Something to fill the page while I taste these 2009s. These babies. Just born, not yet even allowed their own bottle. Still in the warmth of the barrel. Breast feeding in the chai.
Asking a wine merchant if he can taste is a bit like asking a bloke if he can drive: you’re only going to get one answer (and yes, I reckon I can taste, and reckon I’m particularly good at young wines: it’s what I do most of). Indeed most of us can. There’s maybe one in a thousand who can taste like a dog can smell, and one in a thousand who can’t even smell the dog, but I believe the other 998 of us are pretty much the same in terms of what we can smell and taste. The trick is twofold: to be able to register that taste in one’s mind, to be able to compare it with others – to file it, if you like – and to be able to express it.
I first started learning about wine in 1995, in Chablis. Lager was much more my thing in those days (we’ll maybe get back to the ignorance of youth) but once a week I’d take a dozen or so wealthy Americans to a winery in Chablis for a tour. At first this was just a translation job – much easier than learning the whole shebang – but I was hooked fairly quickly, initially more with the process than the product. As love with the product blossomed and bloomed I ended up asking more questions for myself than the punters.
Wine is a living thing: it’s more than just liquid that tastes nice and gets you pissed. And you can take this as far as you like: I’d argue that some have a soul, for instance. Taste something truly transcendental and you have to go beyond the science. But the point here is description, and comparison. My Chablisien host would often compare wines with humans, with men and women, and this was most relevant when discussing the age and development of a wine.
The virtues of young wine are the virtues of young men, of children: energy, life, charm. But a young wine can equally be clumsy, inexpressive, simple. The virtues of a mature wine are those of the mature: sophistication, class, delicacy. I might not be up the stairs as quickly as I used to be, but I’m about three times as clever as I was when I was twenty.
So, whilst the 1959 1st growths I tasted in December last year were at or around their peak from an intellectual point of view (though a couple of bottles were maybe walking with a zimmer), the 2009s I’m tasting now are right at the other end of the scale. Not even learning to walk yet, not even crawling. And I’ve got to pick the future bus-drivers from the future rocket scientists. Brilliant.
We’ve a head start in that we know which chateaux have the best vineyards, which chateaux have the ability to produce, and the track record of producing, the rocket science, the beauty: herewith the flaw in tasting very young wine blind. Lafite-Rothschild, for instance, is often rather subdued at this stage. Not the legs-open upskirt flash that Mouton can be. But concentrate, and the class of Lafite slowly rises through the air above the liquid in your glass. Knowing what you’re tasting gives you an advantage when making such a tricky call at such a young age. You can eliminate some of the hide-and-seek that young wines can play.
So, eight or ten chateau visits a day for five days. We’ll come in at about 300 wines for the week if past experience is anything to go by. Hard work, but tasting so many wines in such a focussed timescale really sharpens the palate. By Monday afternoon we’ll be in tune with the vintage. By Friday afternoon all I’ll want for the rest of my life is cold lager but this will pass. Reports to follow, with the sad caveat that, as yet, it doesn’t really matter what I think of these wines and, given that the top kit will almost exclusively be bought by speculators, it doesn’t really matter what they taste like at all for the moment…
But what gets me going about tasting a young vintage, be it Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo or whatever, is the birth, the creation. Chateaux, negociants, merchants & the buyers of 2009 clarets are most likely going to make money out of them and, this being Bordeaux, this is very much the idea. This is the way of the world. What I’ll be focussing on, though – enjoying, witnessing – is the beginning of something special. If I live long enough and somehow make a few quid then I hope to be able to taste and drink these wines when mature. That I will have seen them as infants, as babies, will make that all the more satisfying.