Having a passion for wine is wonderful. Yet if people think this appreciation has turned you into some kind of vinous savant, then beware. As I write the story of my recent experience that led to this caveat, I am reminded of a scenario from an old Hollywood western—I am a longtime movie buff—in which some folks envision you as the fastest gun around the OK Corral, and they would love nothing better than to outdraw you.
I had such a “quick draw” moment earlier this fall in Bordeaux. It was totally unexpected, as it came in the very agreeable environment of a wedding reception at Château Giscours in Margaux. There I was, soaking up the luscious atmosphere of a third-growth Bordeaux estate—with roots dating back to the 16th century—when the father of the bride (henceforth known as FOB) came over to my table holding a covered bottle and telling me he had a mystery wine for me to try.
Perhaps you have imagined such a figure swaggering toward your table from across the room, holding a bottle of unknown wine and suggesting to all assembled that surely you can identify the contents. You desperately try to ignore the idle table chatter and apprehensive smiles, all directed your way. Once you swirl and taste, your reputation is on the line. All heads are turned to you, as you examine the wine in your glass and reflect, and then to the challenger, as he cradles the bottle, perfects his Cheshire grin, and imagines you sprawled out face down in the dust of Tombstone’s Main Street.
While such a moment can initially be numbing, I approach the challenge as a compliment. Still, when done in front of the full array of 240 invited guests, you must immediately go into your game face, and begin to parry with your host.
If you know something of the challenger’s preference in wines, you can open your gambit with a comment like “not changing the glasses Charley?” Hmmm. “You must have got change back on your twenty when you picked this one up.” When he responds that what he is pouring could never be picked up for anything near a twenty dollar bill, you counter with “Alas, are we going to be honored with something from your trove of pre -1995 Châteauneuf du Papes.” A hint of surprise out of him will suggest you just might be embarking on the right path. On the other hand, if he smirks uncomfortably you may have put him under an embarrassing light with those guests that only know of his reputed cellar without ever being offered anything special from it heretofore. Nothing wrong with a little rattling, but don’t draw blood.
Forget offering up that you are suffering from nasal congestion, or some other such thing. You must take a shot, even if it’s wide of the mark. If you are wrong, you can always take solace in the words of one of the legends in the UK wine world (though I cannot recall now if it was Michael Broadbent or Harry Waugh) who, when asked if he had ever confused a Burgundy with a Bordeaux, replied, “not since lunch.”
Closer to home, I also take comfort in a conversation I had some 20 years ago with Pascal Ribereau-Gayon, grandfather of the groom in the wedding at the center of this story; he was the Director of the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux and consultant to more than 30 leading estates (most notably Yquem). I was somewhat taken aback when he told me that if the winemakers of the five Premier Crus—Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Lafite, and Mouton—were seated around a table and each asked to pick out his wine from the five glasses placed in front of them, they would be hard-pressed to do so.
There is no reason anyone should be distraught or even uncomfortable if the correct answer does not surface when placed in such a position; on the other hand, when you get it right, a feeling of pride is generated that might stay with you for a lifetime.
Once we had received our save-the-date message, I began imagining how great this wedding would surely be. A dinner at Château Giscours—a Third Growth Bordeaux Château that can claim its original vineyard dates back to 1552, coupled with the family lineage of the groom, whose paternal side can trace continuous and dedicated work toward improving methods of oenology all the way to the laboratory of Louis Pasteur—is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime invitation.
The stage was set for a classic Bordeaux experience. And it was, except for a few “natural wine” interlopers courtesy of the FOB. Early on, I learned that the FOB had insisted that a favorite Beaujolais of his also be served at the celebrated Giscours dinner. I was dumbfounded—surely the groom would convince his wife-to-be of the magnitude of this faux pas. What a delicate situation, I mused. Imagine my surprise when I learned what other wines the FOB had arranged to include.
Assembled in a lovely outdoor space adjoining the old cellar where dinner and dancing were to take place, we began an apéro that lasted almost two hours. No red wine was served; only Champagne and a still white. I anticipated finding the white to be from Graves. Wrong. It was wine prescribed by the FOB, and it came from Muscadet, which is well north of Bordeaux and on the far western side of the Loire River, just before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. It was from the 2012 vintage, which to my thinking (at the time) must be showing its age. I sought out the groom for an explanation. He recounted to me that his new father-in-law is a great admirer of fine wine, but drinks only natural wines of which the Muscadet, and later the Morgon to be served at dinner, were reputed to be stellar examples.
When I audibly mumbled “natural wine,” as if I could not fathom such an adjective, my nephew proceeded to tell me he was fine with all this. In fact, he said he and his friends in Paris only hang out at bars that offer a good selection of natural wines. So after my glass of bubbly, I followed up with the Muscadet. It was excellent. Its slightly golden hue initially peaked my interest, and though I could not imagine they would serve a white that was on its downward slope, I had fully expected to be disappointed. Personally, I could not imagine cellaring a Muscadet more than a couple of years. After the first taste, I was compelled to ask the barman to show me the bottle. Sheepishly I can now admit that, heretofore, Muscadet equated to flavored rainwater. I doubt that I had ever tried more than a half dozen in my life, and never cellared so much as a bottle. This surely was not Muscadet, sourced from a single grape variety, Melon de Bourgogne (the name of the grape variety I could not then even recall).
I sought out the FOB in the crowd to learn more. When I caught up with him, I held up my glass with a puzzled expression. He looked me straight in the face and told me this is natural wine, resting fifteen months on its lees, and no sulfur added. Though four years old, he suggested it had at least that many years of pleasurable drinking ahead. Satisfied, I thanked him for arranging to have it here and returned to the service bar for a refill.
