Some wine occasions really stand out. Obviously you need top quality wines or, at least, wines of exceptional interest. Hopefully, there is really good food to go with it. And you certainly want congenial, knowledgeable and appreciative company. Saturday night’s dinner more than met all these criteria. People had clearly searched their cellars for precious and often old bottles. I spent an hour or so trying to track down some 1996 Barbaresco and, as I haven’t seen it for a while, a much younger but potentially outstanding Taurasi – and didn’t find either. The trouble with space-saving refrigerated wine stores is that the wine gets stacked up to seven bottles deep and there are only a certain number of shelves that I am prepared to empty completely to find that elusive bottle – given that you are usually going to find something else which fits the bill on the way. So the aforementioned Italians are probably on another shelf, hiding under red Burgundy! They survive for another day. But back to the point – this dinner was a special occasion for the BBC (the ‘bring a bottle club’ of course) and it was a splendid event – a line up of consistently top quality or fascinating wines, great food and certainly congenial, knowledgeable and appreciative company. We all bought one or more bottles and this was filled out by a very generous host. The result was a 24 bottle tasting, 21 wines and three spirits to be exact. The next morning they had to line up to have their photo taken – the bottles that is, certainly not the guests:
The eagle-eyed will pick out a few icons here – Cristal champagne, wasted on footballers, Dagueneau’s Silex, Soldera’s amazing Brunello and Ch. Mouton Rothschild – but here goes:
Whites, sparkling and otherwise
As Janet and I were a few minutes late, this led to the first of the evening’s additional bottles, not tasted blind: Pavillon Blanc du Ch. Margaux 2007. If you own one of the world’s most famous red wine names, you can also make a white wine and charge just about what you like for it. But how good is it? It’s good – 100% Sauvignon Blanc, fermented in oak, one-third of it new – but there are better Bordeaux whites at a lower price. The Winedoctor’s comment tasting en primeur was that there was ‘an inordinate amount of grip on the palate reflecting the use of oak’ but this has now settled down. Having lost its youthfulness, this probably now needs time to develop some more interest in the bottle.
Tasted blind we all agreed the fizz was Champagne and one of the group got the House of Roederer correct and so to the famous name of Crystal. Most of us won’t be drinking this on a regular basis, so it is good to learn that the bling, bling Champagne is genuinely excellent. Louis Roederer Crystal 2000: toasty, brioche, apple and melon fruit, hint of ginger and more. We will just have to wait until the name becomes passé – what is the attention span of your top footballer or rock star? – so that this can return to the realms of mere luxury. Said to be 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, it’s a great wine.
Over the first starter of Smoked Trout from the River Test, we enjoyed a pair of contrasting wines, both classics of their kind. The first was clearly Sauvignon Blanc and so, by way of contrast, was the second. First off was Te Koko Cloudy Bay 2000 – the version of the famous NZ Sauvignon Blanc fermented in barrels with indigenous yeasts. After 10 years the zippiness of NZ SB has toned down, the floral notes are replaced by the oak ageing but there is still real freshness, grassiness and nettles. Assertive still, it did not demand your instant (and short-lived?) attention. Alongside this, we tasted a precious last bottle of Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé Silex 1998. Again this has seriously calmed down with the passage of time but the stoniness is still present and a slightly unconnected subtle perfume and great length. In the glass, the guava and tropical fruit emerge. Let’s hope the great work will continue post-Didier.
The next course was accompanied by two strongly contrasting white wines, showing that though there are rules about wine and food matching, they are not simple. With a terrine – or should we say proto-terrine as it had been put together that afternoon as an emergency measure – we had one grand dry white and one fine sweet white. Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot, 1er Cru, Domaine de la Vougeraie 2000 is a something unusual, a great white in a basically red area of Cotes de Nuits. We can be grateful to the monks of Cîteaux for having identified this particular patch as being suitable for growing white grapes in the year 1110. 890 vintages later, the 2000, now ten years old is an attractive yellow moving in the direction of amber, which smells of old apples, butter and oak, then move fruit in the melon to grapefruit range.
