Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ben & Jerry

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Collecting wine requires many things--wine knowledge, of course; money, for sure; and enough storage space to make the collection interesting. But these assets wouldn't matter much if one isn't an optimist. Collecting wine is believing that wine will last and taste better with the passage of time, and, above all, that one would live long enough for this experience.

This point was recently demonstrated when two wild optimists I know, Ben and Jerry, organized a wine dinner for Jerry's friends at his home. From their wine cellars, they opened old wines, which I would fondly describe as in a state of optimistic decay.

Bold optimists as they are, what they did takes cojones. Why? Instead of focusing on highly acclaimed vintages, the wine theme was a tribute to the birth years of everyone present. Of course, not everyone's birth year coincided with a great vintage; in fact, about half the people present were born in challenging vintages. Ultimately for Ben and Jerry, optimism in their wines trumps vintage ratings.

During the run-up to the dinner, I noted to both Ben and Jerry the reputation of the vintages they picked out for the wines. I must admit, though I've had nothing but flawless results in the provenance of these wines, I feel uneasy when the vintage is pushed to the edge. 1968 in Bordeaux, 1962 in Germany, and 1950 in the Douro are simply dreadful vintages. What life inhabited these wines had long been snuffed out after decades of delay. Or so one might assume.

Yet, all too often in my experience, good wines from favored sites have shown an infinite capacity to surprise. And I've long observed that wine critics and wine experts frequently get it wrong--a case of hubris and a lack of humility, I would think.

A break in the rainy spring weather allowed a great afternoon start. We immensely enjoyed sipping Champagne on the sunny veranda that offered a picturesque view of the vineyard garden against the bright Santa Clara Valley skyline.

The Bollinger Special Cuvée in magnum, sporting a new label, is a coup de couer from this great Champagne house. I couldn't imagine a more fortuitous start. Electric, full of flavor and yeasty energy, it provided a rousing front act to the 1964 Bollinger RD that followed.

The 1964 Bollinger RD in magnum started life at the time of Madame Lily Bollinger, undoubtedly the most colorful figure in Bollinger's centuries-old history, and, I would think, the one who catapulted the house to greatness. She created the RD (recently disgorged) Champagne in 1961, as well as the house's prestige cuvée Vieille Vignes Françaises Champagne in 1969. Both bottlings are regarded by Champagne enthusiasts as must-haves in practically every vintage they're released.

Champagne ran in Madame Bollinger's veins it seemed. Yet, she's mainly remembered not for her brilliant innovations that made her company successful, but for her famous quote about when to enjoy Champagne:
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty."

From the beginning, the Bollinger RD has defied the dictum that many Champagne enthusiasts cling to, that Champagne must be consumed soon after being disgorged, especially old vintages. Well, this 1964 Bollinger RD was disgorged almost twenty years after its vintage, then aged for close to 30 years post-disgorgement! It was as fresh as the young Bollinger Special Cuvée and was a totally mindblowing Champagne. Flamboyant and more obviously in the RD style than the 1961 we drank last January, yet it's just as elegant and youthful. Expansive and full of vigor. Its bubbles shimmering as they rushed to the surface against a palette of pale gold. An awesome treat!

At the table we got right into business with a couple of old Rhineland marvels. The 1959 Graacher Himmelreich "feine" Auslese, Fuder #13, J. J. Prüm was made prior to the Pradikat system's establishment in 1971. At that time a "feine" designation by a respectable producer such as J.J. Prüm meant a special selection of high quality grapes that were harvested late. 1959 is one the greatest vintages in the Mosel, and the wines have been long-lived. Prüm's Graacher Himmelreich is broader in taste compared to their other prized vineyard, the Weltinger Sonnenuhr. This was just so vibrant and youthful, with layers of flavors that further intensified as it opened up. Beautiful purity, finishing very clean, without a hint of botrytis.

Owned by the Matuschka family since the 12th century, Schloss Vollrads is the oldest existing family-owned winery in the world. This famous estate in the Rheingau has produced many of Germany's greatest Rieslings over the centuries, but the 1962 Schloss Vollrads Auslese comes from a poor vintage for German Rieslings. The cool weather slowed down ripening, producing thin wines lacking substance. It wasn't a complete disaster. Parts of the Rheingau were dry enough for a prolonged hang time, and grapes that were harvested very late produced overachieving wines such as this Auslese. This Riesling was simple, especially next to the 1959, but well formed and still fresh and sweet, with a distinctive rich caramel taste. The finish didn't last long and the wine soon faded in the glass, but it served its purpose well on the table. Impressive for a 1962er!

With the Beef Wellington, two legendary 1958 Napa Cabernet Sauvigons were served--the real deal, the real Napa classics--a Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon "Private Reserve Georges de Latour" and a Inglenook Napa Cabernet Sauvignon "Cask". Sadly, such exquisite Napa Cabernets have long been extinct, buried and forgotten after the 1970s. It puzzles me why the work of André Tchelistcheff, John Daniel, and George Deuer--the great, pioneering California winemakers behind these wines--are never looked back on by current California winemakers--preferring, instead, to make exaggerated, homogenous wines. Today, Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyard exist as legacy brands.

