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What Makes a Wine Great? It’s Not Just Old and Complex.

On certain occasions, context is theoretical.

“Sometimes a great Beaujolais is a better choice than La Tâche,” a friend once said to me years ago, referring to the grand cru Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the rarest, most expensive and highly prized wines in the world.

Few people would argue that any Beaujolais has the potential to be more profound than La Tâche. Most would leap at any opportunity to merely taste La Tâche because of its scarcity and its cost — a bottle of the 2017, if you can find one, might sell for around $5,000. I know I would.

But a wine like La Tâche, particularly for one who does not have a ready supply, demands a certain amount of ceremony and freedom from distraction to do it justice. I’d ideally want to share it with people I love. I could drink Beaujolais with anybody, and we’d be friends in 20 minutes. That’s beauty in its own right.

I’d think of it like a Michelin three-star restaurant, the sort of place I’d want to go only rarely but at such a time when it would have my full attention, unlike the neighborhood bistro where I would happily dine every other week, reveling in the clarity of exquisite ingredients, simply prepared.

I don’t say this out of jadedness. A meal at the sort of restaurants that end up on Top 50 lists can be sublime. But it must be with the right people and on the right occasion, otherwise they are time-consuming, overly complicated and fatiguing, paradoxically great yet nightmarish.

The truth is, the otherworldly transcendence of a top-flight restaurant cannot be appreciated without the earthbound elementalism of simple ingredients like bread and cheese, just as Beaujolais creates the context for grand cru Burgundy and vice versa.

Unlike a painting or sculpture, wine and food are transitory. They exist as potential until they are consumed, after which they live on in memory. In a sense, the greatest wines may be those that are most memorable.

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