Sunday, November 29, 2009

Taste Champagne and Sparkling 2009

Dwayne Perreault − There were plenty of corks popping, and that is always a happy sound. Proef Champagne en Sprankelend (Taste Champagne and Sparkling), Holland's largest sparkling wine trade show, took place at the Mövenpick Hotel in Amsterdam on November 22nd. This event used to be called "Champagne aan Zee" and indeed used to be held on the beach at Noordwijk. The reason for moving it indoors is unknown to me, but given that Dutch weather is unpredictable at best, plus a windy, sand-strewn beach is not the best venue to seriously taste wines, it seemed like a logical decision.

The event was held in two large rooms: one for champagnes and one for other sparkling wines. To say it was busy would be an understatement: at every table a large group was gathered, champagne glasses in hand, eagerly waiting to be served.

I managed to taste about 40 different wines; here are some of my impressions, starting with the sparkling non-champagnes: the Ferrari Spumante Maximum Brut, Chardonnay (imported by Vinites) was my favourite in this category. Soft and elegant with good persistent fruit and healthy acidity, this was actually better than certain champagnes I tasted. The cava Giro Ribot Tendencias, Brut Extra 2008 (imported by Cava.nl) is very creamy with spicy notes of cinnamon and the lesser acidity cava is known for. The biggest surprise here was the Deutscher Sekt Weingut Am Stein, Silvaner 'Winzer Sekt' Brut 2006 De Wijntherapeut), with notes of pepper and spice above a bed of apples, with a very light sweetness in the aftertaste.

As for champagnes, it seemed to me that Taittinger (imported by Oud Reuchlin & Boelen) simply blew the competition away. The Prélude Grand Cru Brut has flinty gunsmoke in the nose with beautiful autolysis, bread and yeast notes with a chalky, mineral undertone. The Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2004 is sublime. Priced at €260 per bottle, it has a beautiful salmon-pink colour and is very soft and full in the mouth with lower acidity and a delicious hint of red fruit, a rosé champagne with real character. A special mention goes to the Gosset Grande Réserve (imported by Résidence Wijnen), showing some autolysis and a very clean and strong attack, with great mineral character.

There were of course many other great wines to try; there simply isn't enough room to include them here. The following is a list of the winners, chosen in a blind tasting by the Perswijn panel:

Winners Sparkling Wine
1. Ferrari, Giulio Ferrari 1999, Trento (
Vinites
)
2. Codorníu Reserva, Reina Cristina 2006, Cava (
Intercaves/Vos & Partners)
3. Bellavista, Satèn, Chardonnay, Franciacorta (
Vinites)

Winners Rosé Champagne
1. Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2004 (
Oud Reuchlin & Boelen
)
2. Bollinger (Verlinden)
3. Laurent Perrier (
Kwast)

Winners Millésimé Champagne

1. Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millenaires, Chardonnay 1995 (Goessens
)
2/3. Bollinger, La Grande Année 2000 (
Verlinden)
2/3. Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 1998, Blanc de blancs (
Oud Reuchlin & Boelen)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Drinking Château Prieuré de Cantenac 1929

Yesterday was one of those rare extreme wine experiences. We stepped into a time machine by drinking the Château Prieuré de Cantenac (or Prieuré-Cantenac) 1929, the Médoc 4th classed growth today known as Château Prieuré-Lichine. This bottle was a miracle, superbly cellared, almost 80 years in the same pitch-dark spot.

The label of Château Prieuré de Cantenac 1929The label of Château Prieuré de Cantenac 1929

This bottle, and a series of other bottles including Château Brane-Cantenac 1920 which we opened a few years ago, had been forgotten for many decades. Around 1940 these wines had been tucked away safely in a sort of secondary cellar, behind a second wall, preventing the German invaders to find and confiscate the wines. By having done so the historic fate of this bottle changed: instead of being downed by some German officer in 1941, we drank it. In Amsterdam, in 2009.

It is crazy to realise what all has happened since this bottle was put away. World War II, the invention of television, the landing on the moon exactly halfway into the bottle's life, the rise and fall of the Berlin wall, and not to forget my own humble history, going to school, growing up etc...

