Sunday, December 4, 2011

BNO Year-End: Burgundies, Champagne, and Much More!

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Santa came early to a gathering of wine friends, who humbly name themselves the BNO, aka "Boys' Night Out". Extravagance is not lacking in these gatherings, and sometimes extravaganza, too. Yet, last night's soirée set a new bar. Bottles of Champagne were popped, white Burgundies were poured, a couple of Yquems were emptied, and an obligatory bottle of Port got decapitated. Still, none of these were worthy enough to be the evening's highlight.

I arrived a bit late and so missed the Champagne toast, but I managed a mouth rinse of the 1990 Pommery Cuvée Louis just when dinner was getting started. A rich, yeasty wine that's evolved and quite elegant.

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Among the white Burgundies were a pair of Corton-Charlemagne from Louis Latour, its well-known flagship wine. Except for the richer, fatter quality of the 1990, I thought the two overlapped in flavor. The wine's toasty, honeyed, tropical fruit character was more pronounced in the 1990 compared to the 1998.

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Leflaive's 1997 Puligny Pucelles showed as always its magic and why, at least in the case of Leflaive, this premier cru vineyard should be classified grand cru. Intensely floral and smokey on the nose, with flavors that are reticent and angular, like a beam of light that multiples many times on the palate. A spectacular vintage for this wine.

The white Burgundy flight was beefed up in the last minute by the addition of a killer 2004 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne. Vibrant with a youthful sexiness in its fat and luscious fruit.

To accompany the white Burgundies Eric prepared a salad designed to match, a melange of lettuce, avocado and seafood in a citrus dressing. The pairing was as slick as Eric in his tux.

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The white Burgundies over, it was time to sneak in the evening's intermezzo, an interloper from the estuaries of the Garonne, a 1978 vintage of the unique dry wine called "Y" or "Ygrec" from one of the most famous wineries in the world, Château d'Yquem. As can be expected, coming from this great Sauternes producer, this is a rich, powerful wine. Toasty and full of honeycomb extract as well as peach, sweet corn, and ginger. An enormous presence in the room.

To tame this beast of a white wine a decadent serving (in my case, servings) of lobster quenelles was offered. I was delirious. I must've mumbled a prayer or something for the Lord to bring me back again to earth, and had to summon all my self-control to stop sipping more "Y" and chowing down more quenelles. Wow! This is the most hedonistic pairing experience ever! Kudos go to both Kevin and Steve for accidentally conspiring to produce this outta this world pairing!

And so finally, with all those preliminaries over, the highlight of the evening got started.

Having five different vintages of Grands Échezeaux spanning almost 40 years is on one hand an unforgettable pleasure and on the other a valuable lesson, especially given four out of the five are from the same producer, DRC. DRC owns more than a third of Grands Échezeaux, a large vineyard with varying nooks and crannies, as this flight showed.

The magnum of Grands Échezeaux in the flight was a 1959 Averys bottling, said to be made from juice purchased from Gustave Gros of Domaine Gros by the highly respected and celebrated Bristol wine merchant, Ronald Avery. Just before our event, this provenance was revealed to Ben and Mayon by none other than the most trustworthy source, John Avery, Ronald's son. Coming from the cellars of Ben and Mayon this '59 was, of course, amazingly youthful. The color was dark, nearly opaque in the center and the scent was clean and fruity. A muscular wine filled with flavors of black cherries and sweet, dark spices like licorice and cinnamon. It's most similar to a Clos de Vougeot, which is what many Grands Échezeaux can taste like, quite understandable given the vineyard is bordered on two sides by Clos de Vougeot. It was almost hands-down the group favorite in the flight. I thought it was remarkable, especially given its unbelievable youthfulness, but a bit too heavy and lacking definition for me.

