Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Meet Me Down On Birch Steet... Bring the Saint-Julien

Last week's first rainstorm of the season did nothing to dissuade the BNO--aka the Birch Street Boys--from its first road tour in ages. Veteran road manager, Sandy, who apparently knows about tropical depressions, said beforehand he has everything under control and that we will be dining curbside al fresco--the only space at the tiny Birch Street restaurant in Palo Alto where our party could be accommodated. In a brash display of bravado on that opportune night Sandy dressed up in his Aloha shirt.

Lo and behold, the rains stopped, the clouds parted, and the light from a glowing hunter's moon shone down upon us. It was biblical.

I quickly gulped my glass of Monthuys Brut Reserve Champagne, it was crisp, full, and fruity. A good, crowd-pleasing bubbly.

(Kevin's note: fresh citric, with apple, high proportion of Pinot Meunier, fruity with good acidity and nice floral character. Fruity, fresh a wine for real enjoyment. Went perfectly with the crab dish)

The theme for this dinner was the Medoc wines of Saint-Julien. For many long-time Bordeaux drinkers this is a favorite region to pluck. Saint-Julien's lack of first growth yet preponderance of overachieving second growths made it the source for best value top Bordeaux for several decades lasting through the end of the previous millennium. Situated on rocky, well-drained soils by the banks of the Gironde, its wines, traditionally dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, have a distinctive character--upright, austere, tannic, and needing many years of cellaring to achieve the lovely elegance and finesse that is regarded by some as the epitome of claret. Saint-Juliens are very similar to the wines of their close neighbor to the north, Pauillac, but are somewhat less powerful, which I  believe plays into their more graceful style.

What better way to size up Saint-Julien than with a clutch of its well-aged wines, particularly from Chateau Beychevelle, the fourth growth estate that is almost always grossly underrated by both wine writers and wine critics. The four old vintages of Chateau Beychevelle we drank were all superb, bolstering the reputation of Saint-Julien and exposing the utter failure of wine critics to judge these vintages. The 1962 Chateau Beychevelle seems youthful still. with just a breath of oxidation. It's at that pinnacle where freshness intersects with finesse and elegance. The 1978 Chateau Beychevelle was the most edgy Saint-Julien of the bunch. Very Cab, firm and textured with its rich tannins intact. Masculine and youthful in color. Unsurprisingly the most plush was the lovely 1982 Chateau Beychevelle, its fruit plump and soft, and overall as seductive as a lap dance. We had two fine examples of the 1970 Chateau Beychevelle, with the first one in a 750ml bottle and the second in a surprise magnum. For some reason I thought the 750ml was drinking better; it showed not only a freshness but also an appetizingly rich concentration that the leaner, more acidic magnum seemed to lack. The magnum was presented blind, and so I guessed it was perhaps a '64. Anyway, in the end it just added to my suspicions about the variability in 1970s Bordeaux bottlings--hard to predict what you'd get.

(Kevin's note:  1962 Beychevelle—supple fragrant with raspberry and a little spice, with very good balance and elegance-my favorite wine of the night. 18 1970 Beychevelle (.750 ml)—cedar and matchstick, (I wanted to light up my English blend tobacco right then), lighter bodied, not that concentrated but nice smoke and cedar on the mid palate. 17-17.5 1970 Beychevelle (magnum)—harder tannins but fruit not as strong. I liked the 750 more. 1978 Beychevelle—hearty, chunky style. I couldn’t figure out where this was going. The tannins were strong but seemed a little off also. 16.5-17. 1982 Beychevelle—Powerful concentrated, lots of promise, blackberry and vanilla, tobacco cedar cabernet nose--17.5-18.)

Aside from the 1982 Chateau Beychevelle, there were two other 1982 Bordeaux on the table. One was the great 1982 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases. I'm not the biggest 1982 Bordeaux fan, there are not many wines in this vintage that have wowed me but the Leoville-Las Cases is stupendous, just a notch below the greatness of another second growth, the 1982 Pichon Lalande--it would be most interesting to do a mano-a-mano between the two. Notwithstanding its proximity to Chateau Latour, the Las Cases is solid Saint-Julien, it is upright, not so much voluptuous, and there is a firmness underneath the 1982 fat. Altogether, the wine is aristocratic.

(Kevin's notes: very tight focus, On palate great concentration enormous depth, power. Graphite, cassis, wow. 19-19.5)

My favorite wine of the evening, though, was the 1982 Chateau Gloria. A wine with a magical purity. Amidst the richness, the elegance shines through with a lovely expression--cassis, mint, and tea leaves in fresh high tones. Unlike the Las Cases, which is a meal by itself, the Gloria demands that you take a bite of that tender quail after each sip. And maybe a forkful of that grass-fed filet as well, then you wash it down with the Gloria. Hallelujah! G-L-O-R-I-A!

(Kevin's notes: Ruby color, tobacco with fairly oaky nose, but palate surprisingly austere (a good thing!)— but not because of lack of fruit, plenty of that also. 17)

Any tasting of Saint-Juliens should pay respects to Anthony Barton, who for many years during the 1990s and early 2000s refused to greedily raise his price. The 1990 Chateau Leoville-Barton only gets more gorgeous with time. Violets-scented streaked with Earl Grey and raw beef. On the palate it was so '90, opulent and velvety.

(Kevin's notes:  Rich cedary nose, nice cab, powerful wine, upfront fruit and spice on the finish. Great future.  17.5—18)

A footnote to this tasting was the 2007 Domaine du Jaugaret. It is a unique estate not just in Saint-Julien but in all Bordeaux. Encompassing just a mere 1.3 hectares, it has been owned by the Fillastre family since 1654. However, the estate will end with Jean-Fran├žois Fillastre, who is almost 70 years-old, as he has no heirs. About 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon that's been aged in old oak barrels for 30 months. It has more of a varietal wine character rather than a blended Bordeaux, with young Cabernet flavors of dense blackberries, olives, and toasty oak. Surprisingly reminiscent of an old-style Napa Cabernet like Inglenook or a modern-day version like Dominus.

Dessert arrived with the 2001 Chateau Rieussec. Obviously an infant, but a marvelous treat to taste after a decade. Very rich and concentrated, stuffed with apricot jam, raw honey, and candied orange peel. Overwhelming on the palate.

(Kevin's notes: lots of zest and acidity, told very high residual sugar but wouldn’t notice it. mandarins and pineapple, lengthy and tangy.)

The Birch Street Boys

The dinner left me with a good taste of Bordeaux in my mouth that I haven't felt in a long time. This road tour rocked.

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