What Price Glory?

A connoisseur trades in his last seven bottles of Pétrus '61 and discovers a brave new world of wines that won't break the bank. Martin Filler reports over lunch.

Two years ago, I wrote the foreword to a book on a remarkable Frank Lloyd Wright house commissioned by (and still lived in by) a retired physicist and his wife. When I first visited Roland and Ronny, I quickly discovered that he and I shared another passion apart from modern architecture. Not only was the wine that Roland served for our first lunch the ever-dependable yet remarkably inexpensive Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Chardonnay (my own house white), but his 60-case wine cellar included many of my personal and rather obscure favorites.

At the table, our conversation turned to a mutual acquaintance whose impressive wine holdings are comprised almost exclusively of the grandest French châteaux in the most distinguished vintages. As wonderful as it is to visit this generous host and be served such exceptional (and expensive) rarities, his collection seems very much a rich man's whim: It displays, in other words, more price and prestige than imagination or adventure. You're unlikely to learn anything from his enviable cache beyond that it's good to be a multimillionaire.

Though Roland is old enough to be my father, we both fondly remember the halcyon 1960s, when it was still possible to buy those same top-ranked French premier grand crus in a historic run of recent great years—'55, '59, '61, and '66—for less than $10 a bottle. Adjusting for inflation, they should cost only about $55 now, a far cry from today's stratospheric starting prices for fine Bordeaux and Burgundies, which rose exponentially in the eighties and nineties. I bemoaned having to hoard wines that as an impecunious young man I would have opened much more casually. Among them is a lovely 1990 Pichon-Longueville that I laid down almost a decade ago and dole out each Christmas Eve as though it were the last claret on earth.

Even though Roland came of age when French wines still ruled the civilized world, he is not one of those cranky senior citizens who decries the decline and fall of everything. He assured me that there is no need to lament the passing of the good old days of affordable topflight Bordeaux and Burgundies. In fact, he clings to the youthful notion that fine wine need not be expensive, and firmly believes, as he told me, that "The world is now awash with excellent wines that don't cost a fortune."

A few years ago Roland decided to put his money where his palate was. Astonished to discover that the remaining seven bottles from his long-preserved case of 1961 Pétrus—that priciest (if not, in my opinion, the best) of all Bordeaux—were worth a staggering $2,500 apiece, he struck a deal with Michael Aaron, the chairman of the estimable Sherry-Lehmann wine shop in Manhattan. Instead of taking a $17,500 check for his coveted flasks, he asked Aaron to reimburse him in wines from the store's well-chosen cellars—and not just current-day equivalents of the guaranteed future hits he would have bought when he acquired his investment Pétrus. His detailed instructions were for "really, really good wines" of a wide variety of types and maturity, ensuring drinkability now and for many years to come. He wound up with some 40 cases.

"Having convinced myself that I didn't have to spend $100 or $200 for a bottle of wine," Roland recalled, "there was also a gnawing suspicion that there must be great but inexpensive wines that I didn't know." And his savvy trade-in proved that his instincts were right on target.

To demonstrate his point and broaden my knowledge of regions of the world I knew relatively little about, Roland agreed to hold a tasting lunch. He would, he said, concentrate (with one exception) on moderately priced wines I might be unfamiliar with. With Ronny, he devised a simple, robust meal whose various courses would showcase each selection, as well as allow comparisons and contrasts. That way we could determine which of the three reds and three whites was best suited to each dish.

With all their years of experience, Roland and Ronny still consult Joanna Simon's 1996 book, Wine with Food (Simon & Schuster), for its carefully considered but nondoctrinaire advice on pairing an encyclopedic range of varietals with dishes that will act in greatest harmony. "Wine is something to be drunk with food. Period." says Roland. "I don't think much of most wines as an aperitif, but every night we have half a bottle with dinner. What you eat can alter your experience of the wine completely."

We began our fête with an array of classic hors d'oeuvres. There was a sublime foie gras from France; Scottish salmon on thin squares of buttered black bread; and chilled boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, aioli mayonnaise, and an Asian dipping sauce made with ginger and soy. The flavors of each appetizer were pronounced enough to directly address each wine, but not so complex as to interfere with our evaluations.

