We kicked off with two Champagnes of contrasting styles and ages. Tasted blind Krug Grande Cuvée was a bit of a give away with its distinctive bottle shape but the wine is very fine: bright lemon in colour, a noticeably fine and yeasty nose with more than a hint of the richness to come, bright citrus fruit in the lime to lemon range, medium weight in the mouth with classic northern acidity balanced by rich fruit and oak effects. This complexity is created by adding up to 10 vintages of reserve wine to the base year, probably 2008 in this case. By contrast, Femme de Champagne, Duval-Leroy 1990 (off the restaurant’s own list) was clearly older, darker in colour, the very first vintage of the prestige cuvée made from 95% Chardonnay and a touch of Pinot Noir. The citrus notes here have mutated over the last two decades into citrus rind, cream and leather which followed through onto the taut palate, good length and savoury finish.
Those of us who were asked to bring a ‘light’ red had relatively few options outside of red Burgundy – Syrah from the northern Rhone was pushing it and few other light reds are of the quality we were hoping for … But drinking Grand Cru Clos Vougeot AC, Lamarche, 2002 certainly ticked all the boxes. Still pale ruby but with just a hint of turning towards garnet in the glass, sublime, elegant red fruit, fresh and primary despite having just got into its second decade, the texture was beginning to develop the silkiness you hope for in red Burgundy. Just tipping the scales in the ‘light’ category, Le Pavillon, Ermitage, again from M. Chapoutier, 2001, was assertively fruity by contrast, classic black fruit and pepper, hardly a hint of any age yet, powerful and long. In a similar weight category was the only Bordeaux of the night: Ch. Troplong Mondot, Saint-?milion Grand Cru, 1998. We all thought this was Bordeaux but were uniformly on the wrong bank, tasting cedar-box and blackcurrant of the Médoc rather than Christmas cake mixed fruit of the right bank. The final red was a in a weight class all of its own.
This dinner was preceded by about 200 emails with a range of practical discussions, anticipation, dim memories of last year’s Martini-fuelled edition and, most heatedly, debate over the order of cheese and dessert. Fortunately the restaurant simply decided that the French order is correct and nobody complained on the night. So with the excellent cheese and the equally good apricot soufflé (in the right order!), we had three further wines.
Before we get to the sweet wines a final dry wine which is brilliant with cheese. As with sweet wines, on the blind tasting front, life got a bit easier when we arrived at this stage of the meal. There are not many dry whites that are redolent of lemons, are developing waxy notes and are crisp and light – an amazingly youthful Vat 1, Tyrrell’s Wines, Hunter Valley, Semillon 1998. But competing with the Semillon for the ‘that can’t possibly be that age prize’ was Grahams Vintage Port 1970 which was in peak condition as it got into its fifth decade, which is more than can be said for most of us. Smoky red fruit on the nose and some alcoholic warmth were followed on the palate by perfectly poised sweet red fruit and substance from the super fine tannins and alcohol – brilliant. Equally good if in a totally different style was Bonnezeaux AC, Ch. de Fesles, 1999: mid gold in colour this Loire Chenin Blanc had a lightness of touch brought about by its combination of sweetness and northern European acidity, plus the honey, cooked orange and oatmeal due to botrytis. Elegant and complex.
Final reflections? After an embarrassments of riches represented by these wines it might sound a bit churlish to say that there is something to be said for a range of qualities in a tasting. It is easy to get blasé about quality and to stop noticing it when your first wine which sets the benchmark is the subtle combination of finesse and richness which is Krug Grand Cuvée! On the other hand, I am willing to ‘experiment’ with consistently good to great wines on any occasion .
Secondly, we were fortunate with our older bottles with just one sad casualty among 13 bottles – a prized Vega Sicilia Tinto Valbuena from the mid 1950s had sadly departed this life. It had turned into posh vinegar. But the other twelve were on top form and true to type.
As in other circles, two events a year apart turn mysteriously into an unbreakable and longstanding tradition. So here’s to next year’s outstanding gastronomic and vinous extravaganza!