By Dan Berger
The budding wine lover called and said a bottle of wine he had just bought tasted “funny.”
It was a bottle of a German Riesling, of which he had just bought a case after he had visited the property, tasted the wine and liked it very much.
Three years after buying it, he asked me to try a bottle of it from the same case. “Is it going bad?” he asked. He said the wine had tasted sour, flat, lacking character. “It’s not the same wine,” he said.
I tried it. It was fine. Not a great wine, but representative of the property.
I relayed the bad news: the bottle he had given me was fine, just a bit more mature than he was used to. He told me of the day after the wine arrived at his house he had been hiking in the Sierras and tried it then.
“It was a hot day, it was 7,000 feet, and I brought out this bottle for lunch, and it was fantastic,” he said.
Then came his bad experience with a bottle from the same case, months later. After I told him my bottle was fine, he asked, “Could it have been one bad bottle in the case? Or was it me?”
I answered that it could have been all of that and more.
And sure enough, some weeks later he reported that yet another bottle of the same wine, from the same case, was fine and really enjoyable.
What is at play here are the multitude of factors in wine appreciation, which includes how it’s handled at the winery and how we perceive it under different conditions.
One of the greatest lessons of my life in wine was when an older, wiser friend, a longtime wine lover, told me, “There are no great wines, only great bottles of wine.”
His point was that every bottle of wine, even a reputedly great wine, can be its own little chamber of horrors, and though it’s rare, on occasion a single bottle of an otherwise great wine can go bad, even if the other 11 bottles in the case are fine.
Of course, bottles from different cases, stored in different locations, may be widely different, especially over time.
It is also true that even the best producers now and then make a clunker, just as the best artists in any field can produce less than great examples of their art.
Two otherwise “identical” bottles of wine may be different because of how they were bottled.
Assume a winery is making thousands of cases of a wine, which is stored in three different tanks. The best way to bottle it is to blend all three tanks into one huge tank, stir, and bottle.
This master blend makes should taste about the same in every bottle. But if the winery has no huge tanks to make that master blend, it may simply bottle the tanks one by one, and any difference between the various tanks may show up in the bottle.
With wines made in larger amounts, such as 100,000 cases, you can expect variation from one lot to the next. To minimize the possibility of getting radically different wines, buy in case lots, not a bottle here and a bottle next month somewhere else.
Also, winemakers know that wine is a living product. Especially wines that are not filtered have a number of active elements. Some of the chemical changes that occur in a bottle actually make a wine taste better so you hear the phrase, “The wine needs time.”
The most mystical thing is where great care used in making the wine and one bottle from a case of 12 turns up to be different. One possible reason is the closure. Cork is less reliable than other closures. About 3% of the time, a bad cork can impart an odd aroma to a wine that may not be described exactly as “corked,” but which makes the wine taste different from other bottles.
However, one huge reason two ostensibly identical bottles of the same wine can taste different is not in anything mystical, but in ourselves.
One night you’re in a great mood. You just got a raise, your kid came home with A’s on a report card, and your accountant says you owe no taxes. You taste a bottle of Cabernet and it’s wonderful. This wine you remember.
Then there are days: A slight cold or headache; a beef with your boss; the irritant of a flat tire or someone trying to cash a check ahead of you in the express checkout line — all of this can affect how you feel, whether you realize it consciously or not. And this can affect your taste buds.
You open that same bottle of Cabernet and it tastes like dross. This wine you forget.
Also, the food a wine is served with can change our perception of it. A Cabernet served with a dried-out hamburger isn’t going to taste as good as one served with chateaubriand.
One of my least favorite things is have a great wine when I’m rushed or by fate have to dine with people I don’t particularly like. I appreciate wine only with the proper amount of time and the right company.
The late English author H. Warner Allen said it best:
“The wines that one remembers best are not necessarily the finest that one has tasted; the highest quality may fail to delight so much as some far more humble beverage drunk in more favorable surroundings.”