Last night was my first experience at Le Pigeon, a restaurant in Portland that has been getting rave reviews both from the press and from my friend Jason, who as far as I can tell basically eats there every week. The food was excellent, and the wine list extensive and well-selected (although in West Coast wine geek fashion, we mostly brought our own). Afterwards, as I was thinking about the restaurant, it seems to me like it embodies the New Portland, a Portland that’s very different from the one that I lived in ten years ago. Don’t get me wrong, there were good restaurants back then too, and I’m not making a qualitative judgment here at all. I just think that the vibe and feel of the new wave of restaurants such as Le Pigeon is distinctly different, a little more big-city rather than small-town as in the past. It’s just a reflection of Portland growing up and becoming a more sophisticated and diverse city. Old-timers will grumble and long for the way it once was, while newer transplants will appreciate the comforts and amenities of a more modern urban life.
I continued to think about the passing of eras as the evening progressed. Among the wines that we had drunk over dinner were a 1979 Diebolt-Vallois and a 1971 Drouhin Echézeaux, both of which seemed to preserve a continuity: people today aren’t making wines like they did back then, and you can argue with me ad nauseum about all of the technical details and how winemaking is different and viticulture is different and whatever, but aesthetically speaking, drinking the 1971 Echézeaux isn’t all that far removed from the experience of drinking Burgundy made today. It’s different, yes, but it’s an experience that’s easy to relate to. It fits more or less under the same paradigm. The Diebolt is even closer to contemporary wines as, after all, the champagne culture actively tries to preserve an aesthetic continuity.
In contrast, upon arriving back at the house we opened up a 1992 Steiner Hund Riesling that was made by Erich Salomon. Chronologically speaking, this wine wasn’t nearly as old as the others, yet it felt like it came from a completely different era. “I feel like I’m drinking history,” said my friend Pete, and he was. Compared to wines made today, even those by the Salomon family, this felt old-fashioned, burnished, patinated. There was a less reductive aesthetic back then, more pronounced acidity, less flesh on the bones. The minerality in this wine was in a way more demanding, somehow fierce, rather like listening to a recording of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1942 compared to Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic today.
The same could be said of our final wine of the night, a 1966 Karthäuserhof Spätlese from the Sang parcel. While it was remarkably fresh, still showing surprisingly primary fruit and possessing a classic sense of delicacy and poise that continues to be a hallmark of German riesling today, it also felt like a relic from a completely different age, made under entirely different aesthetic conditions. Indeed, that wine would probably barely qualify as Kabinett if it were made now. The experience of drinking it is a glimpse into a world that no longer exists.
It’s not that one era is better than the other, and such judgments, in fact, completely miss the point. I wouldn’t want contemporary Austrian or German wines to be made like they were back then, nor am I nostalgic about some earlier time. In fact, if someone made wines like that, they would appear oddly anachronistic. But these old wines just make me think about the passing of time, the changes of the world and of the things in it.