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Valentine’s Wines: A Nice Pair


I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. Never have been, not since I was a teenager in Britain and saw how some people – other people – got more cards than other people – like me. And while I quite like how American culture uses February 14 to instill in our younger kids the concept of love with a small l, I’m not so keen on the manner in which big business tries to create out of this an additional holiday and with it, of course, an opportunity to make big money.

Still, I met my wife on a February 16, so we tend to blend that anniversary with the traditional focus on Valentine’s and raise a toast to the fact that, here we are, two kids and all, and still together. This past week, in fact, we celebrated twenty years as a couple and what with Valentine’s falling on the Sunday before a Holiday Monday, it felt like the perfect occasion to raid the cellar for two special bottles of wine.

Both were bought in France, each for a comparative song. The older wine I actually picked up more recently, in late ‘06, when I was fortunate enough to find myself in Reims, the capital of Champagne, on Radio 4 business. There I searched out a local wine store and, sure enough, it was stocked almost floor to ceiling with champagnes of all styles from small growers and producers, the kind that simply never make their way to the States. When I mentioned that the Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 1990 was one of the greatest wines I’d ever tasted (on the occasion of my 40th birthday, back in 2004), the store owner agreed with me on the quality of the vintage but suggested, in no uncertain terms, that I’d opened it several years too early. He pointed me to a bottle of the Bernard Tornay Cuvée Millésimée 1990. From a producer in the village of Bouzy, where Pinot Noir excels, this Champagne was (so I have subsequently confirmed via e-mail exchange with the producers) an equal blend of that grape and Chardonnay. (The third grape permitted in Champagne is Pinot Meunier. Vineyards are designated Grand or Premier Cru based on a 100pt scale, for which the growers are paid accordingly. The Tornay Vineyards in Bouzy are right up towards the 100% mark.) I picked it up for less than $20, along with strict instructions to save it into the next decade. And I kept my word, barely.

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As you might expect from an older Champagne, the color in the glass was that much darker than your average cheap young Chardonnay bubbly, something of a deep gold, more like an aged Vouvray, albeit with an incredible head of fizz on top and the presence of dozens of minute little bubbles dancing their way up to the air. The nose, similarly, was deeper and more complex that one almost ever experiences in Champagne, even as it emitted the familiar aromas of bread, yeast and nuts. These flavors became more pronounced on the palate, which was succulent at the front, leading into notes of slightly burnt toast, cooked apples, and crisp almonds. Round and filling, it lingered pleasingly on the tongue before leading into a long, luxurious, creamy finish with a tinge of mandarin orange. I’ve never pretended to be the world’s most eloquent wine reviewer; I have problems identifying the tastes of specific fruits, nuts, flowers, and soil. What I do know is that in terms of structure – body, strength, balance, agility – and complexity – the number of different things going on at once – this was one of the greatest white wines I’d ever tasted. Certainly a rival for that Pol Roger. And though it was in absolutely splendid form, having gained much of its quality from the years of bottle age, my gut tells me it wasn’t going to get that much better. In short, it was perfect.

That Champagne lasted us through to our Valentine’s main course. Then it was time for what is undoubtedly the longest-stored (if not necessarily oldest) bottle in my cellar. I’d purchased the Domaine Les Goubert Gigondas Cuvée Florence 1995 direct from the winery in the summer of 1999, when it was the last stop on a brisk morning tour that also took in wineries in Cairanne, Rasteau and Beaume de Venise. Mireille Cartier of Les Goubert was hospitality itself that morning, taking her time, pouring every thing in the catalogue, even reaching back into prior vintages, and finishing off the tasting with my first ever taste of Viognier. It was a defining moment for me; upon my return from that trip I started buying and storing wines. The first to be put down for the long haul was this bottle of Les Goubert’s special Cuvée, named for the Cartiers’ daughter, from a spectacularly good year in the Southern Rhône. If it cost $15, I’d be surprised. I later saw it on sale in the States for almost $50.

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Given M. Cartier’s own predictions, and the fact that a bottle of the Les Goubert basic 1984 Gigondas we picked up that same day in ’99 was still drinking well at the time, there seemed no rush to open the ‘95 special Cuvée – not until I read a tasting note on my favorite wine forum a year or two back that suggested it had already peaked. I gritted my teeth for disappointment, allowing that with wine storage, patience is not always a virtue. But upon opening the Cuvée Florence 95 this past Sunday, my faith was rewarded. An incredibly aromatic blend of bright red and black fruits – cherry, blackcurrant, blackberry – along with the muscular, mineral nature of the Gigondas terroir – immediately leaped from the bottle. A deep dark red in the glass, with just a light brick at the edges, the “legs” dripped but slowly; in every sense the wine felt youthful, if not necessarily primal. The fresh fruits combined with Gigondas’s more animalistic tendencies on the palate: hints of mushroom, and the wet leafy notes of the forest floor – but not, notably, the kind of saddle leather flavors that can be common in these wines of all ages. Presumably, the oak ageing had something to do with its measured temperament. The tannins were soft, the finish was long and spicy. It was heady, thick and soupy, but it wasn’t artificial; if you want to get all carnal about it, and this was Valentine’s day after all, it was full-bodied and voluptuous, giving a great big come-on, but its boobs were very much its own. (By comparison, the Tornay was more slender, a little less splashy, a little more confident in the sensuality that comes with experience.)

There had been hopes of saving some of the Gigondas for the next night. It didn’t happen. It was too damn good. What with the 1990 Tornay Champagne as a prelude, this was one of my greatest wine nights of all time – and, the cost of storage aside, at bargain bin prices. Part of me would like to drink like this every night, and I guess, if I lived in France, I probably could. But I shouldn’t. There are wines for every day drinking, and there are wines for celebrating the fact you’ve made it through 20 years together without finding yourself up in court for attempted murder of the other! This (nice) pair fell into the second camp. It was a privilege to know them, and to the extent that wines have souls, I trust these were happy with knowing that they’d been kept for such an occasion.

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