The other four Grands Échezeaux, all from DRC, have, of course, a striking resemblance to each other, though vintage character and I would guess vineyard conditions during each period weighed in significantly. Suffice it to say the '64 exemplified the singular quality of DRC and the greatness of Grands Échezeaux. In some instances and in the DRC stable specifically, Grands Échezeaux is often compared to another DRC wine, Romanée-Saint-Vivant. Historically, the two DRCs are served together side-by-side. It is interesting how DRC's Grands Échezeaux could share the seductive, feminine qualities of its Romanée-Saint-Vivant even though the two vineyards are so far apart. The answer could be that Musigny, that other famously seductive grand cru often sharing similarities with Romanée-Saint-Vivant, is just above and may have influenced some portions of the Grands Échezeaux vineyard. At any rate, I love the '64, the greatness of the vintage really shows. My notes say, light but intensely colored, very refined, precise, with delicious spicy cherry flavors and a silky texture. In other words, Musigny-like or Romanée-Saint-Vivant-esque in its seductive character.

The '85 DRC Grands Échezeaux is another great wine. It is firm and structured with a richness, concentration, and length that make it taste like an infant next to the '64.

Also another potential legend was the '96 DRC Grands Échezeaux. It shows more structure than fruit, yet the fruit is incredibly refined and precise at such a youthful stage making the wine irresistible and a joy to drink.

The overachieving award in the flight has to go to the '83 DRC Grands Échezeaux as it comes from an irregular vintage unlike the greatness of the other vintages in the flight. True, a hardness was evident in the wine but it's only slight and well compensated for by its glorious floral, spice, and cherry perfume and the intensity and depth of the fruit. This wine is a testament to the consistency of Grands Échezeaux.

Steve's mushroom risotto topped with seared duck breast performed wonders with all these old red Burgundies. A seamless exchange of complimenting flavors and textures between wine and food. A great gift to us and to all these wines, Steve!

A cheese plate at the end came in very handy as there was still much wine left to be sipped.

As Sandy mentioned later, while we were enjoying the Burgundies an unopened bottle quietly stood on the table, patiently waiting for its turn.

It was another Yquem wine, this time the grand vin Sauternes, the 1967 Château d'Yquem. Acknowledged as one of the greatest Yquems ever made, thereby making it one of the greatest wines ever made. I confess a fondness for lighter vintages like the 1994 and 1999, they're very friendly and engaging. The '67 is daunting. Am I worthy enough to appreciate its qualities? A wine as great as this makes me nervous and I feel I might not be up for the challenge. This is very concentrated with a very botrytised nose. The flavor is dense with honeyed fruit and toasted caramel, multilayered and packed to the core. Feel the power. It proved unyielding to me. Next time, perhaps, I can discern it more, especially if given time to sip away.

No BNO gathering is complete without Port at the end, so Kevin usually has the Port tongs nice and hot by the time we finish dinner. This night it was a 1963 Warre's with a Berry Bros Rudd label. I stopped taking notes so my recollection is a bit hazy, but good thing Kevin took good notes:

"Warres (Berry Bros. Original Label) 63. Medium weight, light bricking, medium ruby, incense, boysenberry, elegant, bit of pepper, very very long finish. One of the better 63’s I have had in the last 5 years. Can age forever. (19)

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And so another fulfilling year with my BNO brethren is passing by. The consensus is we marked it with the best yet. We are all so blessed and thankful for everyone's friendship and generosity. Hep! Hep!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chicken Rôti and Chinon

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I was at Olivier's Butchery in Potrero a few weeks ago and couldn't resist picking up the prepared chicken rôti in the cooler. Olivier's gets the chicken from Field to Family in Petaluma. The chicken is a Poulet Bleu (Blue Foot) breed, raised free range and fed a vegetarian diet. I roasted the bird in a dutch over and voila! it was the tastiest chicken I've had in a long, long time!

And as luck would have it, I still had the remains of a 2006 Phlippe Alliet Chinon from a weekend tasting. A bright, earthy pure Cabernet Franc. It was perfect with the chicken rôti.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pop-Up Café Kick-Off with Feuillet Burgundies and Duck Parts

I couldn't think of a more thrilling way to debut Vineyard Gate's Pop-Up Café than pairing François Feuillet's elegant red Burgundies with plates of duck parts!

Roving Bay Area food maven, Hector Figueroa, and his partner, Angie, prepared the perfect dishes to bring out the best in the Burgundies. Starters included a Cauliflower Panna Cotta (inspired by French Laundry) that went down deliciously with the aperitif of Eric Bordelet's Poire sparkling cider.

