Friday, August 17, 2007

BNO Merlot: How the Moueix was Won

“I’m a superstitious man”, declared Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Funny how I can relate to this after our latest BNO (boys’ night out). The BNO theme this time was “Merlots of the World”, which was decided about the end of June. A week later we celebrated Steve’s birthday and he treated us to another bottle of the superb 1991 Dominus. Back in BNO California Cabernet Sauvignon I thought this was the best wine of the night, so I was elated to be enjoying it again especially because this particular bottle was drinking even better.

Dominus, of course, is based in Napa and is owned and run by Christian Moueix of Pomerol in Bordeaux. Known as “Mr. Merlot”, Moueix heads up his family’s negociant company that has long represented the most revered estates of Pomerol—Trotanoy, Lafleur, Lafleur-Pétrus, and Pétrus—where Merlot is the predominant grape.

On the night of the BNO, though "Merlots of the world" was the supposed theme, nearly all the wines we opened turned out to be Pomerol, and save for one, all the Pomerol were from the Moueix stable. So to backtrack, the Moueix connection to this affair was unplanned and a bit uncanny given all the related events that occurred in the buildup to this BNO. First there was the Merlot theme, then the 1991 Dominus encore, and finally the Moueix Pomerols we ended up drinking. As if this Moueix preoccupation wasn’t enough, just a few weeks before the BNO, Steve happened to lunch at Redds in Napa where he accidentally bumped into, guess who? Christian Moueix. Drinking, guess what? Yes, 1991 Dominus. How these things happen, it’s hard to explain, but somehow we were channeling Mr. Merlot himself, Christian Moueix, during the whole month of July!

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Lenny prepared a most amazing food pairing for the wines. The mushroom polenta tart—a medley of cremini, Portobello, and shitake on a crust of polenta—was a revelation, as it brought out the lovely earthy quality of Merlot. Take a bite of this before blindtasting side-by-side a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon and you will nail the Merlot.

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But the dish that really summoned Merlot’s savory, meaty character and accented its fruitiness was the duck in cherry sauce. In fact, it summoned apparently something more primal in Kevin and Gary, the way both of them fiercely demolished that dish. Lenny, who was still jetlagged from a long overseas trip, exhibited unreal discernment in selecting this genius pairing, and the execution was perfection. Bravo, Lenny!

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The designated “glasscoater” was a 1976 Pomerol, Château Lafleur. Lafleur is a tiny estate even by Pomerol standards and is unique because of the high percentage of Cabernet Franc (50%) planted courtesy of a gravelly patch. This much Cabernet Franc gives the wine a perfumy bouquet which is evident in this bottle. Sweet plums, cedar, and minerals show nicely in the nose. We’re fortunate to have this fresh, well-aged bottle. The wine still packs energy, with a potent attack that veers on harsh and hot, but thankfully blunted by its fleshy sweetness. Steve aptly described the flavor as “roasted meat”. 2 ½ puffs was the group’s score.

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Pretty Trotanoys in a row

A mini-vertical of Château Trotanoy followed interrupted by other goodies. The 1971 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy exuded all sorts of leafy aromas—raked leaves, tea leaves, tobacco leaves. Matt swore he was in Havana inside Castro’s palace “standing 20 feet away from his humidor”. There were also scents of asphalt, rubber, and dried berries. On the palate it’s sexier and nothing short of stunning. Splendid lush, velvety deep black cherry flavors with a delicious sweet raisiny note. I like the edginess of this wine, and with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s screeching guitar riffs in “Reelin’ in the Years” piping in the background, we all rocked together with it. 3 ½ puffs.

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Well, we were certainly reeling in the years with the Trotanoys. Next up was the 1978 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy, which lacked the concentration of the previous wine and is a bit too herbal. Definitely past its prime, yet it still has sumptuous red fruits to offer. Helped by Lenny’s magical duck in cherry sauce this proved to be soulful. 2 ¾ puffs.

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As a variation from what has turned out to be another Bordeaux affair, I suggested we break out the lone California Merlot, the 1990 Napa Merlot “Three Palms Vineyard”, Duckhorn Vineyard. Certainly the odd wine in this crowd of heavyweight Pomerols, I may have been the only one impressed by this Duckhorn’s good fruit concentration and richness of tannins. A solid Napa Merlot, without any hint of flaws after nearly two decades of aging—only bright, juicy, spicy cassis flavors. After a bit of lobbying on my part, the group finally got charitable, initially rating it 2 ½ puffs but finally knocking it down to 2 puffs.

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Another Pomerol break was the 1989 St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Château Grand-Mayne (now a Grand Cru Classé). Michel Rolland was the lead winemaker for this vintage. A blend of mostly Merlot (about 75%) and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, this offered tarry, chocolatey aromas. “A Willy Wonka/Scharffenberger chocolate factory” described Matt. The group found it merely a “pleasant wine to quaff”, but I thought it had very good youthful concentration and layers of complexity. What it lacked was finesse. We shall see in another five years or so. 3 puffs.

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We resumed our Pomerol adventure in a huge way with what I thought was the wine of the evening, the 1982 Pomerol, Château La Conseillante. This is an opulent and seamless wine that’s perfectly integrated, with a texture like a mouthful of cashmere gliding on the palate. Beautiful refined flavors of blackberries, taro root, infused tea, chocolate, and espresso with a touch of cumin and cinnamon. As the lushness fades towards the end it offers a lovely austerity in the earthy, gravelly finish. One of the great 1982s that is still drinking prime. 4 puffs.

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In contrast, the 1995 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy was packed with aggressive concentration. Coiled, rough, powerful, and roaring wildly off the gates. This has tremendous energy, very extracted, but muddled and in need of being focused. Perhaps, more aging would tame this beast. 3 puffs.

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Initially some of us thought the 1985 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy could be a 1971 in the making. But we were wrong. For me, this was the least successful wine of the evening. I’m sure it has seen better days. I waited for something to happen in the glass, but the wine took a downward spiral. The fruit lacked freshness and was pretty much flat, while the earthiness got too pronounced. No one made a noteworthy comment and I hardly scribbled any notes. How this received a group score of 3 puffs I don't know why.

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That was it, the last Merlot of the evening. We were about to head out to the garden to enjoy the Sauternes but Kevin quietly slipped back to the kitchen then came back with a bottle that he casually placed on the dinner table. It was a pristine-looking 1980 Pomerol, Pétrus. We stared at it with delight and total disbelief. No one saw this coming. Kevin’s gesture was immeasurable—the surprise was to honor the two recent birthday boys, Matt and Steve. We were all blown away.

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In short, the Pétrus lived up to its hallowed name. 1980 was not a great, hyped-up vintage; yet later, it proved to be a good classic year, like a 2001 or 2004, for medium-term drinking. But always the mark of a great wine is to overachieve and, boy, this Pétrus at nearly 30-years-old is drinking prime. Soft and silky in the mouth like chocolate and cream, with an earthy, gravelly nose that opened up to cherries. The flavors tasted fresh, with a graceful energy that wasn’t forceful; it was so easy and pleasurable to drink. We all felt fortunate to have this Pétrus experience.

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Finally, in the cool comfort of the garden under the stars we enjoyed a refreshing glass of Cordier’s 1983 Sauternes, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Though from one of the greatest, richest vintages in Sauternes, this Lafaurie-Peyraguey exude sheer elegance—flowery, medium-bodied, vibrant, and very pure—atypical of the vintage for its medium botrytis, delicacy, and great acidity. What a tease, as this makes you come back for more.


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