Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

WINES OF FINESSE CHEZ KEITH & CLARE

June 2016. Fine food and a range of superb wines to accompany it at the Kent home of our friends, Keith and Clare Powis.

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As always, the wines were served blind, in unmarked decanters. First, a superb 1995 champagne from Gosset. Crisp and vital, quite full, with a recognizable percentage of Pinot Noir providing thrust and body. It smelled of apples and almond, with a hint of chocolate too. The emphatic aftertaste was reminiscent of crab apple with a touch of pip. At its peak.

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How odd that champagne, the most ethereal of wines, should so often develop the aroma of chocolate – one of the densest of comestibles – as it matures.

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Next, a truly splendid 98 Riesling Kastelberg from Kreydenweiss. Very yellow, it had an exceptional, very Riesling, aroma, of mirabelle and apricot, with a burgeoning suggestion of Seville orange. Voluminous on the palate, and very round, it had a delectable aftertaste of melted butter. Though very much a food wine, being wholly dry, it all the same made me think of the wonderful Rieslings of the Rheingau because of its exquisite balance, complexity, and honeyed finish. It went very well with a plump plaice with a lemony sauce.

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Next, a 2002 red Sancerre Le Chene from Henri Bourgeois, served on its own because of its delicacy. The freshness and elegance of this unmistakeable Pinot Noir turned one’s thoughts initially to the Côte de Beaune, but that proved to be wrong. The only other realistic choices, once Keith had confirmed that it was French but not Burgundy, were either Alsace or Sancerre (the only two regions outside Burgundy able to produce first-rate Pinot Noir). I plumped for the latter. Light in structure but finely balanced, it was clean-cut and savoury.

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Then a splendid 1995 Tignanello. Made from a blend of Sangiovese and the two Cabernets, this super-Tuscan had fine blue-purple colour and a smooth, refined nose, that emitted a meld of raspberry, cherry, and cherry stone scents. The taste was a reprise of this. Svelte but not thin, this beautifully poised wine had an expressive aroma, a velvety texture, and a very long, complex finish without the faintest hard edge. Superb. It went extremely well with braised sirloin of beef and spring vegetables.

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And so did the next wine: 1985 Wynns Coonewarra John Ruddock Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the finest Australian wines I’ve ever tasted, and made from vines planted in 1890, this had a round, smooth aroma of cherry and damson, with a distinctly flowery element. The nose, of First Growth quality, led into a flavour that was no letdown. While there was no hint of any blockbuster element (something not uncommon in many Aussie reds), it nonetheless had all the volume and depth one could wish for, as well as a delectable texture, and a long, fresh aftertaste imbued with ripe grape sweetness. Because of the wine’s streamlined build, and Eurocentric elegance, it took us some time to narrow it down to Australia. But once that was established I then went for Coonewarra – source of Australia’s most refined reds.

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1990 Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude (Alain Graillot). Some of us thought this to be an Hermitage, others a Côte-Rôtie. No, said Keith, while confirming that it was indeed a northern Rhône. It was clearly not a Cornas or Saint Joseph and therefore had to be a Crozes. In which case it HAD to be from Alain Graillot: who else can endow a Crozes with such freshness, depth, and harmony? Clean-cut and satiny, with unmistakeable Syrah character, it was long on the palate and intensely fruity.

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1986 Château Léoville Barton. This was so powerful and assertive, (and oaky) I at first thought it to be a new world wine. And judged it much younger than it turned out to be. Dark in colour, rich and thrustful on the nose, it had a mouth-filling flavour and had a positively Wagnerian presence (assertive, overwhelming even). Still tannic and bitter, with an intransigence that surprised even our host, who’d decanted it many hours previously. A classic example of a top Saint Julien with a Pauillac structure. Needs 10-15 years to round out.

