On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape. This week, she "drinks" the words of historic wines.
These days, my favorite glass each day is the wine I'm drinking vicariously through the reviews of Michael Broadbent, quite possibly the world's most distinguished and experienced taster.
You may know of Robert Parker, founder of The Wine Advocate. You also may recognize the name Marvin Shanken, who founded The Wine Spectator. But you've probably never heard of Broadbent.
That's because he tastes and reviews wine that will never touch the lips of most people on this planet. The old stuff. The rare stuff. The stuff of legends and fraud. The stuff that's sold at auction for six figures.
Why should you read about wine you'll never drink? I read about it because it combines history, mystery, people-watching, and all the glamour associated with things that are priceless—or nearly so.
Take, for instance, the 1787 Chateau Lafitte (neither the date nor the spelling is a typo!). Thomas Jefferson liked this wine so much, he brought some back to the spanking new United States when he returned from France. Broadbent has tasted the vintage several times, including once in 1992 in a laboratory watched by a scientist and a lawyer.
How did the wine taste? Not all that great it turns out: "nose restrained and though oxidized opened up quite richly with residual fruit traces." Nevertheless, I was amazed that any liquid beverage made on the eve of the French Revolution still tasted like anything at all.
I'm going to have to take Broadbent's word for it because I will never ever taste a 1787 Chateau Lafitte. Nor will I taste a drop of the 1811 Chateau Yquem (again, not a typo—that's the way it was spelled between 1789 and 1855). The grapes were picked during the famous "comet vintage," a legendary year that produced amazing wines due to a hot growing season capped off by the appearance of a comet during harvest. This wine was of great historical significance, but it was also more drinakable. In 1989, Broadbent said it reminded him of "raspberries and cream."
No matter what the condition or taste of the wine, each time Broadbent uncorks an old bottle, he is drinking history.
Broadbent's tasting notes for wines made over the course of the past three centuries are contained in his book, Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines. Broadbent earned his expertise in rare, old wine when he served as the head of Christie's wine department beginning in 1966. There he was expected to certify and authenticate the provenance of the wine he auctioned, often for staggering sums of money.
Such large sums invite fraud, and Broadbent has seen his share of controversy from his assessments of wine and the money they've fetched at auction. One such controversy erupted over a single bottle of the aforementioned 1787 Chateau Lafitte supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. It was sold at Christie's under Broadbent's gavel for the staggering sum of $156,000. The controversy was recently chronicled in Benjamin Wallace's absorbing The Billionaire's Vinegar: the Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.
Whether you want to gasp at the intrigue and skulduggery associated with collecting rare bottles, or read the tasting notes themselves, reading about wine you will never own and never drink can become a guilty pleasure.
While the size of my retirement fund shrinks, my appetite for the most costly wine on the planet is happily being satisfied by reading about bottles of wine so rare that I can't even dream of purchasing them. Instead of making me feel deprived or unhappy, reading about these treasures makes me even more aware of what magical stuff wine really is.
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