There are people who obsess over matching wine with food. I’m not one of them. Much more important, I believe, is matching wine with mood. Wine has an effect on the moment; anyone who has spontaneously brought Champagne to a non-celebratory event knows how a single bottle can change the destiny of a get-together.
I’m thinking about this sitting in a winebar awaiting the arrival of a business associate. This could be just a regular after-work drink, but I’m aiming at something more serious. The weather is my co-conspirator. It’s cold and snowy outside and the city is largely shut in; when I arrive in the bar I am its sole customer. The room is dark and quiet and a fire burning in the dining room generates warmth and intimacy.
I look down the list, considering options. I blow past the self-important Cabs and dismiss the uninteresting selection of Pinots. My friend is, I know, a follower of Spanish wines, a devotee of value with a budding appreciation of Rioja. I ask if they’ve got anything not on the list and, as it happens, they have a couple of vintages of Flor de Pingus. I order the older vintage, a 2000, and while the bartender is digging around the basement for it my guy arrives. Our talk is light, fluffy: business acquaintances with no real stake in the conversation. Weather. Stock market. Generalities. Sports.
The wine arrives. He doesn’t know Pingus, so I tell him some of the story. In the mid-nineties, a Danish winemaker named Peter Sisseck founded Pingus in Ribero del Duero, a region of Spain with a long history of undistinguished wine production. He built a new winery surrounded by very old vines that had not received modern attention: pruned in the old style, clinging tenuously to soil unbothered by pesticides or herbicides. The world may have seen the vineyards as relics; Sisseck thought them perfect.
The wine Sisseck made at Pingus took the world by surprise. It premiered at $200 a bottle, a ridiculous amount for a Spaniard without lineage, but inspired Robert Parker to enthuse that he had seen the future of wine and it was Spain. Since then, the price of Pingus has done nothing but rise. The going rate is about $700 a bottle and only about 500 cases a year come to market.
Flor de Pingus is the winery’s second wine, a pure Tempranillo from rented vineyards with vines at least 35 years old. Flor is more widely available and, at about $75 a bottle, can be had without taking a second mortgage. In my world, it’s an occasional (very occasional) indulgence.
When the bartender pours it into the glass it becomes the darkest thing in the dimly lit room. The nose has a little sulfur to it, but that will blow off in a few minutes. Behind that is more darkness: overripe cherries and blackberries and smoke. We swirl and sniff and the complexity of the wine brings our conversation to a different, almost philosophical level.
We taste. The palate matches the nose. The wine is large without being a cartoon, more New World than Old. It perches at the far pole from the traditional, eternally-in-the-barrel Riojas my friend is a fan of. The wine is too fruity to be profound but with gravitas nonetheless. The fruit is highlighted by snappy acidity, a surprise touch of fresh cherry in a wine ten years old. That freshness keeps the Flor from seeming an elder statesman, but the underlying depth of the wine gives it a touch of gray at the temples that inspires confidence.
And it is perfect. It pulls the conversation in the direction it needs without dragging it down. It is as comfortable in the moments of silence as it is when the conversation lurches forward.
As I ask my big questions, I get in return thoughtful, thoroughly frank answers tempered by moments of contemplation. That is the rhythm of great wine and great conversation, and it is the reason the two go together so well.