My grandmother used to serve her wine in decanters at dinner parties. She would tend to position her friends around the table according not to their rank, but to their interest in wine. The decanter within distance of her would always be filled with something good like an old vintage of Chateau Reynella or some hugely interesting wine like 1949 Mouton Rothshild. At the other end the guests would drink something nice like a Rothbury Estate Hermitage or even a Cote du Rhone.
I was reminded of this utterly hilarious and appalling ritual just the other day at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly. The occasion was called “Le Palais des Grands Crus” and comprised the most sought after and delinquently extravagant wine tastings one could ever come across – all funded by a major bank. The guests comprised a heavy hitting crowd of bankers and financiers ranging from the classic barrow boy made good to impeccably attired mandarins of both genders. I would imagine collectively this crowd was responsible for the equivalent of the GDP of a medium sized nation.
Thankfully I was wearing my tatty old off the hanger Saville Row suit. Under the stare of a gallery – or two – of portraits – I gradually ploughed my way through around 70 odd bottles of wines ranging from 1868 Ferriera Vintage Port to the likes of 2001 Ch d’Yquem stopping off on the way to compare the 1966 and 1970 Bordeaux vintages. I can’t quite believe I spitted the whole bloody stuff out, but it allowed me to carry on till 2am at a den of iniquity called Aspinall’s where I saw someone unload $25K on a roulette wheel – in the same nonchalant way as I would shell out a couple of dollars for a bag of potatoes. Apparently that is small beer.
I don’t suppose many in that room would have had any idea of the quality and value of the wine in the various formats from single bottles to the double magnums and imperials. However the sheer magnitude of stuff on the table was pretty impressive. As wine tastings go this was an epic on the same scale and colour as the Fighting Temeraire. Even the most obtuse would have been impressed by the odour of exquisite wine, cheese and perfume swirling through the gallery and into the olfactories of a couple of hundred punters. And even if you didn’t know a thing about wine, the opening ceremony of the 1981 Ch Petrus (not a great vintage I have you but guys this was out of a double magnum!) or the freshness of a 1924 Doisy Daene would have converted even the most hardened tea drinker. In one room we got to taste Domaine de la Romanee Conti’s 1990 Romanee St Vivant, 2000 Echezeaux and 1991 La Tache (out of a jeroboam) under the old used palettes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Constable and JMW Turner. How utterly brilliant is that?
After tasting the 1966 and 1970 Bordeaux wines – which consisted of things like 1966 Cheval Blanc, Lafite, Palmer and Beychevelle versus 1970 Mouton, Pichon Lalande, Angelus (magnum) and Leoville Lascases – one would have to say that the 1970s lack energy and exuberance. The palates are drying out and really they need drinking up. The 1966 vintage however is a much better vintage - the Cheval Blanc (98/100 points) easily holding up the best with its violet, plum liquorice aromas and beautifully looseknit and graceful palate. Other top noting wines included: the remarkably fresh 1982 Ch Haut Brion (97) with its mocha aromas and chocolaty tannins, the classically structured 1966 Ch Mouton Rothschild (96), the exquisitely aromatic and beautifully proportioned 1990 Romanee st Vivant (98), the remarkably seductive 1986 Mouton Rothschild (95), the powerfully intense and delicious 2003 Leflaive Bienvenues Batard Montrachet (99) and the utterly sublime 2001 Ch d’Yquem (97).
The New World table comprised no Australian wines which was a surprise considering I know the organizers of this event. Instead we were presented with the Californian cult wine 1998 Harlan in magnum – a wine that was very perfect and muscular – but nothing a good Australian couldn’t match. The 2001 Dominus and the 2002 Opus One were very good but not exciting my jaded palate. The hugely interesting 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin – almost at the end of a very long tasting – outshone both the 1983 and 1990 La Chapelles. Indeed I can’t remember seeing a really decent La Chapelle for a while.
I am now on my way down to Bordeaux to taste the 2006 primeur wines. I am hoping that after the 2005s there will be some really good value. I was reading an article this morning about the art market. An observer in New York said that after the collapse of the dot.com and 9/11 crisis there has been a tendency for top-end collectors to acquire just the very best of things. Hence some record prices have been achieved for some of the very best of post-impressionist painters. One auction sale last week achieved over US$480 million in turnover. Clearly there is a lot of money sloshing around but it’s unlikely to pull up the prices of the 2006 vintage.
Last year many of the proprietors said that after the 2005 vintage it didn’t matter how good the 2006s would be. They would land up in the rain shadow of the glorious 2005 vintage. One of the reasons I am down here is to spend some time working out whether they are worth buying this year. I will be looking at the inherent structures in the wines particularly for intensity, concentration and tannin ripeness. Having been involved with this croissant fight for a few years, I am beginning to realise that vintage reputation is built on a primeur campaign and the generation of good reports. It is my experience already that some vintages are much better than reported or regarded. The 2004 – for instance – is as classical as you could ever wish for. The brilliant 2005s are quite something and managed to capture the high ground. It will be interesting to see the overall quality of the 2006s and whether they represent good value.
On TGV 8539 – Paris to Bordeaux – Sunday Afternoon, April 1st