Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

EATING OUT & EATING IN

September 2012. Eating In & Eating Out. In which I describe some recent meals and vinous rarities and also have pleasure in publishing tasting notes on some 19th-century wines, written by David Matthews, the composer.

One of Britain’s leading composers, David Matthews, has a house in Deal in southeast Kent (where I happen to live) and often comes down to the coast to work on his various compositions. In the course of his career he’s written seven symphonies, 12 string quartets, and all manner of other works, including a piece specially commissioned to mark the 90th birthday of the late Queen Mother. He’s here at this very moment, working on his latest composition, a symphonic poem with the sea as its theme. As Deal is on the coast (I can glimpse the English Channel from my window, a mere ten metres away) there could be no more suitable place in which to write such a piece. If one forgets the sea’s presence for one moment, squealing seagulls are there to refresh your memory.

The new work will receive its world premiere at the 2013 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. I can reveal now that the squealing of gulls, suitably transposed, will feature in the piece.

David is also a noted musical scholar. Among his written oeuvre is an important biographical study of Benjamin Britten (entitled, quite simply, “Britten”, Haus Publishing, 2003). David knew Britten personally, having worked on the score of the elder composer’s “Burning Fiery Furnace” After the premiere of the new piece at Aldeburgh, many years ago, Britten acknowledged David’s contribution to the work by saying to him: “I hope you enjoyed hearing your notes.”

David Matthews, his symphonic poem set aside for the moment, contemplates a range of wines of more recent provenance than the 19th-century rarities he describes below. Will the first wine to be uncorked be allegro, molto vivace, tremolo, or fortissimo?

David is a great wine lover and a shrewd taster. He has a pile of notebooks in which he’s written many hundreds of tasting notes on wines, many of them extremely rare. They were bottles he’d been able to buy cheaply, many years ago, before wine became the consuming interest (not always from the purest of motives) of large numbers of multi-billionaires, whose willingness to pay almost  any price for such  rarities has placed them beyond the reach of most  true  wine-lovers.

Because of  those early purchases at low prices, before wine was “discovered”, he was able to taste his way through a whole range of very old wines, many dating from the 1920s and earlier and not a few of them from the pre-phylloxera era (1870s and 1880s).

He’s very kindly given me permission to publish his notes on some of the wines, all of which were tasted together with his brother Colin, also a distinguished composer, in the mid-1970s. Here they are:

11 October 1975

Ch.Bourgard 1870

Ex-Christies, Château not yet traced [I suppose it couldn’t have been the old name of Beauregard?]

Decanted immediately before drinking. Fairly light red colour, but definitely red and not brown. Very full, flowery bouquet, really gorgeous, so that it remained powerfully in the glass when the wine had been drunk. Taste at first a little thin in comparison with the spectacular nose, but it developed well in the decanter. It was very fruity, quite sweet, extremely nice. Some acidity – not an exceptionally soft wine. It was just beginning to decline as we finished it, about three-quarters of an hour after opening. A very remarkable and beautiful wine. 

13 December 1975

Ch. Rausan-Ségla, 1870

Ex-Christies, apparently from a Bordeaux cellar, like the Bourgard.

Hardly ullaged bottle. Decanted immediately before drinking. Wondrously preserved dark red colour, almost bright. One would have hardly guessed later than the 1920s. Very full blackcurranty bouquet, huge, penetrating, superb. Again not that of a 105-year old wine. No hint of decay. Very definite aroma (recognisably Margauxish), not tending towards anonymity like most very old wines. First tasting impression: a big fruity wine, full and with a great deal of natural sweetness, but still with residual tannin! Clearly could have been decanted a little earlier (though it was nice to taste it like this). Complex flavour, magnificent. Long aftertaste. We took about three quarters of an hour to drink it, in which time the tannin disappeared, the wine softened out and at last began to show its age, and to lose something of the definiteness of flavour which had so singled it out, ending very soft and sweet, quite like the ’26 Pouget [a magnum of which we’d drunk in June]. One would probably guessed it to be one of the great ’29s. The greatest wine I have yet drunk, I think – certainly the greatest claret [I was thinking of the 1945 Musigny I’d drunk in 1974, which was the best Burgundy I’ve ever drunk]. A momentous experience. 

