I was speaking at an event called 1000 Points of Wine at the 2014 Charlotte Food and Wine Festival. It was my job to explain 10 wines that had each received “perfect” 100 point scores from one critic or another.
But the first wine in the tasting was to me a middling sort of wine from a great vintage: Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2009. An estate that dates back to the 14th Century, Smith Haut Lafitte has undergone innumerable name changes and changes of vineyard sourcing, though the Lafitte name appears from the beginning. For my palate, the vineyard has never been as good as it is today, though I still find there are many other chateaux that have proven themselves more reliable. At this tasting, the Smith Haut Lafitte was not as full-bodied as most would expect of a “perfect” wine. But as with each time I’ve tasted the 2009 version, I thought it was pretty damned good with plenty of life ahead of it.
The second wine in the tastings was from the 2010 vintage; it’s a vintage with just as much hype as the 2009, and just as deserving of all that noise. But unlike the willing generosity of the 2009 vintage wines, the 2010s are tight, sometimes very austere. I believe in these wines, but most will not be as persuaded at this time. True to form, some people in the audience were perplexed or even underwhelmed by the wine, and I found myself defending it and insisting that it had much more to give than was evident now. Moreover, I thought it was as good as any Pape Clement I have had in years. While it was compact and tightly wound, it was truly fascinating.
Chateau Pontet Canet 2010 was next; it’s also performing exceptionally well of late. But this wine was shut up as tight as Fort Knox. It’s a phenomenon that is as difficult to explain as any in wine. Wines go through phases; sometimes they are bright and cheery and sometimes they are withdrawn. Don’t ask me to explain it, but if you were to taste this particular 100-point wine, you might see why we describe it this way. I found myself offering to the audience the metaphor of a castle closed up on every side, and try as we may, there was no breaching its walls. When the wine was younger, there was more evident fruit. On this particular day, it was impressive and powerful but it was as if there was no way into that castle. Nothing was giving about the wine; everything was tense and taut.
The fourth wine was even more powerful and tough, but there was more to grab on to: toasty oak, bitter tannins from that oak, powerful fruit. For my palate, this Syrah-based wine – the Delas Hermitage les Bessards 2009 – was a beast of a bottle and not at all to my liking. But within the crowd, some were in love. And some, like me, felt the wine was just too tough. But there’s the thing about wine; it’s personal just like taste in anything else, be it food, art, music, or whatever people experience emotionally. These are matters that depend upon one’s personal history, one’s culture, the milieu of your friends and family, and in the case of food and wine, the differing ways in which our bodies actually experience flavor.
Whether or not these wines ought be called perfect wines seems to be not debatable but quite irrelevant. Not because the wines are not lovely and delicious (they are) but because we forget that what makes us interesting as creators and consumers of culture is that each of us is unique in our view of what surrounds us. Our diversity, not our adherence to the same worldview, is what makes us worthwhile and gives us potential as a species.