While glancing through wine magazines recently, I came across an article that interested me, written by a guy I respect. It dealt with wines of greatness, and what these great wines meant to the author. As I had been meaning to put together something of a similar, yet different nature, this article has prodded me along. Any writer that says he’s never been inspired to better things by the works of his peers is not truly in touch with his feelings.
The first thing I want to do here is to try to explain my perception of greatness. Webster’s definition uses words like admirable; eminent; mighty; uncommonly gifted. There’s also a slang connotation, which is characterized as “splendid.” It’s this slang that we tend to use the most: “Doesn’t Lucy look great?” or “What a great way to top off an excellent meal!” In reality, Lucy looks pretty much the same as she always has, and that brilliant end to the meal was just another cup of hot java.
It amounts to the misuse of a word that should really be employed when discussing something special, something out of the ordinary.
I don’t know how other folks react when closely confronted with greatness. With me, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my skin tingles. This doesn’t happen very often. Usually it occurs when I hear certain pieces of music, like Paul Tortellier’s version of Bach’s Cello Suites; or Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley on Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” or Jimi Hendrix ripping it up on “Are You Experienced?”
Works of art can provide a comparable feeling. I remember spending nearly two hours at the Prado Museum in Madrid standing in front of Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and I would have stayed longer, but the museum was closing. And my neck hairs always start shuffling around each time I watch “On the Waterfront.”
Another occasion also comes to mind: Standing at the rail at Belmont Park and gawking as the magnificent thoroughbred Seattle Slew came on to the track. He was tiptoeing on all fours like a ballet dancer. Every muscle in his flank was rippling, and his color shimmered as if made of satin. Then he ran so fluidly, with such effortless supremacy. Sheer visual brillance.
Wines that provide this kind of excitement are few and far between. I’ve probably only tasted a dozen or so in my life that qualify. A wine of true greatness combines two distinctive traits, power and elegance. Think about it. Often we taste wines that are rich and forceful, but rarely display elegance as well. Conversely, there many finesse-driven wines that lack stuffing.
When you come across a great wine, you’ll know it. All cylinders will hit simultaneously. Flavors will literally explode in the mouth, then cascade into a finish that you’ll taste from ear to ear. Minutes will pass, and the finish will linger. Thoughts about this wine will linger as well, years after it’s gone.
A few that come to mind are the Bonnes Mares 1985 from Georges Roumier in Burgundy; the 1986 Hill of Grace Shiraz from Henschke in South Australia; Vega Sicilia 1962 from the Ribera del Duero in Spain and, ultimately, a tasting at Etienne Guigal’s winery in the Rhone Valley. That day I tasted through his three single-vineyard Cote-Roties: La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque. The 1991 and 1990 from barrel then the 1989 and 1988 from bottle. At the completion of this endeavor, I sat on a bench in the street outside for at least a half-hour trying to gather my thoughts, as I had never tasted wines such as these.
The next time you hear someone raving about how great something they experienced was, put the comment into context because greatness is truly rare.