The Time Traveler’s Guide to Wine

Travel I'm been thinking a lot about Time Travel of late. I've determined that it isn't possible.

But a curious mind's best reaction to "it isn't possible" really must be "the next best thing". Having what I like to think of as a curious mind, I got to thinking, maybe old wine is the next best thing to traveling in time.

At first glance, this line of reasoning seems promising. Assuming the wine is relatively undisturbed since its bottling, what you have is an artifact of another time. There is sits, behind the glass. An artifact of, for the sake of reasoning, 1959. It offers the armchair palate the opportunity to return to another time; in this case, 52 years in the past.

It's exciting just thinking about the idea of spilling a 52 year old wine over one's palate and tasting another time. Just how impactful will this encounter with another era be? It might just have the power to open our mind to another summer, another fall, another time that is outside many of our grasps. Or perhaps it could transport the older among us into our youth in a way pure memory can't quite achieve.

But it's not just another time that the 1959 bottling offers. It's a place in time. Let's say, Bordeaux—That Southeastern region of France that has proven to be fertile ground for the vine for centuries. Will we smell the dirt of the left or right bank?

Perhaps upon uncorking this journey in time we will smell the mid September rains that fell upon the Bordelais soil that we are told helped finally bring the vines to maturity in '59 and create a vintage rivaling that of the great '61 in that territory.

Will we see on our journey into the bottle a vision of winemakers toiling in the cellar in ways that no longer apply today and encounter an approach to winemaking that is remarkable in its fundamental difference to what we know about winemaking in Bordeaux in 2011?

Lots of questions attend this exercise in vinious time travel.

And then reality sets in.

Here is the disappointing truth: Tasting a 52 year old wine is not an example of time travel. In fact, there is nothing about tasting a wine that is 52 years old, no matter how well kept, that allows us to journey back to any time beyond our own: What's in the bottle is a product of the present. There may be an echo of a previous time, but more than likely even that will be an illusion brought on more by hope than reality.

This realization has implications for rating and ranking wine. More importantly, the fact that an old wine is experienced in the present, after years of time's wear and tear, tells us more about our own wines of the present and the education of our own contemporary palates than it does about 1959, the winemakers of that era or the wine that was once in the bottle that is replace by what is currently in the bottle.

This is all too bad. Because I really would like to experience time travel. And the disapointment reminds me that the best we can really do where experiencing the past is concerned is to pick up tales of the contemporary from times past: books, manuscripts, magazines, perhaps a recording.

When seeking to travel in time, one looks for artifacts that have not been altered to do the trick. Wine is not such a thing. As they say, it's alive and it changes daily. And after 52 years, that's a lot of change.

I'll keep my eyes peeled for new developments in time travel and if new technology is developed and I hear about it, I'll let you all know so you can get in on the ground floor. Until then, I'll keep looking for the next best thing and for now, that appears to the book.


One Response

  1. Lewis Perdue - October 4, 2011

    Inn my book, Wrath of Grapes, I quote Doug Frost (MW, MS) on the issue of worshiping old wine. He called it “necrophilia.”
    I agree.

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