How can you sample some of the world’s greatest wines when they are so scarce and eye-wateringly expensive? Buying a precious bottle may dwarf the cost of the accompanying meal and diminish the experience. Many will remember the story of the Barclays Six: the bankers who ordered two vintages of Château Pétrus—the 1945 and 1947—at a London restaurant and tried to pass off the bill as expenses. They spent £44,000 on wine. The public were understandably outraged and so were Barclays, who fired all but one of them. But what caught my eye at the time was the view of a French commentator who objected not to the vast expense but to the ordering of a second bottle. There was no need to do so having had the experience of such a rare treasure; and they had taken one more precious bottle out of circulation, depriving others of the experience.
It’s a sound objection based on the idea that wines of such outstanding quality are to be tasted and savoured. And surely, it’s the chance of tasting such legendary wines that wine lovers dream of. It is getting easier to taste trophy bottles if you can find specialist wine merchants who are willing to load them into their Enomatic machines. These unglamorous gantries dispense thimblefuls of wine under gas control and I confess to finding it a dismal experience. Dining with the philosopher Tim Crane at a restaurant in Beaune we were delighted to see so many desirable wines on tap, but having sampled them we found ourselves unsatisfied. There was none of the pleasure of a wine evolving over time. We decided this was wine sushi: lots of little plates but no main meal.
Another option growing in popularity is the use of a Coravin: a device with a surgically thin needle that plunges through the cork and the foil, opening a tiny aperture from which to extract a small amount of wine in exchange for inert gas. Two extractions can supply a normal wine glass while leaving the bottle as if were untouched. Many will be tempted to pay the price of an average bottle to taste a glass of an exceptional wine. But even this has its problems. The ceremony is missing and part of the joy of wine tasting is that it is social: we want to share the pleasure of tasting and talking about it. When I have been lucky enough to taste a great wine I have always had in mind the people I would like to share it with and whose opinion of it I would like to hear.
Perhaps the best way to ensure this can happen is to find friends who are interested in tasting and talking about rare wines. As long as they are prepared to contribute to the cost of a fairly decent bottle they can share something memorable. The optimum number for this is eight. A bottle will provide 12 samples, so eight people can taste and enjoy a small refill. I did this recently at a restaurant with some fine bottles in their cellar. The gem was a 1970 Château Brane-Cantenac, keenly priced because of the risk that second-tier Bordeaux wines from this period might not have survived the course. It was worth a punt and it certainly rewarded us. Delicate and refreshing it had lovely fruit and a texture of fine silk. Compared to a younger Bordeaux this was a very fine thing. Its structure was there: a precise skeleton entirely able to support the mesmerising flavours. We pressed on to the 1978 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jabouet. It was rewarding with rich notes of fig, plum and olive. Finer wines than we could have hoped to drink in full through the meal but ones which, as Adam Brett Smith of Corney & Barrow likes to say “stamp their quality in the mind.” It’s true, weeks later I still remember the flavours and aromas of the Brane-Cantenac. These moments are unrepeatable and priceless.
Barry Smith is Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the Institute of Advanced Studies,University of London