A Brief Education on Contemporary Wines with the English Butler

A Brief Education on Contemporary Wines with the English Butler
Wine decanting

Written by Hairee Lee The wines we enjoyed during the Bunker Hill Supper for the Didriks Dinner Series were selected by Maureen Rubino, one of the four owners of Central Bottle in Cambridge, a wine shop born out of passion for wine and conceived during their trip to Florence (their story can be found here).

The wines Maureen selected were:

  • Montes Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile) 2009
  • Li Veli Primonero Salento (Italy) 2008
  • Buirko Gorri Arbanta Rioja ((Pronounced ree-O-ha, NOT ree-o-ja. Oh no, you di'n't!)) (Spain) 2008

At the dinner, we were joined by Alan Long, the English Butler, who turned out to quite the epicurean and gustatory expert. He was a generous and engaging tutor to my curiosity about the wines and patient with my relative ignorance on the beverage, and by relative I mean a lot.

The wines, said Alan, are young. And so when he was asked to decant it into the iittala Essence decanter, he remarked that young wines such as the ones we were about to enjoy didn’t really need to be decanted. The reason for decanting, he said when I asked him why wine needs decanting at all rather than just letting an uncorked bottle sit on the counter for half an hour, was to let the oxygen work its way into the wine.

When I asked him what the air is for, he said, “It makes the wine taste better.” This seemed like a circular explanation to me so I looked into it.

Aeration lets the wine warm (wine is ideally stored at 55 degrees F while room temperature is 72 degrees F) and its aromas to open up. The flavor profile softens and mellows, improving the overall flavor characteristics. As a chemistry double major graduate in my past life, I imagine the aeration effect has largely to do with letting the initial cloud of evaporating alcohol from the higher temperature to dissipate into the atmosphere so that your olfactory sense isn’t knocked out by the ethanol fumes and thus left to taste the grape part of the wine more.

And, Alan continued, just leaving the open bottle out will do little to help the wine breathe: the surface area of wine exposed to the air and the opening of the bottle through which the fresh air can enter to circulate and interact with the wine is so small and insignificant that proper aeration won’t ensue.

Thus decanting. The act of pouring exposes much of the wine to air. Also, decanters often have a wide mouth and, ideally, an even wider body allowing a much greater surface area to become exposed to air.

But like Alan said, the wines we drank didn’t need decanting. Too young to need to breathe.

These wines are what are called garage wines. They are produced by relatively young vineyards that are popping up like vine rot (if you're a traditionalist and upstart hate-ah) or spring tulips (if you're an entrepreneur and recite the declaration of independence at dawn). The garage wines do not require large vineyards, big crews, a manor house or chateau, or a classic patch of terroir ((On terroir. "A central concept of the Bordelais culture: a belief in the fundamental significance of what is called terroir.The word terroir has no concise translation but relates strongly to history, class, and pedigree; it means the soil both real and metaphorical from which a vine, a wine, or a person emerges. Ginestet told me I could spend days trying to understand it. Because weather matters too, as do changes brought about by economics and technology, there is a need to consider the vintage. But for the aristocracy of Bordeaux terroir matters most of all." --Longeweische, William. "The Million Dollar Nose." Atlantic Monthly. December 2000.)) Often dark and dramatic, the wines are produced in small batches and made with fanatical attention to detail. They have skyrocketed to international popularity through the advocacy of the famous wine critic, Robert Parker.

This is a fruit bomb.

“This,” said Alan after taking a sip of the Montes Cab Sauv, “is a fruit bomb.” What he meant was that these young wines like the Montes Cab Sauv have a knock-out first sip with their fruity, strong, and high alcohol punch from the starting line but without long distance complexity and subtlety of, say, the French grand cru wines. “Very popular these days because of Robert Parker.” The ironic disdain doesn’t go unnoticed. That’s the first time I heard of the fellow. When I ask Alan who is Robert Parker, apparently, he, the American, is unfairly skewing the international perception of what is good wine by publicly advocating for his preference of the young “fruit bombs” and thus raising the prices of the garage wines while endangering the older chateau vintages.

Alan is a British expat whose wine loyalties lie firmly in France. His wine of choice—I asked him, “If you could have any wine and it would be the last wine of your life, what would it be?”—is the French Sauternes, namely the Château d'Yquem Sauternes, a Premier Cru Supérieur (French for "Great First Growth") wine from the Sauternes, Gironde region in the southern part of the Bordeaux vineyards known as Graves. In the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, Château d'Yquem was the only Sauternes given this rating, indicating its perceived superiority and higher prices over all other wines of its type. On wine-seracher.com, the cheapest vintage is from 1993 at an average retail price of $293. The most expensive is the first dated vintage of the wine, the 1787, priced at $191,094. ((Assuming this bottle is the Standard bottle of 750ml and a glass of wine equals 150ml, a glass of the191,094 wine would be $38,218.80. And assuming quite conservatively that a sip is about 10ml, then each of the 15 sips in a glass of 1787 Château d'Yquem Sauterne costs $2547.92. I bet it’s SUPER DUPER tasty!))

The most expensive is the first dated vintage of the wine, the 1787, priced at $191,094.

With most of the wine criticisms having been previously monopolized by English critics (to French fanfare, I might add), Alan could be biased in his tastes. ((I suppose you can make the argument that all taste is biased as opposed to disinterested. What would disinterested taste mean anyway?)) I say this with no irony or disrespect. My personal favorite is also a French wine, the St. Etienne burgundy. I don’t even know which vineyard. I was introduced to it by a Frenchman during a dinner he hosted in his apartment in Paris for his friends. I was a lucky last minute addition through one of the guests. I tried the St. Etienne burgundy for the first time with a dinner of cheese, bread, and cherries and I fell in love. With the wine, that is. ((Not only do I not remember the vineyard, not to mention the vintage, I don’t even remember my host’s name. Just the kind of wine I drank.))

So Alan’s only slightly amused condescension for Robert Parker and his legion of followers is understandable even if you don’t agree. Certainly, the over 40,000 subscribers in every U.S. state and thirty-seven foreign countries of Parker's The Wine Advocate, a fortnightly publication of his opinions on the hundreds of wines he's tried every two weeks that he writes and publishes, seem to take him seriously. He even has a website now that you can check out.

Just to give you an idea of the infludence of Robert Parker with his The Wine Advocate, here's an except from William Longeweische’s article about Parker called, "The Million Dollar Nose" that ran in The Atlantic Monthly in December 2000:

"These are influential readers The Wine Advocate, and they pass the issues around, igniting the markets of Asia, the United States, and now even Europe, where collectors and wealthy consumers can be counted on to search out wines on the basis of Parker's recommendations. The effects are felt on store shelves, where retailers display Parker's comments or scores, and up the supply chain, influencing speculation, negotiation, and price-setting, until even the producers of mass wines feel the weight of Parker's opinions. The trade has never known such a voice, such a power, before. When it comes to the great wines -- those that drive styles and prices for the entire industry -- there is hardly another critic now who counts.”

In any case, I certainly enjoyed the wines and so did my fellow diners. Maybe we've been manipulated by the retailers who stock their shelves with the wines that are considered "good" by Robert Parker. Does it really matter in the end? When my taste buds are saying, "Good!"? If that's manipulation, manipulate me, please.