I’m chanelling “Oh What a Night” (The Four Seasons)…Not December 1963, but still “What a Very Special Time for Me, As I Remember, What a Night”. If you know the song, that’s what it felt like. I rarely write about a set of wines from one meal at home, and as meals go there were only four of us and so we only drank six wines, plus one spirit. But the wines all sang beautifully, and although one or two are well known, none of the wines were obvious. It wasn’t a string of Classed Growth Bordeaux, book-ended with Krug and d’Yquem, and I thought each of the wines would interest readers.
The food, incidentally, was almost (cheese course excepted) all vegan. A soup based on squash and fennel, a rich wild mushroom stew, a pear tarte tatin, and a Jura cheese platter from La Fromagerie (18- and 30-month Comté plus some Morbier).
Rare 2002, Piper-Heidsieck – This vintage, only the eighth out of nine since this prestige cuvée’s inception in 1976, is blended from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noit. The grapes come from eight villages on the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs**, and the wine undergoes seven years ageing. Dosage in 2002 is 9.5g/l. It’s a wine which had been very highly recommended to me on release, by perhaps my two most knowledgeable Champagne friends, but I’d never managed to buy any. This was most generously brought by our guests.
[**Decanter, in the 2016 Awards Issue, suggests all grapes for Rare 2002 came from the Montagne. Piper’s own web site lists Oger and Avize among the crus providing grapes]
It’s funny, I have just read two tasting notes for this wine, wondering when the experts consider it to be ready to drink. One, in the normally more forward French publication, La Revue des Vins de France, suggested a drinking date from 2020. Another, from a Silver Medal tasting note from the 2015 International Wine Challenge, suggested it was fully mature back then – it had in fact won a Trophy in the same competition in 2014, but this vintage went on to win Platinum/Best in Show in the more recent 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards. I think it is somewhere between the two in maturity terms, drinking quite nicely now.
There are some very complex things going on – white flowers, bread and lemon citrus to begin with. The Chardonnay is interesting as it’s not a mature version of a Côte des Blancs style of Chardonnay (to generalise horribly), and the Pinot definitely comes through strongly. It’s elegant and fine, with a smooth and silky texture, which certainly brings to mind the phrase which Cellar Master Régis Camus used to describe it, Haute Couture. A stunningly beautiful Champagne. Yet it also has a bit of heft, not that I should use such inelegant language for such a supermodel, but such wines do have a certain size and weight to them before maturity beckons and they shed a few pounds.This is no lean and mean wine, despite its profound elegance.
The Orange, Roter Veltliner 2013, Eschenhof Holzer, Wagram – Arnold Holzer is a great guy and a great winemaker. I’m sure you’ve read about his sappy glugging wines on this Blog before, especially his Zweigelt. This is a different ball park, in terms of quality, price and ambition. Take a rare but really good Austrian grape variety, pick it pristine, by hand of course, and give it around three weeks skin contact before leaving it in new barriques for 18 months. Orange in colour, obviously, just below the Lucozade spectrum for British readers, in fact. There’s so much going on I can’t reasonably describe it all. At the top of the ladder there’s orange peel and soft-scented floral notes, below you have honey and spice. It’s dry, there’s some texture but not too much (for me!), and the wine is soft but not flabby. The acidity’s there, but not prominent. We drank it with a nice orange coloured soup – butternut squash, fennel and ginger. Add that to the list of food matches, Red Squirrel!
I think this may be onto the 2015 vintage now. Red Squirrel, who import Arnold’s wines, suggest it will improve over about four years from vintage, and I think the 2013 was à point. The only problem, I think he only makes around 300 bottles per year. It’s expensive too. This will, I think, knock you back somewhere between £40-£50/bottle, but having managed a sniff and a sip at the last Red Squirrel Tasting, I could not resist. But if you can’t go there, all of Arnold Holzer’s wines are worth buying.
Hermitage La Chapelle 1998, Paul Jaboulet Aîné – In some ways this wine might sound quite conventional, given the wines I usually write about. Well, I used to drink more conventional wines. It was generally held among wine writers that PJA went through a less exalted patch during the 1990s. La Chapelle gained its unquestioned prestige as one of the top three or four Hermitage cuvées, and certainly the best known, for vintages in particular in the 1960s, late 1970s and early 1980s (although the Legends were probably 1961, 1978, and 1990, with a personal shout for a bottle of 1983 which opened my eyes to Northern Rhône Syrah). By the 1990s things were less even. 1995 and 1999 were very good, but other vintages have come up for criticism.
In the previous decade Fleet Street wine bar and merchant, El Vino, were selling through their 1990s stocks of La Chapelle at very reasonable prices, and I bought a good string of vintages. This was the last bottle of 1998 in my cellar. A previous bottle, and a couple of 1997s, had been somewhat disappointing, but this was a joy. It was soft but still showing some fruit under the bacon butty nose and slightly oily texture. John Livingstone-Learmonth (Wines of the Northern Rhône, CaliforniaUP, 2005) gave a drinking window, based on tasting it in 2003, of between 2015-19, which I’d say was uncannily accurate. He gives it three out of five stars, but I’d like to give this bottle four. Very lucky. The Henschke backup was not called into play.
Traminer Trockenbeerenauslese Nummer 8 “Nouvelle Vague” 2004, Kracher, Burgenland – The late Alois Kracher not only made a name for some of the very finest sweet wines in Austria, he created one of the country’s very top domaines too. Under his winemaking tenure the sweet wines, from the eastern side of Burgenland’s Neusiedler See, more specifically from a stretch of land known as Seewinkel (near to Illmitz), were divided into two styles and labels. Schwischen den Seen (between the lakes) is for wines made in stainless steel where the focus is on the fruit flavours of each grape variety. Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) is for wines aged in barrique. There is also a numbering system, from less sweet to sweetest as the numbers increase. Finally, there’s the colour of the label. There are many cuvées each year (with at least six or seven grape varieties plus blends) and different levels of residual sugar. But the top wines have a gold label, and the cuvée in each series which is deemed best balanced (not necessarily the sweetest) doesn’t have a number, but is called “Grande Cuvée”. Complicated.
The Traminer here has a number 8, so it’s quite sweet, with relatively low (9.5%) alcohol. It’s pretty dark in colour (see photo below), and it smells of botrytis (found in Kracher’s BA and TbA wines) and apricots. At this age I couldn’t discern any real oak. The palate is smooth, very sweet, very concentrated. There’s not a lot of acidity left but it hangs onto its frame nicely. Maturity, depending on storage, probably in three or four years. This was a very nice bottle, and it was a very good match for one of current winemaker Gerhard Kracher’s own food pairing recommendations, tarte tatin (albeit made with pears at this time of year, by choice we’d have used apricots for this match, but it still worked).
Château-Chalon 1999, “Granges Bernard”, Marie & Denis Chevassu, Jura – The Chevassu-Fassenet family live at Granges Bernard in one of the villages just to the north of Château-Chalon itself, Ménetru-le-Vignoble. The domaine (now Chevassu-Fassenet) has been run since 2008 by Marie and Denis’ daughter, Marie-Pierre, although she began working with her father, as winemaker, back in 2000. This wine, if I’m correct then, might be the last vintage of Château-Chalon made by Marie-Pierre’s father.
In some respects this is an old school “Vin Jaune”. There are prominent nutty aromas and plenty of flor character. There’s also a strong line of citrus flavour, lemon with perhaps a hint of lime or grapefruit. But it is also very mellow and retains a stately elegance. These wines prefer not to be chilled. Their complexity is masked by cool temperatures, and their length is amazing, they go on and on.
I say “retains” a stately elegance almost as if this were an old wine. Whilst this might be so in some wine regions, here that is not the case. Because of the ageing requirements for Château-Chalon (exactly the same as for Vin Jaune, it must be aged until at least 15 December in the sixth year after harvest), this is really a wine only approaching middle age slowly. Vin Jaune habitually appears on release in restaurants and bars now, and anyone sampling a 2008 today, quite common to find in London, is drinking a young bottle (2009 is the most recent vintage you could potentially find in shops at the moment). It’s a wine which not only ages magnificently, but cries out for it.
