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Jefford on Monday: When do you drink that great bottle?

Allen Meadows' The Pearl of the Côte is one of three fine books on Burgundy to have been published over the last twelve months or so, the other two being Jasper Morris's Inside Burgundy and Remington Norman's Grand Cru.

I had the chance to read the trio for review purposes recently – there is much to savour in each.

Allen Meadows’ book concludes (philosophical postscript aside) with an account of a tasting which took place in New York in April 2007. This tasting took five years to prepare, and the event unfolded over two afternoons and three dinners.

The 18 ‘highly knowledgeable burgundy connoisseurs’ scrutinised thirty-seven vintages of Romanée-Conti (back to 1870), slaked by six Montrachets and a brace of Chateau d’Yquems. All those attending had contributed at least one wine, and ‘had to be able to contribute meaningfully to the discussion of each flight.’

Expenses, moreover, were ‘allocated by participant against credits for wines contributed, which resulted in all costs being shared equally’. Romanée-Conti is the world’s most expensive wine; the invoices must have been almost as spectacular as the menu cards.

It set me thinking about a subject which has long puzzled me: the phenomenon of the cluster tasting. Any one of these bottles would have been the highlight of a drinking year, and in my case a lifetime … so why 37 in three days?

When you taste a single great bottle on its own, it seems to me, you can give it a level of scrutiny, focus and attention which is impossible at a large social gathering at which ten or more wines are served, no matter how slowly proceedings unravel and no matter how practised the tasters.

Under these circumstances, is it really possible to do justice to each vintage? The greatest enemy of a good wine, I remember my friend Dirk Niepoort telling me 22 years ago, is a better one.

Perhaps these adept tasters did indeed manage to assess each wine at its true worth and allow themselves the time to chant its praises. Personally, though, I’ve seen many wines over-hastily scrutinised and dismissed with faint praise at cluster tastings which would – had I tasted them on their own with a couple of close friends on a quiet Saturday night – have reduced me to tears of rapture.

The cumulative effects of alcohol and copious good food, too, has an effect of the percipience of the tasters. In this case, Allen Meadows recounts that the group was ‘mostly spitting’ – but for those that weren’t, the 1945 Romanée-Conti would have been the seventh small glass of wine at the final dinner, and the 1870 Romanée-Conti, made under occupation during the Franco-Prussian War, would have been the fifteenth.

And for those who were spitting… wasn’t it a shame not to ingest DRC Montrachet 1982, or Romanée-Conti 1966? Wouldn’t you want to welcome wines of this order into your body, and see how they settle there?

The professional advantage for wine writers of attending tastings of this sort are evident: you go home with a bagful of notes on wines which you know or suspect you will never have the chance to taste again. The readers of Allen Meadows’ book are beneficiaries, even if the pleasure is vicarious.

I remain puzzled, though, as to why these events are so popular with collectors and enthusiasts. Perhaps the communal climax implicit in the cluster tasting is more important than the hedonistic promise of the individual bottle?

Perhaps there is a level of rarity and expense which can only be validated by sharing it with a very exclusive peer group, and ideally a chronicling writer too?

Collecting at this level must be rather like owning a yacht: if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. The price is inconsequential. Sharing the experience (and wearing the badge afterwards) is what matters.

The cluster tasting is so deeply entrenched in the upper echelons of wine enjoyment that it must be satisfactory for the vast majority of its participants.

Personally, though, I always prefer the single great bottle to parachute down in quieter circumstances. That, I think, is when you can come to know the wine best.

Are there, I wonder, prodigious collectors who taste their treasures in this way, in the hush of anonymity, with a couple of good friends and a watching cat?

Written by Andrew Jefford

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