Losing your sense of smell due to Covid is no joke when you make a living in food and wine. In April last year my taste buds shut down for three weeks. I began staring at my wine cellar like a recovering addict for whom the drugs no longer worked. Sure, I’d read posts from other sufferers who were concerned about whether or not their olfactory organs would ever get back to normal, but I’m fatalistic, and besides, my chances were good. But if my smell didn’t return, I’d rue having not lived in the moment more often.
Pandemics, floods, wildfires, cyber-attacks, artificial intelligence, terrorism: we’re living in a boom time for disaster, so if you’re not opening your most prized bottles of wine now, when exactly do you plan on doing so? Eckhart Tolle missed a trick by not encouraging neurotic winos to do so in his self-help classic The Power of Now: surely a vital part of vinous appreciation is being able to live intensely in the present. How many times have you pondered bottles past and future while deciding what to open, then talked yourself out of anything very good? Too subtle, too simple, too young, too old, too complex, too alcoholic, too… wet.
Why anyone still buys Bordeaux en primeur when killer robots are on the horizon is beyond me. Fine wine is one of the few luxuries that can cost a fortune but requires a secondary investment of something much more valuable: time. When a Pauillac with 25 years in the cellar, around the time they begin to get interesting, can be bought for a similar price to a new release, why bet you’ll be in a position to enjoy it in the future instead of living in an apocalyptic wasteland that makes The Terminator look like Mary Poppins? Did you see the lockdowns coming more than a few days before they started? Well, hurry up and pass the corkscrew.
When it comes to special bottles I’ll always say ‘just do it’, although they shouldn’t be opened under just any circumstances. Never open a stinky old-school Hermitage for your aunt Mabel or garrulous friends without the inclination to pay it attention. You may as well be choking back Casillero del Diablo as savouring Haut-Brion ’89.
Great wines can be complex and severe, and require effort to understand. Likewise, never pour a mighty Montrachet as an aperitif at a reunion: no one wants to geek out over Chardonnay when gossip is on the menu. And try not to drink legendary vintages when as drunk as a lord: I’ve no recollection of Armand Rousseau Mazy-Chambertin ’71, allegedly dispatched after a refreshing lunch at La Paulée de Meursault.
I’ve squirrelled away many bottles from favourite domaines but, like the wines themselves, the circumstances for opening them seem to get rarer. Meanwhile the prices of many cult estates have spiralled, so unless you’re the Duke of Westminster, even the thought of opening these bottles can have a paralysing effect. Would it be such a bad thing if some of the hugely inflated prices of authentic domaines dropped post--pandemic? Judging by the sums many are reaching, there seems little chance of that.
All winos prize a fellow enthusiast with whom to drink precious bottles. As my sense of smell slowly returned I made a start on my ‘Sod it list’ of dream wines with friends, a list almost as long as the queue for Sainsbury’s. What did we drink? 2008 Freddie Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru ‘Les Amoureuses’ was my favourite wine of the year — perhaps ever — but it wasn’t just noble or expensive bottles on the list. There’s something restorative about wholesome Beaujolais like Jules Desjourneys Fleurie that most other regions just can’t match. But no matter how mad and challenging the early part of this year is, it will never be repeated. So then, open a special bottle with a dear friend: it’s easy to take such happiness for granted.
Dan Keeling is co-founder of Noble Rot restaurants and Keeling Andrew & Co wine importers, and editor of Noble Rot magazine. Bruce Anderson is away.