Badass Beverage: Hitchcock’s Wines And The Search For Perfection

In anticipation of HITCHCOCK, read about the director's great love of the grape.

So. In anticipation for Hitchcock, I’ve been watching a lot of Hitch’s movies, and one thing in particular that crops up in much of his work caught my eye.

Man, that dude loved his wine.

It’s something that pops up all over the place, sometimes more overtly than others, but even going back to his earliest works it’s clear that this was a man with a true love of the grape.

It makes sense that, as a man utterly obsessed with capturing perfection on film, he would focus his attentions to finding perfection in the bottle as well. And as a Proper British GentlemanTM Hitchcock had a great appreciation for the aristocracy’s old favorites, mainly Champagne and Bordeaux.*

Hitchcock and Champagne.

This one’s easy. Champagne is already perfect. That’s the whole point. It is perfectly balanced, with refreshing acidity, luscious sugars, structuring alcohol and even a slight hint of bitter almond, all in absolute harmony. It’s elegantly effervescent, and it demonstrates a true sense of terroir: nothing drinks like Champagne, because nothing grows like Champagne. Truly, it’s the perfect flavor. Well, that and ketchup.

Starting as early as 1928 with the silent comedy Champagne, Hitch was showing his interest in the wine of kings. A central conflict of that film is the economic downturn Champagne wines took in the 1920s for a number of reasons: the early ripples of the looming worldwide depression, the stress of recovery still being felt after the first World War, Prohibition and a string of shitty years that saw lower quality in the wines but also poor harvests that meant that lower production would see a rise in pricing.

Ten years later, in The Lady Vanishes, Margaret Lockwood’s free-spirited Iris is introduced by ordering a magnum (or double-bottle) of Champagne for dinner. While she discusses her affairs with her friends, the foreground is almost reverentially dominated by the house sommelier opening and serving the wine.

So let’s talk a little about Champagne, and about what’s happening in this scene.

Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + CO2 (and heat, but we don’t need to worry about that)

This is pretty much how we make wine, and all booze really. The important part here is the CO2, the carbonation that makes bubbly, well…bubbly. Champagne achieves this carbonation by going through a second fermentation in the bottle (a lengthy and complicated process that pretty much boils down to this: you have to pay for Champagne). The wine, then, is under pressure, and that’s why Champagne corks pop (incidentally, this is the same reason you can open Champagne with a sword, which I’ll teach you to do sometime around three in the morning after we’ve had four or five bottles of wine - the ideal time for me to be swinging a sword).

You’ll note, however, that in The Lady Vanishes, the cork doesn’t pop. Rather, it makes a bit of a hissing sound, with none of the expected fanfare and subsequent spilling of wine. This is because the dude in the suit with the towel over his arm is doing something pretty important here. When you open Champagne, you should tilt the bottle away from you, hold the cork gently and slowly twist the bottle while you pull the cork so that it hisses, releasing as little of the carbonation as possible.

“Opening a bottle of Champagne,” goes the saying, “should sound like a nun farting.” This is because when the cork pops, it’s releasing that precious carbonation and making the wine less bubbly, and hence less appealing. So our friendly sommelier is correctly opening the wine for maximum flavor.

And then ruining it all by pouring it into those stupid, stupid glasses.

Seriously, save this shit for Margaritas.

The Champagne coupe was popularized in France in the decadent years leading up to the Revolution (supposedly shaped like Marie Antoinette’s breasts, because the Champenois are…well, a bit blue, really). The coupe allows all of those precious, tinny bubbles to dissipate from the glass very quickly, thus ruining the whole point of Champagne. So use proper, thin Champagne flutes. You’ll be much happier.

Champagnes do continue to crop up throughout his other movies, mostly because people keep drinking it for some reason. But there is another wine that makes frequent appearances in Hitchcock’s films, a favorite of British aristocracy.

Hitchcock and Bordeaux.

Hitch was lucky enough to have been collecting wine in the years that produced some of the best vintages for Bordeaux ever. You can see here that he had a pretty serious cellar.

Jesus. That shit is mighty.

And like any nerd with a collection, he was always happy to walk guests through his cellar and talk about his wines. Really, any wine geek is likely to do so when given a chance (I mean, seriously, I just gave you a hard time because I think you’re using the wrong glass). Hitch, though, was cut from a different cloth. A finer, shinier cloth, possibly made of…I don’t know, cashmere.

His reaction to High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ unforgiving parody of Hitchcock’s films and cinematic conventions, was something else. Hitch loved the movie, felt honored by it, and sent a special gift to Brooks: a case of magnum bottles of 1961 Château Haut-Brion.**

Haut-Brion is and was one of the finest wines in the world. In 1855, when the great wines of Bordeaux were first classified, all of the First Growths were from the Médoc, considered the finest terroir in the world. All except for Haut-Brion, a wine so fine that it was included even though it’s from the “lesser” appellation of Pessac-Leognan. Thomas Jefferson famously fell in love with this wine, referring to it as “Great Oberon,” and had cases and cases of it shipped to his estate in Virginia. And in the years following World War II, Haut-Brion produced some of its greatest wines, including the seminal 1961.

