Correction to This Article
A Feb. 22 essay in the Food section incorrectly attributed the origin of two wines. Barolo is from the Piedmont area of Italy, and Chateau Cheval Blanc is from Saint-Emilion in France.

On Buying Wines of a Certain Age -- at a Certain Age

By David Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I am nearing 80, an age by which most reasonable people have given some thought to their demise. Thinking seriously about the unthinkable, however, about what some philosophers have called finitude, has not been high on my list of life's priorities. That was until a few days ago, when I had a conversation with a genial and informative wine merchant. It was my first encounter with a cleverly disguised representative of the Grim Reaper.

I should explain that, for me, wine has been a romance for more than five decades. From the first -- a soft Barolo from Tuscany -- I was convinced it would be a lifelong affair. Congenial companions, we rarely asked too much of each other, except perhaps to explore, by small increments, our mutual interest in the aging processes.

As our relationship matured and grew more pleasurable, it also became more expensive. I have especially enjoyed wines from the French Pomerol. My favorite, always a little out of reach financially, has been Chateau Cheval Blanc. However, buying futures (paying for a case or more now for delivery a year from now) has seemed both complicated and extravagant. Still, I thought recently, if a lifetime romance has any meaning, why not now? I would purchase a case of Chateau Cheval Blanc at an exorbitant price. It would be delivered in the spring of 2006. I would drink the first bottle on my 80th birthday in 2007. Each year thereafter on my birthday, I would drink one bottle, the last when I was 91.

Thus resolved, I began my conversation with the knowledgeable wine salesman. After a few minutes of banter, I explained my intention. He looked at me carefully, like an antique dealer appraising a somewhat worn Queen Anne dining table.

"The 2003 vintage is quite hard," he said tentatively, like a physician about to provide a dire diagnosis while trying to assess my capacity to accept really bad news.

"You mean . . . ?" I responded -- the patient knowing the blow was about to fall, but determined to be brave.

"That's right," he said. "This wine will open very slowly. After you receive it next year, you should cellar it for . . . well . . . maybe 10 or 15 years before it will be fully ready to drink."

I was never much good at math, but those figures were not difficult to understand.

"By then," I said, embarrassed by my slightly pathetic voice, "I'll be in my mid-nineties."

We stood together for a while, not speaking.

My lengthy romance with wine was not over. There would be other vintages, young and sprightly, full-bodied and generous. But to know that Chateau Cheval Blanc would one day go on without me was, briefly but infinitely, depressing.

I should have known: True romance, the satisfying sort, can't be rushed; it must mature slowly. That requires patient, steadfast lovers. The '03 vintage needs a devoted oenophile, someone in his -- or her -- forties who is able to fully appreciate Cheval Blanc's intrinsic worth even as the anticipation of pleasure mounts. Such lovers are hard to find. But when the wine is finally decanted and at long last held on the palate, it will reward the investment.

Finally, we parted, the wine merchant and I, shaking hands and smiling a little wanly, he to other customers, me to contemplate finality.

My first reaction to the conversation was annoyance, then regret. But in the end, reflecting upon my own vintage (1927), I purchased two bottles of a 1995 Vieux Chateau Certan (drinkable now) and, with them under my arm, walked out of the shop at a mature and measured pace.

Writer David Stewart lives near Middleburg.


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