Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Birthday Treats

April 2017. A friend of mine, born on Christmas Day, was miffed about that concurrence (you can’t celebrate both events at full throttle on the same day). So he awarded himself an “official” birthday midway between two Christmases: 30th June each year. On that day he just sat back waiting for presents.

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Which he got.

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And, on Christmas Day, not a few birthday presents too!

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My own birthday falls in March so I have to be satisfied with one lot of presents only. Though this year I upped the quantity of those presents by awarding myself eight very special wines. But not for myself alone: they were shared with oenophile friends on the appointed day.

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The celebratory meal comprised: scallops served on their shells resting, on a bed of shingle from Deal beach (pre-dinner appetiser); watercress soup; a four-rib roast of beef; a range of farmhouse cheeses; and a lovely lemon pie with nuts.

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As aperitif, I’d thought of serving a very good champagne – perhaps Taittinger Comtes de Champagne or ’96 Salon. Then I remembered that a friend had recently given me a magnum of 1996 Nyetimber, from one of England’s most highly-regarded producers of sparkling wine. But would it still be drinkable after twenty years? I know that English wines can age well, not least due to their naturally high acidity, but would two decades be stretching things? An inspection of the bottle showed that the level was perfect and the contents looked both limpid and bright. I decided to go ahead.

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I served the wine blind; the glasses were poured in an ante-room, out of sight. First impressions? The mousse was perfect (microscopic bubbles), the colour lustrous, the bouquet wonderful. The charged glasses were handed round. Most of those present were experienced tasters so I awaited comments with great interest.

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One friend guessed: Comtes de Champagne (one of my own absolute favourites), another thought it might be Roederer Cristal. In any event, only one person (rather uncertainly) mentioned England. They were flabbergasted when they saw label and vintage. Not only because of the wine’s superb quality, but also due to its sheer vitality at 20 years.

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(I later wrote to the friend who’d donated the magnum: “All thought it to be not only Champagne but Champagne of the highest quality. It was delicious on the day. A still more stringent test of the wine’s inherent quality was to retaste it 24 hours later. The colour was luminescent, the nose vibrant and intense, the flavour delectable. It didn’t show quite the same pronounced terroir/minerality traits found in the best Champagne but what it did show was a very special, possibly uniquely English personality. It was almost startling delicious, with a delicate trace of something like cardamom on the finish. The fact that it had actually gained in complexity overnight seems to suggest that English sparkling wines have a great future.”

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Watercress is no friend of wine, even if watercress soup is a bit more amenable. And that was the first course. I sought a crisp, very mineral wine, preferably from a cool region of the sort that endows its whites with chlorophyll-like scents. I settled on a 1993 Sancerre de Chavignol, from the François Cotat’s Monts Damnés vineyard. At 24 years it was bursting with vitality and packed with compact, mature Sauvignon fruit. Not that the Sauvignon character was very pronounced: this was an instance where the actual vineyard’s strong personality overrode the variety’s. A wine from that special lieu dit seems to derive its singular, flinty/sulphury aroma from the local stone that has a minerality all of its own. A wine with a unique style of its own, slightly savage, utterly natural, a pure expression of terroir.

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With the majestic joint of beef that came next I first served a magnum of 2002 Moulin à Vent from Paul Janin, bought at the property about eight years ago. At 14 years, it has a fine blue-purple colour (blind, I could have taken it for a fine Burgundy – which is exactly what most of those present did), emitting scents of raspberry and cherry. Medium full, long on the palate, it was a thoroughly seductive wine, almost at its best but able to improve slightly over the next few years.

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Next a 2003 Corton Bressandes from Tollot-Beaut. That vintage was a very hot one and many producers came up with unbalanced wines. Many have a scorched character and abrasive tannins. The reason: some growers picked too early, when the grapes seemed to be fully ripe but were not. The skins were roasted, the juice still unripe.

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Not so here: a deep and lustrous black-purple, this weighty yet buoyant wine has a copybook Pinot Noir aroma of black cherry and liquorice and was silky and very long. Lovely now, it will still improve over the next 4-5 years and possibly more (wish I’d kept more bottles!).

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The second magnum was a 1980 Château Mont Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It looked about 15 years old rather than over 36. Glowing as to colour, with only a little browning, it had an appealing scent of sweet prunes, plums, and liquorice and a finely balanced flavour with typical CDP spiciness.

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At this point it was time to test another magnum that I’d bought quite cheaply at auction some 15 years’ ago and had left to gather dust (and, I hoped, momentum). 1975 Château Margaux. Though a First Growth and one of Bordeaux’s very greatest properties, Margaux was not very well run at that period (only after Peynaud took over vinification in 1978 did matters improve). However, 1975 – though many wines are hard and overly tannic – often gave wines that, in time, turned out well, simply because of their great concentration. Another factor: in those days Margaux was vinified lightly and – given that ’75 was extremely hot – that approach, more by accident than design, might well have averted the inherent risk in that scorching vintage of involuntary over-extraction.

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The level was well into neck. The wine-empurpled cork came out whole, and the wine’s colour, when I decanted it, was satisfactorily dark and intense, the nose promisingly full. When it was served, some hours later, it smelled more like a Pauillac than Margaux, such was its sheer weightiness. Indeed, the nose was positively massive: an interweave of smoke, prunes, blackberry jam, cigarbox, humus, and a host of other subsidiary perfumes of the sort found only in top-level Médocs. The rich flavour was a repeat of this, only more so, and with very good length.

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Was it a great wine? It had elements of greatness but was not quite great. But it did come close. A bit lacking in acidity, to be sure, but there was such a concentration of mostly Cabernet fruit, such density in the mouth, that it was deeply satisfying to drink. In short, a concentrated and weighty wine which, while firmly tannic, was in no way abrasive. One guest later wrote that he, too, found it more like a Pauillac than a Margaux. On the nose, “Cedar, mushrooms, earth, dried herbs.” On the palate: “elegant and well-integrated with a lovely lingering finish.”

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Now an outstanding 1998 Château La Fleur de Gay, so intense in colour (deep black-purple) that it emitted scarlet flashes as it was poured. The bouquet was of extreme finesse, silky and well-fleshed. It smelled of bilberry, truffle, brown sugar, and chocolate. A sumptuous wine that one of those present likened to Pétrus.

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Most French wines taste best with food and all of the reds up to this point were served with the meat. Now it was time for cheese: Camembert, Brie, two or three different goats, and a wonderful old Beaufort. I prefer to serve either whites or great but immature reds stage of a meal. A red was chosen: 2005 Hermitage Les Bessards from Delas, decanted some eight hours earlier. Nearly black, immensely full, it had the sheer force needed to stand up to the intense flavours of the different cheeses. All the same, I realized that this potentially great Rhône would have been better in another 5-6 years. But we finished the bottle anyway!

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With dessert: a lovely, ethereal 2000 Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles from Trimbach. It smelled of pineapple, honey, orange liqueur, and spices. Despite its richness, it seemed to hover over the table, as ethereal as a morning mist.

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© Frank Ward 2017

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