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Bought to bottle the good times

Wines brought home can preserve the aftertaste of memory.
Wines brought home can preserve the aftertaste of memory. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / December 28, 2008
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Jean-Marie, a family friend, had just that morning sung the praises of the viognier grapes of Condrieu, a village only a short detour on the route back to Paris from his home in the countryside. So my wife, Julie, and I left the highway to follow the N86 alongside the Rhone then turned left, south of the Cote-Rotie, and drove up and up through the damp-dark August day. Vines were full of fattening grapes but fatter clouds squatted above the fields. Inside the chateau of an otherwise quiet vineyard, a clerk detailed the viognier wines he had for sale. I chose a recent vintage.

"Une bouteille," I said.

Only one bottle, the clerk asked? Yes, only one.

I have been buying single bottles when traveling for more than a decade, hoping to capture in the corked container another kind of moment to carry forward. Like memories of leisurely meals with Jean-Marie and his wife, Helene, the wine would evolve.

More often than at vineyards, I buy in shops, such as the cramped convenience store on a side street in an older neighborhood of Barcelona. The store sold everything from toilet paper to canned beans, but I was drawn toward the back, and shelves of wine, including a bottle of 1997 Priorat.

This was before wines from Priorat, a region of arid fields northwest of Tarragona, and the Mediterranean, became international favorites. The bottle cost, I think, $12, a small price to pay to remember the day before, when 12 friends, old and new, gathered around a table at a rural restaurant near the town of Valls to share in a calcotada. That annual celebration centers not around drink but food, specifically calcots, a kind of giant scallion charred over an open fire and served with a strong sauce made of almonds, garlic, tomato, and olive oil. Then come grilled pork sausages and lamb chops.

As one hour led to the next, we passed a clay pitcher with a small spout. When tilted, it delivered a steady stream of the smooth, rich blend of wine made from grenache and carignan grapes grown in Priorat, less than 30 miles away.

Buying the Priorat to carry back to the United States, then, was an attempt to bottle the intimacy of friendship in the hopes that it would last through time.

That time is often not long. An $8 bottle of Chilean merlot, for example, lasted only two seasons. I first tasted the wine soon after Gabriel and I arrived in Santiago on a red-eye flight from Dallas. By noon, we had made the drive into the Andes to the cottage of Miguelito. He lighted a fire for the day's first asado, and opened the bottle of merlot that - no doubt aided by the trellis of vines blocking the sun, the scent of grilling meat, and the pace of idle conversation - was strong and sublime.

I bought a bottle of it at a gas station near the end of the trip. Then Chilean summer gave way to Chilean winter and to summer on the shores of Lake Huron in northern Michigan. There, I shared the merlot with my wife and parents on another sunlit afternoon. The merlot, for that moment, recalled the flavor of my Chilean afternoon with Miguelito and his young family.

This buying of a meaningful bottle began, as best I recall, in the hamlet of Orches in Burgundy. We had turned off the highway after dark and searched the hills for a bed-and-breakfast, finally coming to rest at the home of the family Rocault. They welcomed us despite the late hour, and in the morning we learned their ancestors began farming in the region in 1470, which seemed worthy of a purchase of not one, but two bottles: a simple table chardonnay and a finer Saint-Aubin 1er Cru En Remilly. The first bottle was gone in days; the other lasted years.

Guarding bottled memories longer has been the goal for most I buy: the 1996 Torre Muga, purchased at the vineyard after a lunch of lamb with Alessandro and Martin during an otherwise quick drive across Spain's Rioja region; or the 1995 Brunello di Montalcino, picked up after a day of biking near the hilltop town in Italy; or the 1999 Cahors, a pit-stop purchase during a rainy weekend escape from the Dordogne to the sun and sea of Languedoc-Roussillon.

One by one, though, I have uncorked these moments. The Torre Muga, at 12 years old, was a spontaneous choice to serve on a summer evening as marinated steak spat above a hot grill, and conversation made a memory of its own. A nine-year-old Chateauneuf-du-Pape was an offering to a friend who welcomed us at his family's home on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Only one bottle, the 13-year-old Brunello, disappointed. It had already violated my main goal of spending less than $20 or so - it cost $80 - and as I had feared at the time of purchase, opened blandly years later. Despite the initial failure, even the bad Brunello delivered: I was soon thinking of that day spent north of Siena, when Blair and I cycled a stretch of road that fell before us through miles of terraced hillsides.

Now I have only one bottle left. It is called Cesari, a prized creation made by Saverio Petrilli, winemaker at Tenuta di Valgiano, a vineyard in the hills north of Lucca, Italy. It is already 10 years old, but will improve more over the next decade.

Saverio promised as much when he gave me the bottle as thanks for some weeks of work I did at the winery in 2001. Monday through Friday, from seven until noon, I joined Ava, Maria Pia, and Francesco among the sangiovese vines. It was July, so grapes were taut in the hot sun, and we were clearing weeds from the base of the vines.

Many days, Saverio would host lunch on a shaded patio, serving a bowl of fresh mozzarella di bufala one day, plates of tagliatelle al limone another. Always, there was wine. He would open reds from Tuscany, whites from Sicily, or some of each from France, California, or Australia. The point was to sip and learn, to talk and eat and laugh.

I have carted the Cesari carefully from Lucca to Paris to Cleveland to Boston to Ipswich and, every so often, I hold it. I imagine the taste of the wine, and the kind of day when I will open it. But I think more of those summer days in Valgiano, before I had a real home and a family of my own. I was wandering a lot then, but during too-brief weeks stopped to kneel in the soft soil, chatting in basic Italian about politics and sports while swinging a scythe to cut the weeds and free the vines. Grow!

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

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