine was bottled in 1984 and was released on Oct 15 this year. That’s right, readers, this wine, in its finished state, has been aging at the winery for 25 years, though the base wines go back 30 years.

The Da Vinci Petite Sirah (nv) offers all the attributes of a well-made, perfectly aged and mature red wine. It’s mild and mellow, yielding hints of mint and white pepper, spiced and macerated black and red cherries and a touch of cedar and tobacco. Sporting a ruddy, luminous ruby-garnet color, the wine is smooth and harmonious; flavors of black and red currants are wreathed with cloves and spiced plums, and as the minutes wear by, a wafting of smoke emerges. Despite its age, there’s nothing puny about the wine, which is enlivened by bold but unobtrusive acidity and framed by gently faded yet still persistent tannins. A masterpiece!

Renaissance produced about 300 cases of this petite sirah, a true California classic. It’s the kind of wine you savor with duck or pheasant or squab. Most mature red wines from 25 or 30 years ago would cost hundreds of dollars, but the price here is $65. It’s available by mail from the winery in states where direct shipment of alcoholic beverages is legal, which of course it should be in every state of this union. I mean, come on, can’t we all act like grown-ups?

Sent to me as a review sample, and am I ever glad it was.

Jean Hugel died a week ago today, at the age of 84. As the head of an estate in Alsace that dates back to 1639, Johnny Hugel, as he was called, helped lead a renaissance in Alsace after World War II, advocating, indeed working earnestly for the creation of a Grand Cru program based on vineyard quality and on a classification system for the region’s sweet wines.

Coincidentally, last week I came across a small cache of wines from Alsace in a friend’s closet, where they, among other bottles, had been resting, right there on the floor. Vintages ranged from 2001 to 1998. I brought home a few to try and was not only mainly gratified with the results but, with a couple of wines, actually stunned.

On Thursday, I opened three of the bottles, starting with the Hugel “Hugel” Gewurztraminer 2001. This was a few hours before I learned that the patriarch of the Hugel family and its centuries-old estate had died.
Here are my notes on the first three wines:

>Hugel “Hugel” Gewurztraminer 2001. Medium straw-gold color; rich, spicy, honeyed bouquet, green apple, peach and pear, lychee and mango, touch of honeysuckle; round and flavorful,
stone-fruit, quince, achingly dry, electric with crisp acidity; a model of purity and intensity, beautifully structured; mid-palate, minerally races like a tide, layers of shale and limestone. A revelation. Great winemaking. Drink through 2010 or ’11. Excellent.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

>Jean-Baptiste Adam Reserve Riesling 2000. Radiant medium gold color; nose a little funky, a little ashy, some pear and peach, hint of petrol; pulls together nicely, solid structure and length, acidity could do a better job here; tremendous minerality. Lacking in the middle, a bit of a void. Enjoyable, but doesn’t quite hold up. Very Good.
Imported by Chapin cellars, Springfield, Va.

>Domaine Barmes Buecher Rosenberg de Wettolsheim Pinot Blanc 2000. Radiant pure gold color; LHM, what a nose! green apple, peach compote, spiced pear, smoke; mouth-filling, very dry, acidity so resonant that it’s almost visible; baked apple and lemon balm, stone fruit, yellow plum; backnotes of ginger and cloves; formidable minerality. A brilliant wine. Excellent, close to Exceptional. Remember, this bottle was not stored in a wine cellar but in an ordinary closet; if you have any of the wine in a cellar, you’re lucky indeed. Drink (well-stored) through 2012 to ’15.
North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.
I opened the next trio of wines from Alsace yesterday; the results were not as pleasing, but, after all, this is an exercise not merely in trying some older wines — these were all from 1998 — but older wines stored in far from perfect circumstances. The lesson is: If the bottom of a coat closet is the coolest place in your house, keep wine there, by all means, but don’t keep it too long.

