Libations from the High End

When price is not an object

A couple walks into a wine store, or a clothing store, or a car dealership. They go right for a particular item or two and decide to buy. No checking the price. No worrying about whether the merchandise is worth the money. No concern about whether they’ll like their purchases.

They know the brands. They know the tastes, the smells, the feels. They have enjoyed the products before, or have seen their friends with the product, and they see no reason to change their purchasing decision or experiment.

You know that feeling, don’t you? When money is no object; when the world is your oyster. Isn’t that the way it works for you? Yeah, me neither.

But there are folks, and a lot more of them than you may realize, who purchase on real or perceived pleasure or expectation. It is interesting that as we come out of the recession of the last few years, the higher-priced tiers in the market are the ones expanding and growing in sales the most. Goods in the upper end of the pricing scale are finding willing buyers. The lower tiers are also showing more growth than the year before, but not as much on a percentage basis as luxury goods priced well above everything else.

Often consumers on the upper end, and those desiring those lofty positions, purchase on the basis of the label. (Subject to availability at local high-end outlets, these bottles can often be special ordered.) They don’t often perceive the true value of the product, or fully appreciate its quality, but the label is quite enough. So price isn’t a barrier to purchase, instead it becomes an incentive.

This phenomenon crosses all product types, including clothing, cars, restaurant choices and vacation destinations. It is most certainly noticeable in beverage selections. There may be no understanding by the purchaser of the manufacturing processes or the ingredients or the history of the product. But from the consumer’s viewpoint, there most certainly is an appreciation of the label and the cachet it conveys.

So what are these wines and spirits that when we’re offered a taste, but can’t afford the whole container, we should always say, “yes,” and “thank you?”

Back on Planet Earth, where most of us reside, we’re able to purchase other products from these vintners and distillers at lower costs. Not necessarily bargains, but if you believe you get what you pay for, then we’ll have a chance to enjoy beverages from companies who know how to make some very good stuff.


 


WINE

Domaine de la Romanèe-Conti Montrachet, 2010, $2,500; Domaine de la Romanèe-Conti, 2010, $4,000 For more than 1,500 years these hallowed fields in Burgundy have been producing wines that bring amazing joy to those chosen few who are able to purchase them, and a yearning in most wine lovers who can only dream of ever tasting them.

These fields were first harvested by the Romans as they made their way across Gaul, entering that region to the south of Burgundy. Today the area is known as Provence, an allusion to the Roman ownership of the area. It was all, indeed, a province, an outpost of the Roman Empire.

The Romans loved wine and they recognized in Burgundy – particularly in the locality of today’s DRC, which is how this wine is referred to by writers and “True Believers” – that something very rare and quite special was happening here agriculturally. Today those vineyards identified and cultivated by the Romans still produce the finest wines in the world; and if not that, then certainly the most expensive.  

2010 was a tricky year, with temperature swings and rains at the worst moment, but the end result is proof enough that the mildews and a reduced crop still allowed a stunning wine to emerge. The wines of DRC are sometimes difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate, as they are by Burgundian standards rough and almost unapproachable when they are young.

Aging is essential and the rewards are sometimes elusive. Knowing exactly when the right moment to open the prize is important. Collectors of DRC go on and on about good timing, and sometimes, bad luck.

But the joy of savoring an amazing, opulent chardonnay-based Montrachet and the dark broodiness with layered pinot noir that is the DRC eponymous brand is unmatched in the wine world.


  

CHAMPAGNE

Bollinger R.D., 1996, $390  James Bond was nobody’s fool, and when it came to bubbles, he was a lover of Bollinger. The house was founded in 1585 by German immigrants to the Champagne region of France; a story that happened again and again. Its higher end cuvées (blends) are vinified and aged in the bottle in the true méthode traditionelle, which means the still wine is given its second fermentation – that creates the bubbles – right in the bottle you purchase.

Most Champagne houses seal those bottles with a metal cap while this process is proceeding, but Bollinger actually uses cork stoppers, with the thought that the fermentation will take on more character if the stopper is allowed to “breathe” a bit.

“R.D.” means rècemment dègorgè or recently disgorged. The wine is left alone during the second fermentation to linger on its lees. Those are the residual yeasts and precipitates that are present when the still wine is made. In Bolllinger’s case, for the R.D. designation that period of time is at least eight years before the Champagne moves along to the final production stages.

This wine is a blend of about 65 percent Pinot Noir and 35 percent Chardonnay, the best of the 1996 vintage blended with wines from previous outstanding vintages such as ’70 and ’83. The R.D. isn’t made every year, only in the most outstanding years as determined by the winemaker.

Armand de Brignac Rosè, $460  The small village of Chigny les Roses in the Champagne region of France isn’t the kind of place one expects to find one of the most expensive Champagnes in the entire world. But here, Armand de Brignac is made by Champagne Cattier, a family company that began wine production under their own name in 1918.

Produced in limited quantities, then packaged in solid-covered, opaque gold bottles for the Brut, and pink-gold bottles for the Rosè, each bottle also presents a solid pewter Ace of Spades adornment, along with three other pewter labels, no paper, all affixed by hand to the bottle.

Armand de Brignac, who was a fictional character in a novel enjoyed by Mr. Cattier’s mother, first gained popularity in 2006 when the rapper Jay-Z embraced the brand.

