Some observations are in order.
1) I've been having too many quiet dinners with four or five people and have gotten completely out of practice with dealing with a relentless torrent of bottles coming at me like chickens fired from that chicken cannon that they use to test airliner engines;
2) despite what you've heard, I can go for an entire week without using the word 'finish'; and
3) I'm off the 1982 bandwagon.
These truths laying a foundation for what follows, I will now proceed with the usual potpourri of smug banter, undecipherable references and occasional throwaway mentions of wine...
So a shady group of winos met at the uncharacteristically early hour of 6:30 at Manhattan's storied Café Loup for a night of drunken festivization focused on wines from the Bordeaux region of France.
France, I am told, is a country of some 80 million people located in central-western Europe whose capital is Paris (pronounced "PaaaaR-isss") and whose chief agricultural exports are the ubiquitous sugar beet and the grapefruit, which goes by the colorful local name of "pamplemousse."
The Bordeaux region is an area of France almost the size of Rhode Island, Andorra and Delaware put together, and has produced red, white and rosé wines of great quality for over one hundred years. Instead of "Winery" the Bordeauxians prefer to say "Château," which means 'Big House.'
I am also told that the French, they are a funny race, which certainly rings true to me. Can you imagine the hilarity that might ensue if one were to attempt to order a grapefruit in a French diner?
Present at this event were many people that I had not had the pleasure of meeting. Lisa and I, ever timid and fearful of strangers, go and huddle at the end of the table next to David Ruth and wave gamely at the few familiar faces we do see: Mike and Kim Bassman, a fellow who resembles Greg dal Piaz except with dark hair and no goatee, that Kane guy. We carefully unpack our cheapo stemware and settle in for some fine wine from the Bordeaux region of France, a region that, I am told, also boasts some of the world's most renowned spelunking societies.
Here's a little starter white to get the ball rolling before the serious stuff comes along, a Château Haut-Brion (Blanc) Pessac-Léognan 1989, and it's not bad at all, a pale gold colored wine with a rich, creamy nutty-marzipan streak in the nose over light layers of honey, wet stones, yellow flowers and wax. Quite surprisingly big and dense in the piehole, creamy-rich and concentrated, happily expressive, with beautiful poise for such a large wine and an extremely persistent nutty-creamy coda. It's a bit of a show-off to be so extravagant so young, but it delivers the goods all the way, effortlessly hitting high and low notes and booming out happily in the midrange as well. Exquisite. Am I cursed to have the wine of the night be the first wine of the night? Drink, hold, bathe in.
Why, it's a stray bottle that does not hail from the Bordeaux region of France at all, a Domaine des Baumards Savennièrres 1996. This visitor smells quietly honeyed, hints of pear and almond, bright and light. Tastes slightly oily-rounded, a bit blunt and diffuse. I'm afraid it suffers by coming right after the Haut-Brion, as this is a wine I've found more interesting on other occasions. Kane, as he does every time he tastes a Savennièrres, says the word "quince" several times. I, as always, challenge him to produce this fabled fruit/vegetable, a challenge he defers for yet another day.
Heavens, here's another tourist, a Dönnhöff Schlössböckelheimer Küpfergrübe Riesling Spätlese 1998. Seeing this label the French bottles in the vicinity immediately throw down their arms, but I find it pleasant and nonaggressive, mellower than I expected. It has good density and rich fruit, but isn't terribly grabby in the mouth. Lightly sweet, with lemony veins in a stony-vinyl base, and a sustained lemony gulpfollow. Very nice, if a bit on the soft, easygoing side.
This white stuff is all very well and good, but it's not what we came for, and finally the dam breaks and the rivers run red with the incarnadine blood of the grape and its friend and unindicted co-conspirator Mr. Yeast.
A bottle of Château Marquis-de-Terme Margaux 1978 starts us off. Medium ruby color, looks fairly young, but something is wrong here--a fairly unpleasant seaweedy note hovers above the glass amidst other burgeoning unpleasantries, and Lisa is called upon to render a verdict. She sniffs... her brow furrows... "Corked!" she hisses. She sniffs again... "Cooked!" she cries, "Corked and cooked at once!" Glasses are rinsed furiously, and the gleaming dump buckets begin their long night of selfless service.
After our noses have been rebooted, we try a Château Siaurac Lalande de Pomerol 1982, and it's at least of sound body. It's a youngish-looking medium ruby color but a good swirl coaxes little out of the glass except some muted smoky redfruit hints. A sip, and there's a first wave of pleasantly muted red fruit that slowly drains away throughout the midpalate with a whimper. Rallies a bit on the denoument, turning pleasantly smoky, but basically seems rather hollow and past its best years.
Next up is a Château Lynch-Bages Pauillac 1986, and here's a good robust nose, racy graphite & gravel underneath taut red and black fruit, hints of espresso. This wine is a bit stern; there's a glassy hardness to it, but it's feathered out at the edges enough to give glimpses into its rocky heart. Bright and crisp, a muscular, tight wine that I like a lot even now. Very nice, very butch, a manly wine that stirs in me the urge to sing sea chanteys.