>Trimbach Pinot Blanc 1998. The Trimbach family has been making wine in Alsace since 1626, even before the Hugels. This brassy-gold example, however, was around the bend, displaying petrol, caramel and treacle, limp acidity and general tiredness.
Imported by Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines (now Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines), New York.

>Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc 1998. Medium gold with slight green highlights; fairly clean and fresh, yellow plum, pear and quince; losing body and tone, but acidity still crisp and vibrant; touch of spice; not bad, but certainly drink quickly. Very Good.
Imported by Maison Marques & Domaines USA, Oakland, Cal.

>Kientzler Riesling 1998. Bright yellow gold; roasted peach and pear, ginger, orange marmalade; quite dry, in a way that drains energy from stone fruit flavors, still, pretty tasty; not much vibrancy or resonance, clearly at the end of its days, yet not undrinkable, even enjoyable. Very Good.
World Wine Imports Inc., Atlanta.
Image of Jean Hugel courtesy of hugel.com.
My linkedin profile.

I had a lunch appointment yesterday and thought that it would be a good gesture to take a bottle of wine. Now I’m a journalist, not a doctor or lawyer or captain of industry, damnit — my regular job is being a reporter for the daily newspaper in Memphis — so I don’t have a wine cellar. There is a wine rack though, and sometimes I find an older, not a really old, wine on a bottom shelf, like “whoa, where did that come from?” That was the case with La Fleur de Boüard 1999, Lalande de Pomerol. fleur.jpg

The chateau is a small property owned by Hubert and Corinne de Boüard de Laforest, co-proprietors of the splendid Chateau Angelus, a Premier Grand Cru Classe estate in Saint-Emilion. These are so-called Right Bank appellations of Bordeaux, meaning that they lie on the right side of the Dordogne river, about 45-minutes drive east of the city of Bordeaux, which lies on the left bank of the Garonne river. The two waterways merge north of Bordeaux (the city) to form the wide and mighty Gironde, which flows to the Atlantic. St.-Emilion is one of Bordeaux’s great appellations; Lalande de Pomerol, not as significantly situated, is often called a “satellite” commune or appellation, which doesn’t mean that great wines cannot emerge from it, as this example illustrates.

Anyway, in the Right Bank communes, the principal grape is merlot, which benefits from the clay-like or clay-gravel soil; the merlot is typically blended with smaller amounts of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. In fact, the blend for La Fleur de Boüard 1999 is 80% merlot, 15% cabernet franc and 5% cabernet sauvignon. The wine tends to age 18 to 24 months in oak barrels, of which 80 to 90% are new. This is fairly rigorous treatment, but La Fleur de Boüard ’99 comes through terrifically well.

The bouquet is ripe and warm and meaty and laden with scents of spiced and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums. That sensation of warmth, of downright appeal, continues in the mouth, where the wine is smooth and mellow and drinkable, with a texture like dusty velvet. It takes a few minutes before the durable structural elements begin to assert themselves: the earthiness and minerality, the tannin packed with layers of walnut shell, dried porcini and underbrush, the polished oak. At the same time, the aromas unfurl hints of lavender and sandalwood and dried spices.

At almost eight years old, what an enticing wine! I rate it Excellent. It’s one of those bottles that I wish I had six or so around, to test it over the next few years. It should be a lovely wine through 2012 to ’15.

I think I paid $38 or $42 for this three or four years ago, though I’ve seen it on the Internet as low at $26. Recent vintages are more expensive, going up to $65, but all wine from Europe is more expensive now. And have you seen French and Italian cheeses? Outrageous!

People collect all sorts of things, from Beanie Babies to books about baseball to Bugattis. Serious collectors employ various methods to take care of their precious objects. If you can afford to collect Bugattis, then you have a special garage and a mechanic to tinker with them constantly. Book collectors enclose their valued volumes in acid-free wrappers and keep them in dust-free bookcases. Collectors of Beanie Babies display their acquisitions inside glass cabinets.

And wine collectors have temperature-controlled cellars, with humidity levels closely monitored, because great wines have to be carefully tended if they are to survive.