To create this delicate rosè, the process of blending, the assemblage, brings together sparkling white wine and still Pinot Noir wine. Delicate aromas and tastes of strawberries are immediately noticeable, along with a black currant quality. All notes come from old-growth vines established in a vineyard near the winery.


     

COGNAC

Delamain Le Voyage, $6,000  One of the more notable “Wild Geese” Irish natives, whose love of fine wines and spirits caused them to settle in other parts of the world in order to pursue their passion, was James Delamain. Some of his ancestors had made the same trip to the Cognac region of France a century before his journey in the mid-1700s.

The rolling hills of the Charente, around the town of Jarnac, reminded him enough of the Irish countryside around his native Dublin to give him comfort, and he went to work establishing a Cognac house of high repute.

The house produces no Cognac designated VS or VSOP since the entry level XO-designated wine is already made from minimum-aged 25-year-old stocks.

Many of the wines used in the blending of Le Voyage, an art for which the House of Delamain is particularly recognized, are approaching the century mark. There are only 500 bottles made each year of Le Voyage.

Packaged in a Baccarat flask-type decanter, and engulfed in a unique leather accordion-fold surround feature, Le Voyage has been recognized as the finest Cognac in the world.

Louis XIII de Remy Martin Rare Cask 42.6, $23,000  For years Louis XIII set the pattern for premium Cognac. First offered, and still so, in an impressive Baccarat crystal decanter, each stopper specifically made for that particular bottle, Louis XIII was so opulent and decadently delightful that most Cognac lovers pointed to it as the standard bearer for the stratospheric heights to which Cognac can aspire.

Now Rare Cask 42.6, named for the alcohol content, has trumped those luxury aspirations. Only 738 bottles, all numbered, of this amazing beverage have been made, and no more ever will be available for original sale again. The Rare Cask decanter is defined by a 24-karat rose gold ring around its neck and a black crystal-glass fleur-de-lis shaped stopper.

The Cognac all comes from the Grande Champagne region of that western French wine area, and there’s a blend of more than 1,200 eaux des vies, aged up to and exceeding the century mark.   

Hennessy Paradis Imperial, $2,600  Hearkening back to an order in 1818 from the Dowager Empress, mother of Tsar Alexander I of Russia, for something very special to celebrate her son’s life as a monarch, the master blenders at Hennessy Cognac, notably Yann Fillioux, have resurrected this premium selection.

In every Cognac House is the Paradis, the hallowed place where the oldest stocks reside in darkness and quiet. This blend of eaux de vie up to 130 years old is packaged in a crystal decanter designed by Stephanie Balini and the label is 18-karat gold plated.

The wine itself is amazingly fresh given the age of its components. The fresh flower aromas of jasmine and orange blossom are immediately in evidence. On the palate, the Cognac is smooth, with a bit of wood sensation, again of fresh flowers and fruit, and perfectly balanced.


   

SPIRITS

The Macallan 60 Years Old in Lalique IV, $22,000 The rarest spirit from this revered house, The Macallan 60 Year Old, is bottled at cask strength, 53.2 percent alcohol by volume, from stock that was first barreled in 1950.  

The design of the package, Lalique IV crystal, pays homage to the shape of the small stills, the smallest in the Scotch producing region of Speyside, Scotland, which Macallan uses to achieve finer distillation results. The crystal stopper is even topped by a piece of copper metal cut from one of the old decommissioned stills.

The sherry oak used for aging only comes from Spain. The result is incredibly aromatic and peaty, with notes of black currant, toasted apple, lemon, and cinnamon mélange residing on the tongue for a grand length of time before smoothly sliding through the palate, leaving behind an elongated sensation of velvet on oak.  

Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky Orcadian Series, 1968, $3,800  The archipelago to the north and east of mainland Scotland is the Orkney Islands, inhabited for more than 8,500 years. The history of these islands, of which there are at least 70 – only 20 are inhabited today – covers from the Neolithic period, towards invasions of the Norse and onto the time of monarchies and families of the Middle Ages.

Highland Park wanted to pay homage to these hardy places and the people who have lived there, the Orcadians, so three years ago they created a series of very special, dated Scotches. They placed the spirits in unique packages and released very limited quantities.

 The bell-bottomed, jet-black glass bottle is encased in a hand-crafted oak box, festooned with a Pictish knot – honoring the Pictons, early settlers of the islands – and finished with a pewter “H” done in a Viking style.

The spirit contained was specially selected from available stocks based on its maturity and special characteristics. The 1968 exhibits thick honey character, tempered by lemon grass, sandalwood and a complex presentation on the palate of citrus, ginger, clove and camphor. A surprising sweetness lingers in the mouth long after the Scotch has gone.  

Pappy Van Winkle Kentucky Bourbon, 23-year-old, $300  Practically a bargain on this list; practically unobtainable. This cult classic spends no time in the marketplace, being immediately snapped up by lovers of American bourbon on every release.  
      
The story of Pappy Van Winkle is an American story, tracing back its founding to the late 19th century, but production was heavily interrupted due to Prohibition. The spirit stocks were aging. However, nothing could be done with grains and barrels since it wasn’t known if Prohibition would ever end.

Today, the company is operated by Julian Van Winkle III, Pappy’s grandson, and the tradition of mixing a little wheat into the corn mash contributes to the sweet qualities of the final product, much loved and sought after by appreciators of Kentucky bourbons. The combination of unusual ingredients in the mix and long aging are currently contributing to both the demand and resulting shortage of the product.

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