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Clarets of the Gods?

October 11, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people who love wine have at one time or another spun fantasies of a dream cellar stocked with fabulous bottles--perhaps a small oak door leading to a grotto lined with niches where the wines repose, their labels obscured by mysterious shadows. You idly say, "Why don't we try a bottle of '61 Hermitage, 'La Chapelle'?" The shadows resolve into soft light around one niche and voila!--the wine is there, in perfect condition, already decanted if you desire, to be served with a fresh baguette and a fat slice of Camembert by your private sommelier.

Which wines would you summon from the magic cellar?

Here are a few possibilities. In this group, the vintages don't matter as much as the vineyards and producers--these are bottlings that in any given year are wines suitable for dinner on Mt. Olympus.

In this context, older vintages are offered as examples rather than recommendations, simply because the wine I tasted may not be the wine you taste. Wine changes in the bottle; typically a fine wine will develop dramatically during the first years in the bottle, then hold its mature form for several years before declining just as dramatically.

Typically a great wine will hold at its peak for a long time, but how long? The '61 La Chapelle was spectacular several years ago, but it was close to its peak. The place to drink a wine like that (assuming your personal cellar falls slightly short of divinity) would be in a fine restaurant where the sommelier could offer inside advice on the state of the wine.

First things first: Champagne. Responding to the old "what single wine would you have on a desert island" question, the proprietor of a major Champagne house said, "The only reason I wouldn't take Champagne as my wine on a desert island is that it would constantly remind me I was alone."

Indeed, Champagne needs company, and no Champagne suggests company more than Salon "Le Mesnil." So delicate and ethereal that it barely qualifies as liquid, this impeccably structured sparkling Chardonnay haunts the palate with intimations of ecstasy. Its toasty undertones and pinpoint focus beguile the senses: You raise the glass to your lips, and suddenly it--and the bottle--are empty. But that's OK, because you feel you're surrounded by friends in paradise. And it's only $150 a bottle!

Salon is an artisanal wine produced by hand and aged in moist chalk caves beneath the town of Mesnil. Bottled only in the best vintages (a mere 20 in the 20th century), it is at its most sublime with about 15 years of bottle age. The '82, served before a dinner in San Francisco this year, had the remarkable effect of turning a group of incredibly boring wine connoisseurs into witty, charming people with interesting observations on the incredible lightness of being.

The heavenly cellar ought to include a magical white wine from the northern Rhone. Chateau Grillet has its own appellation contro^lee--the smallest recognized vineyard place name in France (just six acres), producing only about 300 cases of wine a year. It is extraordinary wine, with an alluring perfume something like violet incense and an indescribably seductive texture on the palate. This is the apotheosis of Viognier, a rare and remarkable wine grape that until recently was grown only in Condrieu, the small Rhone appellation (just 35 acres) that contains Chateau Grillet.

A new surge of interest among California producers threatens to make Viognier a New World star, but so far no bottling has approached the dazzling combination of intensity and elegance achieved by the vines on Grillet's steep terraces. Unlike most great wines, this one is best in its youth--say, within three years of bottling.

The Trimbach family's Clos Ste-Hune vineyard in the Alsatian village of Hunewihr yields one of the greatest Rieslings, and certainly one of the longest-lived white wines. The wine has a haunting sense of place. On the memorable occasions when I've had the good fortune to drink Trimbach Clos Ste-Hune, I've imagined myself standing among those slight vines on their rocky hillside on a golden autumn afternoon. Nearby are the spires and steeples of Hunewihr; the hills fall away through other villages toward the Rhine and the hazy valley beyond. In the clear mineral perfume of the Riesling I can hear the bells of the St. Hune church tolling, and as I roll the intense yet impossibly delicate liquid over my tongue, a stork rises from its nest atop a chimney that was built in medieval times. This is a perfect marriage of vine and setting, not just a fabulous wine but a vivid evocation.

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