Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Safety in Numbers

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I've long believed in the virtues of comparative wine tastings. At Vineyard Gate, over the past 12 years that we've been doing in-store tastings, they have always been done in flights. If a customer approaches the tasting bar wishing to try just a glass, that person is out of luck. And at all wine dinners I put together, every course is accompanied by a flight of two or three wines, sometimes even more. The thing is I know of no better way to assess and appreciate a wine properly than tasting or drinking it with its peers.

Over the Christmas holiday, I relished a FT piece by Jancis Robinson about serving multiple wines for each course. She writes: "I usually serve two different wines with each course since I am incorrigibly curious about wine and I always learn from comparisons."

The article made me smile because less than a fortnight before my buddies and I at our BNO wine group had our year-end get-together. We always grasp for themes in these dinners as it all depends on what bottles each of us would fork over. There's a flurry of ideas exchanged, and a bit of negotiation, especially if we want to pry out a particular bottle from someone's stash. Fortunately, as far as I can remember, something interesting always shakes out.

The evening began with two magnums of Champagne. But I'm rushing a bit because a chilled bottle of 1936 Gonzalez Byass Sherry "Imperial Toledo Vino de Heroes" was poured. I've had this immortal sherry--a special release to commemorate Franco's conquest of Toledo in 1936--a few times before and its pungency and sweetness, its nuttiness and salty tang always perk up my palate. Sherry is terribly overlooked, especially by serious winos.

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Okay, back to the Champagnes. The two magnums opened couldn't have been more different. Cedric Bouchard's Brut Blanc de Noirs “Les Ursules”, Roses de Jeanne is a "non-vintage" from a single year of harvest, 2005. It is also a single vineyard--"Les Ursules"--from his parcel in the Aube region and only from a single varietal, Pinot Noir. Bouchard is a tiny recoltant-manipulant (grower-producer), a previously obscure Champagne category that's become fashionable over the last few years. There's nothing fashionable about Bouchard's Champagne as it's quite straightforward as wine can be. Its dominating quality is the underlying wine itself. Round, lush, but not broad. It has understated richness and a demure character. About 400 of these magnums were made.

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In contrast, the 1961 Bollinger RD, which was disgorged in 1983, was as broad, powerful, and intense as Champagne can be. It has pronounced herbal minerality, awesome vibrant energy and great length in the finish. I enjoyed another magnum of this Champagne earlier in the year, but this is the fresher and better of the two. Or could it be that it still keeps getting better after all these decades?

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There were more than two white Burgundies opened during the evening, but the pair that I focused on were two Meursaults, both from negociant-eleveurs. The 1971 Meursault-Poruzots, Remoissenet Pere et Fils comes from a respected firm, famous for being the metayer of Baron Thenard's parcel in Montrachet for decades. This has matured very well. Big, fat, ripe, oily, and still with a haunting oak scent.

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The 2000 Maison Leroy Meursault, a simple village, clearly demonstrated why Leroy's Meursaults are some of the best that money can buy. It's not even close to peak drinking yet, but what glorious richness and depth, with a mouthfilling entry and a laser-focused finish. Leroy's wines may be frightfully expensive, but worth every penny.

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We were blessed to have a brilliant caterer in Ashley Arabian, who cooked us a to-die-for duck ragout and a juicy and tender beef fillet with the reds that followed. Two Richebourgs from the same vintage, 1996, went head-to-head, sending us to Burgundy heaven and giving us a quick Burgundy clinic, as well as bolstering my point on comparative tasting.

The 1996 Domaine Gros Frère et Soeur Richebourg in magnum tells you a lot of things about the man behind it, Bernard Gros, the youngest son of Jean Gros and young brother of Michel Gros, who inhereited the Jean Gros estate, and cousin to Anne Gros. Got it? Bernard makes Burgundies that are strong and fruity. He picks late when the fruit is very ripe and packed with sugar, sacrificing some finesse to achieve a broad, voluptuous style. It doesn't always work and his style hasn't endeared him to Burgundy hipsters who fancy a more austere, acidic quality, but I must say his approach works for 1996.

1996 has become a controversial vintage for red Burgundies. Once highly-touted, the wines after over a decade have shown an unforgiving hardness. But Bernard Gros' style works wondrously well with the vintage, offering a wine with softened fruit, mitigated acidity, and exuberant fruity flavors. His 1996 Richebourg sure is luscious and forward, quite easy to enjoy, as opposed to many of the closed-up, hard-hitting wines of the vintage.

