Saturday, December 23, 2006

Boys' Night Out Las Vegas Rendezvous

It was impossible to pass up the opportunity to trek to Las Vegas for a BNO (boys’ night-out) last month. Stephen Marshall, executive chef of the Medici at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas, obliged to prepare a special dinner menu to match up with whatever wines we could muster. A consensus, more or less, evolved over the wine theme, and as soon as all the bottles were gathered up and styrofoamed for the airplane check-in, the Vegas affair was afoot

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A trio of Champagnes started the evening. Eric uncorked the surprise performer, an unpretentious and somewhat obscure non-vintage Champagne Brut Rosé de Saignée from Duval-Leroy. Duval-Leroy, a venerable estate in Vertus, is one of the few Champagne houses that produce pink Champagne using the traditional saignée method. It’s the long method of making pink wines—instead of simply mixing some red wine to white wine to produce a rosé, Duval-Leroy uses 100% Pinot Noir, macerating the skin with the first-pressed juice for about 24 to 48 hours to allow just enough time for the skin color to “bleed” and produce a wine with a lovely salmon pink hue. This Champagne put out its seductive charms with its baked fruit aromas and rich, mouthfilling flavors of dense fruitcake. Matt detected “almond and almond extract”. It was truly captivating Champagne! At least 3 puffs.

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The 1997 Champagne Brut Rosé “Cuvée Alexandra” Laurent-Perrier that followed was more reticent. A deep salmon pink color. On the nose, it smelled as yeasty as baking bread; and after a while in the glass it starts to taste more like Burgundy, deliciously nutty and minerally. It is built to last and with its firm, sturdy character, tastes like it can age another 10 years or more. This 1997 is just the fourth release of this special Champagne as it’s only made in special years. A blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay—all from grand cru vineyards—vinification starts with a short maceration period of the two grapes to extract the color. 3 ½ puffs was the consensus score after considerable deliberation and comparison with the Duval-Leroy.

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We drank the 1995 Comtes Blanc de Blancs Taittinger in style, while riding in the limo en route to the restaurant. Serious tasting was not easy as the Champagne sloshed in the glass most of the way. It was quite creamy and the flavors were again reminiscent of a big white Burgundy. Almost brutally dry, mouthfilling and very minerally. This bottle was just way too tight and young. It really needs several more years to mellow as it is quite a brute right now. 3 ½ puffs.

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As soon as we settled down around the spacious round chef’s table, the next flight commenced. It was an interesting pair of Corton-Charlemagne from the distant past: 1978 Joseph Drouhin and 1982 Bonneau du Martray.The Bonneau du Martray estate is of course the embodiment of Corton-Charlemagne itself. It’s the giant of the appellation, owning a whopping 9-plus hectares of vineyard, and it’s almost sole production is Corton-Charlemagne (an inconsequential amount of red Corton is also produced). It’s situated on the Pernand side where the character is more mineral and elegant and the wines more long-lived. The 1982 is mature, but still very fresh; tasting of honeyed fruits with hints of citrus/orange. What a brilliant bottle from a so-so Burgundy vintage! It is clearly one of Bonneau du Martray’s best. That after nearly a quarter of a century, this wine can be so fresh-tasting and elegant is proof of the superiority of the Bonneau du Martray terroir. Veteran and novice wine collectors, alike, who focus mainly on “vintages of the century” are missing out and overspending; oftentimes, great wines are produced in unheralded years. Group score is 3 puffs.

How lucky can we get to have not one, but two great Corton-Charlemagne experiences in one night! The 1978 Corton-Charlemagne from Joseph Drouhin was another stellar performer, but it was more reticent. From the get-go it was outclassed by the Bonneau du Martray. But an hour or so later, the Drouhin blossomed and blew us away! Looking back, maybe we should have decanted it. Some experts do recommend decanting aged grand cru white Burgundies, particularly Corton-Charlemagne. At any rate, the two Corton-Charlemagnes couldn’t be more different. Drouhin, a negociant, nevertheless has owned a parcel in Corton-Charlemagne for quite some time, so this is a domaine wine. 1978 was another average, at best, white Burgundy vintage, yet this is one of the great Corton-Charlemagnes from Drouhin. Ha! Ha! Another reason to throw away vintage charts. Tight for a while, but later fragrant with floral, toasted bread scents. This has penetrating depth, very long, vivid, and totally focused. The flavors are just amazingly persistent. Consider the fact that this Chardonnay has evolved for nearly thirty years! Group score is 3 ½ puffs.