Hector butchered 5 ducks to pair with 6 Burgundies. Not a bad ratio! These confit of duck legs were served with plump, juicy lentils, whose sweetness balanced well with the salty flavor of the confit. The plate was scarfed down quickly with a pair of Feuillet's charming 2007s, the Vosne-Romanée Barreaux and Nuits-St-Georges Aux Thorey.

A risotto of duck gizzards was cooked on the spot--it was a to-die-for match with François Feuillet's four grands crus poured side-by-side: 2006 Clos de la Roche and 2006, 2004, and 2001 Echézeaux.

Bravo Hector! We can't wait for the next event at the Vineyard Gate Pop-Up Café!

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Peak At Anne Gros' 2011 Harvest

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Anne Gros started her 2011 harvest on 30th August, a Tuesday, same day as Domaine Leroy picked all their Richebourg. This was one of the earliest harvests on record in the Cote d'Or. Months earlier the harvest was expected to be even more advanced, until rain and cooler temperatures changed the direction of the season.

At the winery, Anne first brought in her Clos de Vougeot, then her Richebourg the following day. The bunches looked healthy, with hardly any sign of rot. I suspect a sorting was already done in the vineyard. But rot is like a Burgundian's worse nightmare. If the threat is there, once a minimum ripeness is reached, the fruit is brought in. Better to be safe than sorry, especially if one's vineyard holdings are quite small--like Anne Gros'--allowing for no margin of error.

Anne glanced at me while I stood a good distance away watching her and an assistant in the cuverie quietly working with the destemmer. She nodded at me, inviting me to step up on the platform next to her to see what's going on. She was doing a final sort just as the bunches were hurtling towards the destemmer. As I mentioned, the bunches looked really healthy. I chewed on a few berries and they were fleshy and sweet. I said to Anne that the fruit looked good. But she was unimpressed.

Later I found out that out of five tons harvested in the last few days, about 60 kilograms had rot, which was nothing. Maybe another degree or two of potential alcohol would have made her happier. But I doubt it. Burgundians, especially a perfectionist like Anne, are never really satisfied.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

At Mission Chinese Food

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Yesterday, the day of the Harvest Moon, I decided to check out again Mission Chinese Food. I was feeling Chinese for lunch, but having just returned from a trip to France I preferred something more interesting, rather than the same-old, same-old Chinese eatery.

Certainly, MCF is not a swanky place, in fact it looks just like your typical Chinese joint, which it is--the restaurant's actual name is Lung Shan Restaurant, but seemingly just a cover. MCF operates like an underground layer within this nondescript environ, offering a more adventurous, contemporary, indeed, subversive cuisine that's free from the traditions of Cantones, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, Hunanese or Beijing cooking. And what's risky about the whole operation is that it's not owned by westerners, which would've excused it, but by a Chinese family. They can be ostracized by their compatriots, you know, who want Chinese cuisine to remain the way the last emperor left it.

I ordered one of two items on the menu that is not available for take-out: Taiwan Mussels. The dish is fiery hot, and it did upset my stomach afterwards, as I've been out of practice eating hot stuff lately, but it was delicious nonetheless. I don't mind suffering a little for good food. The black mussels were tossed with hot chili oil and black bean sauce and combined with chunks of braised pork belly, then blended with shishito peppers and garnished with Thai basil. Talk about a dish that borrows heavily from a good swath of the Pacific region! I can tell you the Bundaberg ginger beer came in handy.

A new design feature of the restaurant, of which the owners are apparently very proud of, is the large dragon that hangs from the ceiling. A symbol of luck. And, if I must say, a sure sign that good food is being served.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wine Ratings

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A recent piece by San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor, Jon Bonné, on wine ratings prompted me to re-think the subject of wine criticism. My thoughts are pretty simple and short.

I find top wine critics' reviews a form of voyeurism. More often than not the tasting notes convey little, if any, factual information or insights that make a reader smarter and more skilled in discerning the quality of wine. Instead, their notes and ratings seduce and titillate, doing nothing more than create a dependency on their ratings.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Artichokes and Wine

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Artichokes are like the Great Satan of wine pairings. They should be shunned according to any food and wine pairing manual like this recent Food & Wine blog.

