It was a party celebrating births, birthdays, anniversaries and cancer survival. The guests ranged from their early 20s to early 70s, and a more convivial, connected and intrinsically homogenous group would be hard to find. Everyone present had connections to the wine trade, and our five-hour gathering flew by--a party that seemed suspended in good time. All wines were served up in magnums; there was vintage champagne plus red wines from the global bastions of California, Italy, France and Spain. Magnums hold twice the amount of a standard 750-ml bottle, but they somehow seem four times as large visually; magnums have this built in thrill factor. Empirical studies have shown that magnums age more slowly and with better success than regular-sized bottles. The magnum is the perfect vessel to cast upon the waters of development and improvement.
These were mostly wines from the late 1970s to the late '80s--wines that had developed admirably under conditions that many of you could also reproduce. No refrigeration machinery here, just a simple, sloping space at ground level, away from vibrations and foot traffic. The wonderful results of this tasting show that gadgets, or even an underground cellar, are not necessary in order to reap the rewards of long-term storage.
The astonishing range of wines this evening was bookended by two Italian giants--a 1979 Ceretto Barolo (Vigna Prapo) and a 1997 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino. Anyone who has heard the rantings of prattling, energized wine writers, knows of Barolo's truffle, porcini mushroom, forest like qualities. They've heard of that bouquet reminiscent of the inside of an old leather tobacco pouch. Here was that evidence squarely shooting into our sinuses. The wine was the nucleus of Barolo, absolutely perfect in its way. It was all that one dreams of and expects.
I've received numerous letters from readers who ask: Why don't you ever seem to taste, or give out scores to, wines deserving of a 98, 99 or perfect score? The answer is: I probably do taste some of these on occasion, but I believe that no newly released wine can score a perfect 100. There are too many variables that may change the structure, fruit and balance of a wine as it ages toward its apogee. I've never tasted a new wine that was perfect drinking at that moment, only a wine that seemed to promise perfection. You'll never see a 100-point score from me unless it involves older vintages, wines that have fulfilled the promise of their pedigree. This Barolo was surely one of those: a perfect wine caught at its absolute peak.
The 1997 Brunello was amazingly forward and showing magnificently after only eight years. The bouquet was of a perfect ripeness, neither too ripe or just shy of total ripeness. Dead-on, like a laser beam, with a bouquet that would have penetrated to the other side of the room if it had the chance. This was so luscious, and yet its future could be further calculated in sensory and esoteric ways. Already phenomenal, it stepped up and "told" you how much better it would be in five or more years. No wonder they were dancing in the Tuscan cellars in 1997. (A potential 98-point wine--or higher!)
A slew of famous California cabernets were present, but I chose to try only two. One lucky advantage to the breadth of the wines available here was the ability to keep the evening from becoming a competitive tasting, with one bordeaux knocking out the other. This, frankly, is one of the biggest dilemmas that a wine writer faces. Tasting 50 young Napa cabernets and doing each justice takes patience, a good amount of time spent between the tasting of every example, and reviewing the flavors once again to judge individual merit. It is a serious challenge for a wine critic to appreciate fully the balance and elegance of a lightweight, while wrestling with a "knock-your-teeth-out" style right next to it. So, with a deep sigh of relief and pleasure, this magnum gathering was that rarest and best of occasions: sampling choices and styles so varied that each was able to shine brightly in its particular milieu.
A 1980 Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon was at its phenomenal peak. 1980 was a most unusual vintage in the Napa Valley. Very cool temperatures throughout the entire summer, foggy morns and breezy, cool afternoons raised serious fears of pending unripe disaster. A late September heat wave ripened and shriveled the grapes, leaving about a drop of juice in each, along with high acids and green, tough tannins. Yet 25 years later, out came a big, blowzy, rich beyond belief red, all velvet and satin. It defined "full bodied" in the same manner as a Havana Montecristo No. 2 cigar. The only thing lacking was a complex component--it was absolutely glorious in a one-dimensional way.
Not so with the 1984 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa). This wine at age 20 was still vibrating with its spicy, characteristic eucalyptus and mint edge on the nose, and a jumpy, black currant energy pulsating on the palate. The "Martha's Vineyard" carries its beauty to the next level. It's not content to give you a perfectly modulated mouthful. It insists on teasing you with all sorts of nasal and flavor complexities that still flash and bounce from its being. Clearly a major league wine strutting its stuff. May even improve! Both wines would rate a 95 score from me.
