Time for a Drink
In chronological order, the three worst things I have done in my life: when I was six I placed a hermit crab under my infant brother’s pillow and then pleaded ignorance when the whole family was awoken by his anguished screams in the middle of the night, the crustacean hanging by a single claw from the tender flesh between his thumb and index finger. When I was fifteen a friend put me on the phone to his girlfriend to break up the monotony of sharing a room on cricket tour; I stole her number off his mobile and two weeks later I was kissing her for the first time. And then when I was eighteen, I cheated someone out of a chance to visit Château Margaux.
There were five of us working down the road, at Château de Lamarque; repetitive but intermittently entertaining labour on the triage line, sifting ephemera – branches, leaves, insects, the occasional lizard – away from the precious grapes on their way to the press. One day they called us over after lunch and told us there were four slots available to visit Margaux – one person needed to stay behind and help out in the chai. In a Biblical twist, we were to draw straws. I watched intently as they were gathered, spotted a particularly long one with a distinguishing black mark towards the top, and confidently plucked it from my host’s hand when my turn came. Only one straw remained, consigning Maxence to the warehouse for the afternoon.
Margaux was incredible, of course. I enjoyed it with a clear conscience, as only an entitled teenager silently pining after Maxence’s girlfriend Lily could: the heartstopping stately approach (true of Lily, too!), the majesty of the cellar, the glossy professionalism of the operation. And the wine itself – only a couple of years old in our glasses but suggestive of what – to me – was unprecedented power and depth. I had never previously understood the point of drinking top-end claret so young – truthfully, it still feels like a waste – but for the first time it made a little more sense. It was like watching the first imperfect steps of a gifted athlete on the international stage: part of the pleasure is in the accomplishment; much more of it is in getting a taste of all the accomplishments still to come.
That was 2005; for the intervening eleven years I hadn’t so much as held a bottle of Ch. Margaux in my hand. But recently I found myself in my local Sampler buying what turned out to be some terrible Zinfandel for a dinner party; on the Coravin in the corner they were offering the 1983 at £30 a glass. I had just turned thirty; this felt like a serendipitously apt offer that screamed impulse buy, hectored live a little, exhorted celebrate. So I did.
Nostalgia’s a funny one. You probably know the etymology, equal parts homecoming and aching. Going back to your younger self is almost always an exercise both wistful and painful; this is especially true when the memory you’re invoking isn’t of you at your best. There is a certain synthetic compound occurring in fragrances for teenaged girls – mostly heavy on peach, but with an unmistakeable, weirdly uric tang – which utterly unmans me when I smell it now; takes me back to being a horny-stupid boy stealing a close friend’s girl just because I could.
The Château Margaux was worse. You can find tasting notes better and more qualified elsewhere, so I won’t bother. But it triggered something, somewhere, despite only sharing a few chromosomes with the wine I had tasted en primeur. A vintage is like a person: this one was older than me, and felt accordingly lived-in. It was young once, and full of promise: had it delivered on the hopes everyone had for it? It seemed like it had turned out pretty well, but something still nagged at me, and I couldn’t help asking the same question reflexively. A bottle shop in Islington is possibly an unusual place to find yourself interrogating how you have fared across the passage of time, but there I was, noodling on permanence, and transience, and this weird through-line connecting my teenaged self with a recently married man embarking on his fourth decade, having serious conversations about when to try for a first child.
You might figure my experience of drinking this wine as a visit from an old friend: this captures how people and places and states can change, improve, worsen, and yet remain innately the same. But that doesn’t go far enough: I want something bittersweet that captures how embarrassment about the person you used to be can only ever be partially masked by contentment at how you have grown; I want something with a dash of the poignant agrodolces that reflects how the pleasure we get from looking into the past is always tainted, barely perceptibly, by the sadness of knowing you can never truly go home again. It’s not in the tasting notes, and Don Draper was factually incorrect when he said it was the literal meaning of “nostalgia”, but this is perhaps the best description I can give of what it feels like to drink Châteaux Margaux 1983: it’s like the pain from an old wound.