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Well, on with the reds from this point on. What follows is the main theme of the evening: 1982 Bordeaux. To sort of “cleanse” both our glasses and palates a bottle of 1984 Pichon-Lalande (“glass-coater”, says Steve) was passed around. No one expected much from this lowly bottle, but it more than did its job. A touch earthy and mushroomy, with the familiar Pichon-Lalande floral-sweet cedar-plum scents coming through. Graceful and still weighty on the palate. I’m reminded of what Michael Broadbent wrote about one of his favorite Bordeaux: “certainly fully mature, an easy style of wine, the tannin so noticeable at a tasting bench would be unnoticeable with food; it would merely serve to refresh, leave the mouth clean and dry—an aid to the digestion. That is what good claret is for.”

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The first 4 puffer of the evening was the 1982 Pichon-Lalande. This beauty exuded floral, violets, and earthy scents. Very lush, sweet, and somewhat chocolatey. It felt fresh on the palate, with its good acid balance, and the tannins were rich and velvety smooth. Never forceful, but totally persistent in its long finish. It held steady in the glass throughout the evening. What a gloriously harmonious wine! Will it continue to improve? I think that’s a subjective notion. I very much like the way it is right now, mature yet youthfully fresh and energetic. There is no question in my mind that this is at its peak.

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A pristine-looking bottle of 1982 Palmer followed next. Let me say first that it is a highly attractive wine for its powerful fruit and robust character. But it remains a puzzler as it is rough-edged and its expression is muddled. There is a lack of the Palmer elegance and, instead, more cru bourgeois. Will it still blossom in later years? Nevertheless, good wine is still good wine, as it adequately accompanied a marvelous plate of medium-rare New York strip venison in a sauce infused with juniper oil extract. 3 puffs.

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The 1982 Cos d’Estournel had no hesitation; it opened up immediately as soon as it hit the glass. Mouthfilling, soft, and lush, with flavors of dark chocolate-coated blackberries. It’s almost like a fruit-bomb, soft-centered and lacking grip, yet its energy and liveliness are essentially what still make it so good. It, too, was great with the venison, proving that great producers like Palmer and Cos don’t have to come up with perfect wines to be enjoyable 24 years after the vintage. 3 puffs.

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More than any other vintage, 1982 pushed Léoville-Las-Cases to the front ranks of Bordeaux's quality hierarchy and made its name synonymous with the term, “super-second”. Perhaps its greatest success, the 1982 is still backward and evolving, yet the potential is clear. The nose has reached a point of lovely maturity, with its bouquet of tobacco and sweet herbs. On the palate it is already austere and elegant and still backed by excellent concentration of fruit that is very cassis. After an hour or so in the glass, its power is more evident in its firmness and muscular concentration. This is a serious wine, not a drink to trifle with; its character is dry and cerebral, not sensual. 4 puffs.

It’s interesting to observe that the 1982 Mouton-Rothschild is not so dissimilar to the 1982 Léoville-Las-Cases as both are still backward wines and probably another decade till peak. But the Mouton is definitely seductive, with its sweet and spicy cigar box nose; its velvety tannins; and its lush, concentrated flavors of cassis and ripe plums. The sweet flavors stay long on the mid-palate, and then turn austere and elegant on the lengthy finish, with notable freshness and good acid balance. In today’s tendency for low-acid, high alcohol wines, it’s notable that this powerful, long-lived Mouton has 11.5% alcohol! 4 puffs.

In the midst of all these Bordeaux, a 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia was passed around. To be honest, I failed to take notes on this one and my memory may not do enough justice to it. Suffice it to say that is was still drinking young and it was quite a change from the Bordeaux not just for its more voluminous fruit, but for its sharp minty flavors. A standout Cabernet Sauvignon I’m sure.

This whole dinner affair was undoubtedly exhilarating but quite fatiguing as well. At least four hours had passed from the time we started, and there was one more drink to go and, of course, cigars. We repaired to the outside patio to polish off the decanted 1963 Fonseca Port. The red mahogany-colored liquid was very sweet and velvety. Its fragrant nose recalled preserved plums, chocolate, and cedar. In the mouth it was powerful, aggressive, almost rough, but it caressed with its heady sweet raspberry, earthy, licorice flavors. Very long, sustained finish. An astonishing Port for its power and youth!

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