The Surprising Benefits of Youth
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One of the surprises that wine-loving Americans discover when we visit Europe is that Europeans drink young wines — very young wines. Our notion about wine appreciation assumes that a wine must be aged, preferably for decades, before it can be appreciated.
The general European response to this is “Bah!” The French, for example, will almost always choose a young red wine over an older one when ordering from a restaurant wine list. Ditto for Italians.
So where did we get this vision of the wine connoisseur writhing with pleasure as he (it’s always a “he”) extols the virtues of some aged nectar? England, that’s where.
The Brits have long loved old wines, almost to the point of parody. No one else, for example, relishes decades-old Champagnes the way they do. The great British wine writer, Hugh Johnson, once enthused in print about an old Champagne that had a finish “like iced coffee.”
The French, in fairness, have their own particularities in matters of aging. They like aged sardines. French foodies buy special, vintage-dated canned sardines and cellar them for up to a decade, turning the cans over every few months to better distribute the preserving oil.
Since the British virtually invented wine writing — conveniently in English for us Americans — it was inevitable that their vision and understanding of wine appreciation initially became ours.
Only now, as our own wine culture has emerged, is an American vision evolving, which appears to be an opportunistic mix of Continental “drink ’em young and fresh” and a wistful wouldn’t-it-be-loverly-if-it-were-aged inheritance from the Brits.
The following bargain Bordeaux leans decidedly toward the Continental mentality. It’s meant to be drunk young, fresh, and cool.
“Does that mean it won’t age?” your inner Brit says. Of course it will, as it’s beautifully made. But its purpose in life is immediate pleasure rather than delayed gratification. Carpe vinum, you might say.
HERE’S THE (GRATIFYING) DEAL
CHÂTEAU HAUT RIAN 2005 BORDEAUX BLANC
Anyone who counts out the French when it comes to wine is a fool indeed. And if I were in a wine bar fight about this — a genteel matter, mind you, that involves breaking open a bottle by pulling the cork rather than using my opponent’s head — I would trot out a dry white Bordeaux called Chateau Haut Rian.
You’d think that to win such a fight one would be better served by a famous red Bordeaux or a great white Burgundy. But neither of those two eminences will really prove the point. After all, they’ve been great for centuries. All their owners have to do is show up with minimal competence. The inherent giftedness of the vineyard site does the rest.
No, to win this wine bar fight you need something like Chateau Haut Rian. It would seem to have no pedigree, coming as it does from “wine nowhere,” specifically Graves-de-Vayre, which is located along the Dordogne River across from the town of Libourne. Heard of it? Neither had I.
It’s a rundown wine neighborhood that once had some standing a half-century ago when it delivered good-quality sweetish white wines that were then fashionable. When that market literally and figuratively dried up starting in the 1970s, so too did the local spark. Their wines were sent to the anonymous oblivion of winegrowers’ cooperatives to be sold off in bulk to supermarket chains or, more ignominiously, distilled into industrial alcohol.
In short, this was not promising material for a Rocky-like comeback saga. But like a historic neighborhood preserved simply by being unfashionable, the old semillon vines that once were the pride of the place were still there. It wasn’t worth it to anyone to grub them up.
Michel Dietrich, a winemaker from Alsace who spent six years working in Australia, saw the bones of a pretty wondrous wine creature. So Mr. Dietrich was able to buy an 80-acre vineyard — doubtless for a chanson [italics] — that had 50-year-old semillon vines. And better yet, those vines are rooted in calcareous soil, the very sort winegrowers everywhere dream of having as that soil can add a mineral savor to a wine, especially whites.
Mr. Dietrich, trained in both France and Australia, not only knows how to make good white wine, but also how to make a dry white wine that the world wants to drink. This is no small point, especially in Bordeaux, where the tug of mediocrity in dry whites is still unaccountably strong.
This just-arrived 2005 vintage of Château Haut-Rian is yet another standout effort from Mr. Dietrich. Unusually thick-textured thanks to Bordeaux’s superb weather conditions that year, Château Haut Rian 2005 is a dry white that delivers a captivating array of scents and tastes, notably lime, lemon rind, honeydew along with a sotto voce whisper of minerality.
If there’s a better dry white wine for this little money, I haven’t tasted it. My bet is that it will become your “house white.” It’s that good. $9.95. Look for a street price a buck less than that.