Is fine good enough?
Gergely Barsi Szabo, Bibendum fine wine sales and business development executive, reflects on the evolving and captivating world of fine wine.
Fine wine works best as a point of comparison – a reference point when you describe a certain bottle to your equally wine-headed mates. I guess we all join the trade in the hopes of seeing them, and tasting them … the Holy Grail. Those few sips of the best – or allegedly best – juice in the world that makes commis sommeliers toil endless hours, polish millions of glasses, and withstand all the pain that the beginning brings. But why would anyone pay thousands of pounds for a bottle of wine?
Of time, place and people
Fine wine by definition usually extends as far as the vineyard borders of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Despite the fact that these two regions represent a huge chunk of the cake – almost a third each – we cannot look at them as the exclusives of the category. The final third consists of a very colourful collection of wines, from Umbria and Ljutomer Ormoz (in Slovenia), to the remote vineyards of Roberson in South Africa.
So what makes these all fine wine? I’ve been trying very hard over the past decade to come up with a definition – and for me there’s one word that says it all: unrepeatability.
Unrepeatability means a unique terroir, a one-off prime spot on planet Earth where you can produce grapes that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Fine wine also carries the unrepeatability of time. It encapsulates every little meteorological detail of the year the grapes were grown – and rather obviously all the years that have passed since the grapes were harvested.
With certain labels, just a few years on from the current vintage can mean dramatic differences, both in drinkability and price. Instead of having to carefully select young wines, store them for a few years, and only list them once they are really mature and ready to go, you can get them straight out the box and right on the wine list. Like the 1998 Tignanello on our fine wine list: it was carefully stored for the past 20 years, and is now perfectly ready to drink, to say the least.
It may be the best-quality fruit and the most ideal vintage, but if it falls into the wrong hands, you won’t get much joy from it. The person behind the label – whether that’s the owner, viticulturist or cellar master – really makes a difference. That is the reason why certain producers’ bog standard Bourgogne Blanc sells for the price of a less prestigious house’s Grand Cru. I am looking at you Coche Dury!
Unrepeatable origin: unrepeatable time, and the right people’s care. If all these match up with rarity in volume, the price has a guaranteed exponential growth. Oh, and it kind of helps if it tastes bloody good.
The weird and wonderful
I remember the first real cellar I walked into a decade ago. It was my first somm job in London in a very, very French luxury brasserie. The room was tiny, no larger than four standard London phone boxes, but it had everything I held dear at the time. All the wines I had read about. All the labels I saw at the bottom of the pages of my weathered World Atlas of Wine copy. Top Bordeaux: anything from the 1855 league up to Margaux, Mouton, Lafite, Latour, and “Ho Bryan”. Rare Burgundy: LeMoine, Coche Dury, JN Gagnard and the gang. Super Tuscans: Tig, Sass, Mass. Grange. Special imports of Catena Zapatas from Mendoza – you name it!
In my last hospitality job nine years later at one of Hackney’s legendary wine establishments, the shelves were full of rarities from the weirdest, quirkiest and wackiest small producers, many from the peripheries of the marginal side of our wine world. Cru Beaujolais like Lardy and his mates. Etna. Unknown villages of Jura and the Loire. Slovenia, Utah and Southern Chile with the Garage community.
Would I call these fine wine in the very classic, penguin-suited, sommelier sense? Not quite. But were they unrepeatable anywhere else? Sure thing. Did they pack a punch with originality? They did. With tiny allocations, most of them were even harder to get than the most highly regarded Bordeaux or Burgundy estates. These bottles were fine wine by all means: unrepeatable, unique, and more often than not, quite costly.
Along with the penguin suit, the way fine wine is being presented has changed a lot. The quality of the kit is unquestionable, but decanting a bottle of wine looks a lot less like the royal ballet in action and a lot more like a busy bartender serving his customers.
One thing that rocked the world of fine wine forever, and in fact pretty much redefined wine service as we know it, was Coravin. Earlier on, if you only wanted a glass of superb wine from the higher price echelon, you had two choices: you paid for the entire bottle, or went to a place that had a high-end by the glass selection. Neither of these options are budget friendly. The problem with fine wine was that no one dared to pop the top bottles. Losing half a bottle because you cannot sell it in time was too big a risk for most restaurants.
With Coravin, you simply stick the needle through any cork, and the argon gas that substitutes the drained wine protects the remaining juice, meaning bottles can last for several months. If all your hearts desires is to taste a 1947 Cheval Blanc, you can do so now. It’s still a few hundred quid for 25mm, but that’s a lot cheaper than having to pay 10K+ for the bottle.
And isn’t it the rarity we’re all after? The joy of the chase that ties a somm and his or her most loyal customers together. We all have secret stashes in the cellar saved for that special guest. And at Bibendum, we have an exciting and ever-evolving stash on our fine wine list. While the rest of the world may not understand that adrenaline rush of just reading through a great fine wine offer, you’re not alone: we’re all hooked on the unrepeatable good juice.
Watch the videos from our cellar tasting, where we speak to customers and members of the Bibendum Fine Wine team.