Just occasionally the English weather plays a hugely positive role in a special celebration. For the last few weeks we have been enjoying a warm, even hot, summer and the evening of my birthday was the last moment of this hot spell. We planned to have the first course or two of the evening in the garden. In the end we had the entire evening outside. There was no need to go indoors even at 11pm. It was a splendid evening with a small group of friends, very good food and some quite spectacular wines. The wines were a mixture of old favourites from our cellar and really generous gifts.
Jean Francois Merieau, Bulles, 2009
Roger Brun, Champagne Cuvée des Sires Grand Cru [1995/96]
Prawns with fresh Borlotti beans
Homage á Jean Hugel, Pinot Gris ‘Hugel’, 1998
Rosato, Massa Vecchia, Maremma Toscana IGT 2007
Pork with olives, Cavolo Nero
Brunello di Montalcino, Podere Salicutti, 1998
White Label, I Balzini, Colli della Toscana Centrale, 1998
Black Label, I Balzini, Colli della Toscana Centrale, 2000
Cheese – Occhipinti al Barolo, Taleggio, Parmigiano Reggiano
Château Gruaud Larose, St-Julien, 1961
Vigneti Massa, Colli Tortonesi, Derthona, 2006
Blackcurrants and meringues
Château Rieussec, Sauternes, 1975
‘Ada’, Vin Santo di Montepulciano, Podere Le Bèrne, 2001
There really is nothing like old, great Champagne. Ours came from the small house of Roger Brun, Janet and I having bought it at the winery perhaps a decade ago on the way back from Burgundy. Cuvée des Sires is only made in the best years, the fruit in this bottling from Grand Cru village of Aÿ with fruit from 1995 and 1996. The blend is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, using only juice from the first pressing which is then fermented in oak. Final dosage is 8g. At nearly 20 years old the colour is a lovely pale gold and the nose leads with layers of toast, honey and mushrooms. There was excellent length in the mouth and all in all this was a real treat from an excellent small grower.
With the primo of prawns and Borlotti beans (you will have noticed that the menu is heavily Italian in inspiration), we had a marked contrast in wine styles. Homage á Jean Hugel, Pinot Gris ‘Hugel’, 1998 was gloriously rich on palate, mid gold in colour, with rich aromatics of spiced quince. This richness is bolstered by residual sugar (32g), a wonderful traditional style. By contrast, people thought the next wine, Rosato, Massa Vecchia, Maremma Toscana IGT 2007, was old Barolo or similar, partly on account of its unusual tawny colour, but there were rose petal and Marmite notes on the nose over a core of sweet, even aromatic, fruit. In reality it was an unusual rosé, made to age but I did wonder if it was a bit oxidised too.
The reds came in a flight of ‘three wines from one region’ followed by a venerable classic. Those who didn’t know what the wines were thought that the first wine was either a claret (correct that it was a medium-bodied, aged wine) or Barolo but couldn’t then place wines two and three. In fact they were three Tuscan reds: a Brunello accompanied by two Super Tuscans from the same winery, a Sangiovese-based one and one that led with Cabernet. Salcutti’s Brunellos are a personal favourite and Brunello di Montalcino, Podere Salicutti, 1998 showed all those lovely, developed fruit with old oak and savoury notes, spice and tea leaf plus still grippy tannins. The pair from I Balzini were a generous gift from the D’Istanto family when we visited a couple of years back. Italian hospitality is legendary but to be given a pair of fully aged wines goes beyond the normal and I have been waiting for a suitable occasion on which to drink these wines. White Label, I Balzini, Colli della Toscana Centrale, 1998 showed aged red fruit and a fine texture, a wine with real character in its full maturity, Sangiovese showing its capacity to age even when accompanied by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet-dominant Black Label, I Balzini, Colli della Toscana Centrale, 2000 had fared less well. It was still showing ripe black fruit but was rather simple in comparison and with resilient tannins. (Both were from rather average vintages and therefore showed really well after a decade and a half.)
With the cheeses we had a really outstanding red. Even in the very low light of the early part of a summer’s night in England, you could tell from its pale brick colour that Château Gruaud Larose, St-Julien, 1961 had real age. This was confirmed by powerful refined clove and cedar aromas and still fresh red fruit. A wine of real elegance and balance and, obviously, longevity. When the vintage was revealed the best, most immediate response was ‘holy shit’! A true keeper and developer in old age – a good model for the birthday boy. The old Bordeaux did very well at this dinner as the next star was Château Rieussec, Sauternes, 1975, now a glistening colour on the amber/gold border. The nose shouted ‘botrytis’ with fine bees-wax, honeyed and intense citrus notes which followed through in the austere, impressively dry palate. Another real ‘wow’ wine.
To end the evening we returned to Tuscany in the form of Vin Santo. The best of these wines are made by highly competent winery-owning families who, as a sort of hobby, make tiny batches of this demanding liquid. It is not uncommon to find the nonna, the grandma, still in charge of this cottage industry of putting aside the best, most healthy grapes to dry for three months on canes, checking them every week, then starting on a long slow fermentation in tiny sealed barrels. After five to seven years, the barrels are opened and you hope that you have succeeded in producing this complex nectar. Our example had been sold to us at source and was bottle 143 or a total number of 540 375cl bottles made – total production 202 litres! ‘Ada’, Vin Santo di Montepulciano, Podere Le Bèrne, 2001 was a complex blend of marzipan, citrus rind and wax, intensely sweet and multi-layered. A fine climax to a memorable evening.