CRIMES AGAINST WINE
I did a truly evil thing. I’ll tell you about it.
We had some leftovers from a lamb roast, and Karen Odessa (henceforth “KO”) wanted to make a curry. She has a jones for curry, and doesn’t get to make it that often, and this was going to be one of those curries that expresses all that pent up longing for a seriously big-ass curry. I don’t remember what-all she put in it, except there were some slices of pear, and that it was animally addictively good. It was one of those things that lives inside your body for a couple days, so that you become essentially a carrier for curry, whatever else you thought you were.
OK, curry equals Gewurztraminer. I know of very few slam-dunk always perfect matches of wine and food, but this grape variety was born to wash down anything with curry powder. And it is specifically that – Gewurz and curry powder – and it always works. You can jiggle the rest, and this particular jiggle had to attend to the levels of spice and sweetness (those pears), and so I didn’t want a big Alsace wine with affectations of Great Solemnity (and 14% alcohol); no, we needed an umlaut-bearing Gewürztraminer from Germany. And I had just the wine.
The lovely Eugen Mülller estate in Forst (in the Pfalz) has been in my portfolio for nearly thirty years, through two generations, and current proprietor Stefan Müller makes a reliably delicious Gewürz from a site in Ruppertsberg called Reiterpfad. This is in fact a “GG” but can only be labeled as such if it’s Riesling, which makes a certain sense. So Stefan has to pretend that “Reiterpfad” is a fantasy-name for his alien Gewürz. Year after year the wine is expressive, varietally true, barely perceptibly sweet and low in alcohol – usually around 10.5 or 11 percent. I opened a bottle of 2017 and we sampled it while the curry was in its final stages of preparation.
It was rather delicate as this thing goes, more lychee than rose, and KO was concerned that her curry would obliterate it. I didn’t mind if that happened – this evening wasn’t about the wine – but I wanted her to be happy. Except I wasn’t sure how to bring that about. I really didn’t want to trot out some hulking behemoth from Alsace, besides which we don’t actually keep a lot of Gewurz and therefore have to do a bit of rationing. So, what to do?
I went down to the cellar and poked around. I found something I thought to be a dud bottle, and wondered if the curry would redeem it. It was a wine I bought untasted, a wine I thought I could buy untasted, because it is not only a good wine, it is the best wine of its kind in the world. Nor is it easy to find. Nor had it ever disappointed me. It is the almost-always great Muscat Grand Cru Goldert from Zind Humbrecht, and for me it is the sine qua non for the variety, but when I opened the first of the recent bottles I bought, I was perplexed. It was the 2012, and I wondered why it had been made. Sporting 14% alcohol (which this wine never does), it tasted bitter (from botrytis, I guessed) and ungainly and overripe, as though it had been forgotten in the haste to gather Riesling and Pinot Gris and then one morning someone said OMG, we forgot the Muscat! In any case, and thinking basically “WTF,” I toted the bottle upstairs.
KO wanted to taste it blind. Fair enough. We went out onto the deck to give the wine a chance in the fresh air, the curry having hijacked the air supply in our house, and we toasted, and the wine was….interesting. Certainly quite the Wine-zilla next to that demure Gewürz. Would it work? Doubtful: too strong, too fiery, too dry, but the spice was suggestive and the wine had, essentially, every component absent from the Gewürz. By now you’ve guess where this is going, and can’t believe I’d actually do it.
I took two INAO tasting glasses and poured some of each wine in them, and then mixed them together more or less fifty-fifty. KO didn’t see what I was doing. I went outside to taste the result. It didn’t really improve the Gewürz – that wine was fine, but not the wine we needed – but it really improved the Muscat. It lowered the alcohol, introduced a kindly surmise of sweetness to mitigate the Muscat’s bitterness, and was actually not a bad thing to drink. Strangely enough!