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The other Richebourg opened was the 1996 Domaine Jean Grivot Richebourg. Etienne Grivot makes Burgundies in the vin de garde style, they take forever to evolve. I do have a passion for his wines. This 1996, even though hard and tight compared to the Gros, draws me in with its aromatic fruit and scents of autumn. And I'm taken by its layered flavors that penetrate the palate. Alas, the wine's structure is still hard and the finish, as the fruit recedes, is not flattering.

Finally, the last pairing for me of the evening, as I didn't stay long after dinner for the Port and Sauternes and other surprises. The deuce was from the 1985 vintage in Bordeaux, one from left bank and the other from the right bank. This was a successful vintage in Bordeaux, a dry year with a big crop. The only thing, or two, that came in the way of total success was that yields on the left bank got a bit out of hand, especially in Pauillac, and many new plantings on the Medoc just came on line, thereby diluting quality to a certain extent.

The 1985 Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, in magnum is one of the top rated wines of the vintage. It showed good density and youthfulness. Its fruit opened up to much cassis flavor and beautiful velvety tannins. But the wine quickly gave way to a pronounced herbal quality--a sign of underdeveloped fruit--that off-kiltered the wine. It became harder to enjoy as it stayed in the glass. Thankfully, Ashley's fillet was there on my plate to help balance the taste in my mouth.

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Moving to the right bank of Gironde, where 1985 was more consistently favorable, the Château Pavie, Saint-Emilion, showed none of the problems of the Lynch-Bages. After two decades the wine continues to surprise and impress with its longevity and substance, though it was written off by Parker and other experts a while ago. If you love Bordeaux you would love this wine. It shows a dense yet elegant and seductive flavor of red and black fruits, with more than a hint of chocolate. Its supple fruit is not forceful but persists on the palate with a nice, even quality. And its luscious, juicy quality was a refreshing counterpoint to the beef dish.

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And here are the notes of my buddies quoted verbatim. They fill in many of the wines I missed:

Bob: 1936 Imperial Toledo Sherry: Brown,  Nutty. Very smooth and well balanced. Still has life.  May not fade much in our lifetimes.
Bob: 2005 Cedric Bouchard Champagne, Roses de Jeanne , Magnum 100% Pinot: Pale, tart, very crisp, good fruit. Not much yeast on the nose. More fruit than yeast. No dosage. Very enjoyable.
Kevin: 100% Pinot ! Wow!  Spice, cherries smoke, very low dosage-super dry. Lots of mineral, very intense.  Great food wine.
Bob: 1961 Bollinger Champagne (Magnum): Wow! Yeasty, Toasty, Golden color. Well balanced. Elegant,.  100 points. Fruit and mint in the nose, pinot nose. Not fading a bit. Disgorged in 1988.
Kevin: One of the wines of the night. Intense spice spearmint –ultrafine, went on and on. Spectacular. I agree, 100 points!

Eric: Gorgeous setting starting with champagne in front of a cheery fire and lovely Christmas tree. The Bollinger was elegant and sophisticated and the Bouchard rich and racy with a long life ahead.
Bob: 2000 Mersault Leroy: Bright appearance, medium body, barnyard and butterscotch  in the nose. Crisp, good fruit acid balance. Steely and austere. Delicious. Will last.
Kevin: So focused, like a sleek Ferrari, just buzzing along at high speed and wouldn’t ever know it was going 160!  Wonderful now and for another 10!
Bob: 1971 Mersault Porozots: medium body, golden with some browning; barnyard nose, well balanced fruit and acid, Not a grand cru but  holds its own with the best. Delicious with the crab.  Others' comments: "big, fat, oily" ( I got some of that but it had  the acid to keep it in balance).