I mention these matters because an advertisement in Wednesday’s New York Times “Dining” section touted “The Greatest Collection of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Sotheby’s Has Ever Offered” … “a range of the greatest vintages from 1947-2004.” This auction of 1985romaneeconti60percent.gif “Magnificent Bordeaux and Burgundy from an Important Private Cellar” occurs in New York on April 10.

The wines listed are very impressive. I’m low-balling here; the wines are mind-boggling. Three bottles of Romanee-Conti 1959; six magnums of Romanee-Conti 1971; 4 magnums of La Tache 1971; two magnums of Richebourg 1949 and so on. The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti or DRC, is probably the single best-known and, in some estimations, the single best, wine estate in the world, and Romanee-Conti is that estate’s most esteemed vineyard.

Notice the estimated auction prices: Those three bottles of Romanee-Conti ’59 — $25,000-$35,000. The four magnums of La Tache ’71 — $32,500-$50,000. Higher by far, however, even higher than the most valued and sought after Bordeaux wines, like a case of Chateau Petrus 1961 ($55,000-$85,000), is the estimate for the six magnums (equivalent to a case of wine) of Romanee-Conti 1971:

$110,000 to $170,000.

Even if the bidding reaches only $150,000, that’s $25,000 a bottle.

And here’s what I have to say about that, all considerations of money, thrift, recession, ostentation aside: The wine will die.

Of all the objects that people collect, of all the grail-quest pursuits of fanatics and obsessives, whether pieces of string or books printed between 1485 and 1500 (known by the euphonious term incunabula) or the drawings of Rembrandt or the photographs of William Eggleston or tickets to long-lost vaudeville theaters, only wine is eminently perishable, only wine by degrees will inevitably diminish and lose its powers and its primary raison d’etre by becoming undrinkable, and the collector (or his anticipatory descendants) will be left with bottles of worthless liquid. This fate will occur even to wines that are perfectly cared for in the most meticulously maintained cellars.

Of course we read about the fabulous tastings of (mainly) Bordeaux red wines that include vintages going back to the 1860s and 1870s (or nowadays perhaps the early 20th century) in which the wines retain some body and weight and character or, more miraculously, seem young and vigorous. Wouldn’t we all like to have been invited to those events! I don’t have a great deal of experience with old wines, but I have tasted Beychevelle back to 1893 and Haut-Brion back to sometime in the 1930s; the wines were pretty wonderful, and educational, and I’m glad that I was allowed to participate in those tastings.

Think of the gamble, though. Factors like storage, transportation and bad corks can affect the quality of wine, of course, but the most stringent judgment that faces any bottle of wine, even more stringent than the estimation of critics, is the judgment of time itself. The arc of a great wine’s development, maturity and decline may vary from wine to wine and from vintage to vintage and from bottle to bottle (the other factors taken into account), but that arc cannot be avoided nor its implacability denied. The amount of money spent on a bottle of wine, whether $25 or $25,000, will not protect the wine from the certainty of its fate.

The lesson should be clear: Drink the stuff before it’s too late.

For months I had been eying a bottle of Fattoria le Fonti’s Vito Arturo 1997 (about $45) at Buster’s, my neighborhood wine and arturo1.jpg liquor store. Finally, when we were scheduled to have dinner last night with a friend at one of our favorite restaurants, I thought, “Now’s the time.” The fact that a 10-year-old bottle wine was still lying on the shelf seemed neither here nor there, though I had to wonder why nobody looking for a special wine had been encouraged to buy it; anyway, the wine has a great reputation — I had tried the fabulous 2001 in New York last year — and the store takes care of their products, so I wasn’t particularly worried. The wine is 100 percent sangiovese, made from a single vineyard from the estate in Tuscany. The wine ages 16 months in barriques, that is, small French oak barrels.