I'm not really sure why, but as in many things we follow like sheep anyway, though I confess to a few transgressions, when I innocently forget and a a devilish artichoke or two slips in a dish, while washing it down with my Chablis or Riesling. I would realize the grave error only too late as I'd be on the next course.

Rules are too much work for me, and so I'm really all for discarding rules of food and wine pairings, not for iconoclastic reasons, but because when I'm eating I just don't want to be bothered.

Imagine my liberation, when a godsend, as far as drinking wine with artichokes is concerned, materialized in the form of Garçon chef Arthur Wall's preparation of baby artichokes in his grilled sardines plate. He revealed to me that marinading the artichokes in wine for several hours purifies them, so to speak, forcing them to be wine converts whether they like it or not.

Indeed, Chef Wall's plate of grilled sardines with baby artichokes was perfect with a 2010 Muscadet from Jo Landron of Domaine de la Louvetrie and a 1997 Meursault from Michel Lafarge. And best of all, my dinner didn't have to be disturbed by any food and wine pairing rule.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pinot Noirs and Memories

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Lenny and I sported a smile as we climbed up the steep hills of Pacific Heights on a bright, shimmering late afternoon just before twilight. Tucked between the mcmansions on the hill's summit is the modest house of our late friend and colleague, John Demergasso. As we knocked on the door our excitement grew.

Bonnie, ever game to entertain her late husband's old friends and drinking comrades allowed us to indulge in one of John's favorite pastimes: wine drinking. I found her in the kitchen still busy finishing the braised beef ribs that will pair with the dozen or so Pinot Noirs and Burgundies everyone brought for the evening.

It was John's birthday and we wanted to make a big show of it. Maybe the hoopla would've unsettled John, I knew him as outwardly restrained, but Hemingway-esque in his pursuits. I think not, he would've glowed in the honesty of our bacchanal.

Kevin, John's close friend, together with Bonnie spearheaded the get-together with typical bravado. The fireworks came in the presence of a living legend in California winemaking: Josh Jensen. In the early 1970s, fresh from laboring in the grape fields of Burgundy, including a stint at DRC, Jensen pioneered the making of California Pinot Noirs from specific vineyard sites, or lieux-dits. He was determined to discover the holy grail of Pinot Noir in California, and his Burgundian background told him he must plant on limestone soils. So up on the hills of the Gavilan Mountains, in Mt. Harlan, he found his limestone vineyards and started Calera Wine Company.

So there he is, Josh Jensen, my longtime Pinot Noir idol (I have a personally signed copy of his book "Heartbreak Grape" from back in 1993 when it was published) standing in Bonnie's living room, still looking gaunt and hiply attired as always.

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Josh brought library selections of his single-vineyard Pinot Noirs that were still drinking fresh and exceeding drinking windows the wine critics foretold. The 2002 Jensen Vineyard, with 14.4% alcohol, shows the richest fruit--luxurious and intact at 9 years and counting. But it was the 2003 Mills Vineyard (14.2% alc.) that surprised me the most, with its assertive tannins giving shape to its still formidable fruit. This kind of tannin structure is truly unique in California Pinot Noirs. Could this Pinot Noir age for another ten years? You betcha!

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My favorite of all Calera vineyards is the Selleck--although the Reed on occasion would win me over with its seductive character, alas, it doesn't hold up with age. The 2003 Selleck Vineyard is true to form. The fruit is dense and silky, the tannins are very fine, and, overall, the wine is still somewhat closed. I always find it the most Burgundian of all Calera's Pinot Noirs for its elegance.

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Mayon's and Ben's cheese quiche (or is it quiche cheese?) and gougères are always a hit when served in these gatherings. A great starter with the Champagnes, I just have to make sure I don't overload on them!

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The 1999 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, the house's tête de cuvée, was drinking well, but I felt it was already softening for a 1999.

Bob: Served a bit too cold for full appreciation. Still evolving in the glass. Pure chardonnay free run. Fresh, citrus flavors, Lemony. Toasty nose. Sweet, but will lose sweetness as it ages. Will age well I think.

Kevin: surprisingly sweet, touch minty, lanolin. Good, but not the toasty, sour spot I expect from The Comte.

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The 1999 Dom Perignon was a disappointment. It was losing freshness and appeared to be falling apart. A bad bottle, perhaps?

