Columnist, Food


There's history in those bottles: A 2005 shot of Tio Pepe's laboratory at Gonzales-Byass sherry bodega in Jerez, Spain. (Dave McIntyre)

Don’t think of wine as just a beverage. It’s a portkey, if you’re a Harry Potter fan or a flux capacitor if you prefer Marty McFly. In other words, wine is a time machine. A glass of sherry or tawny port may contain drops of wine dating back a century or more. The Founding Fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with madeira. It is still possible to taste madeira made from grapes grown when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were alive.

This kind of time travel can cover decades at a time. At a recent dinner organized by wine writer Bijan Jabbari, a group of wine collectors and I were able to experience 14 vintages of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a Bordeaux first growth, dating from 2009 back to 1952. Several of those wines were not considered first growths when they were made; Mouton was only promoted to Bordeaux’s top rank in 1973, having struggled for more than a century to get the status it deserved. Yet the wines showed a consistency of style, and especially quality.

“Mouton has a special taste,” said Philippe Dhalluin, Mouton’s chief winemaker, who acknowledged he was tasting the 1952 for the first time. “It is a special place.” In other words, it’s not just wine, it’s Mouton.

These bottles did not include plane tickets to Bordeaux, but they did give us a sense of that “special place” in Pauillac, along the left bank of the Gironde River. And each wine tasted of the sunshine, or the rain, that characterized its vintage. As we assessed how the wines evolved, we learned how Mouton itself has developed. Mouton was one of the first Bordeaux chateaux to move to “precision viticulture,” assessing each vineyard plot (some of which date back 100 years) to decide when to harvest and fermenting the wine in small lots to increase flexibility in blending the final wine.

“When they renovated the old cellar a few years ago, they found the cellar master’s notes from 1986,” Dhalluin said with a chuckle. “Back then, they started harvest on the east side and moved west, and when the merlot couldn’t fill a vat, they dumped in cabernet sauvignon.”

These experiences are fleeting — they last only as long as we can keep the wine in our glass. But the memories linger, like a photograph or souvenir that takes us to that time, that place, that taste.

Wine speaks of its place of origin. A glass of assyrtiko and a bowl of olives transform a pool patio into the Greek islands, if only for a few moments. The wines of Georgia, fermented in clay qvevri buried for months in the ground, give us a taste of how wine was made centuries ago, when humans began to tame the grape.

It features prominently in religious ritual and tradition. During a Passover Seder, each adult participant drinks four cups of wine, representing the redemption of the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians. A fifth cup is reserved for the prophet Elijah in hopes he will visit during the celebration; representing future redemption, it is left unconsumed.

And how can we taste a wine from Galilee and not think of the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine? Or the Last Supper, where wine became a symbol of the new covenant? On the cross, he was offered wine to ease his pain. Even today, we drink wine to celebrate life’s milestones, to mark solemn occasions or to comfort ourselves in times of sorrow.

“To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history,” the late American intellectual Clifton Fadiman wrote.

“Drink wine. This is life eternal,” Omar Kayyam tells us in the Rubaiyat. “This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”

We can think of wine as simple fermented grape juice, just another mechanism for ingesting alcohol. We can certainly spend a lot less money on it with that perspective. But wine is so much more. It flows through the history of civilization. It connects us to a year, an era, a tradition. That helps explain why wine lovers seek out the variety wine offers and build collections that defy logic.

For those of us who have experienced this sort of time travel know, there is no going back.