Château Prieuré de Cantenac 1929
We imagined the then owner of Prieuré de Cantenac, Frédéric Bousset*, driving by the vineyard in his T-Ford inspecting the harvest, and the harvesters - helpful young farm hands wearing grey caps, and very ignorant of the fact that some wine emerging from the grapes they were picking would eventually be drunk by a hybrid car owner in 2009 (i.e. Jan van Roekel).

About 5 years ago I tasted the same wine, but this bottle presented itself a lot better. The ullage, the gap of air between cork and wine, was not particular big for a wine of such age, and also the cork was in a surprisingly good condition - I was able to pull it out without making any mess.

The ullage, the gap of air between cork and wine, not big for a wine of such ageThe ullage, the gap of air between cork and wine, not big for a wine of such age

In general this wine presented itself much younger than what we expected, it really could have been decades and decades younger. This will definitely be related with the exceptional vintage, the perfect storage condition of the bottles, and of course the quality of the wine itself.

What did we experience? The nose is surprisingly lively, a little sweet, and - less surprisingly - ripened. There is a round-deep scent, soft-autumnal, like a fresh(!) forest floor. The intensity of the nose is simply impressive. There is also something metallic there, blood and iodine. And old leather, and perhaps even a hint of chocolate. Once in the mouth the wine comes across soft yet spirited. The level of acidity reveals its age, but the total impression is that of a vital and wonderful wine. A wine with a texture of worn away velvet, bearing secrets that I am attempting to unmask - what a pleasant task.

The beautiful cork of Château Prieuré de Cantenac 1929The beautiful cork of Château Prieuré de Cantenac 1929

The wine has a whispering finish - tender, mysterious. It doesn't have the strength of a young(er) wine that just keeps on going, and you have to listen carefully to what this wine has to say when it lingers in the mouth.

While feeling the wine I kind of dreamt away, envisioning planet earth and its orbit around the sun, thinking that this stuff has made 80 round-trips before it ended up on my tongue. And this image did not arrive at random: it corresponds with the shape of the after-taste of the Prieuré: a gently, harmoniously hovering field of energy, a far voice talking from a dark past.

It was a spectacular time travel, and a wonderful wine experience.

*It was through Chris Kissack's website The Winedoctor that I found that Frédéric Bousset was the owner of Prieuré de Cantenac in 1929. It needs to be said: Kissack's free source of information is one of the very best sources on the web. If you're looking for specific domain information there is no other free website that even comes close to what Kissack is offering.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Labégorce Zédé flung away

Driving over the Afsluitdijk at night, this weekend, Jan van Roekel and I discussed a wine that we had recently tasted, the Labégorce-Zédé 2006. The name will disappear, Jan had read somewhere. It didn't surprise me, but I found the news a little bit sad.

Since 2005 neighbouring Labégorce and Labégorce-Zédé were in the same hands again, after the split in 1795. Hubert Perrodo brought the two domains together by buying Labégorce-Zédé from Luc Thienpont, but shortly thereafter he died in a skiing accident (2006). As Jane Anson now reports, his daugther Nathalie has taken over the property and will start carrying out 'the original plan' of uniting the two châteaux (see Decanter.com).

I said to Jan: and the second wine will then be called "La Zédé de Labégorce". It was nothing more than an obvious, and perhaps even somewhat silly remark. But today I read that this will indeed be the name of the second wine...

Thus: it will be the estate's second wine that will keep the memory of Labégorce-Zédé alive. While Labégorce-Zédé was the better performing estate − thanks to Luc Thienpont, who sold it.

Too bad for the beautiful name (and the beautiful label) but I'm afraid that with this development also the more classic and elegant approach of Labégorce-Zédé will be history.

From my own limited experience: the 2005 has more 'energy' than the 2006. It is difficult to make a firm judgement as the vintage differs, but I would be inclined to say that there is a slight difference in style. The 2006 has a more modern appearance and seems a little bit more oaky. Well, this is walking on thin ice, I should taste the two wines side by side.

But I wonder, from a 'branding' perspective: is it smart to abandon a famous name like Labégorce-Zédé? I wouldn't say it is.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The downside of organoleptic development

Dwayne Perreault - Funny thing, the nose. We all have one and tend to take it for granted, but the nose is the most important organ used to judge wine and particularly to recognize wines. Furthermore, what we taste is directly related to what we smell, so the senses of smelling and tasting are connected.

