Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Wine of the Century

I’m not a “save it for a rainy day” type of guy so sometimes being disorganized and even, forgetful, can be a blessing. Case in point: A few decades back- before my receding hairline and tavern tumor made their unwelcome appearance -I was a true gourmand. When I had the opportunity to taste a special wine (even one way before its time), I did so with reckless abandon and then just, literally, swallowed my disappointment.

Such was the case with a very storied wine, the 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The ’82 Mouton was widely considered the best wine of that fabulous vintage in Bordeaux. And then the most esteemed wine critic of the time (Robert Parker) declared that bottle to be the best Bordeaux of the entire 20th century -up to that point!

A few years before the wine was available for sale on the open market, I had purchased two bottles as part of a Bordeaux Futures program. Once a particular Bordeaux vintage is evaluated (usually in the spring following the harvest), prices are established and wine shops offer consumers the opportunity to buy Bordeaux wines at steep discounts. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t receive the wine for at least two years after you make your purchase.
So, you might imagine my surprise and elation to discover that the two bottles of 1982 Mouton that I had purchased as futures were now rated as the best wines of the century. In a fevered rush to experience the other worldly flavors of this exquisite wine, I immediately opened a bottle of the Mouton and carefully decanted it into crystal carafe. I let wine breathe for an hour before pouring it into our best stemware and then swirled the Mouton to help release the aroma.

I put my nose into the glass and sniffed…. and sniffed again…nothing! No ethereal aromas of black currants, toasted oak, underbrush, or mint either. Just a vague and understated red fruit smell. Heck, there were more vibrant aromas in grape Kool-Aid than in this wine, I remembered thinking. And then I tasted the Mouton. Tannic, tight and a bit of sour grape flavors predominated. My wife and I were both disappointed, but we persisted and drank the whole bottle over a couple of hours, hoping those two hours would coax the wine of the century to show up. It didn’t.

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Over the next few decades and through a couple of moves, I misplaced and eventually forgot about the remaining bottle of Mouton. As a matter of fact, I assumed it had gotten lost or that one of my children had poached it during a raid on the old man’s wine stash. But earlier this year, I found the remaining bottle of ’82 Mouton. I decided that my wife and I would open it on our anniversary where we had booked a weekend at a very lovely southern resort. I contacted the resort sommelier and asked if he would open the wine for us, decant it and let it breathe for a couple of hours before serving it to us at dinner. Keep in mind, the ’82 Mouton is 39 years old so my concern before sipping the wine was whether or not it would still be drinkable.

But it’s amazing what a few decades of bottle age in proper storage conditions will do to allow wine from a good vintage to shine. This time the wine was everything I had expected it to be when I opened the first bottle – way too early. Aromas of tack room, mint and toast were followed flavors of dark berries, muted mocha, licorice and spice. In my experience with older wines, full flavored foods can sometimes overwhelm them, but we took a chance anyway and paired the wine with a perfectly grilled bone-in ribeye.

The result was spectacular! Remarkably, the wine is also still slightly tannic so I assume it will continue to age gracefully for at least another decade and I would love to find out. Surprisingly, the wine is still available for purchase, but I probably won’t find it at the $50 dollar a bottle futures price I paid back in 1984. The lowest price I could find online for the wine was $1750.

As an interesting aside, Mouton Rothschild has commissioned many famous artists and celebrities through the years to draw on their labels. For the ’82 Mouton, the winery asked Academy Award winning director and artist, John Huston, to paint something for the label. His watercolor painting is of a ram leaping in joy accompanied by the sun and the grape vine. Inscribed under the painting is a note from Huston to his friend and winery owner Baron Phillipe Rothschild which reads: “In celebration of my beloved friend Baron Philippe’s sixtieth harvest at Mouton.”

Word to the wise: If you really love the wines of Bordeaux, ask your wine merchant about purchasing wine futures. You’ll definitely get the best price possible. And then resist the temptation to drink the wine before it’s time!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

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