Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

CALON SÉGUR TASTING & VISIT TO MANOIR DES QUAT’SAISONS

July 2015. I’ve twice been to Lutyens restaurant on Fleet Street in the last year, in both instances for a dinner combined with a vertical tasting of wines from Bordeaux estates. On this second occasion the Château in question was Calon Ségur – a property I’ve always respected, and even had a kind of nostalgia for, since drinking a quite wonderful 1947 with the late owner, Philippe Gasqueton, at his dinner table at the Château many years ago.

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Lutyens is a restaurant I might never have visited had I not chosen to attend those two dinners. The place has a mention in Michelin but not a star. Michelin sometimes awards stars when they’re not wholly merited (I can say this with some certitude, having eaten in perhaps 1,000 Michelin- starred restaurants over the last 40 years); but it rarely fails to do so when the cooking has some degree of distinction.

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(That being said, there have been glaring omissions such as, for example, the unforgettable, but now sadly defunct, Le Mimosa, near Montpellier; they always had a mention but never a star).

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Anyway, I expected a correct meal at Lutyens but nothing more than that. In the event, the food was very good indeed – on that second evening, at least as good as at many a one-star establishment.

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First, a light and tasty veal tartare with morels, shaved parmesan, and gently acidulated, wafer-thin slices of cauliflower; then a truly superb rack of (Welsh) lamb with roast fennel and purée of aubergine, and finally a good selection of Neal’s Yard cheeses with very flavoursome oat cakes.

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Bravo Lutyens: keep it up and you should obtain a star fairly soon.

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Now to the wines.

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The 2008 Calon Ségur was soft, elegant, and well-balanced and needed at least 7-8 years to open. The ’09 was a very different beast, showing typical ’09 volume, richness, and weight – a beefy, viscous wine, still noticeably oaky, with hints of blackberry jam and anthracite smoke on the palate. Should improve for two decades at least.

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For me, the ’05 that came next was easily the best of the seven vintages sampled. Black-purple at the rim, it had a noble, harmonious aroma of black fruits, with a subtle hint of roast chestnuts, and was long and nuanced on the palate, with excellent structure. I predict a great future for this beauty of a wine.

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The 2000 was excellent, too, and in a very similar mode. The only difference was that, like some other 2000s (e.g. Evangile, Mouton Rothschild, and Branaire Ducru) it seems to have gone back into its shell. That’s completely normal for fine claret. It smelled of plum, damson, and pitch, and while sleek of texture and very persistent it was otherwise in a diffident mood. Another long-lasting wine that won’t be at its best for a minimum of 20 years.

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At this point signals went out from neighbouring tables (a yacht-owning Indian millionaire and his obviously well-heeled accountant) to the effect that the 1998 – soon to arrive in our glasses – was something extra special. You could see – or rather taste – why some might think it so. It was dark and aromatic, with an elegant and expressive aroma that was, however, very marked by light-toast oak – cigar box, cinnamon, smoke. On the palate, a lot of fruit, but fruit still imbued with smoke, cinnamon, and espresso coffee flavours. A very good wine, but not exceptional, with a touch less substance than the ’05 and ’00. It will improve for at least two decades but never come close to the ’05.

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Next, the 1995. I possess a case of this wine and find it full and vigorous, with plenty of fruit, but rough on the finish – a trait that also marks many other 1995 clarets (and some top Burgundies too). That’s probably why it was served from magnums – most wines show better, and taste rounder, in that larger format. Not yet fully mature but very agreeable to drink on the night, it was dark, full-bodied, and satisfying. I’d expect it to peak in about 10 years, and go on improving for quite some time thereafter. It’s to be hoped that it will shed its rougher tannins in the process.

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The ’89 – the only moderately old wine of the sequence – was also pleasurable to drink.

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Tasting it and other ’89 clarets at the various properties in 1990 – a quarter-century ago! – I felt at that very early stage that most ’89 Médocs, Calon included, were good but not great; whereas numerous Pessac-Léognans and right bank wines were exceptional. I published those impressions in the now-defunct “European” newspaper, in 1990, and subsequent tastings have done little to change my mind.

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(In that article, I’d predicted that ’89 Haut-Brion was one of the top wines of the vintage. And so has it proved.).

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For me, this ’89 Calon confirmed that first impression from the tasting in 1990: round and fleshy, with good concentration, still a bit tannic and with typical ’89 viscosity, it was a real pleasure to drink; but it was a very good wine rather than a complete one, being just a little shapeless. In short, not at all on the same level as the ’89 Haut-Brion and most well-run right bank wines from that vintage. But it did make a good ending to an enjoyable evening at Lutyens.

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Being in London, we thought we’d make a quick visit to Oxford, staying overnight in that beautiful city itself, and taking a taxi the 12 miles out to Great Milton for dinner at Manoir des Quat’ Saisons. Of three dishes sampled à la carte, two were “correct” (what I call Madame Tussauds cooking – impressive to look at, technically accomplished, but not thrilling). The crab was pleasant enough but nothing more than that (a bit tame if truth were told) and the pigeon, while tender, was cooked through, not served pink as is the norm in French restaurants.

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The dessert, however, was truly exceptional – soufflé of apple with a solid piece of apple that had more flavour, and a longer aftertaste, than many vaunted wines. The very skin was ambrosial. Whoever fashioned it was a true artist. It was one of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever eaten.

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I love true Beaujolais – those made with love by serious growers, using old vines with very low yields. I know the region’s wines well, having tasting many scores of the best wines every year over a couple of decades (an aggregate of several thousand samples). I declared my love of authentic Beaujolais to the sommelier and was urged, with obvious sincerity and good faith, to try a 2013 Morgon from a grower called Julien Sunier. Suppressing an inclination to try instead a Morgon from Jean Foillard, a producer I know to be superb, I did as suggested (I’m always ready to try something new). Sadly, the wine proved to be lacking even in Gamay character, being dilute and without true Beaujolais, never mind Morgon, character. We drank just over half of it and left the rest. The wine was, of course, very young, and may have been out of sorts due to recent shipment.

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I am aware that Sunier, who established himself in Beaujolais in 2008, is seen as a rising star, and I’m certain that he is indeed a good source of Beaujolais wines. He might even be exceptional (Jancis Robinson, a sound judge, has written well of him.)

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But, as a French vigneron once put it : “on trouve la vérité dans le verre”.

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I really should have ordered that Foillard. A sublime ’09 Morgon Vieilles Vignes of his enjoyed in a Cannes restaurant some time ago was truly unforgettable. It was, in fact, a better wine than a number of below-par Grand Cru Burgundies tasted by me over the years.

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But I’ll probably end up ordering a case or two from Sunier, just to make sure that I haven’t done him an injustice!

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© Frank Ward 2015

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