The restaurant is Bari, which specializes in the cuisine of southeast Italy, with emphasis on seafood, though the menu includes simple pasta dishes and a couple of red meat entrees, polpette (veal meatballs) and a beef filet, one of each of which LL and I ordered. After appetizers and a bottle of white wine — the engaging Inama Vin Soave 2006 — we asked the waiter to open the Arturo ’97.

The first whiff brought a burst of mint, cedar and eucalyptus, almost as if we were smelling an old-style Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Then the bouquet revealed touches of toasted hazelnuts, dried lavender and violets and macerated black currants and cherries. While we ate our entrees, the wine continued to expand and develop, so by the time we were onto the cheese course, it really started showing firmness and character.

For cheeses, we chose a Gorgonzola, a Piave Vecchio and an aged Pecorino. All the cheeses were good, but the Pecorino was memorable, rich and dry, a little nutty, a little waxy, almost caramel-like but notably clean and earthy. By now the Vito Arturo ’97 was in its element, broad and generous, taut with acid yet soft in texture, filled with notes of spiced plums and spiced currant jelly with hints of orange rind and black Pekoe tea. It was fabulous with the Pecorino, a truly balanced marriage of wine and cheese and all their elements.

The store where I got the Vito Arturo ’97 has a magnum of the wine. I’d better go buy it Monday before someone else gets it.

It’s not as if the cards are stacked against you when you pluck a bottle of wine from the shelf in a retail store, especially wines of the most recent vintage, as in 2005 and ’04 for white wines (soon light-hearted whites from 2006 will be available) and for reds 2005 back to, oh, 2002 or even 2000, depending on what grapes they’re made from and what the intention was, for immediate drinking or laying down to age.

Hazards are involved though. A newly released wine could be corked, that is spoiled by a bacteria-tainted cork that somehow made it through the sterilization process (in cork manufacturing, not bottling the wine). If you open a bottle and the wine smells like damp cardboard and oldbotls.jpg mold, it’s corked. This is a frustrating situation, especially if you spent a wad of dough on the wine (or don’t have another bottle to substitute), but most retail stores will exchange a corked bottle for you if you take it back the next day. Some publications report that as many as eight or nine percent of the wines they open are corked, but that has never been my experience; two or three percent is more likely, though even one corked bottle is frustrating.

Mainly, wine is OK. You buy a bottle of the newest Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, say, or Bonny Doon Big House Red, or whatever you prefer to knock back, and generally all you want is a tasty wine that you can trust year after year, no problems.

As you move back into the past, however, the dangers increase, and you have to ask yourself a few questions or at least be aware of some issues: How long has the wine been in the store? Has it been in the store since it was released or is the wine a close-out special from the wholesaler, who may not have a cold room for thoughtful storage? For that matter, no retail store keeps its thermostat at the sort of temperature that we associate with keeping wines, especially fine wines, in good condition; on the other hand, most newly released wines, especially the popular ones, move off the shelves pretty quickly.

When I was in New York last month, I went into Garnet’s Wine and Liquors on Lexington Avenue, and the place was like a sauna. One forgets how hot New Yorkers keep their apartments and retail establishments in cold weather. I went ahead and bought two bottles of Burgundy. One, from 1998, was superb; the other was, sadly, corked, and I was leaving for home the next morning, so I couldn’t return the bottle.

Odd bottles of wine get forgotten on those top and bottom shelves or in a store’s back corner. Wine can sit in a store for a decade. I was amazed once when I was in Morrell & Co., at Rockefeller Center, and there was an 8- or 10-year-old bottle of a small-production, fairly cultish California pinot noir priced at something like $12. “Whoa,” I said to the clerk who had been helping me with some other purchases, “that’s a bargain!”

“Oh, you don’t want that,” she replied. “It’s cooked,” that is, the wine had been ruined by excessive heat.
The person who bought that wine without asking would have been cooked, too. I guess you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

I recently posted a page called “How Old Is an Old Wine?” on the “Patience Required” segment of my website. For a take on 10 wines from 2001 back to 1998 that I purchased in retail stores, some with worse results than others, visit http://www.KoeppelOnWine.com/Patience_Required.asp

The image of really old wine bottles is from intowine.com.