There’s another great story about Hitch sharing his love of Bordeaux. While filming The Birds, Hitchcock laid to rest the rumors that he didn’t like actors, and that he didn’t like children, and that he especially didn’t like child actors.

Veronica Cartwright plays Tippi Hedren’s daughter in that film and, at about 12 years old, was understandably nervous on set. The story goes that, in order to help calm her nerves, Hitchcock would have his tea with young Cartwright and teach her all about his collection, how to properly cook a steak and how to pair it with the right wine.

All class, that guy.

Hitchcock and The Search for Perfection.

Champagne and Bordeaux are pretty easy, though. Champagne is perfect almost by definition, and a strong vintage in Bordeaux is generally easy to spot, if you just watch the weather .***

Hitch, though, had another great love in his collection. He had a particular taste for red Burgundies.

Burgundy, in eastern France, between the cities of Dijon to the north and Lyons to the south, is known for two things: Chardonnay, the most famous white wine in the world, and Pinot Noir.

It’s the Pinot Noir that Hitchcock was most attracted to.

This is an incredibly difficult grape. It needs a long, cool growing season with plenty of sunshine. It does not produce much tannin, which is a key component in allowing wine to be preserved (and we’re not talking years here, I mean preserved long enough to make it out of the winery). It is prone to disease, is extremely particular about its soil, and doesn’t allow much time for harvesting; too early and you get unripe flavors of cooked fruit, too late and the wine will completely fall apart. It’s too easy for things to go wrong with Pinot.

But when they go right, they go right

Pinot Noir is incredibly thin-skinned. That’s part of what makes it so difficult, really. But it’s also what gives the grape its tremendous appeal.

The grape, and especially the vitis vinifera we use for wine, is the most sensitive crop in the world. It will pick up subtleties and nuances from the soil, from the climate, from the very air, that wouldn’t affect sturdier crops. And Pinot picks up its influences more than any other. Pinot Noir is so sensitive, in fact, that even though the vineyards in Burgundy are almost literally on top of each other, wines made from grapes grown one plot away from each other can taste drastically different.

This is what we mean when we say terroir. It is a sense of place, of origin. And coupled with Pinot Noir’s incredible flavors of ripe cherry, spice, earth, its great depth and complexity…in the best vintages, red Burgundies deliver tremendous power with a graceful weightlessness that is just astonishing to behold.****

You can spend your whole life happily searching for a perfect bottle of Pinot Noir. I suspect Hitchcock did, in his way. It’s a bit zen, really, only with more singing.

It’s why, for all of the gruesome murders that drive his plots, what feels like the most grievous crime in Hitchcock's films occurs in Notorious (also his booziest film; everything we’ve been talking about shows up here). In that film (which you should go watch right now if you haven’t because I am going to spoil it a little…go on, I’ll wait…what did you think? Don’t you wish Claude Raines could be in just everything?), Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant discover a Nazi plot to build an atomic bomb by sneaking uranium in bottles of wine.

The scene is incredibly tense, even for a Hitchcock film, and Bergman and Grant respond to the crime in horror and shock.

Okay, yes, this is mostly because it’s 1946 and Nazis have uranium, but it’s also because of the wine. The wine that’s been so needlessly destroyed. Something beautiful has been ruined, so the enemy can build a weapon of war and devastation.

Nothing again will ever taste like the wine made from grapes harvested in Pommard, in the fall of 1934.

Shame, that. But thrilling all the same, isn’t it?

This weekend I’m going to go watch Hitchcock, and I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the man’s life in a way I think he’d appreciate: with a bottle of wine.

*Though he did also enjoy the fortified wines, sherries and ports; the picture at the top is from a 1953 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, appropriately titled A Bottle of Wine, in which a cuckold and his wife’s new lover share a tense bottle of Amontillado Sherry; and there are scenes in Dial M for Murder where bottles of port prominently frame the foreground.

**This magnum thing keeps popping up (oh shut up) for a pretty simple reason, actually: wine tastes better when poured out of a magnum bottle. Some people say it has to do with the way it reacts to the volume of oxygen in the bottle as it’s being filled, but I think it’s because it’s Bigger and Heavier and so we think it’s More Important. Champagne does totally taste better out of a larger bottle, though, because physics.

***This is a gross over-simplification on my part, but my point here is that Bordeaux’s grapes are quite sturdy and more likely to produce quality wine in a difficult season. It’s not so much that there are good and bad vintages in Bordeaux, it’s that there are good vintages and there are great vintages.

****Incidentally, Burgundy (both red and white) is a great choice for Thanksgiving. Try finding something from the village of Marsannay or Santenay, wines that won’t break the bank but that will deliver the character we’re talking about here. Hell, even an inexpensive Bourgogne or Macon-Villages is perfect for the bird.

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