Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

2003 and All’s Well

January 2003

 

The New Year was seen in at our house with a long and sapid dinner, with a new wine to every course, in the company of wine-loving friends. The first of nine wines was uncorked at around 20.00 on the last day of 2002; the last was broached at roughly 00.30 on the first day of 2003. All were served blind, with the sole exception of the bottle of vintage Champagne which was popped open on the stroke of midnight – the very instant when all wines all over the world suddenly became a year older.

 

The aperitif wine was a 1990 Ortega from Throwley Vineyard, Kent, given to me some months earlier by the man who made it, Alan Smalley. My aim was to flummox my guests – and I succeeded. It completely fooled all but one person. A youthful yellow-gold, smelling of spring flowers and crab apple, it was highly mineral, vital, and bone dry. One person guessed Germany, another Alsace. Only David Matthews, the composer, correctly plumped for England. Next, a 1983 Macon Viré from André Bonhomme, given to me by the man himself at the end of a two-hour unannounced visit in late 2002. He told me not to bother to let him know how it had tasted “unless there’s something wrong with it!”. After much deliberation, he picked it out from a rack of old, cobwebbed bottles which he referred to as “la maison de retraite” (“the retirement home”). A luminous yellow colour, with no hint of the coppery tinge of decay despite its twenty years, it had a thrilling, polleny scent of apricots and melon, with a touch of noble rot (a typical trait of that difficult vintage) giving a honeyed finish. Somebody identified the Chardonnay grape but nobody imagined it to be two decades old.

 

And the meal hadn’t even started yet.

 

The first course was a small portion of creamy lentil soup topped with a cluster of morel mushrooms. The morels had been bought, in dried form, in a small shop in a tiny village in the hills above the Rhône Valley. We’ve been buying dried morels for years but have seldom been wholly satisfied with them, not least given the high cost. They always tasted of morels, of course, but were somehow pulpy and dry. This time we found out why we were never quite satisfied. It is received wisdom that dried morels need to be soaked in water for about an hour before they are cooked. Now, at long last, we were put right. And it wasn’t by a wise-looking old lady with white hair, but by a fresh-faced girl in her twenties. “You need to soak them for much, much longer: a good twenty-four hours in advance. And you put them into lukewarm, not cold water.”

 

We followed her advice and suddenly the morels tasted almost as good as fresh ones.

 

With the soup I served a 1994 Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru “Clavoillon” from Domaine Leflaive. Flawless in its way, it had an entrancing scent of pineapple and acacia honey and a full, smooth, succulent flavour of surprising length. The Chardonnay grape was identified right away; one experienced taster thought it might even be a Grand Cru. Which just goes to show what great winemaking can achieve in lesser years.

 

There’s no place on earth I feel more at home than at a table in good company, with a range of good food and wines in store. It’s a pleasure I like to prolong at any time of the year, but especially so on New Year’s Eve – finishing the meal well short of midnight would feel like an anti-climax.

 

This was why a small intermediate course was inserted at this point. A friend had brought us some excellent foie gras de canard and everybody got a slim slice of this delicacy together with a morsel of toast. Not only did this give an added facet to the meal but it also provided an excuse to present another wine: 1993 Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle from Trimbach. Very different in style from the Puligny – weightier, fatter, and spicier -it was the ideal accompaniment. Everybody was fascinated by the long, mineral aftertaste, which primed our palates for the reds to come.

 

Two guests had each brought a red to serve blind. The first had an evolved purple brown colour with a very elegant, unmistakeably Médoc aroma dominated by Cabernet-Sauvignon but with distinct hints, too, of Merlot and Cabernet-Franc. A particular kind of aroma – dense, low-yield fruit with the sort of woodiness derived from long cask ageing – made me guess that the wine was from the 1950s, but when this was denied, said that, in that case, it had to be from the 1960s, plumping for `62. This proved to be correct. As to commune, I guessed at Margaux, because of the wine’s elegance, but somebody else correctly suggested Saint-Estèphe. It was Cos d’Estournel, the most refined château of the commune.

 

Nobody identified the next wine: 1979 Château La Mission Haut-Brion. This was mostly because of the obviously high alcohol (probably 13° or above), which is seldom seen in Bordeaux. It took quite some time to pin the wine down to the Graves and longer still to arrive at the name of the property. Nearly black, looking about 10 years old (I’d thought it a 1990!), it had a big smoky very Cabernet aroma and masses of fruit. There was, though, a harshness on the palate that I ascribed to immature tannins, and while the wine would surely live another decade or two it seemed unlikely to achieve real balance and finesse in the long term. These “extra” wines were served as a kind of vinous entracte, since I’d already planned the sequence to go with the rest of the meal.