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1963 Grahams Vintage port. For once, a vintage port that was utterly mature. And what a joy to drink! Silky, profound, and very long, it conjured up fig, prunes, truffle, oriental spices, and many other ambrosial scents and flavours. Great. It reminded me of words I’d found in a book in an Oporto port lodge where I once stayed: “A glass of port went down my throat like velvet, and up to my head like celestial fire”.

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Thinking back to bottles of this very same port consumed 10-20 years ago – satisfying at the time but clearly not yet at full stretch – one grasps the importance of giving great wines, claret and port especially, all the time they need to attain full maturity. Only the passage of years, and sometimes of decades, can bring about this miraculous transformation.

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Not long after this dinner our next-door neighbour, Geoff, came round with a bottle of 1948 Fonseca port which he wanted me to open and decant. It had been lying in his cellars for decades, he explained, so it was surely time to broach it. He did have serious doubts about its condition, he stressed, and adding that in all likelihood the cork would disintegrate under the slightest pressure. Understandably, he was unsure how the handle this delicate problem. (Nor was I, I mutely admitted to myself).

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As to the contents: it could well be a defunct port – an ex-port, a dead port. As I first step it took the closest possible look at the stuff. Holding the bottle against a strong light, we were able to see (1) that it contained a fair amount of sediment but that (2) the liquid itself was surprisingly limpid given its age. A good sign.

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Opening old bottles is a tricky operation; and bottles of old ports especially so. The reason: the high alcohol – usually around 20 ABV – tends to burn out the cork, which often crumbles into fragments when broached. When that happens a lot of powdery, musty debris can end up in the wine. One solution is to use port tongs: these are heated until red-hot and the prongs are then made to clasp at the neck of the bottle. The tongs, after delivering this thermal shock, are instantly removed and a cloth soaked in cold water applied to the point of contact. This usually makes it possible to snap off the neck of the bottle cleanly.

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Not having such tongs (and never having used one either) I agreed anyway to try to extract the cork, the base of which had swollen inside the neck of the bottle so that it was twice as thick as the top half. Very tricky! But first it was necessary to remove the hard wax seal that entirely enclosed the cork. The seal, hard as a walnut shell, was thicker on the side than of the top so I used a nutcracker to crack it. The hard wax then fell into fragments and it was then possible to brush away most of the wax, some of which was dust-fune.

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I went down to my own cellar to fetch the spiral-rod part of an early version of a Screwpull corkscrew – one of the very first models.

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For this delicate operation I used only the spiral, which is longer than your middle finger. Why? Because it is much longer than any cork. Satisfied that the ample sediment was resting on the bottle’s bottom, I inserted the rod into the cork, gently drove it all the way through the cork, and then pulled gently and firmly. To everybody’s great surprise – especially mine – the cork came out whole, with a satisfyingly liquid plop. I was then able to decant the port into an old decanter, making sure that no sediment followed.

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Almost impossible. Using an ultra-long screw, this crumbly cork was  removed in one piece from a 68-year-old bottle of port.

Almost impossible. Using an ultra-long screw, this crumbly cork was removed in one piece from a 68-year-old bottle of port.

1948 FONSECA

The colour, so typical of old fortified wines, was a clear, glowing amber-purple with bright amber highlights. The meniscus was orange-brown. The bouquet was round and silky, smelling like a meld of plum jam, raisins, and prune, with a subtle undertone of sealing wax. The flavour brought a reprise of plum, with the addition of rose-hip and rowanberry. Fully mature, it had ample fruit and was still medium-sweet.

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Given the lack of information on the bottle, what I really wanted to know was: is this a true vintage port or an old tawny? My guess, because of its ample sediment, was that it was indeed a true vintage port, despite its pale colour and light – if intense – structure. It’s not unusual for a vintage port, when extremely old, to taste more like a tawny than a vintage, because it has lost a great deal of its initial body and power. I may well be wrong: I base this guess on the presence of so much sediment – tawnies are usually meticulously filtered prior to bottling and rarely throw a deposit.

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Whichever it was, it was wonderful with Medjool dates!

 

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© Frank Ward 2016

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