Exploring the Concept of Past Lives

By | 28 May 2024

Looking back on a 37-year relationship with Burgundy.


Harry Eyres

Celine Song’s wonderful movie prompts Harry Eyres to reflect on a lifetime of Burgundy.

The beautiful, exquisitely shot and acted, heartbreakingly poignant film Past Lives, directed by the Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song, plays strange tricks with time. The action jumps forward and backward in great leaps (after the short opening scene, it jumps back 24 years, then forward 12 years, then forward another 12 years, and briefly backward again), but almost without seeming to. It’s an unconsummated love story, and it’s about how people are both the same and not the same through time. In terms of the title, it’s about how past lives in some way continue to exist and reverberate in the present, even though they are also irredeemably past.

This remarkable film, unrelated to wine or Burgundy, reminded me of my relationship with Burgundy and its wines. The link was made between my recent experiences tasting the 2022 vintage of Burgundy , and one of my initial trips to the wine region of Burgundy, particularly to Vosne-Romanée, in the chilly spring of 1987.

It’s been 37 years—more than Mozart’s lifespan—and I guess the usual clichés apply. I was in my 20s and just starting my wine writing journey (combined with different types of writing), having left a teaching job that my parents considered a stable position for their academically challenged son. You could call it—channeling Browning—the period of my “first fine careless rapture” as a wine writer when all wine regions were inviting and, in several cases, offered enticing invitations.


If it was a favorable time to be a novice British wine writer—with wine consumption in the UK rapidly increasing, media coverage of wine expanding accordingly, and a group of young innovators entering the field (including my travel companion, Tim Atkin) — for Burgundy, it was far from a golden time. Prices were dropping, American demand was slowing, and it was becoming clear that grave errors had been made in vineyard practices (overfertilization in particular) in the 1970s. Burgundy had a lot of catching up to do and needed to become more receptive to the rest of the world. This prompted the invitation of British wine writers to Vosne-Romanée. The visit culminated in a grand dinner in the vaulted cellars of Clos Frantin, adorned with Union Jack flags for the event. Also, trumpeters dressed as Burgundian beefeaters played “God Save the Queen.”

One keen observer noted that it was likely the first time all the Vosne-Romanée growers had interacted with each other, especially with a group of foreigners. Despite being a historical exercise in Burgundian openness, it evidently displayed a certain lack of practice. Unsurprisingly, it was the wines that broke the ice. The majority were from the 1985 vintage, which, as credited then, gave rise to young marvels displaying delightful variations of raspberries and violets in their fragrance and a lovely velvety richness in their taste. The generosity and pride with which they were presented also played a role. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most prestigious amongst them, presented a luxurious 1979 Grands-Echézeaux.

One wonders if Burgundy and I are anyway the same as we were in that era. It’s amusing to think that possibly the most remarkable wine village globally felt the need to promote itself more. It’s doubtful that any such initiative in the future would feature a contribution from DRC, whose wines my grandfather once enjoyed. However, these wines are now reserved for the ultra-rich. My hair is predominantly grey now, and the fervour I possess resembles the one Shakespeare described as lying and smouldering “on the ashes of his youth”.

Nevertheless, Burgundy still holds a special place in my heart. The annual opportunity to rekindle the joy and enthusiasm of previous experiences through a series of tastings in London of the penultimate vintage brings some cheer to the gloomy January. This year, I was only present at a few of these, yet the 2022 vintage impressed me with its sheer beauty. It’s one of those years, akin to 1985, where elements or divine intervention result in wines of exceptional grace and wholesomeness. A good Burgundy vintage may offer no solace to those enduring incredible losses in Ukraine or Gaza, but it provided some to me.

In human lives, past experiences can be dotted with sharp discontinuities. The young Na Young who parted ways with her friend Hae Sung on a street corner in Seoul is different from her 36-year-old self who met him in New York years later. In contrast, wines encapsulate past experiences within glass walls, mature gradually avoiding disruption or trauma. Every year offers the vineyard a chance for a miraculous rebirth.

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