Chapter Seventy-Three

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David and Michael rejoined the women, and they all shared an animated conversation, catching up on the two months since they had last seen each other. David had just begun talking about his orders to report for training, when the mellow deep tones of the gong sounded.

Mary looked toward the dining room and said, "I hope you don't mind if we have the same menu as the last time. That was so superb, we wanted to enjoy it again."

"And I was curious to see how a German noble rot would do with the foie gras," Michael added as he stood. "I've never had one, though I've heard they can be rather fine."

They settled around the table, Michael remaining standing to remove the lead capsule, wipe the bottle neck and withdraw the cork. As it came free, he said, "This is a very young cork. Can't be more than a year or two old. You've been duped, David." He handed him the cork.

"He told me he renews the corks every twenty years on all the wines in his cellars." David examined the clean, light tan cork. "This appears fresher than the one I remember in the 1911 Yquem."

"And the ullage is far too high for this to be an 1886. It should be down to mid-shoulder or lower."

"What's ullage?"

"That's the level of the wine in the bottle. It's the English bastardisation of the French term, ouillage, meaning seepage; the slow evaporation of wine through the cork over time."

"Aha! That's what Nikolaus meant when he said he tops up the wine before replacing the corks."

Michael pursed his lips and shook his head. Then he poured a small amount into the four glasses. "Let's give it a shot first to see whether I should go down to fetch an Yquem to accompany the foie gras."

He lifted the glass of deep amber wine to his nose, and it seemed to stick there as his face changed from scepticism to sublime rapture. He took a sip, then slowly shook his head as he savoured it. "I wouldn't have believed it possible. Watch your back, Yquem; it appears the Germans have outflanked you."

A few bites into his foie gras, David signalled to Michael to pour the remainder of the trockenbeerenauslese. "An ounce and a half each isn't sufficient for this; nor will it be sufficient for the sweet course. I'll fetch another half-bottle for that."

Twenty minutes later, after the lemon sorbet, Michael rose to open and decant the claret, beckoning David to follow him to the sideboard. "You can see the ullage in these; the 1899 at the top of the shoulder, and the 1893 midway down it. This had been my concern with your 1886."

Michael placed a silver funnel into a decanter and lit a candle next to it. Then he opened the 1899, cleaned the bottle neck and began decanting the wine, explaining the procedure as he did. "Look down through here, David. Watch the candle flame through the neck. Pour slowly with a steady hand until the first sediment appears."

When he had completed decanting, he lifted the bottle to show David. "There's about an ounce of wine left in the punt." He poured it into a glass and held it in front of the candle flame. "This is mostly sediment, and we want neither its grittiness nor its bitter taste to interfere with our enjoyment. Now, you do the 1893."

While Murielle served the main course, Michael discussed the relative merits of each wine. "The 1893 is nearing its peak." He paused to savour another sip. "You can feel there's little tannin remaining. But this was supple from the beginning, and I'm surprised it's lasted this long."

He took a sip of the 1899. "This, though, is still in its youth. We should have decanted it earlier to allow the tannins to oxidise — to breathe." As they enjoyed the wine and lamb, the four carried on a discussion about the ageing potential of wines and what allows some to continue improving for decades while others fade within a year or two.

While the plates from the main course were being cleared and the cheese board laid, David brought another bottle of trockenbeerenauslese from the cellar and placed it in the ice bucket on the sideboard. They enjoyed the remainder of the claret with cheese and lively conversation, then David turned the topic to his Swiss Army training.

After discussing the possibilities for a while, Michael said, "I think it's best to be open about it from the beginning, David. Your story is backed by many facts, and I cannot see how they would consider you as anything but an unwilling conscript."

"And you've registered and reported for service," Maria added. "You're honouring your duty as a Swiss citizen, rather than hiding to avoid it. A foreign belligerent would hide, and you're not."

Michael looked up from his glass of 1893. "I'll ask a few of my Army colleagues for their opinions. I'm amazed at how well this has held. It's been open for over an hour, and it's still vibrant."

They all went back to their wines and cheeses and casual banter. Then as Murielle entered to clear the table, David rose to open the dessert wine. "I thought the 1865 would be an appropriate way to cap this superb meal." He opened the bottle and divided its dark amber contents among the four glasses as Murielle arrived to serve the crème brulé and tuiles aux amandes.

There was a long silence as they each nosed their wine. Then after Michael had taken a sip, he said, "I thought the 1886 was the nec plus ultra, but I'm delighted to be proven wrong."

David stared into his glass, slowly shaking his head. "I wonder why, with mastery of so many things, superiority in most of them, Fritz has chosen violent means to take over Europe. With patience, their industry and achievements would have allowed them to dominate the world."

"They've been stopped again. We'll win."

"Yes, but at what cost? How many millions of lost or ruined lives?"

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