Every bottle has a story

I am not a wine expert, but with each bottle I try and share with friends, I learn more. Wine is an exceptional social drink; it is the marijuana of alcoholic beverages because it must be shared. I seek to share with you my thoughts and experiences as I drink the wine in my closet, as well as my enthusiasm for the finds that come my way and the excellent values that I find. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too, so please share!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One that was held too long

As I mentioned in my first post, storing wine for extended periods can be a risky affair if you don’t have a climate-controlled place to lay your bottles. After all, it is literally true that my wine cellar is a closet; has been all along. And one of the oldest bottles I had kept had turned out to be kept too long.

So let me tell you what I remember before I reveal what happened late last summer.

It was my first wine tasting. I was living in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., at the time and was just beginning to enjoy wine. Wine tastings are wonderful experiences because not only do you get to taste a wide variety of wine, but you also get to speak directly with the sellers who can fill you in on the wine’s background, who is the vintner, and other wonderful details. Although I can’t recall the name of the wine, I had my first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at this tasting, and it tasted like bell pepper! It was really quite extraordinary, because until then the only taste I had ever associated with Sauvignon Blanc was grapefruit.

But the wine that really grabbed my attention was the Penfolds 1998 St. Henri Shiraz. I’m thinking it must have been either 2001 or 2002 when I attended this tasting. I was totally enamored with this wine; there was subtle fruit but firm tannins that gave it heft, and there was a long, delightful and earthy finish. I think it was my first conscious moment of a wine’s terroir.

What’s nice about Penfolds St. Henri releases is that they are like a discount version of that producer’s famous Grange. I have never tasted a Penfolds Grange, but whenever I see a bottle in a wine shop, I dream. And it remains a dream because I just can’t bring myself to spend $300 for a bottle of wine. Not yet. Someday, I will enjoy the Grange.

But the St. Henri is Grange’s more affordable cousin. Although not as sought-after by collectors, it is a brilliant wine nonetheless. Instead of paying $200 to $400 for Grange, you can get St. Henri for between $45 to $60 and still be getting a 90-point or better wine. The 1998s I purchased (I admit, I bought three that night) were rated at 92 by Wine Spectator. Since 1990, only five vintages were rated at less than 90: 1992 at 88, 1994 at 87, 1997 at 88, 2001 at 86, and 2003 at 87. So even those vintages were accorded scores higher than 85, so we’re talking good stuff.

My last bottle of St. Henri had done a lot of traveling: from a closet in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., to a closet in Holland, Mich., and finally to a closet here in Chicago. And late last summer, I had an occasion to bring it out. Benny was soon to be leaving on a trip to South America that would eventually take him back to Hong Kong where he’s from. He and I went out with another friend Eric for a farewell dinner at a really fantastic tapas restaurant just a couple blocks from my apartment – Café Marabella. Unfortunately, this restaurant closed down, I think from lack of trade. The sluggish economy really hit hard the mid-level restaurants like this one. Oh, but the food there was so delicious and very reasonably priced.

When the owner began to open the St. Henri for me, I could see we were in trouble. The cork was very dry despite the bottle having been on its side for the better part of nine years. It fell apart before we could get all of it out. Enough of a butt was left that I could sniff. There was that nutty smell of brandy. I felt a pin stab my stomach. A taste was poured and the nose still had that nutty aroma of brandy, but I could still smell some faint fruit. I took a sip and all I could discern was a specter of what this glorious wine had been in earlier days. I thought that maybe with time and air the wine would gradually open up and develop its character, but it just continued to fade. At best, it was drinkable.

So alas, this St. Henri was a disappointment for me. Normally I think I would give this a 9 or better on a scale of 10, but for this particular evening, I shall be generous and give it a 4.5.

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