The World of Fine Wine
Rarest of the rare:
At his San Francisco home, Wilfred Jaeger, one of the world’s greatest collectors, recently held a unique Burgundy tasting, sharing with a small group of friends several fully mature and venerable vintages of the most celebrated, coveted and precious grand cru of them all. Michael Broadbent MW describes the scene and the wines.
Sunday, the third day of Wilf Jaeger’s Burgundy marathon, was devoted to Romanée-Conti, the inimitable ‘central pearl’ of the Domaine and of the whole of the Côte d’Or. The Jaegers’ house is perched on a hilltop south of San Francisco – as well as being perched on top of three well-filled cellars of outstanding wines. My eight fellow guests* assembled at around 12 noon and enjoyed a modest rinse bouche – a Krug Collection magnum of the 1969 vintage: the colour of pure Tutankhamun gold with a fine though indolent mousse; bouquet low-key, walnuts; minerally; palate somewhat idiosyncratic with characteristic bottle-aged flavour and excellent ’69 acidity.
Having had our fill of the fabulous view across San Francisco Bay, appetites whetted, we could not wait to take our seats. Wilf had engaged one of the city’s top chefs to produce a series of delectable dishes to accompany the various flights: by no means an easy task with wines of such rarity and quality. I do not intend to describe in detail the appearance of these wines. DRC wines are rarely deep in colour – always soft, warm, open, inviting. In any case, the tasting was devoted to fully mature, mellow-looking wines, their age less easy to discern than vintages of claret. Nor is there space to dwell on provenance, or bottle numbers and levels – all were good. Incidentally, each wine was decanted shortly before pouring, allowing it to open up in the glass.
Down to business. Wasting no time, Wilf plunged us into the heart of Romanée-Conti with the opening, and youngest, vintage – the magnificent 1978. Its bouquet wasted no time either, positively clamouring to be unleashed: a sweet, rich, fragrant, pure expression of refined Pinot Noir that, after half an hour, was fully aroused, more soft fruit, with a hint of raspberry. On the palate, it was distinctly sweet, mouth-filling yet with a relatively modest alcoholic content (13%), a velvety texture, a touch of sprightliness and a refreshing finish. Leaving a little in the glass, as is my wont, was rewarding – it just surged on, and I increased, by a couple of points, my already-high rating. The second of the first pair was another splendid vintage, 1971. Its nose was more restrained, sweet, slightly singed, but it opened up to display that inimitable DRC bouquet. It had fully evolved after 90 minutes and was still lovely after two and a half hours. On the palate, the 1971 was even sweeter than the ’78 – rich, complete, with discreetly masked tannin.
The next pair was of the vintages 1966 and 1962. The first was rather low-key though harmonious, perhaps a bit muffled. Still, it was more distinctive on the palate, with excellent, crisp flavour and weight, and an agreeable bite on the finish. Good, but trounced by the 1962 – one of my favourite DRC vintages – a wine of marvellous richness and depth, an uninhibited immediacy of fragrance, unravelling exquisitely, and after two hours in the glass was sheer perfection. But, above all, it had the hallmark of the top DRCs: the ‘peacock’s tail’, or expansion of flavour in the mouth.
Hot on the heels of this pair came the 1959, a vintage that I have always considered the end of an era. A hot vintage, a rich vintage, with a sort of caramelly sweetness on the nose, later almost jammy, though with almost unplumbable depth. On the palate, faultless – still well endowed with tannin and acidity. Holding well and with many years of life still remaining.
At this stage, our host threw in a ringer, blind of course, which turned out to be La Romanée 1949, from the Domaine de la Romanée (not to be confused with DRC) with a Thomas-Bassot slip label. I am pretty sure that this wine, from Maxim’s, Paris, had come under my hammer at one of the spectacular annual Heublin Finest and Rarest wine auctions in the mid-1970s. Alas, it was showing its age – mushroomy.
