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Open the Bottle: Hugh Johnson’s column

It's all in the timing.

I’m sure every wine producer would like to know what happens to his wine after it leaves his cellar, crosses the sea, lands in a bonded warehouse and is chosen by a buyer. You can worry about logistics and storage conditions, but what you really want to know is when will someone open the bottle. Probably not when you would drink it, cher ami. Probably sooner; possibly later – and possibly after it’s dead and gone to vinegar. You don’t put drink-by dates on bottles – and certainly not don’t-drink-untils. Excellent-now-but-will-continue-to-improve-for-years is the mantra. And a fat lot of use it is – either to the drinker or the producer.

You certainly worry about the cork, or the screwcap. Whole board meetings were taken up with nothing else. But the vital question when will they open the bottle so the wine is drunk in prime condition is not so easy. Does the producer ever tell me, the consumer, just when to open the bottle at its best? Does he know? Safer to leave the window as wide as possible, to cater for my ‘preferences’. How do I know what my preferences are, though, without information? I have to hope that columnists, and compilers of annual guides, know all about the wine, and all about me.

Custom and commentary are not such a bad guide, thank goodness. The risky bit, rarely discussed at all in public, is when the winemaker trims his sails to adapt to ‘demand’. He still doesn’t know when you’re going to open the bottle. But he guesses, wet finger to the wind, that you are more likely to open it sooner than – than what? What data can he go on? The supermarket clears its shelves double quick. Is that what happens when the bottles get home? The famous Australian time-lag between till and swill is 20 minutes. Then what is that dusty bottle of non-vintage Champagne doing in your rack over the fridge? I’m only guessing (how would I know either?) but my hunch is that one third of all wine is drunk when it could as the blurb says, ‘be kept with advantage’, one third is kept too long, and one third is caught firing on all cylinders.

The finest wines, of course, have the longest all-cylinders-firing windows. At that money they need to: they may well be traded half a dozen times before they are drunk. Then imagine yourself a producer desperate to get into the luxury league. Parker smiles on you. Millionaires get curious. Are your new patrons going to lay you reverently down? Fat chance. You have got to have smooth tannins, high fruit and well-judged oak (35% Tronçais) from year one. What happens 10 years hence is academic: unless they like you tonight you won’t be in business in 10 years.


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