 

The main course – haunch of venison with a rich wine-based sauce subtly flavoured with chocolate – was about to arrive so I immediately produced the third red (decanted several hours earlier): a magnum of 1972 Hermitage “La Chapelle” from Jaboulet. Yes, I know that `72 has a terrible reputation as a vintage but, in point of fact, a number of excellent wines were made in that year, notably in the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy and in the Rhône Valley. This “La Chapelle” may be the best of the lot. Years ago the late Gérard Jaboulet had explained how this vinous miracle had come about. “Just before the harvest the weather was terrible, terrible. Rain and rot. Catastrophe! Then one day the rain stopped. The mistral began to blow and kept on blowing. It dried the vineyard out completely. Then the sun came out. It shone continuously; it was as hot as an oven. The rotten bunches fell off and the healthy ones that were left almost cooked in the sun. They became completely ripe and were in perfect condition. It was a tiny harvest.”

 

Every time I see Steven Spurrier at London tastings we enthuse about the ‘72 “La Chapelle” as it tasted when only a few years old. “We bought a lot for my wine shop in Paris,” he told me, “and we used to drink bottle after bottle because it was so delicious – one of the most delicious young wines I’ve ever tasted.” I myself had the good luck to enjoy not one but two bottles of the wine when it was very young, in the company of Gérard’s father, Louis Jaboulet, one of the great pioneers of Rhône wines. Gérard was away and Louis had invited my wife and me to lunch in a Tournon restaurant. A bottle of a young white Hermitage vanished in a trice, while the `72 Hermitage la Chapelle that arrived next survived for little longer, because of its sheer irresistibility. Louis had no hesitation about ordering another bottle. It proved to be even more delectable.

 

To this day, 24 years later, I still see in my mind’s eye that irridescent purple liquid, sparkling in the sun, sweeping along the glass towards my waiting mouth – a hedonistic pleasure of the most pagan kind. And an aesthetic delight too. So delicious was the wine that, even though the bottle was the third in a row, we felt a distinct sense of deprivation when it was empty. Such occasions can never be planned: they only happen.

 

How did it taste on New Year’s Eve, nearly a quarter of a century later? The colour was still an intense, youthful blue-purple, while the bouquet was strikingly vital and full of Syrah fruit, suggesting raspberry, blackcurrant, and truffle. In the mouth, vibrant and crammed with luscious black fruit, with a 1ong and inspiring finish. If many northern Rhône reds grow to resemble claret as they age (not least “La Chapelle”), this specific vintage was more reminiscent of a great

 

Côte de Nuits Burgundy – a Bonnes Mares perhaps. Silky and long on the palate, as fresh as spring water, it will clearly live for a decade or two more.

 

By the time we’d sampled some farmhouse cheeses with the last of the Hermitage we registered that midnight was fast approaching. Indeed, there was barely time to open the champagne – 1990 Pol Roger “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill” – that was in readiness. Glasses were dealt out in seconds and were charged with wine the instant Big Ben began to strike. Everybody gasped, and there may even have been a whimper or two, when we all sniffed this glorious champagne: extraordinarily aromatic, packed with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit, it had all the concentration and depth one could wish for, and yet was full of the lift and vivacity that makes good Champagne unique. It was one of the greatest champagne I’ve ever tasted. A new height of conviviality had been reached: how could one view the new year in particular, and the future in general, with any trepidation while drinking so celestial a champagne?

 

Once all the initial euphoria had receded we agreed that, despite having been at table for over four hours, it would be an excellent idea to try the dessert: a rich Christmas pudding made by my wife some eighteen months before. Even after the unforgettable Winston Churchill the dessert wine was no anticlimax: 1977 Dow Vintage Port. Dark and silky, intensely fruity and profound, it reminded me of a description of the pleasures of port I’d once found in an obscure book in a port lodge in the Douro: “A glass of port went down my throat like velvet and up to my head like celestial fire”.

 

This superb bottle did that and much more. It marked the end of our long New Year Dinner; but it also marked the beginning of what we all hope will be an exciting 2003.

 

© Frank Ward 2003

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