What wine made you fall?
For most wine professionals and enthusiasts, the point of no return came down to one particular bottle. One colleague once described to me that ’82 Latour, another remembered following his father into a cold, dark cellar in the Rhone when he was sixteen and sharing what would be a life-changing bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, while still another recalled a sensational Sauternes sipped after Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the bottle, all seem to recount an exceptional, unforgettable wine experience.
So when people ask about the wine that brought me into the light, I choke. Ummm. Do I make one up? No, that’s not right. Do I admit that I knew it was over when, at fourteen, I decided over a stolen glass of sweet, succulent Sutter Home White Zin that beer and spirits were not for me? Though that story does does always glean a few chuckles (of sympathy…or reluctant self-identification), it’s still not quite what people expect a serious wine lover to reveal.
Don’t get me wrong. I have had some incredible wines over the years. But none of them were the sole purpose for my vocation. Not even white zin. Rather, each individual sip seemed to build upon the next, prompting me to pour yet another region, history, and year into my glass.
The other night, however, one vintage was able to stand alone for a moment, untouched, and solidify my intent to remain faithful to this ensuing career of the senses.
Many vineyards were kissed that year. It was a vintage that favored Champagne, Piedmont, Port, and even Napa. The region that possibly felt the strongest rays from this shining year, though, was Tuscany. Not the least of which, the ten square mile pocket of Montalcino, where Brunello—the ultimate expression of Sangiovese—is born.
Brunello’s Sangiovese grape, much like Barolo’s Nebbiolo, demands patience. In these soils, unlike Chianti, Sangiovese can be so acidic and tannic in its early days they are hardly tangible. Fortunately, the winemakers do some of the work for you, as each bottle must see at least two years in oak and are not released until at least fifty months after harvest (for riserva, a year longer still). But to really appreciate the complexity and grand allure of Brunello di Montalcino, a solid ten years is essential, though longer is encouraged, especially with premier producers.
One such producer is Soldera. What sets winemaker Gianfranco Soldera apart is a determination to translate Tuscany. And he stops at nothing. He came upon a feeble piece of Montalcino earth in the ‘70s that he knew was ideal for the Sangiovese grape. He then proceeded to transform it into a thriving, unmatchable patch of paradise.
He says of his wine in the book Betwixt Nature and Passion: Montalcino and Gianfranco Soldera’s Brunello, “Striving for quality: that’s the point. There was a time when great care was taken in the search for beauty and excellence. Then the masses came to prefer the façade to what lies behind it[i].”
That night, sipping on a 1985 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino, I tasted the meaning of this statement. It was Tuscany that I had in my glass. The sun, the dirt, the chewy dried cherry fruit, anise, sweet plums, tobacco, and leathery saddle… it was all there in the nose, the tongue. Brunellos are known best for their sturdy yet sophisticated structure. The fierceness and finesse, their power and poise… all were there steadily keeping beat to a song that only could be felt, not heard.
If you are looking to try a Brunello, some other remarkable vintages include: ’82, ’88, ’90, ’97, and ’99.
At the end of the evening, I was allowed to choose from any dessert wine in the cellar. It seemed I gravitated once more to 1985. I reached for the ’85 Chateau Raymond-Lafon Sauternes, sometimes known as the ‘poor man’s d’Yquem’, though I like to say it is among the best values of the region. It sits next door to the famous Chateau d’Yquem but costs half as much. Unlike the 2004 that I wrote about last week, which was still in its first stages of life, the ’85 was much weightier and wiser. It wore an orangish-yellow hue, reminiscent of autumn. Honeyed apricots, peaches, and flowers were almost indistinguishably intertwined, revealing a most thoughtful bouquet. The botrytis was pronounced with the persistence of petroleum. Though it may not have been an exceptional vintage for Sauternes, this particular wine was indisputably divine. Incredible. There is something so special that happens when drinking a Sauternes.
So, what about you? What’s the wine that made you fall? Better yet, what wine have you tried recently that reinstated your unwavering devotion to fermented grapes?