“A Rare Delicacy”

Note: This piece was originally published summer 2020 in Disgorgeous Zine Volume 1: Delicacy. Find stockists and support the zine here.

In my wine fridge is a bottle of Clos Rougeard. That is to say: cabernet franc from a few plots planted between the ‘50s and the ‘70s southeast of Saumur, spread across three villages. (One overlooks the river; the other two are so close to one another you could walk between their town squares in fifteen minutes). 

The vines are rooted in soils covering a bedrock of soft tuffeau limestone, crumbly and yellowish, itself the compacted remains of late-Cretaceous amoeboid protists, the floor of a shallow tropical sea swum by plesiosaurs 90 million years ago.

In 2010, those vines flowered and bore fruit, having been pruned and imagining themselves in danger. The pulp of that fruit was water and sugar, as well as acids and some potassium, and the sugar came from sunlight. After being picked and crushed the berries spent most of the rest of that fall in concrete vats, sugars becoming alcohol, aromatic precursors unfolding like fractals. Afterwards, the fermented juice was moved to a variety of barrels made from oak that had previously held different fermented juice.

In 2012 it was bottled at the estate, a practice exceedingly rare not even a half century ago. Five years later one of a couple thousand-odd of those bottles, having made its way to New York, was given to me as a gift.

Every now and then in the three years since, I’ve opened my wine fridge and said, I cannot afford to open this fucking wine.

Let me start over: In my wine fridge is a bottle of 2010 Clos Rougeard, called “Le Clos” as a kind of nickname. Clos Rougeard, for 56 years, was run by the brothers Foucault: Charlie and Nady. While the popular bullshit of postwar viticulture reigned ascendant, they, nearly alone among their neighbors, kept their soils alive. In the cellar (which is to say, an unbeautiful industrial warehouse in Chacé), the work went likewise. They were considered eccentric for using small-format oak and waiting to release the wines, since Saumur reds were supposed to be young and easy-drinking, and they developed a small cult following in France. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, folks mostly failed to give a shit. 

In the Wine World of the 1990s, I am told, reds from the Loire Valley were classed as curiosities, weedy and green. Great wine—which is to say, wine worth spending money on and taking seriously—meant a small set of things. The Rhône had recently been discovered; it was really amazing how much glycerol you could encounter in Châteauneuf. Some wine lists were just pages of cabernet sauvignon.

That was basically the estate’s situation until 2005, a ‘blockbuster’ vintage, meaning ‘hot, and dry,’ meaning ‘ripe.’ Wine writers solemnly declared that ‘05 Clos Rougeard was tasting almost, almost, like Left Bank Bordeaux, language that collectors could begin to understand. The bottle price, hovering around $100, instead of laughably high (who do these assholes think they are, charging me this much for Loire cab franc), suddenly looked just high enough to count as a bargain for people who treated $250 classed-growth Bordeaux like weekday wine.

Within a decade, the wines had become coveted rarities bought and sold in secondary markets at steadily increasing prices. Charly Foucault died in 2015. Two years later, in June, the estate was purchased by the family owners of the Bouygues Group (annual revenue €35.55 billion, with divisions for telecom, construction, railroads, and, since 2006, in possession of Château Montrose in Bordeaux). That August, I was given this bottle.

Today, in a world without mandatory stay at home orders, shuttered restaurants, etc. you could drink the same vintage off of a lower Manhattan wine list for $500 or so, assuming they had it; globally, a quick search turns up bottles in London (£265) and San Francisco ($600), as well as Beloeil, Canada (565 CAD), and Tomelilla, Sweden (2,650 krona, probably still serving!).

Tasters talking about Clos Rougeard nowadays will more often reference grand cru Burgundy— Musigny, say, or Echezeaux. Maybe that’s because the paradigm for greatness has shifted. (Sweetness giving way to bitter and savory; power/intensity supplanted by aromatic delicacy and grace.) Maybe it’s because of the wine’s paradoxical concentration-yet-weightlessness, a cinnamon/rose petal/tea leaf thing. Maybe, depressingly, it’s because for certain people there can be only one Platonic Great Wine at a time, of which all others are just pale shadows. Then, Bordeaux; today, Burgundy.

It is very fucking peculiar to look at a glass bottle filled with wine lying in my fridge transformed by capital  into something almost too rarified to touch. I can’t think of an occasion in which opening it wouldn’t be a pointless extravagance, an excessive gesture. It is a good rule of thumb to never impose a wine like this onto a gathering meant to celebrate something else: your sister’s baby shower, say.

I am speaking of Clos Rougeard, here, but we could be talking about any number of wines that are the patient result of humble work in harmony with nature, that can offer moving aesthetic experiences and come from a place of real integrity, to which the aura of money has accrued. Some of them are merely impossible to find. Others have been put on the shelf next to designer handbags and Jeff Koons sculptures. 

The flip side can be equally tragic: the same wines, sitting in the discount bin, classed as fun trifles. There was a time we poured Clos Roche Blanche sauvignon blanc by the glass, Hatzidakis used to be $26 retail, I wish I had not drunk all of my de Moor, etc. The wines were Great Wines, even if we did not yet think so. The quality of our attention changed. After a certain point they got scarcer, then just expensive enough that money began to take notice. In the end, they went to the people who had to have them, whatever the cost. 

How do you celebrate the work of people whose work deserves to be celebrated without turning them into fetish objects? How do you hide these wines from commerce? I have a bottle of 2010 Clos Rougeard in my wine fridge; the pure utilitarian calculus is insane. 

Part of me wants to Andrew Marvell it: pull cork for no reason and then like amorous birds of prey / Rather at once our time devour. 

The other part of me knows that it’s too young. I’ve tasted the wine back to 1978, seen it evolve. The truth is that time is the only irreplaceable thing. If you’re lucky you can carry a few fragments forward with you; not because they’re expensive, or will be, but because they’re true.

James Sligh is a New York–based sommelier. He still has not opened that
bottle of Clos Rougeard.

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