The laying down of wine has long been a tradition in many wine-producing areas of France. A case (or a barrel, back in the days before bottles were commonplace) would be purchased to commemorate a special occasion such as the birth of a child or a wedding, in anticipation of it being opened and drunk years later to celebrate a milestone birthday or anniversary.
These days wine is often purchased more as an investment. There’s still money to be made for those who are patient, but the short-term profits wine investors made in the heady days of the 1980s have passed. Auction prices for sought-after bottles can be prohibitively high.
Still, people are drinking cherished bottles. I see this often as a sommelier, when restaurant guests bring in special wines to have with their meal. I enjoy hearing the story of how they acquired the bottle – perhaps they visited the vineyard and met the winemaker, or it was a gift from someone special.
On these occasions, it’s easy to tell the pros (collectors) from the rest. A pro will bring the bottle straight from the cellar or wine fridge, so that optimum temperature is maintained; the super-organised ones will even make arrangements to drop off the bottle beforehand so it can stand and let any sediment settle. When an amateur brings their bottle, it has often been carried around all day, from home to work then to the restaurant. But they’re usually the ones with the best stories; it’s probably not a rare or expensive bottle, but it’s one that holds many memories for them.
One of my favourites was a Hello Kitty sparkling wine with a label that was reminiscent of the one on a Dom Perignon bottle. It wasn’t champagne, of course, but that was what the guest called it; I couldn’t help but gently correct her, saying that although it might have been produced using the same process as champagne, it could only be called that if it was from the Champagne region of France.
She said she had received the bottle on her 21st birthday and, now that she had turned 30, she thought it was time to drink it. I asked her where she had stored it as I noticed that the label had faded in places and her reply was that she had kept it under a light in her entertainment cabinet next to her television, where she stored her other Hello Kitty memorabilia.
I hoped for the best but expected the worst as I opened the bottle at the table. Sadly, it had maderised – it had turned brownish and tasted a bit “cooked”, like madeira wine. The cork had dried out and shrunk so much that there was barely a pop as it came out of the bottle. Diplomatically, I told her that her bottle probably wasn’t quite as good it could have been had it been stored better, but that it was still drinkable. She and her guest happily drank the contents and I packed the empty bottle for her to take home.
The moral of the story is not to save something too long, and to share it with friends and family.
I had a bittersweet occasion last month, after a dear wine friend had passed away. We celebrated his life in the same room in which he had got married – a happy day when I enjoyed a memorable glass of Cristal; a fellow guest had asked a bartender to top up his glass of champagne with orange juice. This was also the room in which he had thrown his 40th birthday party and a bash for the 15th anniversary of his wine company.
On this sad day, there were many friends, family and winemakers who had gathered to commemorate his life. Cristal was served, of course. And there was a moment of déjà vu – I stood with a flute of champagne in hand and watched as a guest with his glass of Cristal asked a bartender for some orange juice.
Patricio, I hope you saw that.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers