Tag Archives: Champagne

Something to celebrate: 1990

I suppose it is inevitable that the wine trade will live on hype about certain vintages.  It was 1982 which made Robert Parker’s name when he declared it, early and correctly, to be a great vintage. 2000 was much promoted because it was IMG_4485 the millennium and fortunately turned out pretty well  and 2005 was hailed as for being the vintage of the decade, or at least until we are offered  the 2009s next year!  And then very occasionally you will have something to celebrate which coincides with a great vintage such as 1990.   The very first case of wine that Janet and I bought together was a mixed case of 1990 Burgundy reds including two bottles of Santenay-Gravieres, a fairly modest ‘village’ level wine aimed at the private consumer who had the patience to wait for its drinking window of 2000-10.  This formed a centre piece for a 1990 dinner (OK, a 1990ish dinner) with some very fine bottles. 

It helps if you are a bit of a hoarder and have enough in the cellar (under the stairs?) to ‘lose’ a few bottles.  Some wines are stored because they really need time before they are ready to drink, some because they are special enough that they have to wait for an occasion.  This is not just about quality level, as long as it meets your own threshold, it could also be that the bottle was bought on a special occasion or location. 

To start with we tasted the Grand Cru champagne from Roger Brun, a small producer in Ay, his Cuvée des Sires.  It’s not a vintage wine, though according to its maker this particular bottle was a mixture of IMG_4482-11995 and 96, Champagne making use of its permission to keep quality high by mixing across vintages.  This has lasted in the wine store because it is the penultimate bottle of a tiny cache we bought back with us on a memorable trip to Burgundy.  People can be snooty about coach travel but for the wine traveller it has one huge advantage – those cases you can stash away in the luggage compartment which travel back with you.  So this bottle was a memento of a stop off in Champagne on the way home – is there a better way of sweetening the business of having to come back from holiday?  A little bottle age has smoothed all the edges of this wine, with a nose of brioches and apples moderately pronounced. Smooth and sophisticated. 

IMG_4501 IMG_4504 Well out of keeping with the 1990s theme but otherwise very impressive was a 2003 white Burgundy: Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Folatieres’ (Ch. de Puligny-Montrachet) – it’s there on the table with a yellow neck label!  This is a wine you can admire from afar – the minute you pour it, its golden-yellow colour announces a grander wine on which lots of lovely new oak has been lavished.  Actually, it could have done with a few more years yet.  While it was beautiful, a few more years and that fruit and the oak would be yet more harmonious – a wine for a long term relationship? 

The main event however was a trio of 1990s or near 1990s.  This was a fascinating comparison between the Santenay already mentioned and two clarets. So on the one hand you had Burgundy (Pinot Noir) v. Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and then between two levels, and indeed near vintages, in Bordeaux. 

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The Santenay and the Ch. d’Angludet are a fair comparison.  The former is a village wine, ie the level between Bourgogne Rouge and the named vineyards of premier and grand cru. The claret similarly is a cru bourgeois, rather than a classed growth.  The Burgundy is a pale brick colour with some ruby left, but pale and interesting in comparison to the much deeper red of the claret.  Similarly, the Burgundy is now mainly old farmyard smells and a little bit of raspberry and strawberry fruit, while the claret is smooth and integrated, no one flavour dominating, the fine wine version of easy drinking. 

By comparison, the Pauillac, Ch. Pichon Longueville is much grander wine, a second growth in Bordeaux’s (or rather Médoc’s) premier league of 1855.  In the picture above, note the crest in the glass of the bottle.  It is also from a great vintage, the first of the three that run from 1988 to 1990 – Bordeaux certainly had something to celebrate in that run of years.   This is a much bigger, more structured wine, the blackcurrant fruit still evident along with the effects of ageing, now mellow and powerful at the same time. 

As you can see from the pictures, the evening wasn’t all serious wine but a great evening with friends.  But then what better setting is there for sharing fine bottles than with friends who will appreciate them?  The final bottle was a Sauternes with some

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bottle age – Ch. Filhot 1994.  I think I picked this up in a Waitrose end-of-line sale and stashed it away.  At this sort of age, the zip of young acids have begun to fade and the marmalade/cooked fruit comes to the fore.  I thought that this was a bit short on the palate but nonetheless a decent bottle from a difficult year in which there was rain during the crucial September period. 

So 1990 really was something to celebrate.  My only regret was that it is far more difficult to source older Italian bottles, or indeed anything other than Bordeaux or perhaps Burgundy, for mature wine.  It’s fine if you are buying right at the top of the market or by the case – a few specialist businesses can meet that need.  But apart from that it usually is Bordeaux.  Nonetheless, it’s great to have an occasion to try some high quality wines which have survived and developed over the past couple of decades.  

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How old is old?

Aged wines are something of an acquired taste.  They set up all sorts of conflicts.  Unless you are very fortunate or rich, laying down wines for the future is only for the patient.  Buying something that will be at its peak in 10, 20 or more years is extremely counter cultural.  Then of course there is the big decision on when to drink the wine – unless you have bought a case, it’s all or nothing.  Finally, there is the matter of taste – do you actually prefer young fruit-led wines or the bready aromas of aged champagne, the distinctly farmyard smells of old Pinot Noir or oxidized styles of old sherries and Vin Santo? 

A few recent bottles illustrates some of these dilemmas. 

Selvapiana Bucerchiale Chianti Rufina riserva 1998 This bottle illustrated the adage that simply ageing a wine will not make it great.  Most wine is best drunk young.  This riserva from one of Rufina’s best IMG_4230 growers may have been one of them despite its pedigree from an excellent winery in one of Chianti’s most northerly (and usually age-worthy) areas.  But if it’s a poor year to start with, the wine may just not have the fruit to develop, and that was the problem here.  Despite several hours in a decanter during which cleaned up a slight off smell in the bottle, it never really sang.  Remaining refreshing acidity but mono-linear. Disappointing. 

As commented on in the previous post, the expensive (£120) Taittinger Comtes des Champagnes 1998 still tasted rather closed – so in this case ‘old’ probably means a twenty year weight, rather than ten.  By contrast, 1999 Pannier Egerie is now ready to drink being in that fascinating state of tension between youth and decline, freshness and bottle age.  The sharp apples of the fruit were complemented by mushroomy notes and nice weight in the mouth.  To add to these treats a very generous host recently shared Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’or 1998 with us.  Feuilatte is widely available as a entry level Champagne in supermarkets but also has prestige lines of which this is the top offering.  Quite a lot of money had gone on the packaging – special plastic outer capsule, then a honeycomb style bottle.  The wine itself showed real class in the glass with a persistent mousse of ultra fine bubbles.  On the nose it was in mid-life, pastries and yeastiness and then rounded and civilized on the palate.   Probably the right time  to drink it – limited prospect of further development. 

here for the long term? Red Burgundy certainly repays ageing, again if it is of sufficient quality to start with.  At a recent Caviste tasting a Vallet Frères Gevrey Chambertin 2000 was superb – the lovely raspberry and redcurrant fruit now accompanied by a perfect accompaniment of earthly, composty goodness … Not old but perfectly mature.  As we like to think of ourselves. 

Finally, there are a small handful of wines made for the very, very long haul – they make all the preceding wines seems like children in the nursery.  Chenin Blanc can make almost every sort of wine from supermarket shelf-filler, to fizz, to grand white to off-dry or sweet wine that will outlast most of us.  Richard Kelley, an expert on the wines of the Loire, showed a range of these marathon wines for a Caviste tasting of the wines of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, Loire, France.  The reasons for their extreme longevity is the high level of malic acid in Chenin Blanc and then the northern latitude of the Loire.  All the acidity is retained and the wines are aged for decades in bottles; most will have residual sugar to offset the acidity.  Though I didn’t get to the full tasting, Richard still had a precious few drops of:

1947 Le Haut Lieu Moëlleux – as I tasted these wines in the hurly burly of a crowded shop, I am going to quote Richard Kelley’s own tasting note to give some idea of the complexity of these old wines:

1947 Le Haut Lieu Moëlleux (original cork)
The most highly respected Loire vintage of the 20th Century and in Gaston Huet’s own words ‘The greatest vintage I ever made’. The harvest commenced on the 19th September. Polished. Complex appearance with orange bronze moving to olive green at the rim. A mature nose with some positive oxidation. Complex and smoky with aromas of brown sugar and cinnamon. Beautiful on entry, it has poise and perfect balance. It is delicate, elegant, textured with a fresh, pure apple purée nose combined with toffee apples, crème brûlée and pommeau. There is a pure, racy acidity that contributes to the incredible length and persistence. This will continue to age indefinitely. A perfect wine. (08/04)

1938 Haut Lieu Demi-Sec – it’s difficult to believe that this bottle is more than 70 years old and still going strong, but it is.  You might be relieved to hear that it is beginning to plateau! Kelley says: 

Mid-full and polished appearance. Yellow/orange. Exotic nose with dried oranges and a mineral edge. Some mushroom, but retains good fruit to the palate. Bone dry on entry and finish with severe, but not unpalatable acidity. Quite simple. Drinking now or soon. (07/06)

1990 Clos du Bourg Moëlleux 1ere Trie.

By comparison, a babe in arms: easy to appreciate, lush, sweet, ripe apples, excellent acidic finish. In this company the strapping 19 year old comes over like a mere youth. 

There are many yet older wines still available – port, madeira, claret.  Michael Broadbent’s classic Vintage Wine. Fifty years of tasting over three centuries of wine is an excellent guide.  But these few bottles at least begin to  open up the complex question of how old is old – at least in terms of wine.

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Zind-Humbrecht at Coe Vintners

Being an orderly sort of soul, in general I much prefer to go to a themed tasting, rather than a broad sweep across regions.  Comparison is a very powerful tool but I would rather limit the field and try to learn a bit more about an area or grower in depth.   Occasionally you get the best of both worlds, as happened at a recent Coe Vintners tasting, which took place at Home House, a private club in Portland Square.  Billed as a fine wine tasting, it certainly lived up to that with quality wines from Champagne and Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, a few Italians and Spaniards and even the occasional Australian.  But the star of the show was undoubtedly Olivier Humbrecht of whom more anon. 

In the general tasting some tables really stood out: 

Sumptuous Champagne from Pannier and from Dampierre.  I particularly enjoyed 1999 Pannier Egerie and the corresponding non-vintage Rosé.  The latter has a lovely raspberry and strawberry nose, balanced fruit and refreshment, delicious.  The 1999 has good freshness alongside some interesting, mushroomy tones, a nice weight in the mouth  I was less enamoured of the Pannier Blanc de Noir, ie made as white wine from the juice of black grapes. It was certainly distinctive with yeasty, even doughy smells to the fore.  Dampierre was also excellent, especially the Family Reserve Grand Cru, 2000: toasty, hazelnuts, good fruit and very long.  Altogether much better value than the Taittinger Comtes des Champagnes, white of 1998 (still tasted rather closed) and the rosé of 2002.  Of course if someone else has the wines in their cellar and the patience, that might be another matter entirely …

I also tried the Barolo and Barbaresco from Giacosa Fratelli, not least because I had bought a mixed case of these for a forthcoming tasting.  Overall conclusion was that they really need time to get out of their rather rustic youth (the two basic wines) though the 2005 Barolo Bussia has already has some perfume to offer.   A tasting in 2014-20 anyone?  This was even more the case with promising red Burgundy, eg PC Clos de Thorey Monopole, Nuit St Georges, 2006 from Antonin Rodet – I could taste the youthful acidity hours later!  But in ten years time it will be wonderful. 

No need for delayed gratification, however, with the wines of Zind-Humbrecht, though they too will develop with age.  Olivier Humbrecht was showing a great range of wines, 13 in all.  I concentrated on the ones that were new to me, especially from the Clos Windsbuhl vineyard.  The firm’s comment is:

“The Clos Windsbuhl is, with the Rangen vineyard, the least precocious site that we cultivate on the estate. The higher altitude, the old rocky calcareous soil, its location near the forest all participate to create a slow ripening process. Often criticized in the past for this characteristic, we think that on the contrary, it helps the grapes to keep a structure based on acidity and not alcohol, and also that the vines have more time to ripen the grape physiologically.

Humbrecht explained further that the vineyard is around 300 metres above sea level, 100m higher and so cooler than most, and that it has a mixed history.  Before they bought it, the older owners had worked for quality (only really good vineyards had names historically in Alsace) but then there was neglect, overplanting, overproduction in recent times.  Having acquired it on the basis of its ancient reputation, they have grubbed up the new vines but kept the old ones. 

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl 2007: made with the fruit of the old vines, this is an amazing combination of crisp fruit and structure in the mouth. Wow! 

Gewürztraminer Clos Windsbuhl Vendanges Tardive 2005 – rich, dense, even tending to oily texture from late picked picked grapes, medium sweet but with good acidity, absolutely delicious. 

Another vineyard featured was the Grand Cru Rangen de Thann, very steep (to the point that it has to be ploughed using a winch) and South facing.  In addition to the two Pinot Gris I missed in the excitement (2005, 2001), there was:

Riesling Grand Cru Rangen de Thann 2007, a superb complex nose of honey, nuts and something herby/herbaceous, rounded in the mouth, melons, ripe fruit in general, even pineapple, with a refreshing finish.  Excellent. 

I finished the Zind-Humbrecht table with Pinot Gris Heimbourg Sélection de Grains Nobles 2005, a wine with well over 100 grams of residual sugar per litre – a huge, sweet sticky, but with great marmaladely flavours and counterbalancing acidity, and great persistence. 

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