Why how much we enjoy a wine may be influenced by things that have little to do with the wine itself
The other day I opened a bottle of Herederos del Marques de Riscal Reserva in the hope of reliving an experience I had some six years ago. I was introduced to it at the house of a diplomat friend. I remember drinking greedy mouthfuls and being staggered by the extraordinary elegance of this Rioja, its rich dark fruit tempered by intimations of fresh tobacco and a quiet undertone of toasted oak.
Marques de Riscal has a history that goes back to 1858. The Reserva, with its elaborate white label and gold wire netting, reflects the heritage of the first winery to commercially bottle their wines as Riojas, long before Rioja became recognised as an office wine region. But despite the weight of history, Marques de Riscal has embraced modernity, which reflects in the structure and sophistication of its Riojas and, perhaps most dramatically, in the Frank O. Gehry-designed hotel situated in the heart of its vineyards, with its roof of twisting metallic ribbons cascading around the façade in an unruly whorl.
The Reserva, with its Tempranillo laces with small amounts of two other permissible Spanish reds (Graciano and Mazuelo), is, by any reckoning, a very fine wine. But there are better and more expensive Riojas, including the Gran Reserva from the stable of the very same winery. So what was it that led to those epiphanic moments that evening some six years ago?
I have asked myself the question every time I have had the Marques de Riscal Reserva since. The wine has never failed to disappoint but it’s never quite lived up to the way it performed that evening? I have had the a similar experience with a couple of other wines, including one somewhat unremarkable Pinot Noir Reserve put out by Robert Mondavi — I simply loved the first bottle and wondered what I saw in every subsequent one.
Could it be because this is the way it is meant to be? The equivalent of a first crush or first love, something that can never quite be duplicated?
I doubt it. My hunch is that the answer lies beyond the bottle. Our appreciation of a wine is linked to a clutch of factors we rarely take into account when evaluating it — such things as whether there is enough time to drink it leisurely, the weather in which it is drunk, who we are drinking it with, how much you really feel like a quaff, and even in what glasses (Riedel glassware may seem like an expensive conceit, but a good wine glass is not an object of pretence).
These are the kinds of things you would have to make a conscious effort to keep out of consideration if you were judging a wine contest. But we hardly think about them during the simple pleasures of drinking it and so, are usually unaware, that the secrets of wine sometimes lie beyond the wine itself.