Saturday, January 31, 2009

Let's Kill All the Négociants

Hervé Laviale proudly resting his foot on a case of 2005 Cos magnum

I had an interesting meeting with Mr. Hervé Laviale when he stopped by the store last week. Mr. Laviale is the proprietor of at least four right bank Bordeaux estates: Château Franc-Mayne in St.-Emilion, Château de Lussac in Lussac-St.-Emilion, Château St. Jean de Lavaud in Lalande de Pomerol, and Château Vieux Maillet in Pomerol.

Well-dressed, animated, gregarious, humourous, proud, but not pompous, and a unpretentious gentleman, I enjoyed tasting some of the wines he brought and exchanging honest notes on each one with him.

What drew my attention the most was his frank comments on some of the problems I raised on Bordeaux, specifically the high prices and the commodity-like marketing. He agreed, and blamed it squarely on négociants.

In Bordeaux négociants are the middlemen who directly buy the wines from all important chateaux for reselling to wine merchants all over the world. In their role they control the sale, distribution, and pricing of the wines of Bordeaux. This channel has existed for centuries. Only the very minor chateaux work outside the négociant system in Bordeaux. In the case of Mr. Laviale, his St. Jean de Lavaud and Vieux Maillet don't go through négociants; instead, he sells them direct to his US importer, Neal Rosenthal.

maillet.JPGI agree with Mr. Laviale that négociants are bent on preserving their power and control. The négociant system is an anachronism and its demise would free up the chateaux and the marketplace to trade the wines more freely and efficiently. Consumers would benefit by paying a lot less for Bordeaux.

We tasted three wines during the meeting. First was the 2006 Lalande de Pomerol, Château de Lavaud. A tiny estate, just 1.1 hectares with a production of 6,000 bottles. This is a charming wine, with a nice fruit core and a firm grip on the palate. The finish is surprisingly good for a delicate wine.

Next was the 2006 Pomerol, Château Vieux Maillet. The name is very interesting as maillet means mallet. This is from a 8-hectare estate situated near L'Evangile and La Conseillante. The wine is quite masculine, with good dry extracts; elegant on the palate, but not severe, as it had a delicious fruit core. It is a delicate wine, not powerful, but not soft either. It is firm on the palate and conveys a muscular structure.

Me.JPGFinally the 2004 Pomerol, Château Vieux Maillet. Very much a contrast to the 2006 as this is more seductive and charming; the fruit is juicy, ripe, and tender on the midpalate. In the finish, it recalls the muscular firmness of the 2006.

Château Vieux Maillet
16 Chemin de Maillet
33500 Pomerol, Gironde
Tél : +33 (0)5 57 74 56 80
Fax : +33 (0)5 57 74 56 59

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

BNO Year-End III

Green Hills CC.JPG

One of the best surprises of the past year for me was the splendid setting for our BNO Year-end III last month, which was the Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae, CA.

BNO Year-End I was in 2006 at the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Las Vegas, well before all the foreclosures, while BNO Year-End II was held last year at 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo.

The newly renovated clubhouse that recalls understated California mission-style architecture costs a cool $20 million, a lavish sum for a small, private country club whose main amenity is the historic Alister Mackenzie golf course built in the 1930s. Large windows with sweeping views of the scenic fairway frame its banquet hall and bar lounge. We inaugurated the clubhouse with our magnificent dinner specially prepared by the new chef, Wolfgang Weber.

I love the rustic presentation of the prawn risotto

Rack of lamb? This was more like lamb chops! So meaty and juicy

The menu for the evening was as expansive as the fairway, especially the appetizer portion, which I totally missed, as I worked long hours during the holidays. But the real travesty was I missed the Champagne toast of the 1990 Krug! You see, Krug is my favorite Champagne. I only heard rumors later that it was almost perfection. Kevin declared it 4.5/5 and says “Krug 90-deep, rich smoky-developed colour-lots of backbone and acidity-terrific champ but one almost expects more given the tribute one pays for this over the multi vintage which I usually prefer when blessed with opportunity to taste side by side--lacking that creaminess one gets and wants from an older champ of breed-still great champ”.