One wine that was a gentle disappointment was the 1988 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape. This softly tired wine was perfectly drinkable, but had lost its impact and energy. The famous herbal, licorice scented peppery nose was all dilute, as was its famous opulence and mouth filling texture. This reinforces a theory of mine that Chateauneuf should really be drunk within 10 years of the vintage date. I know there are scores of examples to possibly prove the opposite, but I believe that most, even the greatest, Chateauneufs don't improve past 10 years. This was a fine old chocolate Labrador retriever that sidles up to you and slowly, lovingly licks your face. Probably an 88-point wine.
Burgundy was represented by a 1989 Vosne-Romanee, Premier Cru from Louis Latour of impeccable gloss and rarefied perfume. This wine showed all its charms in a perfumed, seductive bouquet of richness and glamour. The taste was all fleshy roundness--beautifully shaped, harmoniously built like finely polished bird's eye maple. A Vosne-Romanee should never yield a rough or ordinary wine; it is perhaps the greatest village in the Cotes D'Or. This wine succeeded in being what one craves in a middle to heavy weight pinot noir. Poetry, and a 96-point score.
The champagne was a 1988 Jacquesson Signature, smelling like a freshly baked scone. Luxurious body, warmth and a crunchy acidity that invigorated the depth of the fruit. Expansive flavors wrapped in a brioche! A dozen shrimp and this wonder wine opened an evening of reflection. Another 95+ wine.
My special thanks to Aris Ragouzeos for his vinous generosity, Bud and Marilyn Saylor for their hospitality, and a prayer for the recovery of a formidable everyman with a special knack for and twinkle in his eye about wine--Charlie Fox.
"Independent" wines (pun intended) are those made by relatively small, independent producers that share the characteristics of exceeding personality, excellent quality and a terrific price in relation to that quality. Independent Wines will be an occasional feature of this column.
1994 Yunta Reserva, La Mancha $11
Fragrant, spicy dried cherry essences in the bouquet. Terroir filled flavors on a savory, medium bodied frame. Complete, expressive palate of a fully mature 11-year-old Spanish red. TERRIFIC VALUE. 87 points
2003 Riesling, Stoneleigh, Marlborough $17
Breezy and inviting. Fast paced, brisk flavors. Juicy, lemon-limey clean with good body and an ample finish. New Zealand puts a stamp on riesling with as much pizzazz as its sauvignon blancs. 87
2003 Prazo de Roriz, Douro Valley $13
Violets, plum and saddle leather kissed by oak; plump and juicy. Comes in like a lamb with lively middleweight fruit and a dry, generous, slightly short aftertaste. A wine to drink away the evening. Complex and satisfying for "real" wine drinkers who love the genuine flavors of wine. It's so easy to get excited these days about the wines of Portugal and their potential. FINE VALUE. 89
Framboise, Bonny Doon Vineyard $11 (375 ml)
A deliciously pure fruit reduction. Add one part of this raspberry essence to four parts of any neutral, dry white wine and you'll have a most delectable summer cooler (Kir Americaine). Shower it over vanilla or hazelnut ice cream for a thoroughly decadent frozen treat. Drunk "neat" and chilled, as the sun slowly retreats, is best of all. 89
2004 Sauvignon Blanc, Concha Y Toro, Terrunyo $20
Grassy, new mown hay aromas with plentiful penetrating fruit and outstanding varietal identity. Not quite as dry as a Sancerre but has a chiseled, refreshing character all its own. Beautifully styled and balanced, it doesn't need to shout. 89
2001 Zinfandel, Rancho Zabaco, Chiotti Vineyard $28
This Dry Creek bottling has a rich, "spreadable" nose--a bushel basket of fruit. Harmonious, ripe old vine flavors. Carries its 15.5 percent alcohol level effortlessly; neither hot nor biting. A big, broad shouldered, supple giant. Serve at 60 degrees to bolster its low acidity. 90
2002 Cabernet-Shiraz, Penfolds, Bin 389 $26.50
What is it about the vanilla and velvet that surround you in a glass of Bin 389? It makes you feel pampered, all softness and warmth. It's a limpid quality that Penfolds seemingly owns, and their wines are totally delicious year after year. Marshmallow mellowness, deeply bold yet balanced fruit, and enough acidity to make refreshment a major part of the package. (P.S. If you still find the 2001 around, don't hesitate. It too is scrumptious.) 90
Champagne Brut Rose, Besserat de Bellefon $40
Besserat de Bellefon makes their champagnes by using the "Cremant" process, by which less sugar added at bottling time creates a wine with softer pressure and a creamier texture. This wonderfully rich and decidedly sexy style perfectly utilizes traditional grapes of the region, including a healthy percentage of the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier. An explosively fresh berry nose followed by a sumptuous texture that melts in your mouth. A red wine lover's champagne at the price of many mass produced versions. 91