4 February 1976

Ch. Léoville Poyferré, 1890

Ex-Christies, from the same Bordeaux cellar as the Rausan-Ségla.

Ullaged to mid-shoulder. Decanted immediately before drinking. Rather pale mahogany, and looked frailer than it turned out to be. Lovely welcoming bouquet, more the classic Médoc nose of a Lafite than the much fruitier Margaux-like nose of other old wines we have drunk. Not as big as the ’93 but absolutely excellent – elegant and beautifully poised. Taste: a superbly elegant claret, still all there and with great character, absolutely not an anonymous old wine. A light wine compared with the ’93 but not at all thin, in fact a great amount of fruit, and such quality as to make the ’45 Léoville Barton [which we’d just drunk – a Harvey’s English bottling] appear mean and poor. Did not decline, despite its fragile appearance. 

Ch. Léoville Poyferré, 1893

Very good level. Decanted immediately before drinking. Mature red, deep, an amazingly well-preserved colour. A quite overwhelming bouquet – wonderful! Huge, expansive, Latour-like quality. Very very ripe. Taste: magnificent wine, full of fruit, full penetrating flavour and such quality! Not as elegant as the ’90 but a greater wine: Beethoven rather than Mozart. The quality of these 19th-century wines is indescribable; they are on a quite different level to modern wines; every aspect is raised to as higher power. This was perhaps as good as the Rausan-Ségla, and remained unchanged as we drank it, a perfectly balanced, smooth, fruity but dry claret and a truly great wine.

___________________

David and his wife Jenifer have invited us round to dinner, which we sit down to eat outside, in their garden, our necks almost tickled by rambling roses and heavily-laden quince bushes (they make a splendid jelly from this rare fruit).

As usual he does his best to fox me with his choice of wines (I do the same to him, of course, when I’m host). And he largely succeeds. As we chew on a delicious appetiser made by Jenifer, Ligurian pancakes made from chickpea flour, rosemary, and pine nuts, the first wine appears. It’s golden, viscous, and has a big, slightly musky aroma. The flavour is rich, of almost (but not quite) vendange tardive weight but the finish is quite dry. I guess its age to be eight years (correct) but it’s hard to pin down the region. Alsace seems a likely provenance; but no, it’s not from there (I’d been thinking of Pinot Gris, that region’s fattest variety, giving very golden wines). I then mention Sauvignon Gris from Saint Bris, close to Chablis. Very different from the leaner, crisper Sauvignon Blanc, the “Gris”    gives weighty, faintly musky wines with a grapy aftertaste: very like the one now in our glasses. David now announces that, while not spot-on, I am at least on the right track. It is in fact, a 2004 Sauvignon vieilles vignes (old vines), from southwest of Bordeaux, a corner of that region where there’s a tradition of late-harvesting the whites so as to attain maximum ripeness. In any event, I can’t help wondering if at least a proportion of the grapes are of the “Gris” persuasion, since the wine is more about rich fruitiness and weight than the minerality and crispness one normally associates with classic Sauvignon Blanc. In this context, we should remember two things. One: even to this day, there are still plots of ancient, forgotten varieties that are i.e. forgotten or “tolerated” (while they die out); Two:  proprietors are sometimes unaware of the true identity of some of the vines in their vineyards (as recently as the late 2000s Château Mouton Rothschild was unaware that some of the rows of vines they’d doubtless been using for years, in all good faith, as Merlot proved to be of the supposedly obsolete Carmenere variety).

The next white is also excellent. Again I fail to get the region right away. There’s a whiff of chlorophyll, a feeling of refined terroir, and it’s full and succulent on the palate with good acidity. It’s so clean cut and pure that I’m hovering between Chablis and Sancerre. In fact, it proves to be a humble Pinot Blanc 2007 from Trimbach – a wine of real distinction, good enough to drink with fine fish. Only now, at five years, has it begun to show this surprising degree of excellence, demonstrating that even Pinot Blanc can improve immeasurably with ageing. In fact, quite a few serious producers have demonstrated in recent years that the variety can not only give very good wines indeed, but can also achieve notable longevity.