We began in a traditional mode with the rosy-centered foie gras: The heavenly goose liver was paired with a glass of Sauternes, in this case a 1988 Château Rieussec. I've always been fond of the smooth and silky Rieussec, a venerable premier cru of the 1855 classification, though it is less powerful (and less costly) than Château d'Yquem, which is at the apex of the Sauternes pyramid. The coupling was, to be sure, as French as love in the afternoon, but all three of us found the high-octane overload of fat and sugar a little rich for our blood. After a few sips of the Rieussec, we switched to what I thought at first might be a nonstarter: Brancott Vineyards' 2000 Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Let me explain.

Some years back, friends who had lived in the south of France, and become as knowledgeable about food and wine as anyone I've ever known, made a trip to Australia and New Zealand. After that, they served nothing but wines from the Antipodes. Yet for whatever reason, I could never share their new enthusiasm—until now. Roland had promised he would widen my horizons, and with the Brancott Sauvignon Blanc I had my first epiphany of the day, and the ideal foil to that luxurious foie gras.

A big, somewhat eccentric white with appealingly unrounded edges and a strong black-currant finish, the Brancott Sauvignon Blanc has just the right acidic bite to cut through the dense, rich creaminess of the fattened goose liver. Counterpoint is, after all, what you want here. The next day I ordered a case—just to keep on hand for very specific and difficult-to-balance foods like asparagus, for instance.

The last of the three whites was a 1999 J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr. This was an old favorite from my novice wine days three decades ago, but I hadn't checked in on it lately. (I can still remember the glorious '76 vintage, made during an uncharacteristically hot German summer.)

Roland and I both agree that the wines of Germany, especially Rieslings from the Moselle region such as the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, are among the most underrated (and, happily, underpriced) in the world. Furthermore, they are remarkably compatible with all kinds of foods. The shrimp with Asian dipping sauce, for example, demonstrated why Rieslings are an excellent choice with spicy Thai cuisine. The Sonnenuhr also proved the best mate for the smoked salmon, which is traditionally offered with a dry Champagne or a flinty Chablis. The sweeter, fuller-bodied Moselle, however, actually stood up much better to the oily fish.

Our main course was a rib-eye steak that Roland grilled over charcoal (with a sprinkling of aromatic wood to add extra flavor) on his trusty Hasty-Bake. Another of the day's unexpected discoveries, this outdoor grill, manufactured in Oklahoma, is far less famous than the ubiquitous Weber. It is also better, Roland believes, because of the slightly angled design that directs, collects, and siphons off fat drippings, preventing the unpredictable flare-ups typical of standard barbecues. Whether because of man or machine, this was certainly the best piece of red meat I'd had in quite a while and (nicely complemented by steamed asparagus and Ronny's irresistible cheese potatoes) an excellent backdrop for the afternoon's trio of reds.

First up was a splendid and unfamiliar (to me) Côtes du Ventoux, the 1999 Château Pesquié Les Terrasses. Because the steak was abundantly peppered—overly so, Ronny thought—this medium-strength, somewhat spicy red proved nicely assertive, not at all light and fruity as Côtes du Ventoux can be. But even more attention-grabbing was a spectacular Spanish Garnacha that I had also never before encountered. Tres Picos Borsao 2000 bears a certain family resemblance to the Côtes du Ventoux, in which, like the Côtes du Rhône, the Grenache grape generally dominates.

Of all the European wines, I know Spanish wines least well, but I was impressed by this big, concentrated, and deeply colored red. Its strong structure, one of the keys to the best Grenaches, is due to its makers harvesting low grape yields from old vines. (The label states that the ratio is less than two tons per acre.) Not the most sophisticated wine, it's best drunk with highly flavored foods that play off its youthful exuberance. It won our vote for best companion to the peppery steak. At $10 a bottle, the Tres Picos Borsao is the perfect example of an excellent wine at an extremely reasonable price. I ordered two cases the next day.