Eric: 71 Meursault. Unbelievably balanced, fresh, nose of pear, flowers and melon, the fruit was ripe, great depth and length.
Bob: 1989 Corton Charlemagne Latour: Medium body, golden brown; toasty, yeasty,creamy, a rich, powerful wine. Great fruit acid balance. Will last. Delicious with the crab.
Bob: 1996 Richebourg Gros Frere et Souer: Bright  red, medium body, barnyard nose, lots of ripe fruit. Finished with softer fruit. Well balanced. Wonderful. Tannins in balance with luscious fruit. Interesting comparison with the Jean Grivot. More fruit, softer. Will age nicely.
Bob: 1996 Richebourg Jean Grivot (Open five hours before pour): Bright red, medium body, barnyard nose, less fruit than the Gros Frere. Tobacco and cedar on the nose. Lean and structured. Some commented   on the mineral qualities . Delicious. Nuanced. Will age.

Eric: 96 Richebourg Grivot what a future this has. Nose of soft red fruit, vanilla and hint of tobacco. Amazing length and balance.
Bob: 2002 Copain Hein Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir: dark, opaque, heavy body. Soft very ripe fruit,  spice. Cherries, plums.  Nice with the chanterelles.  Not fair to compare it with the red Burgundies. Hard to say where this will be in ten years. Very nice now with the duck ragout.
Bob: 1985 Ch. Pavie: Dark ruby color, heavy bodied, cedar and tobacco on the nose, some oak.  rich.  medium tannins, well balanced with the fruit, mint, berries, chocolate.  Great year for right bank St. Emilions. 70% Merlot, 30% Cab Franc. Very nice with the steak and chanterelles.
Kevin: Loved the Pavie—the Merlot parried nicely with the filet—Wonderful Bordeaux.

Eric: 85 Pavie, yes I did bring it but it was terrific. Classic Bordeaux nose with earth, leather, red fruit and hint of chocolate. Full bodied with plum, cherry, and earthy notes.
Bob: 1985 Lynch Bages (Mag): dark ruby color, opaque, heavy bodied, herbal, vegetable nose, mint, lots of ripe fruit. Tobacco and licorice.  Well balanced, A complex wine. Delicious. Finish a bit dry. Great with the chanterelles .  Interesting comparison to the Pavie. Preference is a matter of taste.  While I  liked the Lynch Bages initially, I thought the finish in the Pavie was a bit smoother. Both spectacular wines.
Kevin:I was disappointed with the LB-Even the next day the last bit  in the mag still hadn’t opened up. Drying tannins on the finish, will have to see how the 750’s are doing.
Bob: 1995 Araujo (Eisele?) : deep ruby red,  medium bodied, oaky, tannins, but nice cherries, dust and leather. A forward wine. Nice with the  beef and truffles. Will last.
Kevin: The oak was prominent, but mostly because it was paired with the Bordeaux. I got that mint Eisele is noted for, but late in the taste.
Bob: 1978 Monrachet: The palate cleanser. Wow! Even after 6 powerful reds this knocked my socks off. 100 points in my book.  Still bright and lively, yellow golden,Classic toasty, oak, restrained fruit. Very well balanced. A tribute to proper cellaring.

Kevin: 78 Montrachet -Marquis De Laguiche-Drouhin-honeycomb, almond, anise, lime peel, flint, clove, orange marmalade on finish( sorry guys..),, a layer of kink and complexity at end. 90-120 second finish. Ok wine HA, J 
Bob: 1997 Ch d'Yquem: Wow! orange brown, perfume, viscous, wonderful nose, powerful , rich, honey, figs,Well balanced. Will age well. 100 points in my book. Powerful stuff.
Kevin: Agreed! Except someone grabbed my glass I swear—I got a 1/2 oz pour. I want the surveillance  video
Kevin: 2001 Ch Roumieu Lacosse Sauternes, Barsac: Wow! orange golden, perfume, honey, figs, crisp acid. Concentrated and powerful. Will age well.  Amazing wine!
Bob: 1963 Croft Vintage Port: opaque, ruby, wonderful fruit in the nose,  A rich masterpiece . Multi dimensional. Even after the d'Yquem and Sauternes it fully satisfied the palate. Color suggests it will last for a long time . 100 points.
Bob: I thought we opened another bottle of port but Kevin swears I am hallucinating. It was delicious . Perhaps it was more of the Croft.(77 kopke)

Kevin: (no, Kevin was hallucinating)
Bob: Ashley outdid herself with the wonderful food. Incredible!  I particularly enjoyed the duck ragout and the chanterelles. Perfect for a winter night. We should be evaluating the wonderful food like we do the wines.
Kevin: The crab I went Lady Gaga over.

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