If you do want to try a Vin Jaune, or similar style, which is approachable young, look to Domaine de la Tournelle and Domaine des Marnes Blanches (both brilliant and also capable of maturing nicely), or a sous voile-style Savagnin such as now retired Jacques Puffeney’s. But at the same time, keep an eye out for older vintages. They’re not exactly two-a-penny, but you can find them, and if you are happy to pay a bit extra for a wine that is not at all cheap on release, snap up whatever you find. There are few poor producers of Château-Chalon.
The perfect match for Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon is, of course, Comté cheese. One of the best sources for Comté in London is Patricia Michelson’s La Fromagerie, off Marylebone High Street. I quite like to pull out a cheeseboard consisting of just three ages of Comté, which provides a good contrast between youth and the amazing complexity of a mature cheese. In this case I went for a bit of variety, unable to resist the really good Morbier fermier which they had in the cheese room. Morbier is largely produced industrially, and a lot of it is nothing like a really good farm cheese. Buy a good one when you find it and you will notice the difference. With the Morbier, we ate an 18 month Comté, and a 30 month version, the latter full of the small crystals which give older Comté its unique nutty flavour and texture.
La Bota de Palo Cortado 62 “Diez años después”, Equipo Navazos, Jerez – This is quite a rare bottling, a ten year celebration of the Equipo Navazos story, which began with an Amontillado in 2005. It’s a Palo Cortado from the cellars of Bodegas M Aragón in the town of Chiclana. A single butt of 300 litres was, unusually, completely bottled (in 50 cl bottles) for this saca. Some went to friends of Equipo Navazos and a small number were commercialised. Anyone who got one has a real gem.
It’s very dark, so dark that you can tell the level of concentration just by sight. On rare occasions you can justify a flowery tasting note, a real Oz and Jilly. On other occasions a more philosophical note, a Jefford, comes to mind. For a wine like this I’m just transported to somewhere old and dark. The wine in this butt is about fifty to sixty years old, but it smells of the big tasting table I remember inside of Taylor’s old Vila Nova Lodge, the beams on HMS Victory’s gun deck, or perhaps, I imagine, the old dresser in the loft of Tom Hardy’s fictitious London house in the current TV Series, Taboo.
There’s a freshness and a timelessness such as you find in very old Madeira. You know this wine isn’t a youth, but it’s still youthful. This comes through the concentrated but well-toned muscles of its frame, and the breath of fresh air acidity which underpins the longest length on the planet…almost. In some ways it might seem a shame not to let it age further. Another twenty years will not concern it unduly. But without sounding morbid, this is one wine you really don’t want left in the cellar when the doctor tells you to give up immediately. I don’t give scores, but I’ll go “sensational out of a hundred on this”! A “you could smell it in the dining room in the morning” kind of wine, and certainly the most memorable out of a bunch of memorable wines on the night.
La Bota de Ron 65, “Bota No”, Equipo Navazos – And now for the Rum. Someone impugned my speed of drinking, and probably my masculinity too, when I mentioned this last on social media. Well, ha! I got some more, you see. That, considering you can’t find this in the UK, is about as boastful as I hope I get this year. But this is really good, a very fine spirit. I’m no rum aficionado, having only really discovered it in the past few years, so I’ve been giving occasional sips to people with more experience than I have, and thankfully they agree.
This old rum (15-20 years) made 800 bottles, at 44% proof. Made from the finest sugar cane (I found a suggestion that it comes from Nevis in the West Indies, although the EN web site doesn’t confirm this), with no additives (colouring, sweeteners etc). The EN web site calls this an “iron fist in a silk glove” (sic), a cliché perhaps, but you can see what they mean. It does have a punch, but not a kick in the mouth. Instead, it’s smooth, refined and very long. The alcohol is not obtrusive. You may only want to sip it, but you will sip it all night until someone takes the bottle away and tells you to go to bed.