“Quite disappointing,” whispered my companion of the recent flight that was just poured. “The 1950s were just not a great decade for La Tache.” Both the 1950 and the 1957 vintages were oxidised and tired, exuding whiffs of light soy sauce and dried Chinese mushrooms. I replied in hushed tones that I didn’t feel I could comment since my experience with Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s (DRC) La Tache vintages from the 1950s were limited. However, these bottles could have been poorly stored or handled and may not be a reflection of the vintages nor quality of the wines. Also for mature wines, which can have great bottle variation, one would have to taste at least three bottles of the same wine to speak with any confidence about the quality. Preferably, one bottle should be ex-chateau (sourced directly from the producer). We were a small group of 12, privileged to be invited for a vertical tasting of the incomparable Grand Cru monopole (an appellation owned by one winery) La Tache. The 1986 and 1988 La Tache, which were poured first, were sublime. I was, however, brought abruptly to the present when I nosed the two wines from the 1950s Perhaps, these La Tache vintages showed poorly because the vintages that preceded them in the tasting, including the 1999, were so fantastic. The 1999 La Tache was young but incredibly concentrated and layered, lingering on the palate long after the wine was swallowed. There were weaker vintages, such as the 1983, but it would have shown brilliantly if it was presented without other vintages to compare it to. Actually, any of these wines served alone would have provided immense pleasure to a group that wasn’t being utterly spoiled with fantastic wine after fantastic wine. I tried to remind myself of this as I noticed my harsh tasting notes and ratings towards the end of the evening. This type of dinner, which is extremely common in major cities in Asia, is a beauty pageant line-up of wines. Each bottle is a beauty, but in a bevy of beautiful expressions even great wines can get lost. The worst part of this type of tasting is that the rarest, oldest and often most ethereal beauties appear at the end of the evening. Some guests are too intoxicated to appreciate them and others have become numb to beauty: suffering from palate fatigue. Looking back at some of the wine events over the past year, I have to admit that it has been a year of excess. Most of the wine tastings and dinners fell either into the “beauty pageant” or the “speed dating” camp. This latter type of wine tasting is exactly like speed dating: you have just enough time with each wine (person) to decide whether or not you would like to buy it/order it (see them) in the future. Speed dating with wine means you can only spare a few minutes, up to five if you are being generous. This type of wine tasting is a useful exercise since you get to meet so many wines from which to choose the one or two you want to spend an entire evening with. There are plenty of opportunities for speed dating: this autumn and winter in Hong Kong were filled with huge tastings where more than a 100 wines were being presented at the same time. It is a common sight: a smiling host thrusts an empty wine glass at you, pointing you towards the hundreds of wines waiting to tempt your palate. Wine importers, generic bodies and wine auction houses provide the speed dating opportunity and environment. I have met a few wine speed dating addicts who seem to perpetually float from one event to another without making any commitments. I find it a struggle to taste in a crowded environment and even more challenging to find a quiet spot to write proper tasting notes. Speed dating (as well as speed tasting), I imagine, can leave you exhausted and sometimes feeling a bit hollow and empty at the end of it all. While there is an argument for efficiency and intellectual value in large tastings, the most satisfying wine experiences are those where you come to understand the wine over an entire evening. You give the wine a chance to speak to you – to tell its tale, reveal its history and background, sip by sip – and for you to listen to what it has to say. As I look back on a year of wonderful dining and tasting memories, I would like to make a few Christmas wishes for 2011: I wish to embrace the value that “less is more” and be aware that the beauty of wines can be lost when comparing and creating a beauty pageant line-up of wines. I wish for myself (and everyone who loves wine) more meaningful dates and evenings spent taking pleasure and really listening to what great wines (and great people) have to say. May your Christmas stocking be filled with a collection of wonderful memories and, of course, fabulous food and wine.
Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post