I’ve published tasting sketches from my trip to Germany and Champagne in May, but the real purpose of that trip was sentimental. The 3-year hiatus in my travel to those places put many friendships into cold-storage, and it was time to bring them back into the warm present. The years had, let’s say, acted upon us all, and I saw my friends as if across a chasm, something only affection could bridge. It created a certain poignancy and nostalgia, and made me wonder what my final catalogue might have been like, had I been able to produce it in the accustomed way.
Nostalgia’s a curious thing. Frank Zappa famously said “The world will not end by fire or ice; it will end by paperwork and nostalgia.” Smart guy, Frank – I miss him. Nostalgia often strikes me as Dollar-store mysticism, and I’ve often cited it when people seem to feel one has to be “a certain way” to have mystical experience in their lives. Nostalgia creates a tingle no less valuable for being commonplace. We are looking back on our lives through a prism of memory that seems to compress time. As we see ourselves in the present, looking back on who we were and what we did, we grow aware that the “now” entails the irretrievable. We feel things we do not need to name or label. All of us know it.
I found myself speculating about that hypothetical final catalogue, and I’m in the middle of producing a piece about it for World Of Fine Wine. My goals here are slimmer. As I’ve retreated from the day-to-day of “business operations” (and sales) I ask myself whether anything was built, that is, anything that will stand. Or is it all just a set of memories and impressions that might amount to a legacy, or a pretense of legacy - a surmise that makes my life seem more meaningful - but which are fleeting and perishable. Mind you, I don’t mind if they’re fleeting and perishable. None of it needs to “amount” to anything; it was worth the doing as it was being done. The effects I may have had on the wines of Germany or Austria or the growers of Champagne were as ephemeral as the wind. And I’d actually be quite content to have been a helpful or refreshing breeze.
What lingers for me personally and intimately are the people I got to know. But what really lingers are the wines. That’s not to say the wines were more “important” than the people. They weren’t. But they have a curiously abiding permanence. The fixity of objects. Of course they may shape-shift themselves, but they will hold still long enough, at times, to show you who they are, and who you are.
The wine prompting these musings is an improbable masterpiece: the 2014 Heiligenstein Riesling Alte Reben from Willi Bründlmayer. Did anyone make a wine this superb in that benighted vintage? As I drank it I wondered whether I had ever tasted a “better” vintage of that wine. And it did what great wine always does, and what love always does; it returns you to yourself with an abruptly open heart and a strangely clear and capacious mind. (And with a sinking feeling that says “I could have been this way all along…”)
It isn’t a joyful Riesling. I’m not sure my younger self would have received everything it had to offer. You need to like the way a certain sadness feels. You have to welcome the voices that emerge out of the calm. They do not always flatter you. But this wine illuminated things I found I could believe in.
I opened it to observe my first dinner with my wife upon her return from a long trip. I believe in wine’s ability to seal an occasion with its own significance. It is important that we are back together, so we drink an important wine. I believe in respecting wine, and respecting wines, all kinds of wines for the moments that suit them.
I believe in complexity, both the kind I can apprehend and the kind that stays inscrutable. I like that kind best, but the first kind is better grist for “tasting notes.” Had I written one – and it wasn’t a tasting-note occasion, really – it would have been very long, because there’s a lot going on in that wine. Nor will I write one here. But I will say that complexity entails a willingness to entertain the mysterious, because there are wines where you think “It’s insane that anything like this even exists…” and then you either attack it analytically or you let it wash you with its particular wave.
Great wine is usually implosive. It seems to erupt within itself. Sure, there are gorgeous wines that blast away euphorically and just come at you, but for me the greatest wines have seldom been hedonic. This Bründlmayer had very little of what we’d call “fruit,” though it had an intricate set of herbs and citruses. It had fervor but its intensity seemed to snake inside its own body. It was the opposite of a hammer blow; it was the cut of a tiny, silent blade.
It had a sort of quantum mass of flavor, but compressed into the head of a pin. Yet its flavors lingered into a distance impossible to fathom. Finally the wine was (what we call) mineral, presenting an enormity of flavor neither fruit nor berry nor spice nor umami nor salt. I believe profoundly in minerality, but over the years I feel it less of a “fact” and more of a metaphor, but it’s also more than just a metaphor. Minerality is a cathedral we built in our dreams. It is the unnamable thing that is definitely there but hasn’t yielded to explanation. Is it the actual taste of “minerals?” Probably not. Is it the flavor of something that makes us alight on the image of mineral spontaneously? Oh yeah. I believe in it partly because even if it isn’t literal mineral, it might as well be, at least for now….at least until (and if ever) its mysteries might be explained.
I like that minerality is obscure. The other things we usually use to describe wine are more or less actual. It’s this or that fruit, this or that spice or berry or whatever else we think our wine resembles. Having said (let’s say) “quince,” we nailed it and we can stop thinking about it. We’re also on pretty solid ground talking about texture. We’d generally concur if a wine was called “crisp” or “creamy” and I even think we’d agree about a wines overall personality. But minerality poses a question. It is a question, or a series of questions. What is this? Where does it come from? What creates it? When our minds are forced to pause at the threshold of a question, we either retreat in frustration or, if we are lucky, we learn to love the question.
At least I do. An answer is a reassuring finality. But a question is a prod, and it’s a high-density nutrient for curiosity, which is a wonderful thing for a wine to deliver.
TASTING REPORTS: I hope these will resume shortly. I’m told wine is arriving. It has been a nightmare and I am not a patient man. Two weeks, maybe?