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A Taste of Thomas Jefferson's Wine


Next time you're entertaining friends and trying to decide which of your precious bottles they deserve, spare a thought for Hardy Rodenstock.

Rodenstock, a German pop music entrepreneur and wine collector, is probably best known for having unearthed the famous "Thomas Jefferson bottles"--great red and white Bordeaux of the 1784 and 1787 vintages apparently ordered by the American president, which were discovered in a bricked-up cellar in Paris in the mid-1980s.

He organizes many tastings, but once a year since 1980 he has invited friends and wine lovers to an orgy of indulgence on an altogether different plane. One year the event was a recreation of the Three Emperors' Dinner--everyone in 1867 period costume--on an island in the middle of a lake. For several years he set his annual Raritaten Weinprobe (rare wine tasting) in a hotel in the Austrian Alps, allowing his guests to walk off the effects of his generosity between sessions.

This "healthy option" followed, and was perhaps inspired by, the one Rodenstock extravaganza I had previously experienced: a marathon meal at Chateau d'Yquem in Bordeaux (in 1986, before he fell out with the winery's owner, Comte Alexandre de Lur-Saluces). Over 14 hours we drank 66 magnificent wines with 12 courses. My abiding memory is of washing down aspirin with Champagne Lanson 1964.

With this year's event, held in the Koenigshof Hotel in Munich, Rodenstock reached such a pitch of generosity and organization that he had to spend two years preparing for it, rather than the usual one.

Last January we received invitations for, if you please, a week of tastings and dinners, devoted primarily to the greatest white wine of all, Chateau d'Yquem. Those who could spare the whole week would, the invitations assured us, taste 125 vintages of Yquem, from 1784 to 1991: "more than anyone else in the world--including the owner."

I could justify only three days of this hedonism, so I tasted a mere 26 vintages of this great sweet wine, but I did manage to notch up, among others, both the Jefferson vintages (1784 and 1787), a blind tasting of the 1931, 1911, 1831 and 1811 (a very Rodenstock selection, this) and another blind tasting of the 1900, 1899, 1893, 1861, 1847 and 1828.

These blind tastings are very much part of Rodenstock's wine style. He enjoys playing tricks to make a point. For example, in the first of these two line-ups of ancient Yquems, it was the oldest wine that stood out for sheer quality and, strange as it may seem, youthfulness.

The number of tasters had swelled to around 50 by Friday morning, when all the oldest Yquems were served, three tasters sharing a single glass of each.

This was much less inconvenient and stingy than it sounds, partly because, typically, Rodenstock has designed his own glass for such occasions: a quite sizable, extremely thin, tulip-shaped bowl that comes to a pronounced point at the bottom so that no great quantity of wine is needed to provide a thoroughly respectable surface area.

Georg Riedel, the Austrian who designs and produces an extraordinary range of glasses for wines, is one of Rodenstock's closest associates, and I found myself sharing my portions of Yquem with him and the king of the Barbarescos, Angelo Gaja.

At other tables were, among others, Germany's all-time soccer great, Franz Beckenbauer, and various important bankers and politicians from Hong Kong, most of whom had flown to Europe specially for this event.

We prepared our palates with four relative youngsters, quite close in quality--the 1945, 1947, 1949 and 1950. And then the Jefferson bottles were brought into the tasting room by Rodenstock's personal team of sommeliers (who had to pour 12,000 wine samples over the course of the week), and the tasters left their tables to crowd around these handsome, quite obviously ancient bottles with their delicate engravings: "Th. J." (They have been the subject of such controversy that our tasting booklets included professional analyses of the wine and glass of these bottles' sisters). Rodenstock sold one bottle of the 1784 d'Yquem at auction in late 1986 for more than $60,000, admits to having sold "one or two" others privately and says he has no more than "one or two" of each left.)

After the corks were gently eased out of the bottles, Rodenstock paraded them--more exactly, fragrant fragments of them--around the room on a little silver tray, lest there be any doubt as to their age and authenticity.

To tell the truth, these two pre-French Revolutionary wines were convincingly old. They were the deepest of deep browns with a slightly greenish rim.

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