Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Dinner With Friends

February 2013. We are three couples who meet regularly to eat dinner together and taste wines, each calculated to match the various dishes we try. The evenings seldom finish without our having tried at least eight or nine wines, all of them of distinction, even the few that prove to be over the top!. All are tasted blind.

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On blind tastings, a French wine producer once said to me: “la dégustation à l’aveugle est un exercice en l’humilité.” I made him chuckle by replying: “”Yes, and sometimes an exercise in humiliation!”.

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Our most recent dinner was chez our good friends Keith and Clare Powis who, like us, live in southeast Kent. Keith, a wine scholar of extraordinary erudition, runs the Canterbury Wine-Tasting Society, which holds regular tastings at the University of Canterbury. He also runs wine courses on the Isle of Sheppey. He charges no fee for sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge with all and sundry.

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Here’s my report on the dinner hosted by Keith and Clare.

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The three 1988 Rieslings were all remarkable. The Maximen Grünhaus Abstsberg Kabinett (von Schubert) was floral and exquisite, as delicate as can be yet with great tensile strength, grounded in its exceptional steely acidity. At 25 years, just about at its best. The Riesling Schlossberg from Weinbach had all the merits of a great dry Riesling, with the finesse of a top Mosel yet all the attributes of a fully dry wine with a similar structure, and underlying finesse of a top Chablis. The Riesling Frédéric Emile from Trimbach was totally different in style: as full and structured as a Puligny; indeed, nearly as weighty as a white Hermitage. It expanded in the mouth, a model of Trimbachian rectitude, leaving a stony aftertaste. Of the trio, the one that most needed to be served with food – and possibly the one with most to gain from further ageing. The two Alsace wines, in their different ways, went extremely well with the crab-cakes that opened the meal.

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The first red, ’94 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva from CVNE, smelled of damson and liquorice, with hints of wet earth and clove, and was dense and vinous in a way that was less common in Rioja in those days – when too many wines were kept over-long in oak – than today. It was though, a bit high in acidity and faintly stalky. Nonetheless, an excellent wine that went very well with the rolled shoulder of lamb (cooked to a turn, at low temperature, over many hours). The 1999 Langhe Rosso “Serrapiu” from Gianni Voerzio looked like a Pauillac (my thoughts drifted that way, initially) and even tasted that way, too, to begin with. Then the Piedmont style began to assert itself as tobacco and cherry notes started to emerge. It had a delectable sweetness, balanced by discreet oakiness, and the tannins were very fine.

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The ’94 Vieux Télégraphe was at its peak, and quite delicious: a tantalising hint of camphor showed on a smooth, round flavour that was full of fruit (largely Grenache but with noticeable Mourvèdre) and spice. (I guessed initially at another CDP property, before homing in on V.T.). The ’94 Château l’Evangile that came next was, sadly, out of condition: not corked but redolent of unclean oak [Keith later confirmed that, retasted the next day, it had no improved one whit).

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The 1983 Las Cases, while impressive and showing unmistakeable Médoc character (I’d thought it to be a Pauillac – it is only a few hundred metres from Latour!) was dark, full-bodied, and distinguished but, to me, showed a bit of that typical ’83 “cooked” character I associate with the overripe Merlot found in many clarets from that vintage. This surprised me: in those days I was in regular contact with the late owner Michel Delon, who rigorously followed the counsel of Emile Peynaud who’d most certainly have done his level best to avert such a defect. Maybe Delon was simply caught out by the freak conditions of that difficult vintage.

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It should be pointed out that Keith later reported that the wine was simply splendid the next day. (I own bottles myself and will uncork one soon*).

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The meal concluded with a very yellow, evolved-looking dessert wine that I initially guessed to be about 20 years old. It had the typical low-acid character of a Sauternes and proved to be a 2004 Château Coutet, a very good example of a sweet wine from a fast-developing vintage.

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*A few days after that meal I did indeed open one of my bottles of the 1983 Léoville Las Cases. There was, in fact, no overt sign of overripeness: it was dark, glossy, and very fruity, and had a long finish. As with most crus classes’ clarets from good vintages, after several decades in bottle, it still had a good few years to go before peaking, though it was certainly delicious as things stood. At the same time I also sampled an ’88 Château Haut-Brion. Nearly black, it has an immensely powerful, complex aroma of sweet black fruits, tobacco leaf, cigarbox, and truffle, and a flavour of such intensity it quite drenched the palate with its sheer force and energy. Very hard and unyielding to start with, it gradually softened in the glass but remained just a little obdurate. It still has a way to go.

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A few years ago, this wine had been elegant, if faintly spiky, and a bit on the lightish side; but I’d always suspected that it would gain in body as it matured. This guess was borne out. It is considerably weightier now than in the past and clearly needs another 12-15 years to peak fully. At that point it should be truly remarkable. Which is not to say that it isn’t good to drink even now, provided you decant it 7-8 hours in advance and serve it with a stew or roast of red meat with a rich sauce. The finesse is there, behind the forceful tannins and concentrated fruit. It just needs more time to emerge.

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© Frank Ward 2014

 

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