Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Memorable Banquet at Château Figeac

November 2001

Like a piece of music, a banquet exists in the fourth dimension, having a beginning, an end, and lots of bits in between. It’s not just enough for every aspect of the meal to be excellent in its own right, all have to work together and function as an integrated whole. And that whole should be much more than the sum of its parts. The human factor is crucial too: as with the performance of a piece of music, no banquet can really succeed in the absence of human warmth and feeling.


Judged on this basis, the gala dinner held at Château Figeac in Saint-Emilion last June, during Vinexpo week, was a resounding success. The setting was splendid; the company lively and sympathetic; the food very tasty; and the dozen different wines were not merely splendid in their own right but also ideally matched, and enhanced, the succession of dishes served. Held under the aegis of the Association of Premiers Grands Crus Classés, the evening was hosted by Figeac’s owners, Thierry and Marie-France Manoncourt, one of the most genuinely likeable couples in the Bordeaux wine world, with over a half-century of tireless work and passionate commitment behind them.


The long chai à barriques had been partly cleared of barrels and transformed into a veritable Aladdin’s Cave. The walls were hung with magnificent 18th-century tapestries and the 180 or so guests were seated at one long continuous table that ran from one end of the cellars to the other, covered with what was seemingly one single cloth. The sheer novelty of the arrangement, and its tremendous visual impact, gave enormous verve to the occasion and the eyes of all present, not least the most elderly, sparkled as brightly as those of children at their first party.


Military commanders know that, prior to any successful attack, the enemy needs to be softened up by judicious shellfire. Great hosts know that guests (even the cockiest ones) need to be softened up too, though for altogether more benevolent reasons. And the best way to do so is through the service of a delicious aperitif. Nothing could have been more effective than the one chosen: 1988 Krug.


The organizers had taken on a daunting task. Given that the Association has 12 active member-châteaux (a 13th, the great Château Ausone, wasn’t involved in the soirée for various reasons) it was of course mandatory that one wine from each château be served during the meal. Twelve wines, and all of them red! They were poured out, three or four at a time, to accompany one of the several courses and this had to be done in such a way that each complemented not only the food but the other wines too. It was also important that, by the end of the evening, palates should not be jaded even after being exposed to no fewer than a dozen wines all of the same colour and a similar blend of grapes.


And that’s the way it worked out.


The first dish comprised succulent langoustines with a savoury ice-cream of yellow paprika. At home, I would probably have served a full-bodied white Burgundy or perhaps a white Hermitage. At Figeac, our glasses were charged with the first three Saint-Emilions, all of them glowing purple. It proved to be an excellent choice, with the intense fruitiness and fleshiness of the wines, plus their youthful vigour, serving to heighten and enhance the sapid, luscious flavour of the shellfish and the excellent cream-based sauce. One minor quibble: the yellow paprika (it tastes sharper than the red kind), which would have matched, say a top red white Rhône extremely well, was a bit too pungent for the reds, though tasty enough in its own right.


Though years short of maturity, all three of the first reds showed well.


’90 l’Angélus was dark and lustrous, with lovely rich yet refined aroma of blackberries, prunes, and cigar-box, and its generous fruit, which showed a clayey aspect on the palate, was underpinned by firm, slightly bitter tannins which will help to ensure a further 20-odd years of improvement.


’90 Beauséjour-Bécot was similar as to looks, though with aromas more akin to black cherries, black-currants, and violets. Smooth and lushly fruity in the mouth – and more accessible than l’Angelus – it showed fine Cabernet-Franc velvet and Merlot weight and volume. It filled out in the glass, getting more viscous, with hints of cherry jam and red paprika on the medium-long aftertaste.


’90 Trotteveille was the lightest and most developed of the trio and was very different as to aroma as well, with super-ripe Merlot exhaling scents of redcurrants, raspberries, and sweet prunes (the last probably derived from their tiny plot of pre-phylloxera vines). Stylish in the mouth, and very Merlot in its smoothness and spice, it had very mild tannins on the soft, medium-long finish. It ought to give of its best around 2008-2020.


The next dish was a light, quite complex creation based on black truffles and pink-fir potatoes – an exceptionally flavourful, firm variety. This, of course, gave an ideal opportunity to show off top Saint-Emilions’ natural affinity for the exquisite aromas of truffles – which maybe explains why no fewer than four wines partnered this particular dish!

1989 Château Magdelaine had a distinctly black tinge, from the dense Cabernet-Sauvignon grape, while its explosive aroma was full of ’89 vigour and compactness, suggesting a meld of prunes, damsons, chocolate, and tar. Still young, with more power than finesse, it was very weighty and emphatic on the palate, even a little rustic, with underbrush, damson jam, and (yes!) truffle on the closed, tannic aftertaste. Sure to be an altogether more subtle wine when at its peak in 15-20 years, it worked well with this dish now.


All the same, it was put into the shade by ’89 Pavie, which was altogether subtler, having the power of ’89 but not the aggressivity. Blackish too (Pavie also contains a good amount of Cabernet-Sauvignon), it had a nose that allied black cherry, truffle, roast chestnut, and leather, (after some 25 minutes the scents of mint and newly-sharpened pencil were also noticeable). Utterly ripe tannins, due to late picking, gave a finish as firm as one could wish for, yet without any hint of hardness. Though it drank beautifully on the night, it won’t reach its true apogee much before 2020.


