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Tastings With Eyes Wide Open
Lessons from a Burgundian Moment in Virginia
While visiting Virginia’s wine country for a Travel & Leisure story last week, I found the perfect wine for blind-tasting. Not only was the 1999 Chardonnay from Linden Vineyards the best white wine I’ve ever had from Virginia – or any state besides California, Washington and Oregon, for that matter – but it was a dead ringer for Puligny-Montrachet. It tasted of pears, honey, butter, and an overarching minerality. It cost $24.
I put the wine in a white paper bag (brown being unavailable) and approached my cousin, Ethan, who is something of a specialist in these matters. By Isaiah Berlin’s characterization of people as either foxes or hedgehogs – those who know a little about a lot of things, or a lot about a few specific things – Ethan is the archetypal hedgehog, at least when it comes to wine.
At one point in his life, he’d narrowed his wine interest not just to white Burgundy, or even to white Burgundy from the appellation of Puligny-Montrachet, but to wines made from grapes grown in one particular vineyard, Les Folatiers.
To make matters better, Ethan actually happens to be a Virginian.
I poured him a glass of this mystery wine and stepped back to see what would happen. One sniff and he started swooning over what he surmised to be one of his treasured white Burgundies. “This is in the Montrachet style,” he said. “Very Burgundian.” Then a sip. “No, not just the style. This is Burgundy. You can’t get this minerality anywhere else.”
In his defense, he wondered for a moment how the nose of a wine with such minerality could be so fresh and lively. “Am I making a fool of myself?” he asked. But then he fell right back into the seduction of thinking he was drinking a lovely Burgundy, with just enough age on it for some complexity to be beginning to show.
I tell this story not to bury Ethan, but to praise him. Really. He stuck his nose in a glass, identified all sorts of Burgundian components, put the pieces of the puzzle together, and called it Burgundy. That’s the way blind tasting is supposed to work, at least when you’re good at it.
As it happened, this wine wasn’t Burgundy. But that wasn’t Ethan’s fault.
I have plans to cook dinner for the wine importer Eric Solomon, and his wife, winemaker Daphne Glorian of Clos Erasmus, when they pass through Colorado this week. The invitation I extended was that I’d grill some buffalo steaks and open half a dozen different bottles from my cellar.
My thought had been to serve the wines blind – and perhaps even include one of the wines that Solomon imports in hopes of getting him to say something provocative about it. But, funny thing, after blind-tasting Ethan on the Linden I found I’d lost the taste for that.
See, I’d assumed that when Ethan learned that the wine he’d tried wasn’t Burgundy at all but a modest Chardonnay made an hour’s drive from his home in Charlottesville, he’d be overjoyed. What could be better than to find a source of Burgundy – faux though it may be – on your doorstep?
But it turned out that he wasn’t overjoyed. In fact, he was mortified. In an instant, the accumulated knowledge of two decades of thinking about and drinking good wine was called into question.
Ethan was a big enough man to admit that he loved the wine just as much as a Virginia Chardonnay as he had when it was Puligny-Montrachet. But the whole experience wasn’t nearly as positive as it might have been had I poured the wine in plain sight and allowed us to discover this amazing little wine together.
I suppose it made him feel slightly fraudulent, as though he has been drinking expensive French wine all these years when it turns out he couldn’t tell the difference between that and a cheap bottle from Virginia. And it made me feel bad to see him so deflated.
So until further notice, at least, I’m off tasting friends, relatives and assorted experts blind on unusual wines. And I have these bits of wisdom to offer:
If you’re ever anywhere near Linden, Va., stop in and see Jim Law and his remarkable Chardonnay, now produced wholly from fruit grown in the Hardscrabble Vineyard. The 2001 is almost as good as the 1999.
And if you ever find a wine that bears a remarkable resemblance to something far more rare and exalted, revel in the similarities (and, presumably, the price differential.) Share it with friends. But rather than ruin the spirit of the occasion with a blind tasting, as I did, let them in on the secret first.
That’s the kind of conviviality that wine is all about.