Old Wine and New

Several entries back, I wrote about some old wines I’d been given. The set-up went like this: Hearing an old family friend lament that he’d cellared French wines for too long, I told him not to pour them out. This friend is named Denis, he’s been cellaring French wines for decades—he spends several weeks in Paris every summer, drawing and painting—and I asked if he’d consider giving the wines to me so that I could turn them into vinegar and give some back to him. “I’ll make you the best salad dressing you’ve ever had,” I told him.

Denis liked the sound of that and obliged: Through my father, in a brown paper bag, he passed along two bottles of Chablis grand cru, a 1988 and a 1987, both from Blanchot, and both from producer Francois Raveneau; two bottles of Sauternes from the same period; and a bottle of 1970 Château Mouton Rothschild. I simply never see wines this old, so instead of pouring them right into my beloved vinegar crock, I opened them with company; partly I wanted to see if they might be drinkable, partly I wanted to make sure they’d make decent vinegar. Two old friends were over—Matt and Kevin, neither of whom could be called a gastronome or even a real sybarite, as they’re both highly fit surfers focused more on Omega-3 fatty acids than on gustatory pleasure. Matt, in fact, knows more about surfing and the history of surfing than any other living human being, having written the definitive books on the subject; and Kevin is one of the very few people to have both climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan and surfed the monster waves at Mavericks, south of San Francisco. But both men like a good time, and although their significant others are vegetarians, Matt and Kevin will savor a good steak when it’s put in front of them; I invite the two over for regular “meat nights” as often as they’ll come, usually making their lady friends something veg-positive like a wild nettle frittata.

As it happened this time, I had two high-quality young wines I wanted to try: a relatively expensive Piña D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and a merely somewhat expensive Xavier Monnot white Burgundy. To make for an interesting comparison against these young wines, I opened the Rothschild an hour early, letting it air after all those years under a cork. Matt had only just arrived when I opened the chilled Chablis. It wasn’t ruined by any stretch, but to my palate there was something odd about it: a curious urinelike depth of flavor utterly unlike the steely clarity I remembered from the first time I’d had a grand cru Chablis, 15 years earlier in the company of the same Denis. Instead of the racy minerality I recalled, this one had an oddly rounded apricot quality (go figure). But Matt and his wife, Jody, without even knowing what wine they were drinking, were absolutely thrilled by it. So was my wife, L. They all loved this Chablis and couldn’t get enough, and the same was true for Kevin and his girlfriend, Jean. Which left the Xavier Monnot entirely to me, a treat I enjoyed.

The Rothschild was a similar experience, at least in ways. This wine, too, was not at all ruined—it was absolutely drinkable. It also had the earthy mystery we hope for in a wine that old, along with leather and tobacco and spice and a kind of dried, crushed-rose-petal quality. But in comparison to the huge Piña Cabernet, it was quite clearly a faded wine, and I shared the universal preference at the table for the younger bird. The next night, however, when another friend dropped by—a guy who has been to the summit of Mount Everest three times, once as part of the first American team to ski down from the very top—the Rothschild seemed to have unfolded more, and the two of us drank every drop and tried to plan a good joint adventure for this summer. By the time he went home, we’d come up with a beauty.

2005 Piña Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon D’Adamo Vineyard
Grapes: 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
Wood: 18 months in French oak, half of it new
Alcohol: 14.7 percent
Suggested Retail Price: $72
My Tasting Notes: This was a rich, plush behemoth of a Napa Cabernet, mouth-filling and juicy with superripe red fruit and big-but-smooth tannins, and although it’s expensive, you won’t feel cheated.

2005 Xavier Monnot Monthelie “Les Duresses”
Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Wood: 12 months in 25 percent new oak (a light wood touch, in other words)
Alcohol: 13 percent
Price: $42.49 from the Wine House
My Tasting Notes: I liked the sheer crispness of this wine, such an interesting quality in a juice that does show Chardonnay traits, certain elements of tropical fruit against this firm acidity. It’s a pretty racy, structured wine.