The remaining two from the quartet were from the wonderful 1982 vintage. Beauséjour-Duffau-Lagarosse was as dark as any wine so far, with a refined, slightly leafy scent (Cabernet-Franc) and a distinctly clayey aspect (from Merlot vines planted in clay). Generously fruity, with hints of blackberry and black cherry jams, the nose also conjured up graphite. Long and earthy, with a real feeling of vinous integrity, the balanced aftertaste carried more than a hint of truffle. Its innate harmony made it good to drink on this occasion, even if it will go on getting better for at least 20 more years.


Belair, too, gave huge pleasure even if it will continue to improve for an age. Impressively deep in colour, it had a most singular aroma – quite different from all the others – of tea, elderberry, sloe, smoke, and truffle. In the mouth it was sinewy yet generously fruity, with suggestions of wild berry and damsons, with something akin to bay leaf on the finish. A very subtle, even cerebral wine in which the firm Cabernet-Sauvignon dovetailed perfectly with the elegant Cabernet-Franc.


Squab – young pigeon – now alighted our table – though not of its own volition!


This bird is rightly looked upon as a great delicacy in France, the equal of woodcock or ortolan. This is because they are specially reared there to bring out their delicacy of flavour. As such, they justify the opening of older, riper, mellower bottles that are at, or close to, their majestic peaks. And that is what happened at Figeac. The bird, by the way, was garnished with chick-peas and golden girolle mushrooms. None of the four new wines that appeared now, by the way, was much less than 40 years old.

1964 Clos Fourtet

Red wines pale as they age and this was no exception, though its clear, nuanced, very intense “robe” had that very special glow, almost an aureole, typical of great wines at full maturity. The bouquet had the striking nobility and complexity found only in the most delectable of old bottles: peony, carnation, raspberry, strawberry. Merely to name flowers and fruits, though, cannot convey the sheer finesse and subtlety of such aromas, which have to be sniffed to be believed. Behind all that mellowness and softness, one was struck by the appetising, spring-water freshness of the bouquet which, as it became saturated with air, also showed growing density and weight. This prepared one for a flavour that was altogether more structured than the almost ethereal bouquet had suggested, with Cabernet-Sauvignon rigour starting to make its presence felt. Amazingly, this 37-year-old wine still had untapped reserves and ought to show even more finesse when the remaining tannins have softened still further, in 12-15 years’ time.


1962 Château Canon

Served from magnums, this wine had a clear, evolved purple-red colour with winking vermilion highlights. The fully mature bouquet showed great nobility, suggesting plum jam, blackberry and raspberry, with a hint of dried fig too (wholly ripe Merlot). The long, smooth, quite fat flavour had a delightful, bracing freshness to it, providing a tonic quality. This was the first wine of the evening to show utter and complete maturity, a state in which it should remain for a few years before the acidity starts to dominate the fruit. (The Figeac dinner was the ideal moment to serve it.)


1961 Château La Gaffelière

This wine, from one of the greatest Bordeaux vintages ever, had an exceptionally rich, deep black-purple colour with very little browning. The astonishingly youthful nose was as complex as it was dynamic, with that enticing sweetness and roundness that comes from utterly ripe, utterly healthy grapes. All manner of delightful aromas vied for attention: crème de framboise, damson, freshly ground coffee, rose petals, cinnamon. It was extremely vital on the palate, too, with high viscosity and enormous fruity intensity. Long on the finish, with great complexity, it was pure delight to drink. Still with reserves, it was concrete (or rather fluid) proof that great wines from great years really do have another dimension.


Château Figeac

The solid blackish colour of this 51-year-old was that of a wine half its age. The exhilaratingly big, balanced aroma was a harmonious meld of all three varieties from which this great and original wine is made (Merlot and the two Cabernets) with a fascinating interweave of aromas suggesting blackberry, morel mushroom, truffle, molasses, and various jams. One seemed to find separate gobbets of different fruits on the palate, where the sinewy yet viscous flavour had distinct parts, like separate muscles, and the aftertaste was gritty, earthy, and very persistent. There was a thrilling power, density, and sweep. This massive wine, in the same mould as the great ’47 and ’49, made one want to stand up and cheer.


The Premier Grand Cru Classé wines of Saint-Emilion are, without contest, the area’s very finest. Nonetheless, two of them are by common consent judged to be superior to the other 11: Château Ausone (absent on the night) and Château Cheval-Blanc. These two are paid the supreme compliment of being placed in a class of their own: Group A (the rest belong to Group B). Partnered by outstanding cheeses from various abbeys, the last red of the evening was served in solitary splendour:



1975 Château Cheval-Blanc

Deep and blackish as to colour, with hardly any of the browning of age, the wine had a firm, nuanced, aristocratic aroma that carried hints of truffle, leather, prunes, cloves, and chocolate. In the mouth it was dense and concentrated, with the rigour of great wines still far short of full maturity, and the richly fruity flavour was both fat and structured. The powerful, complex aftertaste hinted at blackberry jam, prunes, and bay leaf and held the promise of many more years of exciting evolution. Satisfying even now, at a mere 26 years, the wine will just keep on revealing fresh nuances, and new depths, for at least 20 years. Then, when fully mature, it would perhaps best be served with the squab dish mentioned above. But now it was ideal with cheeses, which might have stolen the thunder of a wine more evolved than this.


In a world where a vast proportion of the very greatest wines are drunk not years but decades before they are fully mature, it was a privilege to have been present at an occasion like this memorable gala dinner at Château Figeac on the 19th June 2001.


© Frank Ward 2001

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