You know, if you haunt retail wine and liquor stores the way I do, you inevitably come across hidden treasures, wines on sale, a case or two of something over in a corner that might be worth taking a risk on, meaning shelling out some dollars coulee_01.jpg in hopes that the wine will turn out swell.

Here are some successful examples, all white, three from France and one from Australia.

*Domaine Bruno Clavelier Bourgogne Aligoté 2004. Aligoté is inevitably referred to as Burgundy’s “other white grape,” counting far less on the scale of importance and acreage than chardonnay and relegated to nameless vineyards in the Burgundian uplands or lowlands Still, the grape can make crisp, racy and even sometimes stylish wines, as this model is. Spicy citrus and pear flavors are permeated by limestone and steel and ringing acid that takes the notion of crispness to empyrean reaches. Despite this austere nature, the wine is almost pretty and offers a texture that’s soft and appealing, almost talc-like. After 45 minutes or so — we were drinking this at dinner, with our standard cod, potato, leek and chorizo stew — the wine took on winsome notes of floral astringency and muscadine. Very Good+ and definitely worth tracking down at about $15. Imported by Martine’s Wines, Novato, California.

*Domaine Prieur-Brunet Bourgogne Cuvée Ste-Jehanne de Chantal 2003. This “generic” chardonnay from Burgundy, now a bit more than three years old, sports a beautiful golden-yellow color and an alluring bouquet of green apples, roasted lemons, baking spice and camellia. It’s very dry, forcefully earthy and minerally, and offers tremendous body, dense and chewy and almost powdery in texture, knit with layers of lemon-lime and grapefruit flavors. Though the wine dries out a bit on the finish, it generally delivers lovely tone and complexity for the price, about $15. Very Good+. It needs grilled trout or pike quenelles. Imported by International Gourmet Corp, Tucker, Georgia.

*Henschke Coralinga Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, Australia. This is beautiful. It’s fresh, lively, grassy, henschke_01.jpg dry and crisp, quite Sancerre-like in its earthy limestone and chalk qualities and its scintillating lime and grapefruit scents and flavors, but it slowly ravels a skein of jasmine and lemon curd, shifting from its initial hayfield nature to wild meadowy elements wrapped around a succulent core of gooseberry, lanolin and licorice and a hint of some astringent white flower. The current release of this wine in the 2006, but don’t neglect to search out the slightly older cousin. Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. Excellent. About $28 to $32. Imported by Negociants USA, Napa, California.

*Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000, Savennières, Loire Valley. Nicolas Joly is the Lord High Honcho and out-spoken advocate of the biodynamic method of farming in the vineyard, and while I won’t go into my usual, intemperate tirade against bio-dy at this moment (except to say that it’s nonsense), I will say that Joly makes superb wines, probably the world’s greatest wines, from chenin blanc grapes. Of course he would most likely be doing the same thing without the benefit of burying “dynamized” manure in cows’ horns in his vineyards. Anyway, Clos de la Coulée de Serrant is a tiny, separate appellation within Savennières. At a bit more than six years old, this example bursts with quince, peach and pear, spice-cake, mango and orange rind that gets smokier and more roasted as the minutes pass, all nestled in a plush texture cut by vibrant acid. The wine tastes like honey, but it’s completely dry, so dry, in fact, that the finish is austere, offering the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind tempered by lanolin and a touch of jasmine. Exceptional, and under-priced at $36 to $40. Long life ahead; drink now through 2010 to ’14 (well-stored).

My newspaper colleague Michael Donahue, who is well-versed in country things, years ago used to make corn wine. He learned the recipe from an elderly woman who lived down the road from him out in the country in north Mississippi. I corn4_01.jpg don’t mean corn whiskey, but real corn wine. We have had a jar of Michael’s corn wine from 1993 sitting in the refrigerator for a little more than 13 years; actually several refrigerators, because the little Mason jar moves with us from house to house. We used another jar, again years ago and I think this was the 1992 vintage, for a deglaze with fried pork chops; it was wonderful.

