Friday, March 27, 2009

"Revisiting Old Friends": Drinking Great Bordeaux from an Extraordinary Cellar

“Tasting old wines: It is surprising how good old wines can be, but one has to make allowances. First, it is very important to taste an old wine with its age in mind. Second, bear in mind the quality of the vintage. Third, and most importantly, the provenance: how long and how well has the wine been cellared?” Michael Broadbent MW, Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wine

Anyone touched by the passion of wine would perhaps agree that in some ways it is like a spiritual journey. A search for truth, as wine can evoke feelings and thoughts that trigger something deep—like the "finger pointing to the moon", from a famous Zen koan. Or as Aubert de Villaine, co-proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, described drinking an old Burgundy as like meditation, where the fruit has all but left yet the spirit remains.

I count myself lucky to be friends with Ben and Mayon, who by some divine inspiration embarked on a great wine journey several decades ago. Ben and Mayon’s wine cellar is like a modern-day version of Glamis Castle. Back in the early 1960s when wine collecting in the US was as rare as a California condor sighting, they had the vision to build a large wine cellar equipped with heavy duty cooling to keep the temperature at constant 49 degrees F.

With the help of their friend and wine advisor, Michael Broadbent MW, Ben and Mayon filled up their cellar with wine treasures. Ben says “Michael Broadbent did work in my cellar several decades ago. The idea at that time was to drink or keep, as I had quite a few bottles from the late 1800's to the 1920's.”

Ben invited wine producers to his house to seek their advice and made friends with Henri de Villaine, father of Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, as well as Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces, whose family owned Châteu d’Yquem for centuries.

By the late 1970s Ben and Mayon had pretty much stopped collecting. Decades later their wines are almost frozen in time, aging at a glacial pace.

My observation is that when wines are kept to age at an extremely slow rate they age differently. A fifty-year-old Bordeaux or forty-year-old Burgundy shows almost no bricking in color; instead it is bright crimson and glistening like a fresh-caught fish. One also picks up very little if any rusty, metallic odor of oxidation. Vivid fruity scents dominate along with complex smells. But the greatest benefit and surprise of all is that even the toughest vintages mellow out and somehow find a way to integrate and finally blossom, long after many have given up on them.

Aging wine at 49 degrees is like slow-cooking; lean, gristly wines tenderize and yield deeply locked flavors. Of course not all wines mature from an ugly duckling to a swan; savvy collectors see the potential early on and select the possible winners.

Ben has a keen sense of connoisseurship, a trait lost in many would-be collectors today who collect by the hype. Ben’s wine collection is wide and deep, and filled with treasures. Once he poured a magnum of a long-forgotten 1983 Napa Brut sparkling wine made by Edmond Maudière, who was winemaker at that time for Moet et Chandon, including its prestige cuvée Dom Perignon, as well as consulting winemaker for Domaine Chandon. Late-disgorged, I believe in 1996, the unknown California sparkling wine drank gorgeously. You won’t find this sparkling wine anywhere else except Ben and Mayon’s cellar because they bought the remaining lot.

And once while down in their cellar—salivating at the old bottles, knowing how edible and fresh they still are—I nearly stepped on a bottle of 1952 RC and 1945 Vogüe Musigny both strewn on the floor! Later I found this an interesting juxtaposition, as the 1952 RC was the first vintage since the 1945 when the RC vines were torn up and replanted.

But I digress. What I really wanted to post here is a wine dinner Ben and Mayon organized for seven of us recently. Perhaps exasperated by all the ‘young’ wines we were forcing him drink from the 1980s, 1990s, and god forbid, the 2000s, Ben snapped. He decided to educate us on appreciating older vintages, in particular Bordeaux first growths Châteaux Margaux and Haut-Brion.

And to ensure we get a proper education on the wines and the food pairing he arranged, Ben invited his friend Fred Dame MS to come along. Fred is one of only seventy-three Americans to pass the Court of Master Sommelier Examination and the only one to pass all three parts of the exam in one year. He is now director of the Icon Estates group of Constellation Wines, the largest wine company in the world.

Ben arranged the dinner at Viognier Restaurant in San Mateo, CA. He worked with the chef, Preston Dishman—who arrived at Viognier last year from the highly acclaimed General’s Daughter in Sonoma—on the special four-course dinner to complement each of the flights.

To start things off I brought a magnum of Krug Grand Cuvée (signed by Caroline Krug). As they say, there’s Champagne and there’s Krug. This magnum was absolutely stunning—lemon oil, toast, minerals, and nuts—amazing how its flavors intensified, lengthened, and deepened as it opened up. Perhaps the best KGC I’ve ever opened. The dinner could have started and ended with this magnum of Champagne and it would have been a triumph.

