When friends ask, “What can we bring?” to my dinner parties, I almost always ask for a bottle of wine. But lately I also ask if they have any “mystery” bottles languishing in their “wine cellars”. Those are the bottles that promised to be great —once; since they’ve languished for years, it’s impossible to say if there’s something delicious inside, or a wine that’s past its moment. A mystery wine can also be one whose label is lost or unreadable.
It’s curiously exciting to open aged Burgundies, Bordeaux’s, Pinot Noirs or expensive Sauternes and taste them, not having any idea if they’ll be a gem, or not. When you open a wine that proves to be lovely, it’s like a little miracles has arrived at the party. If the wines aren’t great to drink, no worries. You and your friends have lost nothing except an undrinkable bottle taking up precious space in your cabinet. As Peggy Markel put it:
It is fun not hesitating and holding the vintage precious, but drinking it in the here and now at the slightest occasion with someone or anyone who could appreciate the mystery.
At the very least, aged “mystery” wines are just plain fun to try, and often come with great stories of times long past.
The key, of course, is to always have some reliable wines to drink, in case what the mystery wine(s) is a bust. You can ask your guests to bring one tried-and-true bottle, or provide them yourself.
And be sure to mark each person’s glass with a China marker so your guests can keep using them for each wine without getting mixed up.)
And the less drinkable wines can sometimes be transmuted into something else entirely.
Recently I opened two sweet once-great dessert wines that had somehow gone undrunk for YEARS. Although the 1993 Vouvray tasted terrible, a 1995 Muscat de Beaumes de Venice from Provence had taken on the Maderia-ish flavors of wines past their time, it was —though not something I wanted to drink — not unpleasant; there were some interesting flavors in tact. I imagined it as a base for the dried apricots in fragrant syrup I rely on as an alway-ready dessert.
I took the essential approach of my tried and true recipe, but used the Beaumes de Venise as the syrup base, perfuming with split vanilla beans, strips of lemon and orange zest, and a little water, lemon juice and leftover white wine that was in the fridge. I simmered this doctored Beaume de Venise syrup, tasting until the alcohol had cooked off and adjusting the flavors until I got a pleasing balance…
Then I added the dried California apricots, turning off the heat and covering the pan until they had “plumped” and tasted once again like fresh fruit.
Et voila! This batch of Apricots in Syrup has proven unexpectedly delicious.
The rule of thumb for using any wine to cook is that if you aren’t willing to drink it yourself, i.e. if it makes you recoil, you shouldn’t be cooking with it. You should apply that rule to any of the wines you pass on at your Mystery Wine dinners.