Anyway, every once in a while, I say or LL says, “We ought to open that jar of Michael’s corn wine,” and then one or the other of us says, “Oh, let’s let it age some more.”

Last night, we opened it.

We were eating dinner, trying three wines with one of our favorite dishes, the cod, potato, leek and chorizo stew. Except that the fish was orange roughy, which worked fine. We were tasting the Domaine Bruno Clavelier Bourgogne Aligote 2004, the Domaine Barmes Buecher Rosenberg de Wettolsheim Pinot Blanc 2000, from Alsace, and Nicolas Joly’s Clos de la Coulee de Serrant Savennieres 2000. Yep, just another night at the ol’ trough. All three wines were excellent, and I’ll be writing about them soon, either on my website or on this blog.

In any case, we tend to sit at dinner like this for an hour and a half or so, eating and trying the wines, going back to the wines, filling out the details and dimensions. Eventually, LL said, “You know, there’s some kind of really interesting spice going on with the aligote. Something almost primitive.” She thought for a moment and said, fatefully, “Go get Michael’s corn wine.”

Off to the fridge, pluck the little jar from the shelf. Had to knock at the lid a few times with a spoon to get it to turn.

The color, of course, is extraordinary, a brilliant brassy gold. The bouquet is “foxy” and earthy in the way that scuppernog or muscadine wine is, potent and alcoholic like moonshine or grappa, and then it takes on a scent of citrus-drenched fruitcake. LL and I look at each other, eyebrows raised. I believe I say something like, “Lord have mercy.”

In the mouth Michael Donahue’s Corn Wine 1993 is absolutely smooth and mellow, a segue of orange rind into apricot into spiced and brandied peaches. And completely dry; there’s nothing sweet about this wine, in fact the finish is dauntingly austere. And under the fruit, there remains something earthy, primitive, an elusive, handmade aspect I can only describe as “country.”

What would it have been like at age 15? Age 20? We’ll never know.

The Wine Spectator for December 15 reported that at Christie’s inaugural wine auction in Los Angeles on September 28, an anonymous telephone bidder paid $290,000 for a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and capped that by paying $345,000 for a case of six magnums of the same wine. Talk about cornering the market. Ha-ha, that’s not the point of course, the point is that this gentleman paid $635,000 for two cases of wine. That’s an average of $26,458 for a standard 750-milliliter bottle.

Will he pop the cork on a few with the Christmas standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding? mouton_01.jpg
Ha-ha, well, that’s not the point either, is it, because one does pay one’s money and one does take one’s choice, doesn’t one, and if Mr. Anonymous Telephone Bidder wants to pour his Mouton ’45 at the next office party, he has every right to do so, though some of us would spurn to cast pearls before swine. I vividly remember attending a party, in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, about 10 years ago, at which a young doctor was pouring magnums of Chateau Margaux 1981 as house wine, and people were lining up for it, glasses raised, saying things like “Damn good shit, whaddya say this was again?” And my reaction was to bloody the keyboard on his grand piano and kick off a couple of ivories, but that’s another story.
Anyway, what is Mr. Anonymous Telephone Bidder getting for his $635,000? Twelve bottles and six magnums of the wine that Robert M. Parker Jr. , in the fourth edition of Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines (Simon & Schuster, 2003), calls “truly one of the immortal wines of the century” and asks the (seeming rhetorical) question: “Will it last another 50 years?”

Michael Broadbent, in Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines (Harcourt, 2002). describes Mouton ’45 as “immediately recognisable, complex, endlessly fascinating, unforgettable … inimitable, incomparable … Seemingly tireless — indeed another half century anticipated.”

