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When wine goes to sleep

Wine often shuts down and goes through a ‘dumb phase’, but what causes it and how do you predict it? Charles Curtis MW explains

Noted classics scholar and wine lover George Saintsbury in his Notes on a Cellar-Book quotes Jonathan Swift as saying, ‘Sir, I drink no memories’ – but of course, he did, and so do we. Indeed, it is the memory of wonderful bottles already drunk that holds the attention of wine lovers, and can provide both the greatest satisfactions and disappointments of our wine-drinking careers.

Whatever other virtues wine can claim, constancy is not one of them: from the moment the fermentation ceases, the wine begins to change. Among the most frustrating changes is the dreaded ‘dumb phase’, when a wine, once exuberantly fruity and sensuously lush, suddenly appears hard and unyielding, and the once-plentiful aromas have all but disappeared. Confronted with such a result, wine lovers begin to despair of their purchases and doubt their ability to taste. Assurances that the wine is ‘only going through a dumb phase’ do little to allay the consternation – particularly when the bottle costs thousands of pounds.

One of the classic (and alarming) cases of a dumb phase is the instance of Lafite-Rothschild 1982. I remember it as a wine of silky, velvety texture and lush, nuanced fruit with a beautifully lingering finish. But one afternoon I decanted a bottle and thought it seemed a bit shy. It was prior to a client dinner in the Christie’s boardroom which I hosted as head of the wine department in New York. ‘With time,’ I thought, ‘it will open well.’ Unfortunately, it didn’t. When the guests arrived at 6.30pm, it was still shut down. After the fish course, it still seemed fairly mute. Finally, when we brought forth the decanter with the venison, the wine had opened a bit, though it was a far cry from my recollection of its earlier splendour. Fortunately, more recent bottles have been consistently lovely. What could have caused such alarming behaviour?

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