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I’m grateful for my grateful drinking friend

Years ago, I tipped him off about a considerable cellar for sale. He bought it, and seems to feel indebted to me

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

The phone rang. ‘You are the last person in the world I should be talking to’, proclaimed an old friend from the States. ‘How have I offended you this time?’ was my surprised reply. ‘Not you personally. My beef is with your hero Donald Trump.’ ‘That is not true. In any jurisdiction, I always like to support the most right-wing legal party, so I keep on hoping that the President will calm down and stop twittering. Then one could relax and enjoy his capacity to infuriate whining leftist belly-achers. But he is devaluing his office and demeaning the great republic: no hero of mine.’

‘Oh well, I forgive you and anyway I need your help, on Rousseau.’ ‘I’m not sure I’ve much to offer. My reading of Rousseau is incomplete and out of date. I did conclude that the General Will was a dangerous concept, easily adaptable by totalitarians who wanted a justification for keeping mankind in chains. In private life, he was a profoundly selfish fellow: a blend of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Anyway…’

‘Not Jean-Jacques, for God’s sake. Armand.’ ‘Now you’re talking.’ The house of Armand Rousseau produces great Burgundy. I have not drunk enough of their bottles to feel able to pronounce. But some of those who enjoy that great fortune would insist that there is no finer grower of Pinot Noir. Armand himself, the founder, sounds to have been a character out of Balzac, but one with an instinctive understanding of Burgundy. He was forever buying little parcels of land, seeing potential previous owners had overlooked. Today, the family have 30 acres of vines, half of them producing grands crus. Armand was killed in a car crash coming back from hunting (sanglier rather than fox) but not before he had created a formidable inheritance.

His son Charles and grandson Eric have maintained dynastic momentum. Eric, an oenologue as well as an oenophile, has a fine collection of degrees and diplomas: science in the service of tradition and terroir. I know that my American friend does everything possible to ingratiate himself with those who might be selling Rousseaus. He takes delight in such purchases. Around the beginning of the century, before I knew him so well, I had heard about a considerable cellar which was available for a discreet sale, probably in three lots. I mentioned it over dinner in his presence. I had not realised a) how rich he was and b) that when it comes to serious wine, he is the opposite of risk-averse. So a casual piece of information led to an eagle’s swoop of a purchase, completed by mid–morning the next day. He bought the lot. I was worried that he had spent too much: shows how good I am at reading markets. The surviving bottles are worth several times what he paid for everything. More to the point, he feels that he owes me a debt of gratitude.

Now, he wanted to assess the progress of more recent acquisitions: some Rousseaus (he keeps one of his cellars in London). There were three of us for five bottles, over a simple repast: jamon; English ham whose succulence was an attractive contrast to the Spaniard’s austere power; cold roast mutton, and a bit of chèvre. We began with three wines from Clos de la Roche: ’07, ’08 and 12. I counselled against opening the youngster: correctly. Although there was considerable promise, it was some way from being ready. A third of the bottle survived until lunch the next day and was said to have opened out. It needs five years. The other two were barely ready, even after three hours in the decanter. Both were splendid. My vote went to the ’08, but not by much.

We moved onwards to grandeur. A 2002 Clos St Jacques was as good a bottle of Burgundy as I had drunk for some years. But it was eclipsed by a Chambertin Clos de Bèze of the same vintage. Magnificent on the nose, it had everything: subtlety, power, length, majesty, harmony. I have never drunk a finer Burgundy. I resolved to cultivate my friend’s sense of gratitude.

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