1990Krug.JPGAs a side note, I propose that all BNO Champagnes should be in magnums, henceforth, so there would be plenty left. Events like this should inspire any wine lover to start collecting magnums now. Don’t let your cellar be magnum-less!

Fortunately, I arrived in time for the extraordinary, velvety-textured foamed potato soup topped with leeks and infused with white truffle oil. Wow, what a great way to start the meal! Soups are so underrated!

While slurping the soup, I got busy catching up on the reds. But wait, where was the 1999 Bouchard Montrachet?! Ah, again I just have to savor Kevin's notes: "99 bouchard montrachet Touch of lanolin fat, oaky, good and on the fringe of harmony-very austere and lean-difficult to judge showing so little not sure where this is going (***)*?"


So in front of me poured and ready were the oldest reds of the night—why we were pouring the oldest wines first, especially in front of young, blockbuster New World reds to follow, I don't know why. But, hey, I have the 1967 Napa Cask Cabernet Sauvignon Inglenook in one glass and in another the 1958 California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve Louis Martini, which is regarded by people in the know as one of the best California Cabernets ever conceived, so who am I to whine?


The Inglenook showed a bright ruby glint, with a funkless nose of dried leaves and licorice. It had grip and was juicy, with elegant earthy, red currant flavors that were delicate yet intense. So mature and fresh, it was a pleasure to drink. I give it a B+. Kevin thought: "67 -Inglenook cask cab Low neck high fill Surprisngly dark firm-could have been 20 year old not 40-lots of nice cab cassis low oak flavors-held up well in the glass-last minute sub-Steve said he was bringing the 58 martini and remembered I had the 60 inglenook and thought would be fun-couldnt find it at the last minute but saw this nice fill and threw in-much better than I expected-and kept up for a long time in the glass ***+ 1/2*" (Hey, Kevin, I think we killed that 60 Inglenook in a previous dinner, unless you're hoarding another bottle!)

1958Martini.JPGGetting on to the 1958 Louis Martini I felt a bit apprehensive. It is from my birth year and it came from the most impeccable cellar I know. Steve and I have planned on opening this bottle numerous times but always didn't follow through—there never seemed to be the right occasion to open it. So the bottle has taken on a hallowed image in my mind; that it’s finally uncorked and its last pour in the glass in my hand felt like a dream. Velvety and effortless, filling the mouth with sumptuous flavors of cherries, sweet cassis, coffee, spice, dried leaves, and rust. Concentrated, fleshy, and still so youthful. "Where can you buy a case of this?" said Matt. A- for me. For Kevin, "58 Martini cab Understated lovely fruit fragrant Idiosyncratic martini from pre 70 meaning for me silky sweet on nose very mature colour starting to fade a bit of course fading ever so gracefully like all great well made reds into something oh so yummy ****"

With the 1982 Lafite-Rothschild the full glory of a great Bordeaux was upon us. Dark ruby color with an intense bouquet of currants, rose petals, cedar, and rare steak. Spectacular depth. Dark concentrated flavors of crème de cassis and chocolates plus layers of spice. Focused and long. Though fat, especially for a Lafite, it is not excessive; everything just seems to be in the right proportion and heading relentlessly in the same direction. Maximum A. For Kevin, "82 lafitte Deep still young fruit tea cedar Very intense- a lot of wine in a tight package-goes on and on Fleshy for Lafitte balance there Full spectrum complexity Seamless *****"


An interesting follow-up to the Lafite was another Pauillac, the 1964 Pichon-Lalande. Out of character, yet surprisingly very pleasurable. One expects Pichon-Lalande to be demure, but this is an aggressive, forceful wine. Heady earthy, licorice flavors permeate the palate. The color is still deep crimson. The wine softens and integrates with airing, with the fruit turning more sweetly seductive. But the rawness remained and the powerful finish felt coarse. I enjoyed this wild, energetic side of Pichon-Lalande, so B+ for me. Kevin’s notes: “64 pichon lalande longeville Soft mature cedar fragrant lovely Bordeaux Strain the imagination to get more notes *** 1/2 to ****”