By contrast, if from the same year, Trimbach’s Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive (VT, ie late harvest) 2000 is sweet and luscious and also went well with the terrine despite being a relatively lean dish. There is a great contrast between the meat and the exotic fruit and the fullness and waxiness of the Gewurz. Tasted blind, there was an interesting long debate as to whether this was Riesling, Pinot Blanc or Gewurz – after ten years the easy clues have gone to be replaced by subtler signals. But you can almost see the richness of the texture in the picture below.
The final white is this series was also from Alsace, Roger Jung et Fils, Tokay Pinot Gris Schoenenbourg Grand Cru VT 1996. This again had developed remarkable complexity. While older it is fresher than the Gewurz and had an almost pink tinge to its colour. From an exceptional vintage, it was a treat to taste.
Red, grand and glorious
As a sort of intermezzo – while some were struggling with carrots that wouldn’t come to the boil and beef that needed slicing – we tasted Volnay 1er Cru Clos des Angles 2001 (Ch. Rossignol Jenniard) which had been picked up at auction at £4 a bottle! (In an exclamation-free zone, that should have perhaps been two exclamation marks.) It had obviously been in the cold store but you could taste good sharp cherry fruit and savouriness.
Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru 2000, Armand Rousseau was another real treat – being given the utmost respect as you can see the picture. Either that or it’s time for the caption competition. But seriously, this is a wine of remarkable depth, a combination of lovely pure Pinot fruit and intense farmyardy scents, that extraordinary combination that is typical of excellent, aged, red Burgundy. The Charmes vineyard is literally a stones throw from Latricières-Chambertin (eight bottles and three decades later – it was a gloriously long evening) which is coming up shortly, Both are adjacent to the top Chambertin vineyard itself, Charmes down the slope, Latricières on the same level.
Intermission: quite interesting fact of no practical value: the name ‘Charmes’ – which must have sold millions of bottles – is said to come from ‘chaume’, a vineyard which has been abandoned and then replanted (so Clive Coates, The Wines of Burgundy, revd. ed., p.87). Well, I suppose it tells you that it was never the very best vineyard – that is next door.
The next two reds gave a chance to compare two wines from the same area, Montalcino, southern Tuscany. First up was Soldera’s famous Brunello, Case Basse, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2001. Gianfranco Soldera is famous for the lengths he has gone to create wines of great purity and quality – the same commitment which his wife shows to the 1000s of roses they have also planted. The result is remarkable, producing a wine with the sweet and rounded if now well-aged, fruit. For those of us tasting this blind, it threw most of us off spotting the usually edgy, tannic style of Sangiovese in purezza. The only clue was a certain drying finish which I guess is those tannins but so well tamed. In a different way, the second Brunello also was a surprise, people thinking that it was a younger, more modern style. In fact, it was Argiano, Brunello di Montalcino 1997, four years older and now in its second decade. This was more typical of the style – slightly balsamic notes from large barrels, leaner, tannins still evident, also very good but not as rich. There was quite a debate over which wine was more tannic – or should that have been: which wines covered the tannins better?
The next wine was one of the (many) stars of the evening: Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle 1985. A superb combination of still rich fruit (still young for a 25 year old bottle), pleasantly composting leaves and minerality. What really stood out was the soft, superb texture and the wonderful fruit. With the same group two years ago we had had the privilege of trying the much younger tasting 1990, full of dense black fruit. By contrast the 1985, while still very lively is a fully mature bottle, showing interesting signs of long ageing.
From the Rhône to Bordeaux with a small detour via Chile. Bordeaux number 1 was Ch. Cos d’Estournel 1999 – the only wine in this line up which I had tasted the wine and vintage before. This didn’t immediately shine like its confrere; in fact, there were a few puzzled faces and a question about whether it was corked or not: slightly whiff of cardboard. But in a few minutes that cleared up and turned into an entirely acceptable herbaceous note, alongside good fruit on the palate, herbs, real complexity and drying tannins. Bordeaux number 2 turned out to be first growth Ch. Mouton Rothschild 2001 – but of course we didn’t know what was in this particular decanter.
