Hugh Johnson January '10 column

  • Wednesday 24 February 2010

It’s a problem not many of us are troubled by, but the prices of the wines that set the ultimate standards (and which we all like to refer to and lust after) have become positively embarrassing. Embarrassing for a new reason. If you are one of the lucky ones with a few Lafites or Cheval Blancs in your cellar, who can you serve them to? Their amazing prices are becoming common knowledge. The first reaction of any of my friends or acquaintances (not the spoilt wine professionals among them) to my pulling a cork on hundreds of pounds is all too human: What is the agenda? What does he want from me?

To people of a sensitive disposition as well as a sensitive palate, the grandest wines need a context. Or rather a pretext. Of course they need an appreciative and reasonably practised (or at least briefed) audience. To spring a first growth at a routine supper is hardly the best way to show it. Having found the right group of people, it is only logical to assemble a group of like-minded wines, as it were, to compare and discuss as well as enjoy. So we’re beginning to talk real money.

Recently I have been to a number of dinners convened to raise money for charity. One in New York, organised by Grapes for Humanity, an excellent fund for the victims of land mines, depended in the first place on the generosity of the great Bordeaux estates Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, but then went on, with an auction of promises and bottles from the cellars of the guests, to raise a fairly spectacular sum.

A recent dinner in London, at The Square, was based on the cellar of one generous collector who recruited fabulous bottles from friends and acquaintances, then auctioned 14 places round the table. The good cause was the education of winery workers’ children in South Africa, many of whom, I was horrified to hear, have foetal alcohol syndrome. There is an old wine trade joke about ‘excessive product loyalty’, but this is no joke at all.

Without such collaborative effort, goodwill and the urge of wine collectors to show and discuss their bottles, how else would we have compared Lafite 1950 and Pétrus 1950 (Lafite won, by the way); Palmer ’61, Lafite ’82 and Cheval Blanc ’85; Vosne-Romanée from Leroy and Rouget, including the legendary Cros Parantoux (not for me, this: I look for elegance and finesse in Burgundy); Côte-Rôtie’s La Turque and Hermitage’s La Chapelle ’90 and ’78? Oh, and I nearly forgot – two 1989 Trimbach Rieslings, Climens and Yquem. I couldn’t possibly have forgotten the closing wine: a 1827 Bual from Quinta do Serrado.

This was, admittedly, pretty lofty drinking. The same principle, though, could be used to winkle long-anticipated bottles from the cellars of any group of enthusiasts with beneficent effect. I propose it as a New Year’s resolution: pull corks for the unfortunate.

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