Bob: Dom Perignon; Nice floral nose, yeast, citrus and lemon flavors, crisp finish.

Kevin: wiff of vanilla, firm and dry, not remotely austere. Not interesting or going anywhere special. Disappointing.

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So, thankfully, there was the 1999 Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs. A powerful Champagne, so fresh and intense, with very lovely depth and length to the finish.

Bob: My favorite of the sparkling wines. Toasty, floral nose. Classic champagne nose and feel. Delicious.

Kevin: Late disgorged (2010), very lively for its age, not doubt because of its late disgorgement.dry, classy, very distinct Pinot notes, would love a few of these to stow away.

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I threw in a ringer for fun--a recently released California sparkling wine made with 100% Pinot Meunier, disgorged only after over 17 years of cellaring! It was luscious and complex, rising up to the challenge of being served with the the three prestige champers. Yet I demur to the Sparkling Wine's long pretentious name: 1992 Chateau Beaux Hauts "En Tirage" Extra Brut Russian River Sparkling Wine. C'mon, Don (Baumhefner), you need a bitly for that!

Bob: Browning colors, funky nose, but creamy , lush and fruity flavors. Recently disgorged according to Alex. 100% Pinot Menieure. Very nice example of an older sparkling wine. Few California sparkling wines are made to age, but this one was still lively.

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The Pinot Noirs were first up at the dinner table. Sadly, the 1997 Williams Selyem Hirsch Vineyard was corked. Folks in the room thought it would've been a beautiful wine.

Bob: Soft , ripe fruit, black cherries, plenty of tannins. Oaky flavors, Well balanced. Complex. Drink now.

The 1997 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane did better. This is a vineyard that WS bottled for several vintages but discontinued. This '97 may have been the last. Good rich fruit that started out simple, and seemed to gain in complexity as it opened more. Josh liked it.

Bob: Oaky nose, ruby color. Ripe fruit, black cherries, minerals. Tannic. A bit short in the finish, but very nice.

The 1996 Rochioli Three Corner Vineyard was planted with Pommard clone in 1974. I find this to have the highest acidity among the bunch of Pinot Noirs, and the fruit didn't wow. I still found it interesting and likable.

Bob: Barnyard nose, rich very ripe cherries, plums, smooth and mouth filling. More powerful and bigger wine than the Rochioli. Wonderful with food.

The 1996 Rochioli Little Hill Block was a lot easier to like. It comes from a privileged site in Rochioli's vineyard, next to the famed West Block and planted with West Block cuttings in 1985. Gorgeous wine, rich and luscious. Well-liked by the group.

Bob: Ruby color, barnyard nose, lots of ripe cherries and raspberries, oaky nose. Lush, smooth and polished. Delicious. More restrained then the 3 Corner Vineyard. Delicious to drink now. Bursting with fruit. Mouth filling. I really enjoyed the Rochioli's. Seemed "young". yet 15 years old. I think the best wine of the night to accompany the food.

Kevin: attractive, cherry, mint, very nice, good varietal flavors.

Unfortunately, there's not much to say about the 1992 Joseph Swan Wolfspierre Vineyard, a Pinot Noir apparently not built for age. It was made by Swan's son-in-law, Rod Berglund, not long after his passing.

Bob: Ripe cherry fruit in the nose, but tart and somewhat thin finish. Nice with the cheeses.

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But the 1991 Domaine Drouhin is showing the fine potential of Oregon Pinot Noirs even from such earlier years. Not only was it alive and well, it was also displaying a youthful richness that was really satisfying for me.

Bob: Barnyard nose, ripe cherries in the nose.. Soft tannins. Somewhat thin finish, faded. But enjoyable and easy to drink.

Almost the same thought entered my mind when I drank the 1986 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir. A bit more weight, but coarser than the Drouhin.

Bob: Strawberries, a burgundy like barnyard nose, tart cherries. A bit short in the finish. Reminded me of a burgundy.

Kevin: more burgundy like, warm, earthy, a bit short at the end.

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And to finish the domestic Pinot Noir flight, Josh unwrapped a pristine bottle of 1986 Calera Selleck. What a treat! As always this started as firm and tight as a Vosne-Romanée. Coming from one of the worse drought years in California, it had quite a bit of structure and still deeply colored.