For the Champagne aperitif the chef offered tasty bites of amuse-bouche consisting of scallop ceviché and crab cake ball with rémoulade sauce. Unexpected and very yummy.

The first course was a pairing I’ve never experienced or even thought of before. I’ve always loved beef bone marrow; it’s on par with foie gras and much cheaper. On the other hand good Madeira—that Tawny-like, nutty, high-acid wine—is one of the wine world’s most unusual and complex drinks, yet I seldom get to enjoy it. Ben is one of those rare well-rounded wine guys. He paired a 1950 Abudarham Madeira Sercial with bone marrow on toast. The Sercial smelled of toasted almonds with trailing scents of asphalt and rubber. Nutty and dry, yet with a caramel-like sensation, its smooth, powerful, complex flavors remained in the glass long after it was empty. Though I found the pairing intriguing Ben’s comment later was: On second thought, I should have gone with my initial choice of the 1940 Sercial. Fred commented to Mayon that he selected the 1950 because it was drier and the 1940 was sweeter. I disagree with Fred on that one. I thought the bone marrow needed a richer wine.”

I’ve heard Ben rave about Sauternes and radishes, a pairing that also never occurred to me but I found intriguing. Steve’s 2001 Château d’Yquem Sauternes was served with a plate of seared foie gras over slices of fresh radishes. Ben said laterthat he would’ve preferred the radishes cut larger and thicker. I suspect the chef wasn’t too familiar with this dish and just followed Ben’s thought. It didn’t matter to me anyway because the foie gras was cooked to perfection! The mildly pungent, peppery taste of the radish and above all its crunchiness made every bite of the foie gras intense. I devoured my plate in seconds. I wanted to enjoy that dish on its own without the help of the powerful Yquem which I sipped afterwards. It was so rich, thick, and concentrated and felt impenetrable—nothing could escape its decadent flavors. The finish was long, drowning in syrupy mandarin orange and candied apricots but with incredible freshness.

Later on, I thought the wine which was lost in the bevy of great wines we consumed this night was the 1983 Château Laville Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan. It was paired with pan-seared scallops, a dish that seemed too mild for this intense white Graves. I did love the alluring marzipan, apple peel, even bitter melon fragrance of the wine. High-toned, crisp, and minerally with lean dried apple flavors that stayed long on the palate. Thinking about this now, I think I would’ve enjoyed this wine with a fatty pork roast.

While we wre enjoying these beginning courses, the reds of the night were already being poured with some of us stealing sips before their flights came up. The seven old Bordeaux to follow—three Château Margaux and four Château Haut-Brion—were decanted by Ben at his house. I must tell you something about Ben on decanting. He insists on decanting old red wines eight to ten times to prepare them for drinking! I was horrified at even the thought. Wouldn’t these fragile old wines be destroyed by such violent treatment? Yet, I learned another valuable lesson from Ben this night.

The duck magret’s fatty, sweet taste was very enjoyable with Margaux’s seductive fruit. We started with the 1953 Château Margaux, a wine of stunning herbal complexity and rich cassis fruit; a bit meaty with some stewed fruits mixed in. Dark ruby colored. Smoke and dried leaves on the nose. Very good concentration. Showing an edgy and wild side of Margaux that’s beguiling. I can see why Bordeaux lovers are smitten by this vintage.

Kevin, clearly one of its fans: “53 Margaux--medium full colour, raspberry notes, delicate, very fragrant nose, on palate-silky,sweet, very ripe but complete Spectacular 19.5 (out of 20) or 5 star”

In contrast the 1961 Château Margaux was suave, regal, and flawless. If the ’53 was Marlon Brando this was Carey Grant. Powerful, well-mannered, oozing with class. Amazingly dark ruby/purple colored. Raw meat and dried leaves on the nose. Thick, velvety fruit with sexy dark berries and chocolatey flavors. Rich firm tannins. The flavors are sustained and effortless, coating the palate for a long time.

Ben had this to say: The 1961 Ch. Margaux had a soft cork and a high shoulder. Because the color was okay, I decided to go with it. Miraculously, in about 10 decantings, the wine ‘arose from the grave’ to where it was at dinner. As you can see, multiple and vigorous airing can do wonders. Try this technique on younger wines so that you can see what they would be like in 3 to 5 years.”

Kevin was nearly impressed: “61 Margaux--nose very pronounced meaty wild, not typical Margaux nose but that is what 61 margaux has sometimes been for me in the past, on the palate angular, and while outstanding, not at quite the pace of the 53, but still tremendous wine. 18.0”

The last wine of the flight was the 1967 Château Margaux, offering yet another view of this first growth that is as intriguing, which is why collecting different vintages including difficult vintages is so rewarding. The critics are so wrong on this vintage, at least as far as this particular Margaux (and the following Haut-Brion) is concerned. So fresh, red fruit-dominated: tart Bing cherries, cranberries, and red currants, all with a ripe core. Cigar-box spice nose. Refined and elegant, this is a poster wine for classic claret. Delicious with duck magret!

