I woke up this morning to an empty, sediment-stained bottle of 1957 La Tâche on the kitchen table, bottle number 00010 of 18,848 bottles. That means it came from the first case of that fabled wine, of which some 1,570 12-packs were produced.
I purposefully left the bottle out as a reminder—not of how wonderful this wine was last night but of a few observations about what constitutes a great wine from last night’s dinner and round-table discussion of old wines at Ad Hoc in Yountville.
But first, the ’57 La Tâche: It offered a fantastic aroma of floral lavender scents, and earthy, savory dried raspberry, fresh herb, tar and tealike notes. On the palate it was smooth and polished, eventually revealing a sun-dried tomato quality. By the end of the evening, as it expired, it showed a caramelized mocha-chocolate cake aroma.
It outshowed a bottle of Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vieilles Vignes 1993, which started out tight, compact and intense, with flinty mineral and dried berry flavors. But even after an hour, it failed to unfold like the other wines, and on my scorecard it didn’t live up to the wine it can be. My last sip had a sweaty edge.
Next came a 1999 Marcassin Sonoma Coast Pinot, the youngster of the evening, and it too showed sweet ripe cherry and berry fruit and a trace of VA that gave the wine a lifted, racy edge. It’s something you expect in a wine with age and, when in proportion, adds a measure of complexity.
With each of these wines we noted the important elements that can make or break a great wine. You need to start off with the right grape in the right soil and climate in the right year with ideal growing conditions. You also need the right winemaker—who makes sure nothing goes wrong with the wine—a perfect cork, and ideal storage conditions, where the wine is left in a cool, dark cellar. As it was, removing the cork took about 15 minutes of patient surgery, with our waiter employing first a corkscrews then an ah-so and finally to a knife to ease the crumbling split-in-half cork out.
Mess with any of these elements and your odds of encountering a great bottle of wine diminish significantly.