Christina: the wine connoisseur

May 14, 2010

In the medieval village of St. Émilion, there is a wine connoisseur who allegedly had his first blind taste test at the age of four. He has spent most of his twenty-seven years in constant search of the best wines, and now he wears woolen scarves and Converse sneakers and works in a shop in the Bordeaux wine region.

The skies were insisting on a persistent springtime drizzle that day, but somehow, I felt that made our excursion to wine country even more appropriate. Walking up the steep stone roads, we found his store and asked for a dégustation. Our ignorance about wine was apparent from the moment we walked in, but with both humility and grace, he spent the next 45 minutes guiding us through the complexities of fine wines. Outside the cold rain was making the streets seem miserable and forgotten, but inside we were warm and well-looked after.

“This wine is still a teenager,” he told us apologetically, proffering a bottle of wine older than myself. “But try it anyway.”

Wine, it turns out, is a fickle thing. That an older wine is always better than a younger one is a myth I had long believed to be fact. The disappointing truth is that the bottles I buy with my student budget aren’t about to turn into 500 euro grand cru classés even if I let them sit around for the next 50 years. Wine follows the same pattern as any living thing, reaching its peak within an indeterminate amount of years, after which point its quality begins to diminish. But how to know when wine is ready to drink?

“You cannot know,” our expert explained with a wink, “without tasting it.”

Wine vendors must closely monitor their caches, searching out the ones that are ready to be sold. Those that aren’t at peak will be left alone to slumber within their wooden barrels. It was a nice to think of our Converse-wearing Frenchman wandering the murky cellars, gently rousing wines from their sleep, putting others back to bed, and tasting thousands of brands every year.

He poured us each a taste of white wine, rotating his wrist and raising the bottle ever so slightly to stop the flow of liquid and swishing each glass several times before presenting them to us. This was a sweet wine, often served as the sole dessert at French dinner parties. It was heavy and impossibly sweet, with strong undertones of honey and rose petal, fragrant and comforting. As we nodded our approval, he offered us a surprising recommendation: this French wine would perfectly compliment to the spicy flavors of Thai and Chinese food.

45 minutes later and in a happy haze, we each purchased a bottle of the sweet white wine. Before saying goodbye, our connoisseur told us a story about recently having the “the good fortune” to try a Bordeaux red from 1939. There had been a reverent silence, “like church,” as he and his friends drank those first sips of an elixir older than most of the people in the room.

And I think maybe this is one of the reasons I love wine: there is so much story within a bottle. The idea that something is worth preserving for years, the belief in the investment despite the risk that wines may not reach peak until after their original caretakers have died: well, that’s history, and diligence, and sacrifice all at once.

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