Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

CHEZ PHILIP & CATHIE

July 2016. A recent dinner at the home of Philip and Cathie, a couple who care about food and wine. The meal began with juicy melon with prosciutto, partnered with a wonderful 1996 Sancerre Etienne Henri from Henri Bourgeois. This was a case where a vineyard with its own unique character overrode the equally singular character of the grape in question, the Sauvignon Blanc. You knew the wine was exceptional yet it didn’t immediately show the very special, and often idiosyncratic traits, of that variety. At first we thought to it be a northern Rhone… and even considered several other possibilities.

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It didn’t taste like Sancerre yet it was the quintessence of Sancerre.

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It was the vineyard in this case that was idiosyncratic. The emerald-tinged colour signalled maturity, because of its luminescence and subtle gradations, while the richly aromatic bouquet – greengage, pistachio, gooseberry, and chlorophyll – reflected a very special kind of rectitude and force. There was also a hint of putty (a product partly made from clay), a trait I often find, uniquely, in Sauvignon Blanc wines. A vital, complex wine, still full of life at 20 years and with lots in reserve.

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On the food side, a delicious slow-cooked sirloin with roast potatoes and diverse spring vegetables. This, believe it or not, was accompanied by no fewer than six reds. Not one of those reds was superfluous.

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The first was 2004 Mackenzie from Stellenbosch. We were all puzzled by this to begin with, wholly unable to guess the continent, never mind the country. (as for me, it’s a wine I’ve never tasted previously). But there was a special kind of earthiness, a rusticity that prompted me, after several fumbled guesses, eventually to plump for South Africa. It had plenty of fruit, but of a heavy kind of fruit, lacking lift.

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Lift was in ample supply in the next wine, a ’99 Côte-Rôtie from Clusel-Roch. It was fresh, lively, and seductive, with raspberry-accented Syrah fruit on mid-palate and a very long finish. It was at the far end of the spectrum from a typical Guigal Côte-Rôtie which, while often magnificent, does not have finesse as its strongest suit (the late Michel Delon of Léoville Las Cases, told me he didn’t care for the Guigal style at all). The 1991 Barolo Castello Fallato from Seghesto that came next had the delicate blue-purple look of a Pinot Noir but was, of course, 100% Nebbiolo. Barolo character asserted itself on the palate, even if it was a bit muted because of the lightness of the vintage. It gave off a composite scent of raspberry, rose petals, and carnation, with a distinctly ferrous element on the aftertaste, which was a bit thin but savoury.

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The following red was very Pauillac-like, and clearly contained plenty of Cabernet-Sauvignon. “No, it’s not Pauillac and not from France,” said Philip. In that case I felt it had to be a Napa – and from somebody who worshiped the very terroir that Mouton stood on. It proved to be 2001 Coach Insignia Cabernet-Sauvignon and was indeed from Napa. It carried its 14 abv lightly and, like most top Napa reds, was full-bodied, silky, and full of utterly ripe fruit. There was no astringency or bitterness, the tannins being of the ripest kind. The finish was very long. Quite simply, a lovely wine that was a joy to drink.

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I loved the 2000 Hermitage from Chave that came next. Tasting blind, I at first took it for a Burgundy because of its pale, blueish colour and refined bouquet, though its lack of unmistakeable Pinot Noir character gave me pause. If light for an Hermitage, it was exquisitely balanced and had a long finish. We all spent several minutes relishing it in silence: wherever it came from it was delectable. Clearly, Chave had vinified lightly in that minor vintage, and in doing so had managed to preserve all of the finest elements in the grapes, without retention of anything undesirable.

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I was completely thrown by the 2000 Léoville Las Cases that now arrived in our glasses. Black as ebony, as voluminous as port, it was a monster of a wine, more new world in style than old. None of us got anywhere close to guessing its identity. I didn’t like it on the day, and I doubt if its proprietors would have cared for it had they tasted it together with us – not as it showed at this particular moment. Yet I’m convinced it’s a great wine. Not because of any qualities I found in that particular sample, but because Las Cases is always, without exception, one of the most perfectly-vinified wines in all Bordeaux.

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Great claret can occasionally surprise one in this way, swelling up like a vinous balloon as if about to explode. I’m certain it will slim down, rebalance itself, and then resume its long journey towards full maturity – a maturity that won’t arrive in less than 20 or so years.

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Another top Saint Julien, 1995 Léoville Barton, showed altogether better on the night. Unmistakeably a great Médoc, it was still young at twenty years but nonetheless a joy to drink now, with lots of ripe fruit and a protracted aftertaste. That special distinction found in maturing Médocs was much in evidence. And I was pleased to note that it was free of the slightly aggressive tannins evident in not a few of its peers from that same vintage.

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As with all fine reds it had a particularly intense, glittering colour.

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As the poet said: “Oh how that glittering taketh me!”.

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© Frank Ward 2016

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