As befits a very grand wine and a fine label, this was outstanding: a big nose of cloves and black and red fruit, dense in texture, fresh with loads of potential to unwind, fine tannins, very long. It had a perfect parabola of development (that’s what the squiggle in my tasting note means): it starts well in the mouth, then there is a great wave of flavour and a gradual and long diminution. The 2001 label is by Robert Wilson (American, b. 1941; ‘warmed up Warhol’ carps Martin Filler on the www.departures.com website) What Phillipine Rothschild thought of her portrait is not known.
The Chilean detour was also comment-worthy: Concha Y Toro’s Carmin de Peumo 2005, basically Carmenère with some Cabernet and Merlot. Carmenère is one of those grapes which was a minor component of the Bordeaux blend but has gone on to greater things in the perfect and warm climate of Chile and other New World sites. This was had big aromas of vanilla and blackberries and ripe plums, coffee and cocoa notes, rich and very good.
However, if you thought the Carmenère was a big wine it was dwarfed by Bond (Harlan), Pluribus, Napa Valley 2004. This Cabernet Sauvignon gave off waves oak, black fruit, eucalyptus, moka and, unsurprisingly, alcohol. It’s an experience, rather than a drink.
And finally, in the red corner, Latricières-Chambertin 1971, a fine old Burgundy and a slice of English social history – bottled for the Army & Navy Stores. This nearly 40-year old was predominantly mushroomy and forest floor on the nose, but then still good pale red fruit, the acidity turning a bit sour, good tannins. The label is showing rather more wear and tear than the wine. Pinot Noir, for all its apparent frailty, is a survivor – or rather, continues to develop for decades.
Sweet wines, spirits and a curiosity
Sweet wines, massively underrated generally, come in all shapes and sizes. A rare treat was Ch. Pajzos Esszencia 1993. Essencia is not part of the standard puttonyos count for Hungarian Tokaji, where the sweetest and most prized are the 6 putts. Even further up the scale is Essencia, fermented from the juice which runs off from the aszú berries (botrytized grapes) themselves, rather than the normal Tokaji process of adding this sweetener to other wines. It is so full of sugar (around 700g/l) it barely ferments – this bottle was just 3.5°. The resulting liquid is amber in colour (partly from age), and tastes of caramel, raisins and above all is just lusciously sweet.
There were then two Eiswein, a category which holds a general fascination because of the technique of allowing the grapes to freeze and picking them at -7°, removing the resulting ice in the pressed juice and fermenting the concentrate to produce pure, fruity, sweet wines. Weingut Weedenbornhof Scheurebe, Eiswein 1996 was sweet, had a pink tinge and a good level of acidity. Scheurebe, a relative of Sylvaner, is well suited to Eiswein production: it has ‘the productivity of Silvaner, is resistant to frost and cold, and when fully ripe can produce lovely wines with a balance of fruit, sugars and acidity. Scheurebe can improve for many years in bottle and takes well to Noble Rot.’ (WineGeeks) These wines are good but I find them less interesting, less complex, than those produced either by noble rot or by air drying. By contrast, sparkling Eiswein is just strange. I will admit that before this evening, I didn’t know it even existed – and I am not sure it’s a style that needs to exist. But here it is, Inniskillin, Canada 2001, sparkling Eiswein, from the company that got the Canadian authorities to give their tank-produced super-sweet sparker a quality designation. Oatmeally nose, refreshing acidity, rather bizarre bubbles.
Finally (or nearly), three spirits of which I tasted two. One was provided for ‘guess the age and guess the bottling date’ (the latter being important as cognac doesn’t develop once it is in the bottle. This turned out to be a Berry’s bottled and stored cognac, made in 1962 and bottled in 1976. However, it’s a baby compared to a 1904 Bas Armagnac. I can’t really do words for spirits but they were rich, complex and probably very rewarding – especially if one hadn’t had 20+ fabulous wines to taste first.
We did taste one more red, just because wine people don’t really want to stop with spirits and there is always one more to try. Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 1989, from the Barossa Valley, now in ripe old age, was a good finale – tertiary aromas of composting leaves over red fruit, savoury, very good. And that really was it. I survived by writing studious notes and spitting conscientiously. And it really was an outstanding evening – I have never tasted this range of fabulous wines in one line up before, so a huge thank you to all who contributed to this fine wine extravaganza.