by Margaret Rand

Peaks And Troughs

I’ve always liked Sauzet Burgundies well enough. And if that sounds tepid, it’s supposed to: they were clearly very good, but just never set my pulses racing. And then this January, at the Liberty Wines tasting, I was ambushed.

That is the only word for it. I was taken utterly by surprise by wines that sang with life. From the Aligoté upwards, they were amazing. (And I do not mean ‘amazing’ in the way that some people say ‘amazing!’ to every single damned thing you say.) I wasn’t expecting anything like that. But even if I was in the market for such a wine, which at £110.99 retail for the village Puligny I am not, and put it away for ten or 15 years, would I, could I, be ambushed again? There would be no element of surprise; in fact the opposite, because I would be expecting something wonderful. Could it deliver all over again? Or would my reaction be ‘Yes, yes, very good’? How long, how often, can one go on being ambushed?

It is entirely possible that by tasting and spitting those wines I had the best experience they would ever offer. And I suspect this is true of lots of Burgundies: you will never have more pleasure or thrill from them than you get from that early, astonishing sip. This might be why that early sip can be so extremely small at tastings these days: perhaps merchants and growers want to limit the en primeur fun so that you’re less disappointed in ten years’ time.

Burgundy is famously prone to disappoint its lovers. White Burgundy has got over its premox problems, which is not to say that it never disappoints, because it does. But red is even less predictable. Which is perhaps part of the attraction: do you want your life partner still to surprise you in ten or 20 years’ time? Or do you want them to follow an entirely reliable path so that you can tell by the time of the year and the day of the week exactly what they will be doing/cooking/travelling/saying?

It comes down to one’s attitude to disappointment. There is a parallel in the moment of surprise, perhaps of being blindsided, when you meet someone wonderful. Will your relationship develop depth with age, or is that moment as good as it gets? In the next couple of decades, will it never be better than that moment? Given that the divorce rate in Britain is about four in ten now, for a lot of people that is presumably the case. It would be interesting to know the divorce rate among Burgundy-lovers. Are they more attuned to the unexpected, more inured to things not being as perfect as they promised to be, more prepared to compromise? Or are they quicker to move on? Divorce is expensive, certainly; but then so is Burgundy.

The burgundy of the past, with a generous slug of Algerian red in the blend to ensure that Pommard or Gevrey tasted precisely as a merchant’s customers expected it to taste, is not something anyone would want to return to, presumably. But the other extreme, the equivalent of being married to a psychopath or worse, is also unsatisfactory.

My colleague Raymond Blake, himself a writer on and collector of Burgundy, reckons that Barolo is as capricious as Burgundy, if not more so. But is it true that the heights, of both Barolo and Burgundy, were higher in the past? Or was it perception, because the lows were so low? His wife, violinist Fionnuala Hunt, says that in the 20th century there were violinists you could recognise blind, as it were: if you turned on the radio you knew without being told that it was Heifetz playing, or Menuhin. Now, she says, young musicians are so well taught that the general standard is very high – higher than it was. But are there such stand-outs?

And again, which would you prefer? Peaks and troughs? Or a general levelling-up which might mean more predictability, less magic?

Goldilocks, and her message of moderation and balance, has a lot to offer the discussion. Because it’s not just about the risk of disappointment; it’s about risk in general. Do you calibrate risk, or just chance it? Do you inject risk into your life via wine, or do you seek reliability in an already risk-filled day?

Think of coffee. A surprising number of people who love fine wine nevertheless get their caffeine via capsules. These are reliable and deliver the same flavour day after day after predictable day: they are branded boredom, the equivalent of buying the same branded wine week in, week out. Why would you not grind your own beans and experiment with different sources and roasts? Or is coffee is just for waking up, and you don’t want unpredictability in your coffee cup any more than you do in your alarm clock?

One would need to examine the lives of Burgundy-drinkers in more detail. Do they also buy fast cars and prefer fast men or women? I’m told that a lot of (male) wine collectors also collect watches. Unless they’re old wind-up watches there’s not much unpredictability there. My husband, as an aside, bought me a beautiful 1936 tank watch which, in spite of copious amounts of money being spent on it, refuses to work properly. This would put me off collecting watches, but for dyed-in-the-wool Burgundy lovers, would it be part of the attraction? As in, well, it says ten to three, but there’s a sporting chance it might actually be half past four. And is this Corton, of which I have precisely three bottles, ready to start drinking now? If I’m wrong, I only have two chances left.

There of course wines that never disappoint. Old Sherry. Very old Tawny Port. Old Madeira, adds Julia Harding. Old Champagne? It can disappoint, of course. But not that often, I would suggest.

All these are wines that gain their character from process rather than nature. But so does Vin Santo, and there’s risk there. You stick it in the barrels, says Emanuele Reolon, the new director of Isole e Olena, and you seal them, and you forget about them for seven to ten years. Then you open them, with fingers tightly crossed. How much alcohol will there be? How much sugar? How much volatile acidity? Every barrel will be different, and each will swing the blend in a different direction. Some, undoubtedly, will be disappointing.

Nurture can let you down. Where does nature never disappoint? Lambs. Daffodils. Amazing, as some people would say.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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