No need to go on; Mouton ’45 is obviously one of the best and most long-lived wines made not merely in Bordeaux or France but in the world. Its reputation is not hurt by the fact that Bordeaux suffered from mediocre vintages throughout the 1930s and into the war-torn 1940s, but that the year of the end of World War II was the triumphant 1945. That was also the first vintage for which Baron Philippe de Rothschild commissioned an artist-designed label for the wine, a tradition that continues today.

Rarity is also a factor. Mouton made about 12,645 cases of the 1945 and 2,091 magnums. After 60 years, how much could be left? Broadbent and Parker themselves must had consumed a goodly portion.

So history, heritage, rarity and supreme quality make Mouton ’45 perhaps the most sought-after wine for the world’s collectors.

But, you know, for $26,458 you could buy, well, what? One hundred, even 200 bottles of very fine wine indeed, getting your cellar off to a splendid start. A pretty damned stunning diamond bracelet. Half-interest in a Hummer. On the other hand, in many parts of the United States, $635,000 barely buys a decent house. On the other hand, again, $635,000 would probably feed and house and buy medical supplies and build a school and pay the teachers for the population of a village in Darfur for several generations, if there are any villages left in Darfur.

Again, what’s the point of all this?

I want a glass of that wine!


Occasionally in the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly rounds of tasting wine and making notes, one longs for something different, a wine that possesses a sort of odd authenticity and character that goes beyond the usual run of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling, merlot, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Not that there’s a damned thing wrong with those grapes and the sometimes wonderful wines made from them. I fully realize, and so does every other wine-writer in the world, that we occupy a privileged position: People send us fabulous wines! They invite us to tastings of fabulous wines! They want to know our opinions about their fabulous wines!

They also send us — naively? cluelessly? — crummy wines, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the week before Thanksgiving, I was in a retail store looking at the vast array of white wines from California and there on a shelf were three or four bottles of sauvignon blanc from Kalin Cellars in Marin County. Now if you’ve been around the block a few times in the Golden State, you know that the mad-caps at Kalin hold their wine before release an extraordinary length of time. In fact, this label said Kalin Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 1995, Potter Valley. That’s right, an kalin2_01.jpg 11-year-old sauvignon blanc. The wine manager at the store said, “No joke,” though later I checked on the winery’s website (http://www.kalincellars.com) and found that the current release for Kalin’s Potter Valley Sauvignon Blanc is 1996.

So, I bought the wine (about $22); I mean curiosity alone would have impelled me.

After Thanksgiving, in the first blush of abstemiousness that comes after the annual feast, I used the ravaged carcass of the turkey, resembling a cathedral after bombardment, to make broth, simmering it for eight or 10 hours with carrots, celery, parsley and an onion. I strained the mass through a colander and three times through the chinois — yes, we are a household that owns a conical, three-layers-of-fine-mesh “Chinese hat” strainer — to achieve a broth with as much clarity as possible. A motivation in making the broth, in addition to wanting something clean and pure, was that my wife was recovering from a bad cold; there’s nothing like a hot flavorful broth to soothe the throat and provide nourishment
She suggesting opening the Kalin Sauvignon Blanc 1996, and I promise that it was a revelation. This was a fully mature wine, possibly leaning over the edge a bit. The color was mild golden-yellow, and the bouquet, which was not oxidized, offered a weaving of lemon curd and orange rind with undertones of caramel and butterscotch and a touch of sherry; an unpleasant earthy quality quickly blew off. In the mouth, the wine balanced liveliness with a moderately lush texture, delivering flavors of lemon curd, roasted pears and ginger, bolstered by a hint of dried herbs and a gentle limestone element. Taking a bit of getting used to, the wine turned out to be not just intriguing but delicious, and it was striking how appropriate it was with the turkey broth.

While I would be highly suspicious of 10-year-old sauvignon blanc wines and chardonnays and pinot noirs from the majority of wineries in California, it’s clear that the proprietors of Kalin Cellars operate by a different philosophy than immediate gratification. It’s worth the risk to try their wonderfully eccentric wines.

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