So it is that Robert Parker insured his nose for $1 million, an outstanding feat at the time. Years later, Holland’s own Ilja Gort, maker of such fine supermarket wines as La Tulipe and French Rebel, insured his own facial protuberance for $8 million, a master publicity stunt in its own right. I wonder how much his premiums cost? In any case, Gort seems to be enjoying success.

The nose is like a hyper-sensitive muscle: it can be trained, made stronger. It just takes practice. When you start seriously nosing wines is around the same time you start smelling everything else: vegetables, flowers, cheeses, books, old socks. Not that you never did these things before, right? And this is how you eventually learn to haul the old sock odour out of certain Chenin blancs, though you would never be stupid enough to admit that unless you happened to write for a blog.

Incidentally, I am a smoker. Now some people may say smokers lose something between 20-80% of their sense of smell, but it is my understanding that numerous studies have tried to prove this true in regards to vinology, without success. But I freely admit, I could be wrong. I just enjoy smoking.

But I wanted to talk about the downside to all this organoleptic development. It was quite awhile ago that I recognized that the flip side to being able to recognize the hereditary smells of certain wines was that I could also smell unpleasant odours more prominently. I don’t just mean odours in the wine, I mean odours.

There are smells we all find offensive, like rotting garbage and sewage, then there are those other smells, which one person finds obnoxious and the other is not bothered. An example is patchouli. I think anyone who wants to smell like mothballs needs to be legally restrained, but to each his own.

A few days ago my girlfriend was cooking what the Dutch call snijbonen (translated as “French beans,” you must know them) and I wanted to leave the house. It was like a steady stream of rancid farts was rising with the steam from the pan.

Last evening I met a friend at my favourite wine bar in Amsterdam and upon entering, I was hit by the overwhelming odour of detergents they had used to clean in the morning. This is an unspeakable offense in an establishment where one comes to taste quality wines. No-one else seemed to notice!

I am not squeamish. I’ve backpacked over South America and Asia; I woke up next to a dead rat once in India. It’s when I smell the jenever-saturated sweat of an old alcoholic on his way into the Gall en Gall at ten in the morning that I fully recognize that there is a downside to organoleptic development.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Exploring fine wines at Christie's

Today Jane Anson twittered about Emma Thompson's wine cellar. So I read that in her dream cellar the Meursaults from Arnaud Ente would not be missing. Quite an unequivocal statement.

Yes, I import Ente's wines, since last summer, in The Netherlands. In England Ente is imported by Berry Bros. & Rudd and the wine is better known there; here I still have to do some missionary work, and a publication like this is... supportive.

Another interesting article I came across was retweeted by Amy Atwood: about the relativeness of wild yeasts. There's much to do about using wild yeasts or industrial yeasts, and this Los Angeles Times article at least puts things a bit in perspective.

Any personal adventures this week? Yes, I attended a lovely dinner organised by Christie's Amsterdam. This weekend a big private collection was brought under the hammer, and Friday some lucky dogs were invited to sample about 50 wines from this interesting collection.

In my previous posting I wrote about Anne Gros, and Friday the - simple - red Burgundy 2002 was one of the wines to taste. A good vintage, but still I was surprised by the sheer energy of this wine. Pure, lenient, healthy and balanced, and strikingly youthful. Towards the end of the evening I went back to this wine (definitely not the eye catcher of the evening), and shared it with my neighbour. Her plan was to bid on this wine, with the idea to split the lot between the two of us. At the time of writing this I don't know yet if I will be the new owner of some 2002's and 2005's (part of the same lot).

The most lovely wines that I tasted were the Buisson Renard 2005 from Dagueneau (intense, perfumed, soft, open), the Puligny-Montrachet 1er cru "Les Champs Canet" 2004 from Carillon (velvety, well-balanced, elegant, a modest beauty) and the Corton-Charlemagne 1992 from Bonneau de Martray (vital, convincing, sesame seed, just very beautiful).

Interesting were some older red Bordeaux's, especially two 1978's: the autumnal La Lagune (a little awkward also, and tannic) and the Haut-Bailly. I just consulted Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine and his only one 1978 Haut-Bailly (in 2001) wasn't very good. He wonders: "Just the bottle?" and perhaps that might have been the case. What I tasted was an open, rather quiet, harmonious and friendly old Bordeaux. Not impressive, but not bad either.

Anyway, I was very happy to be there. And gosh, I hope my neighbour has won those lovely Anne Gros bottles...