A Burgundy producer, M. Blain of Domaine Blain-Gagnard in Chassagne-Montrachet, once told me that, of all his visitors to his cellar, I was the one who clearly attached the most importance to the manifold nuances of colour of his wines (maybe something that stemmed from my training as a painter). He made me aware of how often I thought about colour and how much I deduced and intuited from a wine’s depth, intensity, tone, and gradations of colour. This bent of mine has often helped me pinpoint a region, grape variety, or vintage when tasting blind. So when the first red appears I immediately assert that, if a subtle black tinge within the principal colour (a blueish purple which makes me think of the Merlot) is anything to go by, it must contain at least some Cabernet-Sauvignon. But there’s also a tell-tale blueish tinge, only discernible at the glass’s rim, that makes me think more specifically of Pomerol, where quite a few of the wines contain a small percentage of  one or both Cabernets, even if the Merlot invariably dominates in those parts. Those right bank wines, like the wine before us now, have the exact colour of an aubergine after the bloom’s been rubbed off. Nonetheless, I initially guess Médoc, because of the wine’s force and distinction, and put the age as “above 20 years”. When David confirms claret but denies Médoc, I instantly rule out Graves and plump for Pomerol. It’s not quite Pomerol, we’re told, but from not far away. Eventually I whittle it down to Montagne Saint Emilion, more specifically Château Faizeau Vieilles Vignes, by common consent the finest of all châteaux within the various satellites of Saint-Emilion. It is made from 10% Cabernet-Sauvignon (whose presence was detectable by colour alone, despite its low proportion), 10% Cabernet-Franc, and 80% Merlot. The 10-hectare Château Faizeau vineyard, full of magnificent old vines, is owned by the Raynaud/Lebreton family, proprietors of Château la Croix de Gay, a leading estate in Pomerol. And they do bring a Pomerol-centric approach to the making of all their wines, even those not inside the Pomerol boundaries.

In fact, the bottle is staggeringly good. Far from being over the top at twenty-three years, it’s only just arrived at full maturity. A glowing blue-purple colour, it smells of black fruits, autumn berries, and truffle, and has a long, deeply satisfying finish. It has the kind of distinction found in a good Médoc Fifth growth – or of a good Pomerol.

Next, a Bandol: La Begude from the 1998 vintage. Its character is so pronounced it’s almost a caricature of Bandol, one of the punchiest wines in all France – or anywhere else for that matter. A wine with lots of stuffing, bracingly tannic, delivering the aromatic equivalent of a punch on the nose. The flavour is reminiscent of elderberry and blackcurrant. The tannins, though, are so harsh that I have a sudden vision of a chimney sweep’s brush, laden with soot, being thrust into a jug of this wine, delivering a distinct, ascerbic shock to the palate. A wine of character but a bit on the on the brutal side.  It was only made 14 years ago but in that brief space of time wines with that sort of  harsh tannin have become very much a rarity, simply because it’s become widely understood that grapes picked before full maturity give harsh, disagreeable scents and flavours, not to mention a rough, bitter finish. Had the owners of La Begude harvested a week or two later, when the grapes were more sweetly ripe, the wine would have been more harmonious.

On the subject of sweetly ripe wines, the next one fills the bill admirably: a smooth and juicy 2009 Bourgogne Rouge from Tollot-Beaut. It goes admirably with a number of mild but characterful cheeses: robluchon, a fine brébis, and a soft, buttery cheese from Kent.

________________

Only a few days earlier we’d given lunch to Renaud Rolland, sommelier at the top London restaurant The Square.  He’s reputed to possess one of the trade’s finest palates. He and his wife were spending the weekend in Kent and this gave me the chance to uncork a sequence of interesting bottles which we tasted together in the course of a lunch in which seafood (notably a big turbot straight out of the sea) was the centrepiece. As aperitif, a glass of Trimbach’s excellent 2004 Riesling Cuvée Fréderic Emile, which Renaud immediately identified as a “classic, bone-dry Riesling from Alsace”. Next a magnificent 2009 Puligny Montrachet “Combettes” from Sauzet. Because of its extreme youth (this great Premier Cru normally needs 8-10 years to peak) I’d decanted it several hours in advance, a measure that allowed the wine to show quite a lot of its enormous potential. Full, round, and very mineral, it rolled across the palate majestically, leaving an aftertaste of honey, melted butter, and apricot.