The dinner was excellent. Two reds were to be offered but, for some reason, we did not receive the Morgon at our table. After trying in vain to have the waiter serve it, I took myself over to the nearby table of the FOB and mentioned my disappointment. Immediately he asked me to go back for my glass and return for a pour from their bottle. As with the Muscadet, no sulfites were added. He assured me it was a wine to cellar, and after tasting this viscous, uncharacteristically full bodied Gamay, I wholeheartedly agreed.
Unwittingly, I had just constructed a passage between our two tables, and it would be traversed two more times before the party was over.
The after-dinner speeches by the family and close friends of the married couple, and accompanying antics that heightened the joie de vivre, were stellar. By time the dancing commenced, all of us were most convivial, having drunk profusely in the previous three and a half hours. Idly working the crowd I wandered near the FOB’s table and he motioned me closer. He was now pouring (just for his table) an Alsatian Pinot Noir, naturally made of course. It is the only red grape variety produced in that region, and when living in France I enjoyed it on several occasions, even cellaring a couple just to see how they would age. With the small amount of vineyard area given over to it, relatively little leaves Alsace. It is lighter in color and body than what you typically find in Burgundy and can be fruity, even quite flavorful, which this example surely was. Again came a respectful symbolic tip of my hat toward a lovely natural wine, and an almost bowing at the waist to show my deep appreciation being one of a small handful of guests given a sample to taste. As I returned to my table I made a mental note to check if I still had any Alsatian Pinot Noir remaining in my stores, hoping there was still one from 1985.
Tasting these three naturally made wines was an unexpected bonus to being in Bordeaux under such pleasant circumstances. For some time I have been pondering the subject of natural wine, which had been freshly re-awakened in Lodi, California this past August during a tasting of six Zinfandels coming forth from a six local winemakers who now annually set aside a small amount of their total harvest from which they each produce wines with minimal intervention in the winemaking process. I very much enjoyed what I sampled in Lodi, and I was truly impressed by the three French natural wine examples just tasted in Bordeaux.
The FOB had one more wine, which he brought to my table a short time later…wrapped in a white cloth napkin. I did not see him coming until he was right next to me, holding the draped bottle. Very quietly, but loud enough to be heard by the table companion to my left, he announced that he had a mystery wine for me to try. I was not flustered at all, but I did wonder if I, as the only American at his daughter’s wedding–and clearly ignorant of what was happening in the natural wine movement in France–would be fodder for stories he would later tell when back in Paris. But there was no time to reflect further. The FOB asked me to empty my glass to receive his latest elixir.
Once poured, my table neighbor peered at my glass and immediately whispered to me that it looked like a Burgundy, but from an off year. Happily, though I had quite a bit to drink and the lighting was not great, my memory bank of the countless glasses of red wine I had faced in a life tracking Dionysus kicked in. Burgundy, yes, were it a Passetoutgrain (Gamay). But, as one of the two dinner wines served that evening was a Gamay, it was not likely the FOB would introduce another to me. Nor did I believe he would serve up any wines from disappointing vintages. At first, the color almost reminded me of the Alsatian Pinot Noir I had tried earlier, and though this was equally translucent, the shade was more of a darker pink than red. Think of the tint of a red onion. Without tasting, I turned my head up to the FOB and stated, “from the color it should be a Tavel.”
In my re-telling of this moment over the balance of my life, I will likely recount that he was visibly shaken as he unwrapped the bottle to reveal, just as I had said, a Tavel. He was not, however. Displaying full composure, he nodded toward me, and without providing any information about the wine or the producer returned to his table. As it was yet again another fine example of a naturally made wine I raised my glass and looked over to his table to acknowledge that he had poured another truly fine example of a vin naturel. But by then he was bent over, head-to-head, in conversation with a friend, obviously recounting what had just transpired at my table, and he did not see my gesture.
Could I have lost the draw and ended up face down on Main Street? Yep, certainly, but the very first rosé I had ever tasted, drunk back in 1969 at a company Christmas party, was a Tavel from Château D’Aqueria and I have never forgotten that Tavel color. D’Aqueria was then touted as le nec plus ultra of rosé, the summit of rosé. The pelure d’oignon colored rosé of the Midi was in little evidence back then, as the U.S. market was awash in Mateus and Lancers.
I went unhesitatingly with what my experience told me, the words Michael Broadbent, Harry Waugh (or whoever it was!) and Pascal Ribereau-Gayon, the groom’s grandfather, echoing in my mind. What more can one do?
All illustrations are the work of Mike Dater.
I later learned that the Tavel I identified is produced by Eric Pffirerling of Domaine de l’Anglore. Curiously, I located only one U.S. retailer (in California) that has Pffirerling’s Tavel, at a price suggesting the cases were hand carried back and the deliveryman sat in first class. But if you are traveling in the south of France I offer up his contact information:
Domaine de l’Anglore
81 Route des Vignobles
tel: +33 (0)4 66 33 08 46
I searched in the U.S. for two of the other natural wines from the wedding reception, succeeding in learning that the Muscadet (Domaine de l’Ecu) and the Morgon (Domaine Foillard) are available.
I was not able to ascertain the name of the Alsatian Pinot Noir served at the reception but my cellar notebooks suggest I have a 1985 from Domaine Zind Humbrecht, made from grapes harvested in their Herrenweg Vineyard in Turckheim. I’ll confirm when I get back to Lyon.