The 1958 BV Napa Cabernet Sauvignon "Private Reserve Georges de Latour" (12.5% alcohol) is unmistakably Napa with its dark berries and soaring notes of mint and eucalyptus. What purity and freshness for a Cabernet over half a century old! I love the fruit's focus and precision, sharp and edgy, and really quite forceful and intense on the palate. I wouldn't think of this as a finesse wine, though its character is quite refined. It shows no subtlety, but expresses masculine rawness, directness and openness. I can't imagine this wine to come from anywhere but California.

Inglenook's 1958 Cabernet Sauvignon "Cask F-10" (13% alcohol) is Inglenook's famous Cask Cabernet, its flagship wine. Inglenook made its best wines between the 1930s and early 1960s under John Daniel. The heart of the Cask Cabernet was the Napanook Vineyard in Oakville. Later, John Daniel sold all the Inglenook vineyards (the bulk, the Home Vineyard in Rutherford, now belongs to Coppola's Rubicon Estate), except this property as he always wanted to keep it in the family. But after he passed away, his daughters sold the heirloom vineyard to Christian Moueix of Dominus Estate. Moueix, of course, is famous for the Bordeaux estate Pétrus that he has run for decades. And I guess it's only appropriate that he ended up with the vineyard because this 1958 Inglenook Cask Cabernet Sauvignon offered Gironde-like class and finesse. It has that haunting autumnal fragrance and sleek lusciousness. Over half a century has passed and this is still clad in fleshy fruit with generous concentration and length. Only the elite Bordeaux wines achieve such sheer glory, and clearly this Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is in that crowd.

We weren't through with the reds (not counting the Port to follow and a stray bottle of Live Oak Pinot Noir from Livermore, which was never drank). A magnum of 1968 Château Latour, Pauillac was opened to honor Jerry's birth year. 1968 is a forgettable year for claret. None of the first growths did anything really notable. Some say 1967 was worse, yet I had a good '67 Margaux and an outstanding '67 Haut-Brion last year, both from Ben's cellar. Wine has taught me to expect to be surprised always. And so I would add this '68 Latour to my voluminous collection of wine surprises. The fruit was still singing--the deep flavor of currants was distinctive, sweet, and remarkably fresh. Ample and sleek as a first-growth should be. The vaunted l'Enclos vineyard certainly came through for this vintage. What caught my attention was its taste on the finish--the autumnal leaves of the '58 Inglenook Cask! One of wine's surprises is its unexpected affinities.

Last on the agenda was the 1950 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port. From a so-so vintage in the Douro, but houses bold enough to declare a Vintage Port usually produce something better than so-so. Quinta do Noval, one of the great Port houses, has a good reputation in this vintage. Indeed this Port was very satisfying. Light and Tawny-like, with a sweet, fruity freshness and a trailing scent of taffy candy. Though it lacks richness and depth to be classic Vintage Port, I do find this 1950 Quinta do Noval desirable for its winning elegance and remarkable freshness. Ben's impeccable cellar comes up aces as always even in some of the bleakest vintages.

As it turned out, we were not quite done yet after the Port. Jerry surprised everyone with an impromptu tribute to Ben and his wife, Mayon, by opening a magnificent wine from their birth year: a pristine bottle of 1929 Château Filhot, Sauternes. '29, of course, is one of the greatest vintages for Sauternes. For Ben and Mayon, this Sauternes also carried a personal note. They are good friends of Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, whose family previously owned not just Château d'Yquem but also Filhot.

How the Lur-Saluces family came to own Filhot is a bit interesting. During the French Revolution, the Filhot estate was sequestered by the state and the head of the aristocratic Filhot family was guillotined. But not long afterwards, the daughter of Filhot, who happened to be married to a Lur-Saluces, managed to get the Sauternes estate back, thus bringing Château Filhot into the Lur-Saluces fold, which included Yquem, de Fargues, Coutet, and others. After more than a century of ownership, the Lur-Saluces family unloaded Filhot in 1935, when phylloxera ravaged the vines, making it a burden to tend to several wine estates.

So like the great Yquem the '29 Filhot is a Lur-Saluces wine, and it definitely lived up to its pedigree. The color still a bright amber. Intensely botrytised. Rich but just ripe and not so unctuous. Its brightness flashing youthful elegance and highlighting the delicious precision. Caramel, poached pear, and orange liqueur. The flavors linger like fresh flowers. Compare this pristine bottle that Jerry opened (above) to the one below from Château Filhot, and you'll get an idea how unbelievably fresh the former is. The maxim--"there are no great old wines, only great old bottles"--is most true.

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Jerry and his buddies have been enjoying each other's company and wines over the past ten years. I'm fortunate to be invited on this occasion. When it was his time to host again, Jerry pulled no punches: he teamed up with Ben. The rest, as they say, is history.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, Alex. Great writing, interesting content. I was entertained and I learned too.


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