Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 6 February 2014

Rare wines: In search of the really, really, really good

After a long day's judging at wine competitions in Australia, it's something of a tradition for the team to go off to dinner and indulge in some serious wine. In theory, it's a great idea, assuming the preceding 12 hours haven't wiped you out or dulled your interest in a little real consumption. Oddly enough, the old school Aussie judges positively thrived on this rather macho activity.

To make matters more interesting for themselves, they usually added a number of blind tasting scenarios to the events of the evening. At its most extreme, this involved Len Evans’s options game (a series of questions about each wine with those guessing the correct answer permitted to advance to the next round). Twenty years ago, when the typical tasting burden of a judge at a capital show was 200+ wines per day, the 15 to 25 wines dished up with dinner or for the options challenge might have been the handful of straws destined to break the back of the camel. I have to say I never saw any one of the regular judges flinch: on the contrary, they approached the evenings with an enthusiasm which singled them out as the Bruce Fordyces of the vinous ultra-marathon classes.

Even in the 1990s, when youthful enthusiasm was more likely to have impaired my judgement, I baulked at the extra eating and drinking. I could quite easily have retired to my hotel room for a sandwich and a glass of water. Of course, as the show’s international guest judge, this was never an option. I remember sitting through several fairly grand dinners thinking that some fabulous old wines were being wasted on jaded palates, or jaded appetites.

I’ve just returned from a judging stint in Perth, where an admittedly less arduous schedule was specked with a much gentler version of the old show programme – an excellent dinner, a limited array of wines, and only a few of them put to the options game test. It was certainly a manageable feast – the degustation menu demanding more of my digestive organs than the line-up of wines. The selection was generous, with Australian classics interspersed with a couple of fine international wines.

I was happy to sip and sample, and to hazard a guess when the time came, but I didn’t really feel a compelling need to drink any of them. For a moment a deeply disloyal (to wine) thought crossed my mind – and it has since refused to go away. Suppose wine – especially young wine, but also older, over-hyped wine – wasn’t worth this whole edifice we’ve built around its enjoyment? Suppose that the past twenty years – which have seen trophy wine prices rise astronomically around the world – have all been a conspiracy to delude us into thinking that even very good bottles are substantially more interesting than they actually are?

It wasn’t that long ago that almost all the best known wines were affordable – not just to the super-rich, but to the middle classes. As recently as the 1970s, all but the most prestigious of the top red wines of Bordeaux sold for less than R10 per bottle. For the same money you could buy decent Burgundy and most brands of Champagne. If you were in a solid middle class job, you would have been earning between R1,500 and R2,000 per month, indexing the price of a bottle to roughly 0,5% of your gross monthly salary. For the same wine today to represent roughly the same fine slice of your disposable income, you would need to be earning R600k per month – a situation reflecting as much the effect of inflation and the collapse of the Rand as it does the tax man’s increasingly generous cut.

The wine is probably not dramatically better – though it has to be said that technology has helped to make individual bottles more reliable, and has evened out some of the vintage variation. When classed growth Bordeaux sold for R10 and cost 0,5% of your monthly disposable income, you could consume it more frivolously. Now that a comparable example sells for upwards of R1,500 per bottle, you have to take it seriously.

Sadly, in my view, it doesn’t repay the effort: the best bottles can be impressive, elegantly made, refined, polished, even pretty, but they are a long way from being life-changing. For that kind of investment, smooth and smart simply isn’t good enough. You can drink pretty well for a whole lot less. However, it’s not certain that you can drink better for a substantially greater investment – though you’d have to be an oligarch or a party politician to be ready to spend R10k in the off-chance that the bottle you’ve chosen would turn out to be so extraordinary that your world would never be quite the same, ever again.

I suspect that we burden wine with more than it can reasonably deliver, and the more the price of icon bottles go up, the greater the disproportion between expectation and fulfilment. Such wine has long ceased to be a beverage – and in fairness there is a significant gap between everyday drinking wine and the more artfully made examples. There’s also a premium to be paid for genuine rarity (as opposed to the fake sense of shortage that goes with hand-numbered bottles from a single barrel – when the barrel right next door to it in the cellar was just as good). How much extra should depend not simply on the limited availability but also on the actual quality: a bottle from the most desired site in the world – say Romanée-Conti in Burgundy – which has been badly stored and has turned to vinegar can have value only to a label collector.

The trouble is that very few people still think like that, and those of us who write about wine have let ourselves slide – ever so gently, and so gradually that we never really noticed the trajectory – into the trap. We watched as most wine improved over the years and thought that the progress was so much more than quantitative that it had become qualitative. Only it hasn’t. What makes great wine great is a matter of site, and there are not that many places which can deliver the complexity that sets the extraordinary apart from the very good. Yes, there’s now less risk, greater regularity, more reliability. But these are features which make the purchase of a Toyota a sensible decision – they don’t suddenly turn it into a Bugatti, and they don’t turn even the once-in-a-lifetime great vintage of most of the classed growths of Bordeaux into a wine worth leaving home for.

So here you have it: over the past forty years, wines, like motor cars, have become better, safer, more reliable. There are very few which have transformed in kind. Sometime in the past four decades we stepped naively onto the moving pavement, we thought we were going somewhere worth arriving at – more swiftly, and with greater certainty. I think we’ve all allowed ourselves to be taken in. The need to justify a purchase after the event may seem a compelling reason to carry on investing in the idea. However, drawing a line – not even cutting our losses (since we still have what we bought, and what we chose to believe in) – will leave us better off, in the way that living free of the illusion, released from its thrall, is not simply liberating, but truly empowering. DM

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