Bob: Ripe fruit, cherry, plums, complex nose. Somewhat herbaceous nose. Medium to heavy bodies. Still lots of tannins but plenty of ripe fruit to match. Very nice.

Kevin: nice colour and spry, but not having the tertiary I would have expected. Nice pinot, from Josh's library.

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Philippe Naddef's 1985 Mazis-Chambertin is classically hewn; stern, muscular, still densely concentrated, and showing fleshy black fruit flavors.

Bob: Barnyard nose, sour cherries, lots of acid, dense. Evolved in the glass. Will improve. Complex. Very interesting wine.

Kevin: Unfair maybe next to the Mortet, nice fishy Pinot nose, fair amount of oak. Very good wine.

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The 1985 Charles Mortet Chambertin was drinking very well. I thought it was quite elegant for a Chambertin especially for the vintage and it should continue to drink well for some time. And though this was already made by Denis Mortet for his father's domaine, it certainly was very different from the opulent, extracted style Denis Mortet did later under his own domaine, after tutelage with Jayer.

Bob: Barnyard nose, rich strawberries . Soft fruit. Complex. Mature. Somewhat softer style than the Mazis. Nice.

Kevin: We drank California first, then went to the Burgs at the end, and this was a show stopper, day and night between very nice Cal Pinot and this level of Burg. Hard to find, Mortet careful wine maker and not much of his stuff around, on releaee, almost DRC cost back in the late 80's, if that means anything.

1971 Faiveley Clos de la Roche was still deeply colored, displaying good vigor and seamless balance. Very pristine, and quite richer than the '85 Mortet Chambertin.

Bob: Classic barnyard nose, rich, cedar and tobacco flavors, complex. Wonderful. Well balanced.

Kevin: fully evolved nose, fragrant, elegant, thought it migh pale next to the Chambolle
, but neck to neck supberb, great depth, lovely weight, this is great Burgundy!

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The 1971 Chambolle-Musigny Amoureuses of Comte Georges de Vogue is the quintessential Chambolle--sweetly perfumed, silky, curvy, engulfing the senses in its seductive allure. Resistance is futile.

Bob: Wonderful barnyard nose, some browning, Medium tannins. Medium bodied. Good fruit acid balance. Violets. More delicate than the Faiveley. Amazing for a 40 year old burgundy.

Kevin: Great depth, power, subtlety, another great Burgundy, this is what it is all about.Impressive.

For a finale, Kevin opened a ridiculously good 1955 Graham's Port. At this point it was almost time to say goodnight. I badly wanted to stop time for a moment to savor this bottle, and to allow its sensuous pleasures to wash over me.

Bob: A knockout! Sweet nose, nutty. Beautiful purple color. Cherries and chocolate. Soft and velvety, with a smooth finish. Mouth filling. A timeless port. Will last.

Kevin: Fragrant, ethereal, maybe for what it is, the wine of the night, but tough to appreciate it like one would expect given the wines that had already been tasted,--one of the legendary ports of all time says Broadbent and Jancis Robinson. The bouquet was light at first, but towards the end, opened up, has the Graham sweetness with the power of this special vintage. Perfect with cigars at the end, to toast John D.

Thanks to all for the wonderful wines and food, and special thanks to Bonnie for being such a gracious host and cook. It was a real treat learning from Josh. Bob

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Thanks to Bonnie for feeding us and welcoming us to her home. I especially appreciated her pointing out to me some of John's favorite mementos which are everywhere in the house--an original bullfighting poster brought back from Spain, a luminous plein air oil of a fly fishing scene, and a powerful pen-and-ink drawing of two prizefighters clinched in deadly combat, a particular favorite of John's. From her stories I tried to piece together a life of John I wish I knew. Sadly, time can be too brief.

And so I'm sure we didn't do enough justice to any of the Pinot Noirs and Burgundies we drank, the way we sprinted through each one over the course of a few hours. If one wants to plumb the depths of each these wines that could take many hours, or a life time. Alas, life doesn't always afford us such luxuries. But like John, we leave something by: memories at least, and some photographs of what happened once, wishing someone would be kind enough to explain ourselves to us.