The most recent tasting in the third category was of wines from the cellars of the restaurant Girardet, near Lausanne. Fredy Girardet had a trio of Michelin stars, and his dining room was spoken of with hushed reverence by those lucky (and rich) enough to eat there - the closest I ever got was his cookbook. Now the restaurant is closed, and M Girardet is selling his cellar at Sotheby's on 6 and 7 October. Since I don't often get invited to the houses where they're served, my knowledge of the greatest wines, especially in their mature form, is mostly limited to reading. The Girardet tasting, from a sale of 1,750 lots, offered the chance to add practice to theory. This is "serious" wine, from a cellar amassed by a genius with a well-heeled clientele. Bordeaux and Burgundy dominate, and in vintages to make one slaver. Claret starts in 1902, red Burgundy in 1929, white Burgundy, 1936. And so it was that I stood in a room surrounded by posters from a different sale. We hovered over 17 bottles, all red except a white chateauneuf, Chateau de Beaucastel, Vieilles Vignes 1994 from Perrin (est pounds 160-pounds 200 per dozen). Nine Burgundies, six claret, and two vintages (1990 and 1992) of the "super Tuscan" Sassicaia. I waded in to find out how the other half drinks.
The answer was: not as well as I expected. Many of these wines were simply no longer enjoyable. Interesting, yes. Hinting at greatness, yes - there were traces of past glory almost everywhere. But would I want to pay the estimated prices, even if I could afford them? No way, Jose. The fruit in Chateau La Lagune 1978, a wine I drank with huge pleasure for an anniversary dinner some eight years ago, had shrivelled to taut austerity - all structure and too little substance. At pounds 240-pounds 280 a dozen, I couldn't see the point. Chateau Haut Brion 1961, from one of the greatest post- war vintages, seemed far too astringent when you're paying pounds 4,000-pounds 5,500 a dozen. One of the Burgundies, a Volnay les Champans 1988 from Marquis d'Angerville, was clearly unsound - dank, musty, manky. Estimate: pounds 260- pounds 340 a dozen.
There were three great mouthfuls in the event. One, I think, was Chateau Margaux 1961 (est pounds 4,000-pounds 5,000 a dozen). I say that I think this was memorable because I got just the tiniest sip: wiser tasters had taken nearly all of it by the time I got to that table. The other two were the Sassicaia pair, of which the 1990 (est pounds 1,200-pounds 1,600 a dozen) seemed finer yet less mature than the 1992 (est pounds 440-pounds 550).
It's possible that the bottles were better before I got to them, since wines of this antiquity can change rapidly once the cork is pulled. It's possible, too, that my limited experience and high expectations account for my disappointment. But I was not the only person who felt let-down. Oz Clarke, who does have wide experience of wine at this level, thought that the tasting showed the dangers of keeping wine too long.
"Sotheby's are unable to accept returns" says the not-very-small print, and unless you taste first you have no way of knowing what's inside the bottle. The wine may have been stored badly, which will kill it stone- dead. This wouldn't be true of M Girardet's cellar, of course, but in his case some of the venerable vintages have simply not withstood the ravages of time. Anyone buying runs the risk that they'll spend a huge fortune on a huge disappointment.
After leaving Sotheby's I headed off to the awards dinner for the 1998 International Wine Challenge, not 10 minutes away. Following the rarefied atmosphere of the Girardet wines it was pleasant to come down to something nearer real life. Two medal winners quickly, first of all Maglieri Shiraz Mclaren Vale 1996. Last year it was the 1995 that won. I'd tasted it not long before at Unwins and had been deeply impressed by its massive but well-integrated package of spice and aromatics (pounds 8.99). Two: the gorgeous, lime-fresh Champagne Le Brun de Neuville Cuvee Chardonnay, which sells for the outlandishly low price of pounds 12.75. Not easy to get hold of unless you live in London, but the importers/retailers, Waterloo Wine Co (0171 403 7967), will ship it happily if you ask nicely. Do ask, before it all runs out.