The first red was an exquisite 1996 Chinon Clos de la Dioterie from Charles Joguet  – one of the last vintages vinified by him personally. Made from vines close to a century old, from a north-facing vineyard, it had an intense, glowing deep-crimson colour and gave off an entrancing aroma, of striking freshness, of cherry and raspberry.  The delicious flavour was packed with vibrant Cabernet-Franc fruit and the finish very long indeed. (This wine so was delicious that we all returned to it again and again over the succeeding hours, despite the greatness of the wines that followed.)

Next a lovely 2001 Corton-Bressandes from Tollot-Beaut. It exhaled delectable Pinot Noir aromas –mostly red fruits and peony – and had a velvety texture. Though starting to mature, it still had a good 8-10 years’ improvement ahead. Wonderful as this was, it was inevitably overshadowed by the wine that followed: a majestic 1991 Chambertin from Domaine Armand Rousseau. So dark and voluminous was it, indeed, that initial guesses were inclined towards the Rhône (Côte-Rôtie, perhaps?). But it soon became clear that so noble and complex a wine, with precisely that kind of extreme finesse, could only be a Burgundy of the highest quality. It was highly voluminous yet seemed to float on the palate. We agreed that it was one of the greatest wines any of us had tasted.

I’d chosen to serve the last red – 1975 Château Latour – with a selection of cheeses, not one of which was overly strong. 1975, as we all know, was a hard, tannic vintage and many types of claret from that year have now dried out even though a tiny handful – the very best – have softened. The three greatest wines of that year, in my experience at least, were La Mission Haut-Brion, Pétrus, and to a slightly lesser degree Lafleur, and that trio showed superbly well even 20 years ago. Latour, however, didn’t show at all well in those early days, though I’ve always had faith in it, in the longer term, because of its deep and youthful colour and manifest density. Twenty years ago it was as hard as nails and many thought it would never come round. But it is, of course, a top Pauillac, and obdurate by its very nature. In addition, it contains possibly that commune’s highest percentage of the firm, tannic Cabernet-Sauvignon grape, the most long-lived of varieties. After a wait of many years, and with some hesitation (it might still be closed up and not many bottles remained) I opened a bottle some months ago, and was delighted to find that, at long last, the wine had started to mellow, even if it still had a long way to go. Now, quite a few months later, this latest bottle now before us had softened still more. The colour was tremendously deep and youthful looking, the nose forceful and decisive; very Cabernet-Sauvignon in style. Renaud quickly declared: “Château Latour!”; though he thought, not surprisingly given the wine’s quite amazing vitality, that it was altogether younger than its 37 years.  Even I, who already knew the vintage, was impressed by its freshness and pent-up energy. We all agreed that it had many years of improvement ahead. Splendid now, it should be sublime in 8-15 years’ time.

The meal finished with a 2001 Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles from Trimbach, a glorious dessert wine that smelled and tasted of rose petals, honeycomb, lychee, and pineapple. It rolled across our palates  as purposefully and  irresistibly as the waves now rolling their way up the shingled shore a mere 20 metres from our dining room window, reminding me of Shakespeare’s famous words:

c

                                                                    “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

                                                                     So do our minutes hasten to their end;

                                                                     Each changing place with that which goes before.

                                                                     In sequent toil all forward do contend…”

c

The intimations of mortality in these words encourage me, even now, to start planning the sequence of wines I’ll serve the next time our friends are in southeast Kent! I also find myself thinking: How appropriate that Deal, here on the windswept coast of Kent, is the place where David Matthews is at this moment working on his new symphonic poem about the sea. That thought fathers another: what wine to serve to celebrate the completion of that much-awaited work?

We shall see when that day comes.

© Frank Ward 2012

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One Response to “EATING OUT & EATING IN”

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