Mystery of Wine
“Mystery” is a theme of the sixth round of the Monthly Wine Writing Competition, as selected by the originator of the series and winner of the previous round, The Drunken Cyclist.
Wine is a strange thing. If you think about it rationally, wine is just a fermented grape juice. This is where the mystery starts – how come this fermented grape juice became so important that it even made it into the Bible? How was this fermented grape juice discovered for the first time? How did it happened that this fermented grape juice became an object of study, worship, love, hate, desire, crime, greed, excitement, awe, horror, passion (continue the list on your own)? How come this fermented grape juice is such a facilitator of emotion? These are the mysteries of the wine, the fermented grape juice, and these mysteries are countless.
The subject of wine is vast, it allows all of us, people who are “into the wine” – oenophiles, aficionados, snobs, buffs, casual wine drinkers – whatever designation speaks to you – to ponder at all the different sides of all “things wine”, to find our own mysteries. Starting from the growing of the grapes, harvesting them, making the wine and getting it into the bottle, the mysteries are abound every step of the way. Once the wine goes into the bottle, this is when the actual “wine’s life” begins – of course, with its own set of mysteries, one of the biggest of which is a simple question: when to drink this wine?
The wine in the bottle is a living thing. It is changing all the time. It has its ups and downs, lows and highs. We have no way of knowing if the wine is at its”peak” until we open the bottle. Once the bottle is opened, there is no way of putting the wine back if we think we didn’t hit it right. Anyone who ever experienced the wine at its peak will tell you that you get an uncounted amount of pleasure from each and every sip. The moment we take on the opening of the bottle is a decision moment to solve that mystery – is this wine ready to give us tremendous joy – or not. Open the bottle too soon, when the wine is too young – and you don’t know what did you miss, what this wine could’ve become if you would only give it another 2, 5 or 10 years. Open the bottle too late, and you have so many regrets that you will never find out how great this wine was at its peak. Either way, the mystery will remain a mystery. Yes, you can listen to the experts about “wine drinking window”. You can solicit the opinion of your family, your friends, the bloggers and wine writers of all walks. You will build your own expertize. But every time with the bottle in one hand and the corkscrew in another, the mystery will be unsettling, until that corks is pulled and the wine will be going into the glass. And your hits and misses are unavoidable. You will go from “wow!” to “I can’t believe THIS WINE tastes likes this, what happened?”.
Every time I’m opening the bottle of wine, I’m experiencing the thrill of solving the mystery. Same as everybody else, I’m influenced by the label, by what I read about the wine, by the opinion of the others, by my prior experience. But those are only expectations – and those should be managed. Better yet, the expectations should be ignored. To solve the mystery, the cork must be pulled. And then… The best one is when you simply say “wow, this is amazing!”. Even then, is that the end of the mystery, you think? Quite often, this is not. As the true mystery will remain forever, unsolved, expressed by the two words: “how come?!”.
Need an example? I have one for you. Here is my mystery case in point:
2004 Chateau Ste. Michelle Orphelin Red Wine, Columbia Valley (13.9% ABV). It was one of my most favorite wines ever. I don’t remember the exact price, but I’m sure it was under $15, most likely even under $12 – I used to by this wine by the case. It was my favorite go to wine to share with the guests. Beautiful dark clean fruit, medium to full body, good firm tannins, balancing acidity – this was a pleasure in the glass. I was so disappointed when I was told ( I think some time in 2009, I might be off on that) – “you are buying the last bottles”. What? Why? The wine was only made for two years, 2004 and 2005 – and that was the end of it.
Okay, but I still had a few bottles in my wine fridge. And I remember to happily taking one of the bottles of 2004 Orphelin for a great occasion – Wine Century Club dinner, I believe in May of 2010. Those Wine Century Club dinners were arranged to take place all over the world on the same day, and we (Wine Centurions) were in competition with ourselves, trying to taste more unique and different grapes than we tasted last time. Thus my reason to bring this wine was two fold – yes, it was one of my favorites, but – it also packed in one bottle a very impressive line up of grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Souzao and Touriga – yeah, that’s what we call “the bang for the buck”.
So the cork was pulled, the wine was poured, the first sip is taken – and yes, my first thought, amplified by the facial expressions of the people around me, was “what happened”? The wine, instead of being great and energetic, was clearly past prime – a bit of the cooked fruit flavors, weak acidity, only the hint of the old greatness. How was that possible? The bottle was stored in the wine fridge all the time, and only recently it had being fresh and great. Yes, I heard that such a complex blends don’t age too well – but this was a great wine, how come?
Fast forward to December 2013. While going through the wine fridge, looking for the bottle to open (I love the fact that I have no system of storing the wines whatsoever – that allows me to extend the pleasure of touching many bottles in the search of one), I saw all of a sudden the familiar squares. Ha, what is that? I pulled the bottle of 2005 Orphelin. Ahh yes, now I recall – I also have a bottle of 2004 somewhere. Okay, fine, let’s free some space – let’s open the 2005. It probably will be “meh”, but okay. And it was … not! Had enough dark fruit both on the nose and the palate, not a sign of aging, supple tannins and robust acidity – definitely a pleasure to drink.
After the success of 2005, my thought was – so what is happening with 2004? How is that going to fare now? Will we be in for a treat or a bust?
Bottle found, cork is pulled, 2004 Orphelin pours into a glass. Dark ruby color, not a sign of age. The nose – perfectly fresh dark fruit, blackberries with a touch of plums. Palate – dense, firm, weaved together by the dark fruit and balancing acidity – clearly a perfect wine, at its peak – and I have no idea for long this peak will last.
Well, the duration of the peak is not that important anymore, as it was my last bottle. What happened with that wine back in 2010? What is a fluke, the bad bottle? Or was I super-lucky with my last bottle, which was not supposed to last that long, and it was just a pure luck, one out of a thousand? This will remain a mystery, which will never be solved. But I guess this is for the better. Every time, when pulling the cork, we are faced with the mystery – which we don’t need to solve. We only need to enjoy it. Let’s drink to the mysteries of our lives. Cheers!