Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Birthday bash

When do you drink those special bottles?

Once you have built up a bit of a wine collection, the issue becomes when do you drink those special bottles?  You may only have one of each. Or a bottle you have stored may have become become ridiculously expensive in the meantime. Or a bottle represents a treasured memory to a winery and is irreplaceable. But the point is – always should be – to drink bottles when they will give pleasure. And often it is great to drink them with others who will appreciate them. So one answer is to have a birthday bash and choose whatever you want to taste or to drink and shared it with a group of fellow enthusiasts. 

If you have a sizeable collection of wines to choose from this process is really helped by a database of some sort.  The market leader is the excellent Cellar Tracker (free app, contribution requested) which takes so much of the work out of recording what you have. If you are adding a new vintage of Salicutti’s Brunello di Montalcino to your collection, just type in the first few letters of each word … ‘Sali Bru Mon’ … and up will pop the wine. All you then do is choose the right vintage and click on ‘enter’. Once you have entered your wines,  you can then search your entire collection by vintage, by appellation, by producer, by variety and much more.  

Three flights by vintage

With my trusty laptop to hand, I began to search for wines on a theme for the birthday bash. If I search for ‘white wines’ and then order them by vintage I can see in a flash that I have two top-quality Chardonnays and a wine made as though it were a Chardonnay all from the same vintage. From the reds, I was able to find wines in a similar style which share a vintage. Having some common feature makes tasting – and especially blind tasting – so much more rewarding. Without this, there can be just too many variables and it easy to get lost. With it you discover fascinating variations of style and expression which you would not easily detect when you taste single wines on their own.

Having done the research, I hit on three flights of wines:

  • three Chardonnays or lookalikes from 2006 from three different countries
  • two lighter reds from 2002 from different countries
  • three medium-plus weight reds from 1998 from three different countries, one kindly donated by a fellow taster. 

Top and tail with Champagne and vintage Port (on the latter see below) and you have a vinous feast for royalty and one which teases the mind as well as the palate.  

Three oak-fermented whites

At 11 years old, the wines in flight 1 were markedly different colours. Wine 1 had a golden tint with a hint of amber, wine 2 was a good ringer for an orange wine, while wine 3 looked youthful if golden. My experienced fellow tasters stated, correctly, that wine 3 was a top quality Chardonnay straightaway. Interestingly no one thought it was Burgundy, which perhaps shows how ripe white Burgundy can be even in an average year like 2006. Wine 2 was difficult to assess through all the oxidation and wine 1 was something of a curiosity.  

Trebbiano, Villa di Capezzana, IGT Toscana, 2006, being perhaps the only example of oak-fermented and aged Trebbiano in Tuscany. Resin and nutty aromatics, savoury citrus fruit, zippy acidity (Trebbiano characteristic), well-integrated clove oak and cream from battonage. A great match for creamy courgette soup. Only perhaps let down by medium length. Congratulations to Capezzana for taking Trebbiano this seriously.  

Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell, Elgin, South Africa 2006. We all think premature oxidation is a Burgundian thing but it crops up elsewhere if corks are not perfect or for other reasons. Sadly this was a bad case. But below the mushroom and fusty notes, there were floral, tarte tatin and seville marmalade themes. Excellent acidity to offset the richness, this could have been spectacular. 

Puligny-Montrachet, 1er cru La Truffière, Domaine Bruno Colin 2006 – was indeed spectacular with no hint of premox. A nose and palate that combines elements of peach, lemon, a hint of dried fruit, butter and a yeasty creaminess with fresh and lively acidity. White wine of the evening.  

Two lighter reds – a tale of contrasts

Nuits-Saint-Georges, 1er cru Les Roncières, Robert Chevillon, 2002 – kept the flag flying high for Burgundy. A tawny edge just beginning to appear in this 15-year old and a beguiling combination of perfumed raspberry and redcurrant fruit with savoury, forest-floor notes. A satiny beginning in terms of mouth feel gave way to surprisingly firm  tannins. But the wine has length, complexity and made a handsome partner for duck in an orange and lavender sauce. Perhaps red wine of the evening … it depends what you want: see wine 3 in the final flight.

Magma, Vino da tavola, Frank Cornellisen, 2002 – a cult natural wine, with price to match, from one of the pioneers and wild men of Etna. On the back label Cornellisen tells us proudly that this wine was made solely with Nerello Mascalese grapes with no other additions. This means no selected yeasts, no added tannins, no fining agent and critically no added sulphur dioxide. The last named is added in tiny doses to almost all the world’s wines and has a powerful anti-oxidative effect, keeping red wine red and smelling of its fruit. For this evening tasting I had opened and tasted all the wines an hour beforehand and, if I had had time, I would have decanted them too. But I knew that was a dangerous tactic with Magma – it might erupt, or at least implode. And how right I was. In the picture below you can see the two pale reds having just been poured. The wine on the right is Magma, an amber-tinted ruby and a bit cloudy. The picture of the single wine is Magma after 20 minutes: done, murky brown. It needs to get some credit for lasting for 15 years in the bottle and on first sip showed iron filings, smoky sour cherry fruit and a medicinal touch, lots of funkiness (acceptable within the style though many won’t like it) and grippy on the finish. 

Flight 3: Fuller bodied reds

Les Forts de Latour, Pauillac AC, 1998. Easily the most expensive wine of the evening, being the second wine of first growth Ch. Latour. Or rather I should say a wine that has become very expensive in the intervening years since I bought it. But this was only very good, not outstanding: austere, herbal and tertiary nose, very classic; then developed cassis fruit and rather uncouth tannins. Sleek and suave until you get to that finale. Not a great year, and it showed it, even from this elevated company. My recall was that the group thought this was left bank Bordeaux and it was indeed. Saint-Éstephe preferred to Pauillac for the rather rustic character. 

Salicutti, Brunello di Montalcino, 1998 – much as I love this tiny estate this was not one of the great bottles: full on farmyardy nose, a touch acetic, very ripe fruit, finishing with grippy tannins but just lacked freshness. As a group we eventually got to Sangiovese.  

Reva, Syrah, Alban Vineyard, Santa Edna Valley, 1998 – clearly new world in character with, after 19 years let’s not forget, lots of blueberry and blackberry fruit, something a bit vegetal from ageing and balsamic notes. Absolutely lovely to taste … but we all agreed not so rewarding to drink, especially with food where the grip and the savouriness of European style wines has something special to offer. 

Pièce de resistance: Fonseca 1963

The evening finished with three sweet wine. Undoubtedly the star of this flight was Fonseca vintage Port 1963 from what is deemed to be great year. Broad garnet rim, alcoholic lift on the nose appropriate to a wine that is 20% abv, then kirsch and blackberry to raspberry fruit with a great seamless, rich  mouthfeel – this was a massively tannic wine 54 years ago! This was a superb climax to a great evening. 

We also enjoyed the pale gold, not overly sweet, but honeycomb with a touch of cooked citrus of Bouvet-Ladubay, Coteaux du Layon, 2006, 12.5% and the dried apricot, honey and white blossom of SolAlto, Maremma Toscana IGT, Fattoria Le Pupille, 2007, being a delicious blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer, somewhat improbably originating from southern Tuscany. 

It might just be worth it getting older if one is going to have birthdays like this! Drink some of your treasures with friends on special occasions – that is what they are for.



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