Every wine drinker has at least one special bottle. It may have been earmarked for a forthcoming event – an anniversary, a birthday, the birth of a child or the closing of a deal. Usually, though, the bottle is awaiting that ‘special moment’, the determination of which is clearly entirely subjective. For some people that moment never comes; they cannot conceive of the possibility that there will never be a better moment than the one right now.
The human body is fallible. It falls prey to a range of illnesses so vast that the pharmaceutical industry can afford to invest billions of dollars in R&D. And if we don’t get ill, we can become victims of completely random events over which we have no control. But, however impermanent our own existence, we’re a lot less perishable than bottles of wine. Few wines can last decades; those that can last the length of an uninterrupted human life are rarer still. This assumes, of course, that the bottles have been stored at an optimal temperature (between 12 and 16 °C), and aren’t corked. All bets are off if the bottle slips out of someone’s hand.
For my 41st birthday, my wife gave me a bottle of Salon champagne – and a card, of course, which said “To your Salon years”. Many people will happily spend $300 on a pair of fabulous shoes, especially if they are expected to give 10 years of service. Spending the same amount of money on a single bottle of wine requires the application of a completely different set of values.
Within the first months of owning this bottle I did suggest we open it, but my wife wasn’t in a champagne mood at the time (there’s no point drinking the stuff if the acid is going to clash with one’s body). Then, six months later we made a successful offer for a house, having been renting for more than six years. Surely buying a house is a ‘Salon years’ kind of thing, I thought? No, let’s wait until we move in.
I didn’t trust the movers with a few select bottles, of which Salon was one. And, workmen were still busy with renovations when we moved in. So, for a couple of weeks I drove around with a case of wine in my car (it was winter, so no concerns about storage temperature). When I thought the coast was clear I put the wines into a locked store room off the garage. What I’m working up to, is that there were still workmen on site, and somehow my bottle of Salon went missing.
Eugène-Aimé Salon must have been a pleasure-seeker of note. He was a fur millionaire, living in la belle époque, of the opinion that black grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) bring coarseness to champagne, and therefore devoted himself to making his own, but based entirely upon chardonnay grapes. At first his champagne was distributed to friends, business associates or relatives as gifts (one hopes he drank some himself!), making him a kind of garagiste champenoise. The first commercial release – and one of only 37 in the entire 20th century, was in 1921.
The key to Salon (the champagne) is grand cru chardonnay from the village Les Mesnil-sur-Oger. These grapes simultaneously deliver richness and acidity to create a kind of elegance that is impossible to achieve by blending with black grapes.
In 1995, I imported a small quantity of Delamotte champagne. This small house is joined with Salon, and the shipment arrived with a couple of sample bottles of Salon, one of which was consumed on our wedding anniversary soon thereafter. For the next five years, or so, it became customary for us to celebrate our anniversary with a bottle of Salon.
My disappointment at losing my bottle of Salon, then, is partially based upon its rarity (usually only three vintages per decade, released eight to 10 years after the vintage), its unique quality, as well as the emotional significance it holds. But there is another reason, and this was a visit we made to Delamotte and Salon in 1997.
We were on a wine and eating trip through France with another couple. There was no-one from the export team to receive us, but were told we were most welcome to visit anyway; they would deputise someone to take us around. The deputy turned out to be Max, a man in his seventies, who worked with the wine (he even wore the leather apron), but spoke not one word of English. I can understand some wine French, so off we set on our tour of the cellars that make what can lay claim to being the world’s most exclusive champagne, led by this wonderful old man. That we couldn’t communicate in a conventional sense was irrelevant. His manner was imbued with the quiet dignity and humility of having spent his life contributing to the making of one of the world’s great wines. Under those circumstances there really isn’t much need for marketing hype.
The tour ended in a simple reception room at the rear of the house, looking out over a small patch of vineyard. On a table was the full range of champagnes from Delamotte, and two vintages of Salon. Max then left us to get on with tasting/drinking the wines. As the sunlight across those vines started softening, I was filled with the sensation of perfection – the scene outside, the down-to-earth quiet in the room, and the elegance in our glasses.
So, what to gain from the loss of my special bottle? Unlike Miles, I’d prefer proper glassware (I’ve known people to ‘neck’ grand cru Burgundy when no glasses were available). And, drinking wine is like having a conversation; the greater the wine, the more it has to say for itself. That being the case, give it the space to be heard.
A couple of years ago I attended the end-of-year Men’s Function for the local branch of the International Wine & Food Society. The menu comprised foie gras, crayfish and duck, and for this feast members were asked to bring their best bottles (some of which, it has to be said, could only be regarded as ‘best’ relative to something rather dismal). My friend Zak brought a bottle of 1996 Domaine Jacques Prieur Musigny – his ‘best’ bottle – which he shared with several of us. Later he made an impromptu speech in which he expressed his admiration and appreciation for the friendship of various “gentle men” (two words intended) amongst us. That was the last time any of us saw him alive. Later that night, after getting home, he succumbed to a heart attack.
Zak had an almost mythical last supper; he ate his favourite foods, he drank a treasured wine, and he said a whole bunch of meaningful things that will stay with us forever. More than anything, though, the evening illustrated that there really is no time like the present; all kinds of things can happen either to our bottles or to ourselves.
This article first appeared in Player magazine.