A wine worth the trip. We pressed on, the next flight being of the 1952 and 1945 vintages. Though 1952 produced good, firm wines, this particular bottle was disappointing: not very bright, with a ruddy-amber colour, old bouquet and a taste that, after an hour, became degraded. Ah, but the 1945! As if making a last supreme effort, the old ungrafted vines, soon to be grubbed up, had produced a wine of almost unsurpassed richness and depth. Richly coloured but not as deep as an earlier note I have of the 1945 La Tâche; an amazingly sweet bouquet, truffles, a whiff of liquorice, and, after 35 minutes, it reminded me of raspberry crumble! Sweet, firm, spicy, concentrated, richly textured, great length. Glorious. It was worth crossing the Atlantic for this wine alone.
Next came two substantial classics, the redoubtable 1937 and the 1928. Though not on top form, the former had a good flavour. Sadly, its 1937 acidity was stripped bare, leaving the wine somewhat pinched and lean. (Incidentally, it had come from the cellars of a Vanderbilt mansion.) Its partner, the 1928, had been recorked at the Domaine and was, understandably, more lively looking, with cherry and ruby highlights and a mature tawny rim; very sweet, effortlessly harmonious bouquet and, if anything, the flavour was even better. It seemed to become sweeter in the glass, holding perfectly for well more than an hour (by this time 4 pm).
The first of the final pair was the great and rare 1921, the hottest and earliest vintage since 1893 (which was matched, coincidentally, exactly 110 years later by the almost-tropical 2003!). It was certainly a hot year in 1921, its sun-tanned skins producing an impressively deep colour. Unlike the raring-to-go 1978, the nose of the ’21 was reluctant, at first dumb, with a whiff of cork or wood. Yet within a relatively few minutes it seemed to gather itself together and emitted a richness that overcame the rigours of age. It was also extraordinarily sweet on the palate, its richness masking its evident decay. Nevertheless it had power and great length, its finish rapier-like.
The last vintage was the 1889 – not the 1865 as noted in my Vintage Wine book, but rare enough by any standards. The label itself was nostalgic, the proprietors shown as ‘S. Guyot, Masson & Fils, & J. Chambon, Petits Fils de J.M. Dufault-Blochet’. This predates the de Villaine connection, for it was not until 1906 that Edmund de Villaine, Aubert’s grandfather, married Marie-Dominique Chambon, who had, with her brother, owned half of the Domaine.
Had this 115-year-old survived? Astonishingly it had. Appearance medium-pale, a soft ruddy colour with shades of warm amber; nose sweet, low-key but faultless, sagging a little. But after 30 minutes in the glass, it finally relaxed and opened up fragrantly – one of my very top marks of the entire tasting. Much drier than the 1921 but in remarkably good condition, with good length and acidity. A sort of Rip van Winkle, clinging tenaciously to its awakened life. I don’t think it ever expected to be drunk, certainly not with unalloyed pleasure. Old, but not just of historic interest, nor merely nostalgic: delicious. We all felt mellow, humbled and grateful for the generosity of our modest, self-effacing host, who, as a finale, a coda, served blind Schloss Reinhartshausen’s 1959 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunn Riesling Cabinet Beerenauslese. A glorious colour: amber with a lime-green rim; an amazing scent, mandarin, lime honey; very rich, of course, with perfect acidity counterbalancing its sublime sweetness. We skipped the tea!
* Host: Wilfred Jaeger, a venture capitalist; fellow guests: Fritz Hatten, a former Christie’s colleague; John Bender, an old friend, professor of English at Stanford University; Dan Salzman, assistant professor of neurobiology at Columbia University; Tracy Lefteroff, head of life sciences for PricewaterhouseCoopers; Andy Levitt, head of emergency medicine at Highland Hospital (a great comfort to know that if anything happened…); Jim Smith, vice president, Southern Wines and Spirits; Lambert Jemley, vice president of marketing for Cranium; and Rajat Parr, the highly regarded sommelier for the Michael Mina Group.
This article originally appeared in Issue 1 - 2004 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous.
It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Andrew Jefford, and the said Mr Johnson. Find out more at the magazine website : www.finewinemag.com
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