These four reds dominated the evening for me and so my attention span for the other reds that followed was short. The switch to the powerful, dense, overripe, and very oaky 1998 Penfolds Grange was jarring. Kevin’s view: “98 grange hermitage Plummy very oaky-could have been a cab franc with a lot of oak-tasty still but not going to far and not in same class as other vintages I didn't get good notes on this (***)”

More enjoyable for me was the 1982 Penfolds Grange with its powerful, elegant fruit, suffused with red berries, cherry liqueur, herbs, and oak. B+ and I seem to be in accord with Kevin: “82 Grange Hermitage Sweet bouquet almost too sweet, figgy Then it settled down-nice weight texture acidity, toasty at the end Not exciting but a great drink-drink pretty soon ****”

1998Harlan[1].JPGSadly, I couldn't get past the super-concentrated, strangely medicinal, oaky flavors of the 1998 Harlan Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Kevin says: “98 Harlan First hour hard to drink bc of stemmy too young fruit at first I confused with VA More of a vintage problem and selection at time of harvest issue me thinks Won't age bc of it But I enjoyed it 2 hour in for the spector of what this class of fruit could be like in a different vintage (No rating)”

I took a small sip of the 1997 Fisher Wedding Cuvée Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon and immediately liked it. It was soft, dense, and packed with ripe blackberries; simple, yet it has very good palate presence. While Parker is a touch more aggressive at 99/100, it was a satisfying B for me. Kevin seems to concur: “Lovely plump fruit delicious Don't expect complexity just enjoy the fruit *** 1/2*”

The after-dinner drinks started with a couple of surprise half-bottles that we had to guess. Both showed a deep gold color, with one darker than the other. I sniffed at the first one, which was the paler of the two, and its botrytis was evident. Its flavors hinted of poached pears and honey; sweet, medium-rich, and quite vibrant; the flavors lingering elegantly and fading very slowly. I was sure it was Sauternes. And so it turned out to be the 1985 Chateau d’Yquem. I’ve previously enjoyed this vintage several years ago at an Yquem vertical. It was a most unusual vintage because the harvest lasted over two months, the longest ever for Yquem, starting mid-October through late December, involving several passes until each berry was suitably shriveled. It was a beautifully subtle Yquem, so vivid and pure. At this time it was drinking perfectly. A-


The other wine, darker in color, displayed similar botrytised qualities with greater oxidation. It had wilder, funky scents of wet earth, rust, rotting leaves, and citrus peel. On the palate it was cleaner and tasted like a dollop of syrupy orange marmalade. I thought it was a much older wine than the first one, but it turned out to be a 1998 Saint-Croix-du-Mont, whose producer I forgot to write down. C.


Finally, with a selection of cheeses and pears poached in red wine, we lit up cigars and opened up the Ports. Actually, the 1963 Taylor Vintage Port was cracked during the dinner using Port tongs. Suitably decanted this showed well with its luscious, palate-coating, sweet fruit, yet it somewhat lacks the Taylor grip. Not great, especially for Taylor, but a gorgeous Port nevertheless. B+. For Kevin: "Rich lithesome great power-too damn young but lots of fun at the end of a dinner as a pick me upper-licorice and good weight and very intense Needs some time (-hard to read my notes at this point-starting to look like Ava's writing-at least I wasn't scrawling with a crayon but I would have... **** (1/2*))"

The other Port was the 1964 Quinta do Noval Colheita Port. This was bottled in 2006. Its color was light mahogany with a very bright, fresh tasting, candiedt fruit that's very intense and nutty. I enjoyed its fragrant bouquet of citrus peel, caramel, and dark chocolate. Not incredibly powerful, but powerful enough, which was good because it had brilliant finesse. Each sip between puffs of the Cuban Partagas Robusto was simply delicious. A-. "64 Colheita tawny-Wow! What a treat with desert-one of the best tawnies I have ever had Soft but hard hitting acid backbone-rare to get this level of complexity in a tawny- 40 year? When bottled? **** 1/2*"


So we ended the dinner very happy and satisfied, despite being a bit wet and cold as it was a dark and stormy night, the first storm of winter finally arrived.