Everyone, I hope you’re keeping safe and well during this very strange time. This month’s post is about context and how important it is to any wine experience. Read on and enjoy! – Tim Gaiser Master Sommelier
June 2014: At the Historic Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai
I’m in China for the second of three times that year for a project with friend and colleague Barbara Insel. Our mission is to train Chinese sommeliers and hotel F&B directors on California fine wines.
That night at the Fairmont, I’m hosting a dinner for CEOs of multi-national corporations. The menu is a multi-course affair melding together western and Chinese elements, including such delicacies as sea cucumber—a dish whose flavors and textures almost defy wine pairing. The wine I’ve chosen for the evening’s entrée is the 1995 Ridge Montebello, a great vintage of one of California’s legendary wines. As I opened, checked, and tasted the bottles of Montebello, I noted that the wine had more than a bit of Brettanomyces. In fact, on a Brett scale of 1-10, it was a solid five.
Our dinner was not the only gala affair taking place that evening at the hotel. The late Paul Pontellier of Chateau Margaux was hosting a dinner for local collectors in the penthouse. Pontellier came down to meet me shortly before our dinner started. It would be my only time seeing him as he died unexpectedly less than two years later. I’m still saddened by his passing as I write this. Paul was utterly charming, warm, and gracious. He inquired about our project and generously offered me a glass of 1995 Chateau Margaux.
Paul could only stay briefly and then had to return upstairs. I then put my nose in the glass of Margaux only to be greeted by—you guessed it—Brettanomyces. I quickly picked up my glass of the Montebello and went back and forth between the two wines repeatedly. The Margaux had even more Brett than the Ridge! After a few seconds, I put both glasses down and experienced what I call one of those “alone at the edge of the universe” moments where one is faced with a paradox; something that flies in the face of previous experience that must somehow be reconciled. After a few moments, I wondered if an important part of the equation for any great, age-worthy red wine was Brettanomyces. My answer in the moment was… I don’t know.
I still don’t know.
Brettanomyces shows just how important context is to wine. Both of the stellar 1995’s that night displayed high levels of Brett that would be completely unacceptable in many other wines. Find the same amount of Brett in a cult Napa Valley Cabernet or top-flight Shiraz, and the critics would howl. An immediate inquisition into the hygiene of the guilty winery would be demanded. Further, find Brett in a bottle of white wine or sparkling wine and the universe might be rent asunder as they used to say in the middle ages. But for some reason—and here I’m pointing directly to context—high levels of Brett in certain old school red wines is not only acceptable, but it’s also an expected and a traditional facet of the wine’s character.
C is for Context
Context is arguably the most important part of any wine experience, an equation that also includes the taster and the wine. In any tasting, change the glassware, the temperature of the wine, even the temperature of the room where the wine is being tasted, and the experience of the person tasting the wine will be altered and sometimes radically different.
Context works in any number of ways and not all of them detrimental. One of the greatest wine experiences I’ve ever had was at Trattoria Zà Zà, a student-tourist hangout in Florence. It was the first time wife Carla, and I had ever been to Europe together. That night we drank newly minted Chianti Classico drawn from a huge cask behind the bar served in clunky bar glasses. It was, and still is, the most delicious Sangiovese-based wine I’ve ever tasted, and all because of that particular evening, my fabulous company, and the fact that we were in Florence. Let’s face it, if you’re in Florence with a glass of Chianti Classico in hand and you’re not happy, you may have issues.
Context reminds us that mood and company are valuable parts of any wine experience.
Context reminds us that tasting even the greatest vintages while in the throes of frustration, boredom, or anxiety can render the pedigree of the wine moot and the experience less than memorable—or tragically memorable in some cases.
Context reminds us to be mindful of adopting absolutes in the world of wine because the universe will always be willing to show you exceptions to the rule immediately. Count on it.
Context also reminds us to be wary of sources using numerical scores because given the three variables in any tasting experience mentioned above, how accurate could numbers possibly be.
Finally, context reminds us that sharing wine and meals with friends and family is perhaps the most satisfying thing we can do. It is truly a wonderful gift.
Keeping the last point in mind, I hope everyone stays safe and well in the coming months. Treasure your friends and family and keep in touch with them. Wear your mask! Wash your hands!