Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Incremental wines

August 2016. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) was a noted orator and saint. At least one of his sayings has survived the passage of time and carries great resonance to this day. «Everyone wishes to reach old age, but nobody wishes to be old.”

a

Who indeed wishes to be old?

a

a

But for the oenophile, at least, getting older does bring one huge advantage. His or her collection of wines will, if well-chosen, steadily improve year by year. This fact was underlined when two friends, Keith and Philip, recently celebrated a joint 70th birthday with a fine dinner accompanied by some distinguished wines from their two collections.

a

a

To prepare your palates – or at least your imagination – for the wines, I can tell you that the meal that was served with those wines comprised turbot with crab bisque; Beef Wellington; some excellent cheeses from Canterbury farmer’s market; and a splendid, low-sugar chocolate cake.

a

a

As always, the wines were served blind.

a

a

We began with a wonderful magnum of 1988 Ruinart – a cuvée that was never widely released, said Keith, who’d held it back for well over a decade. A little closed to begin with, it soon rounded out and, indeed expanded in all directions, sending out scents and subsidiary flavours that probed the deepest reaches of our palates. A lovely fusion of body, buoyancy, and precision. If the Chardonnay dominated, the Pinot Noir made its presence felt in a most subtle way.

a

a

Jaboulet’s 1985 Hermitage Blanc “Sterimberg” that came next was simply staggering. The pale but brilliant green-gold colour suggested a wine about a decade old rather than 31 years. The intricate aroma of toasted almonds and apricot showed an amazing freshness and purity. The texture was simply lovely – smooth, indeed silken, and very long. It was full and assertive yet showed classic restraint. I kept some in my glass for several hours: it remained fresh to the last drop. A mesmerising wine.

a

a

Also delectable was the 2002 Bâtard-Montrachet from Blain-Gagnard. A luminous green-gold, it was so round and luscious I thought it a Meursault. When this was denied I felt sure it had to be a Chassagne-Montrachet, because of that special breadth of fruit. No, I was told. Nor was it a Puligny. Eh? Realization dawned. That meant it had to be one of the three Grand Cru whites that straddled Puligny and Chassagne. At first I went for Bienvenues, the most reticent of the six (but no, that’s wholly inside Puligny!). It proved to be a Bâtard. In fact, Blain’s plot of Bâtard is inside Chassagne, not a blend of the two communes. Another white of exceptional purity and poise.

a

a

The unmistakeable Pauillac that came next made me first think of Latour, because of the tannic hardness at its core. But no, it proved to be 1996 Mouton. Given time in the glass, it slowly unfurled itself to reveal typical Mouton voluptuousness, volume, and roundness. A touch of astringency remained, however, and it seemed older than its years, suggesting that it might have endured less than ideal storage conditions at some stage. The last time I tasted this wine there was no hint of hardness – it had a very youthful, smooth constitution not showing in this sample.

a

a

Next, 2003 Clos des Papes from a magnum, which had an aerial quality not found in many ‘03s. It smelled uncannily like port, but without the alcoholic aspect, and was a delight to drink because of its roundness and lovely fresh fruit. The tannins were mild, the finish long. In complete contrast, the 1998 Grange Hermitage that came next was one of the most characterful wines I’ve ever tasted. Dark to the point of opacity, it gave off that uniquely Australian blast of vinous energy: black fruits, molasses, cinnamon, eucalyptus, scorched earth and stones. With its immense concentration of fruit and intermingling of multiple sub-flavours. It could only be Australian. Though it won’t mature fully for years it was exhilarating to drink even at this stage.

a

a

Nature has only three primary colours. This was like finding a fourth!

a

a

Wine of the evening for me – together with the ’85 Hermitage Blanc – was the 1986 Château Margaux. Dark, exquisitely balanced, with ample body but no excess flesh, it was full of incipient finesse and was extremely long. Though years short of full maturity, it nonetheless showed beautifully, such was its flawless harmony. The tannins couldn’t have been smoother yet provided all the structure needed to guarantee at least 30 years’ further improvement. This Margaux is a wine of perfect proportions. A truly great wine.

a

a

It was instructive to taste the 1946 Rivesaultes with the chocolate cake – a very good match – but felt that the process of oxidation had gone just that little bit too far; It would have been more enjoyable, say, 10-15 years ago. That being said, what a splendid array of mostly mature wines!

a

a

© Frank Ward 2016

a a