I find Haut-Brion a muscular, roasted expression of Bordeaux; hence the juicy rack of lamb was perfect for this flight. As in the 1953 Château Margaux, the 1953 Château Haut-Brion exuded powerful scents, this time of licorice tinged by menthol and camphor. Thicker and beefier than the Margaux, this ’53 powered on the palate with deep cassis flavors laced with black olives, and charred meat. Powerful and exotic, it is a very memorable wine.

Next up was the legendary 1961 Château Haut-Brion. Tasting a wine of this caliber among its peers is revealing. Immediately, the smoky, gravelly, and roasted fragrance of Haut-Brion. Brilliant concentration. Luscious, expansive mid-palate with reserves of fruit. Certainly powerful, yet graceful and pillowy. A very charming and refined Haut-Brion, but it doesn’t match the ’61 Margaux’s sustained finish.

On the other hand Kevin absolutely loved this: “61 Haut Brion--full rich, very concentrated on the nose, great intensity, kept getting better in the glass: cedar, chocolate, smoke,lots of concentration and depth,viscous sweet, just more and more, Beyonce times 3. it is a perfect wine. 20.0”

(Whaddya mean, “Beyonce times 3”? I don’t think we tasted from the same bottle!)

Also a favorite of critics is the 1964 Château Haut-Brion. There is a lot to like about it—deeply colored in dark ruby, complex camphor and gravel scents, and well-concentrated fruit. An enjoyable wine with the lamb. However, for Haut-Brion it is simple; it lacks depth and the finish is short.

The last wine of the flight, the 1967 Château Haut-Brion, surprised me the most. I know well that critics regard ’67 as a vintage way past its glory, if it even had one. Well yet again the second ’67 of the night impressed, and this Haut-Brion dazzled even more than the Margaux. In my mind this is what good claret ought to be. Elegant. Mineral. Expressive. Fresh. Vivid. Fragrant. It was beautifully balanced, and its finesse and length were truly first growth.

In his book Vintage Wine, even Michael Broadbent dissed the 1967 vintage. Ben commented later that he “distinctly remember him (Broadbent) commenting on 1967 Bordeaux.... ‘a useful year’. In the last 20 years, I have come to enjoy them very much.....better than useful, an enjoyable year in the 18/20 range.”

Kevin echoed similar thoughts: “67 Margaux in great shape, but it was as good as a 67 could expect to be. Margaux made not such great wines from 62-77 and 67 a challenging vintage to begin with.

But one of the stars and revelations of the night, what Alex would call an underachiever, was the 67 Haut Brion. Tobacco, sweet, soft and smooth, none of that short finish Metallica (exit light, enter night, take my hand, welcome never never land) notes one expects from a 67 at this point, just a wonderful wine and the surprise of the evening. This was a great achievement and a testament to Ben's great cellar conditions.”

To finish the meal, with the pear tart and ice cream dessert Ben served the 1975 Château d’Yquem Sauternes—you can’t get luckier than this. Over the past twenty years I’ve attended two vertical tastings of Yquem presided by Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces himself, but unfortunately the ’75 wasn’t included in any of those events. So at long last I finally got to taste this great wine, which has already aged well but clearly still adolescent. Very honeyed nose with scents of orange marmalade and citrus peel; totally intense and fragrant. In the mouth its texture was fluid and elegant, moving gracefully on the palate, rich with macerated orange, apricots, bitter rind, and spicy orange liqueur. Rich, high acid, vivid, and fresh; with unbelievable precision and purity as the botrytis was so well integrated. Its youthfulness belies its age, and in Ben’s cold cellar it’s not hard to imagine that it could just live on forever.

As a postscript Kevin brought a bottle of 1963 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port that he cracked with Port tongs. It’s a venerable Port but not my favorite Taylor. There is a bit of harshness and hotness to it that detract. However, one thing that still came through was its gorgeous spice and ripe, velvety tannins. Is it a case of still being too young?

Kevin could be right: “63 Taylor--it took 4 passes with the tongs, strong bottle, wish my 27 Taylor that broke (AAYY!!) had the same class/glass backbone!! Quite hot, the alcohol very prominent, Fred Dame thought just young—needs another 20 years or decant 4hr earlier) still at the end, showing tremendous grip and fruit starting to show past the tannic/alch structure.”

Ben said that had he known there would be Port at the end he would’ve ordered celery sticks stuffed with Stilton cheese. That’s Ben, always thinking of the next great pairing.

Thank you very much to Ben and Mayon for the great wines and for arranging a memorable dinner. And of course to Fred Dame MS for sharing his wine wisdom.