Or was it strange? I did a ton of blending in my wine-merchant days, and found myself to be good at it, and a quick study. My instincts seemed to be true more often than not, and many of my growers started to “use” me as a blending consultant as they assembled their cuvées. It was work I knew, and work I did well, and so I told KO what I was up to, and bless her, she was fascinated. Now I became more exact. I envisioned a blend of two-thirds Muscat to one-third Gewürz, poured it together, and handed her a glass. We tasted it, and smiled: this would do! I diddled the details a little as the bottles emptied, adjusting the this-and-that, but in principle we had rescued the wine segment of our evening, albeit we did so by running roughshod over two wines that had done nothing to warrant such brusque treatment.
I am a wine worshipper, as most of you know, but sometimes wine simply has a job to do, and tonight’s job was WASH-DOWN-CURRY, and if that meant I had to desecrate an off-vintage of the world’s best Muscat, well then.
I spent the next days cowering, expecting to be struck by a lightning bolt hurled from the fuming hand of Bacchus himself. But no, we ate and drank without incident. Indeed, a few nights later we had one of those Wine Moments that only arrive occasionally, and rarely when you expect them. We had a guinea hen (from Joyce Farms; these are wonderful birds) and roasted it simply with potatoes and green beans, and it was Christmas day and time to drink a special wine.
Old Riesling for sure. But I wanted something with stature, something regal, resplendent, solid. I didn’t want “Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese;” that was a wine for another time, a more meditative occasion. This evening’s wine, however noble and grand, also had to perform a service. It was our dinner wine and dinner was a splendid little guinea hen. So: I laid hands on what turned out to be a perfect bottle, not just a bottle in great shape, and not just a magnificent wine, but also a superb thing to drink with this particular dinner. It was a 1959 Deidesheimer Mäushöhle Riesling Spätlese, from the estate that has since become Von Winning - Dr. Deinhard.
My old pal Johannes Selbach was born in ’59, and my geezer ass made the scene in ’53, both great vintages, and Jo and I have a god natured tussle over which is the better year. I’m here to say, with suitable contrition, that Jo is right. 1959 is a stupidly great vintage. I wonder whether any subsequent vintage is as great as this one is. I’m sorry to frustrate you, because it’s not like you can find these wines easily, or afford them if you can find one, but you drink a wine like this and an idea forms, a genuine paradigm for the very possibility of Riesling, of white wine, of wine, period.
1959, for German Riesling, is a vintage of strength. Think of that as distinct from “power” or from “intensity” or of “concentration.” ’59 has those things, but what it has most deeply is pure strength. It appears to be impervious to decay. The good wines just go on getting stronger and more complex, untroubled by botrytis, forming arrestingly complex esters in the firmest imaginable binding, so that you drink a wine that’s as solid as a safe yet as fluid as a dream. It’s not a vintage of temperament, it’s a vintage of genius. Not of size but of capacity. It feels as if it has escaped immutable laws; gravity, even mortality.
This “mere” Spätlese is at its apex of flourishing energy and gravitas, the cheerful thunder vintage! It’s still pure Pfalz, it hasn’t crossed into generic “old-wine” flavor; it was never very sweet and now it’s as good as dry. I couldn’t help scribbling a few associations down, forgive me – toasted grain, laurel, allspice, ginger – it has the bearing of a Prussian colonel, who listens to Brahms in his private life. It feels inexorably solid, but its firmness does the most heart-rending swirly dissolve into malt and wet crackers, unspooling gradually, unendingly. What wines finish like that any more? Not surprisingly it really starts to cook with air, massively expressive with the second glass, with all the swirling esterized caramel of this truly great vintage. It has no equivalent in modern times, and I wonder whether we’d grok it if it came along today. Our criteria have changed. A mountain-range vintage like ’59 is a landscape we’re forgetting how to recognize. Wine of course is exquisite to the extent it is ephemeral, yet this commanding vintage seems to suggest eternity in some way. If we end up wiping one another out, we humans, and the world is rid of us at last some day, and all that’s left are a few roaches, some birds, clouds, maybe a porcupine, if there’s a bottle of this wine left standing I am absolutely sure it will remain immoveable and taste just like this.