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It’s Saturday and my husband decides it’s time to organize the cellar. Many times, he’ll find wine for down there and just stack it near the entrance for time’s sake, but because there’s a loose regional organization, things have to be situated or you lose track of what’s hiding. Some of those “lost” bottles surface while he digs, bottles he decides need to be investigated to see where they are in their development or if they’ve taken the dive over the hill. One can age wine for too long, it’s a tricky balance, and thus begins the construction of the most elaborate wine dinner in recent memory.

Everything we do tends to be quickly—courtship, marriage, have a baby, throw parties. Little lead time precedes the quick invitation of many, of which we predict perhaps sixty percent will meander over to our porch at some point in the evening. We throw chicken, fish, beef on the grill for guests to choose from, sauté some vegetables, pick up bread, cheese, and open wine, abundantly. In a hurry, I construct some sweet biscuits and open a bunch of last summer’s preserves for dessert.

We harvest every Burgundy glass we own and line them up on the table outside because that’s where our focus is tonight, the cryptic, mystical region that tricks the casual drinker into thinking it’s simple with basically two grapes to choose from, a red, a white, but the step beyond ankle-deep is immediately over your head. Ancient divisions of land, vineyards, crus, growers, negociants, microclimates shifting at alarming rates, and confusing labeling make the clubs of Those Who Know and Those Who Don’t distinct and segregated. Those Who Know are happy to keep it that way, Those Who Don’t learn quickly that they aren’t welcome. That was my experience, anyway. It’s hard to learn Burgundy, so we’re going to take a bite out of it tonight. Three whites, two reds.

wine table

We pour the flight of whites first, a collection from the Côte de Beaune. Two “Les Folatieres” Puligny-Montraches from 2006, one by Girardin and one by Lucien Le Moine, and the other a Clos de Mouches 2005, a vineyard owned and wine produced exclusively by Drouhin (also known as a Monopole). These are no Wines Next Door, even I can tell that. Years in the shop taught me that these labels require a glance toward the top shelves, and 2006 was a hot, ripe year meaning a lot of those wines were early drinking and sold quickly. I haven’t seen one in a while. I sniff and sip all three and begin looking for patterns.

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All are Chardonnay, so there’s that, but really there are few other similarities. The 2005 Clos de Mouches is in a separate camp, leaner, more elegant, crisper fruit, maybe more citrus than the others. The two “Les Folatieres” come from the same vineyard but are made by different producers and their differences are surprisingly vast. The Girardin is oaky, almost too oaky. The alcohol is higher and it tastes more like the seasoning of the wine rather than the grape itself. The Le Moine, though, that is immediately more balanced. Oak, plenty of it, is present, but the combination of that with the acid and mineral of the wine serve to accentuate the innate Chardonnay-ness of it instead of undercutting the source. It’s rich, voluptuous.

Would that Girardin have been a stunner if I had it by itself? Probably. It’s all about context.

The reds are next. We always begin these things with such diligence: smell all three, go back and taste, then taste them in different orders to see how each of them holds up in context of the others. Draw a general conclusion from the group, dramatically dump the remainder off the balcony. I’ve already begun to devolve; these evenings run so long and with the baby I no longer have a free hand to take notes or spare brain parts to remember all that many specifics. I taste them anyway. This flight is more disparate (though all Pinot Noir), a 2008 Forey Père & Fils Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru “Les Perrières,” a 2005 Clos de Tart, and a 2002 Méo-Camuzet Clos de Vougeot. The Clos de Tart I recognize as a Grail Wine, one of those top shelf beauties I previously would tremble to pluck from the shelf. I still would, it’s one of those hallmark Grand Crus of the region. The other two are mysteries.

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Pinot Noir is supremely sensitive and the differences are dramatic. The Forey is sleek, mineral, red fruited, and relatively light bodied. My husband says, “it’s like bringing a knife to a gun show.” Almost unfair when the next two bowl it over. The Clos de Tart, though nine years old, will last for decades more: abundant but sweet tannins, rich and balanced. The Méo-Camuzet is less fine, but the fruit is leathery, dried, meaty. I don’t have a favorite, they’re just different animals.

The baby is awake again and someone calls for another flight, three Nebbiolos surface from the cellar, Barolos. Two 1999s and a 2004. I know they hit my glass, they are beautiful, the one I return to is the 1999 Bricco Rocche.

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I lose track of things after that. Bottles keep opening (California! Chile! Spain!), I skip most of them but enjoy watching the revelry, the joy of fellowship with those whose evening plans had previously included a quiet few hours of television. The baby sends the relaxed company into the earliest hours of the morning to sleep it off, too excited by the crowd to rest herself.

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Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.