I was least enthusiastic about the 2000 St.-Emilion from the admirable Château Canon. Slightly tannic and a bit thin on the uptake for my liking, it did have a good long finish. Interestingly, it was the one wine we sampled that tasted better on its own. Priced at $19 a bottle, this St.-Emilion was not nearly as good as Château Simard, a Saint-Emilion that's now widely available in the 1989 vintage for about the same price. Simard seems to be ideal for serving to a large group when something a bit special, though not ruinously expensive, is called for. Roland has hopes that his St.-Emilion will age into a winner, and I'll be only too happy to try it with him in a few years' time—although I remain skeptical. So does Ronny: "I don't know that we'll live that long," she adds with a laugh.

Next came the cheese course. Here our sampling of many different wines made absolute sense. No single wine could, after all, have done justice to such an assortment of cheeses. There was a French Roquefort so tangy and seductive that it rivaled my hitherto favorite blue, Colston Bassett Stilton, which is produced in tiny quantities in Nottinghamshire. There was a well-mannered—perhaps too well mannered— chèvre, and a Camembert, which has never really set my heart aflutter. None were at their peak of ripeness, and though many connoisseurs prefer youngish cheeses, I do not. And of course, if you're determined to serve a vinegar-splashed salad along with the cheese, as I sometimes do, you'd do best to offer no wine.

Spotting another old-school mix-and-match to bookend the Sauternes-and-foie gras experiment at the beginning of the meal, I immediately went for the Roquefort and the Rieussec. Bingo! Now here was a pairing that more than lived up to Edwardian standards of guiltless gluttony: This salty but complex blue and sweet but full-bodied wine were destined for each other, an enthralling pas de deux so intricate and compelling that I wanted encore after encore. But duty called, and I moved on to retry the Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Brancott Sauvignon Blanc.

The Riesling tasted delicious with the Roquefort, too—a better choice for those who find Sauternes too heavy. Likewise, the Brancott Sauvignon Blanc provided a dynamic foil to the goat cheese, the slightly gamy character of the chèvre ricocheting against the near-green tartness of the wine. Brilliant! As usual, the Camembert didn't do anything for me.

For our final course, we moved to a flawless pear-and-almond tart. I was impressed by how nicely this Platonic ideal, if ever there was one, of the classic French dessert went with the Wehlener Sonnenuhr. The latter, in fact, turned out to be the most versatile performer of the afternoon. As Roland observed, the sweetness of the dessert muted the sweetness of the Moselle.

"It seems to me," said Roland after our glasses had finally been emptied, "that we have confirmed what I've always felt: Wines tasted by themselves can be misleading. If you had an extremely experienced palate in terms of deconstructing the components of a wine and knowing what fits with what, you might be better able to complement each dish. But I don't think that it could be more fun than an occasion like this." Fun, yes, but for me an enlightening education as well.

Red, white and true

Below are the wines sampled at lunch, plus another favorite, all of them standouts. Some vintages may be difficult to track down except through these two excellent online sites: www.wine-searcher.com and the auction site www.winecommune.com. The prices are only estimates and will vary according to availability and location.

CHATEAU PESQUIE LES TERRASSES COTES DU VENTOUX 1999 A Grenache-Syrah blend. Well-rounded, gorgeous color, deep and fruity. $10.

CHATEAU CANON ST.-EMILION 2000 Polite, good finish, but a bit timid, may need more age. $30-$70.

CHATEAU SIMARD ST.-EMILION 1989 Lovely balance, good depth, highly dependable, great value. $25-$35.

TRES PICOS BORSAO GARNACHA 2000 Muscular, spicy, great with garlicky foods, a definite steal at this price. $10.

BRANCOTT VINEYARDS RESERVE MARLBOROUGH SAUVIGNON BLANC 2000 Big and quirky, with a strong black-currant finish, sensational with asparagus. $10-$20.

J.J. PRUM WEHLENER SONNENUHR RIESLING KABINETT 1998 Mouth-filling but elegant, a protean performer, dazzling from appetizers to dessert. $20.

CHATEAU RIEUSSEC SAUTERNES 1988 Suave, sweet but not sticky, could convert you to dessert wines. $90-$175.