Bruce Anderson

Magnum force

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A double magnum is a triumphant spectacle. A single bottle of claret looks slender, elegant: a suggestion of a late Gothic spire. In the 15th century, architects bent their efforts to achieve effortlessness: stone sublimated into light; ethereal, disembodied, breath-taking columns, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, shooting upwards like fireworks to make love to the sky: flamboyant. A double magnum rests on firmer foundations. Robust and proud on its massy haunches, this is Atlas or Antaeus, not Ariel. A double magnum is Romanesque, Norman. Far from seeking to conceal power, it revels in it. In its mighty eminence, Durham Cathedral tenses itself on primevally igneous rock, like a crouching lion, overawing the heavens and the earth. On the lesser dimensions of a dinner-table, a double magnum can have a similar effect.

There can be frustrations. Washington, 1980: a friend calls. She and some other girls are fixing dinner; will I come? I promise wine, and deliver. A local grog-shop is having a sale. There is a double magnum of ’66 Rauzan-Ségla, for — I think — 25 bucks. Even then, that was an extraordinary bargain, just as long as it had not spent DC summers in the shop window: winters, snuggling up to the central heating. Tension: cork extracted: joy. The subtle, insinuating, increasingly powerful and ultimately exuberant nose betokened a happy childhood and a resplendent maturity. So, modestly, reticently — as comes easily to me — I awaited the laurels and the garlands.

There were none. One of the girls had brought some marijuana, which was the cynosure of all their interest. I had smoked pot, once or twice, as an undergraduate. We referred to it as shit, or grass. I still shudder with embarrassment, although we probably spoke truer than we knew. A wily drug-dealer, spotting a callow student, would find it easy to fob him off with dried clippings from the window-box.

The ’80 Washington vintage was unquestionably a narcotic. But it lacked the taste of a cigar, or a Turkish cigarette, either of which would be a good post-prandial escort: a Last Post to the final Fighting Temeraire glasses of a proper wine. But I could not interest the girls, even though the wines of Margaux — including Rauzan-Ségla — are the most feminine of the Left-bank clarets. You drink a Pauillac. You undress a Margaux.

These were not ill-educated girls. They worked for think-tanks and what have you. These days, their equivalents would know more about wine. Back then, oenophilia was a mere meniscus on the surface of American philistinism. Apart from watery beer, those lasses had mainly drunk Californian Merlot, from cardboard boxes. They were not ready for Cabernet Sauvignon: for the concentration of intellect and palate, the concatenation of sensuality and judgment, which makes the wines of Bordeaux a lifetime study, and a lifetime’s joy.

A double magnum has a further advantage: it can seem like a moulin mystique. The table is laden with decanters, and the replenishing appears to continue indefinitely. It feels as if a double magnum has more plenitude than four individual bottles could possibly equal. The other day, half a dozen of us addressed such a grand moulin of 1990 Gruaud-Larose. Good: self-evidently. How good? Hard to tell: 1990 produced huge wines, great galumphing creatures which need time to reach adulthood. Judging by our bottle, another decade would not come amiss, though wines do take longer to come to hand in larger sizes.

The other day, I heard tell of one of the girls from Washington, who is now frightfully important. Makes one feel old. Over the intervening decades, I bet that she has learned to appreciate wine, and also carpe diem. The fruits of the earth are only for a season.