Here's a Château Latour à Pomerol 1985, and it's another quiet, almost spectral nose, soft hints of redness, earth. Tastes quiet right off the bat, then turns lean and tired and leafy. Some gritty tannins are the strongest impression this one leaves on me. Past its best days.
More stately geeks are arriving, Brian MVG and his fiancée Virginie, the elusive Mr. Jeff Munro Connell, and the omnipresent .sasha, along with Jayson Cohen and Laura Glick bringing up the rear. Apparently these last four have been conducting a private jeebus of their own for the past few hours somewhere else, as they are lit like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and have arms full of bottles in various states of completeness. We greet them cheerily and send up the cry "Bring us snails! Bring us snails!" And wouldn't you know it, the attentive waitstaff does just exactly that.
Mr. Connell explains that he has been busy in the frozen northland burying his vines for the long winter, but has sadly only managed to bury one-third of his total crop before the weather made it impossible to do any more. What will he do with the other two-thirds, I ask?
He turns to me, eyes blazing: "Straw!" he intones, and sits back to consider the effect of his words.
I nod furiously, feigning comprehension, then point past his head. "Look!" I cry, "It's a La Dominique vertical!"
And so it is, just in the nick of time.
Château La Dominique St. Emilion 1990: Another quiet nose, but more complexity here; red fruit, graphite and cedar, hints of oregano. A sip, and it's a racy wine, pleasantly layered but ungiving, with reserved herby-cassis-graphite notes in a rather closed-seeming body. There's lots of stuff going on here strength and density-wise, but the wine isn't terribly friendly and the pleasure is more intellectual than sensual.
Château La Dominique St. Emilion 1989: A much fleshier, friendlier wine to my tastes, this has ripe tangy fruit set in a meaty, chewy base that says "Drink me down, sailor, there's more where that came from." Much closer to jamminess than its younger sibling, this doesn't have quite the balance or structure but is more pleasurable to drink right now; a slatternly little tart of a wine that I enjoy very much. Matches up lasciviously with hot buttered snails.
The Dominiques are a point of controversy, with partisans arguing the virtues of each. I am the lone '89 fan in my immediate area, and must hold out for awhile until the absentee ballots start to arrive from the outlying tables.
.sasha stands. For a moment all eyes are upon him. "One of these wines," he says "is definitely better than the other."
He sits. The matter is settled.
I move on to a Château Smith-Haut-Lafite Pessac-Léognan 1989. Smells lightly herby, oregano and gravelly fruit. Tastes decent, medium-rich pencilly redfruit that doesn't seem to have developed much yet. Young and rather hard, somewhat difficult for me to pass a ringingly definitive judgment. Perhaps I'm losing my stuff...
Here's a Château Poujeaux Moulis-en-Médoc 1982: Deep, rich medium garnet color. Warm red nose, ripe cassis with blackberry edges and hints of tar & smoke underneath. A friendly wine, meaty and a bit soft, lacking in definition. No, it's a nice, warm wine that's on the chunky side, but it's pushing my buttons because it's yet another ripe, friendly, somewhat one-note 1982 Bordeaux. Can I get off the '82 bandwagon yet? Okay, I'm being unfair to what is really a very decent wine, but there's such hype surrounding this vintage that I always expect more than I seem to find. After all, if I've learned one thing in all my years in the wacky internet wine character business, it's the truth of the old axiom: Vintage is Destiny.
I brood a bit, and send Lisa off to see if she can buy the curiously compelling skeletal rubber-ducky drawing that hangs over our table. She can't, and is told that she's the sixth person to ask that same question this week. If any helpful winegeeks out there are friends of the Irish artist John Kindness, please let him know that I'm an ardent admirer.
I eagerly trade one of my spare stems for a pour of Château Trotanoy Pomerol 1975, and whoofahoola, this has a lot going on in the glass. Earth, herbs, graphite & stones in a base of fluid young-seeming fruit, smoothly integrated yet distinct and expressive. I sip it, and the flavors bloom in my mouth, a deep rich wine with a patina of age that just picks up power as it flows through my face and into my guts like barium. The warm red crushed-brick fruit is there like a sustained hum, the stony-earthy spine underneath, the layers of spice above, the licorice notes, the light herbiness, blossoming in the midpalate and flowing like a wave into a stony-rich swallowecho that doesn't so much end as slowly ebb away. Am I ready to declare a red wine of the night? No. But if I were, this would be it. Compelling and beautiful, a complete package, drinking at peak, right? Gotta be. Right?
A stray white comes along, a Domaine de Chevalier 1978, and I trade the other stem for a bit of this pale gold liquid. Smells lightly pineapple-vanilla with a suggestion of minerality underneath that, like a rainbow, evanesces the more I look back for it. Tastes brisk and tangy but the initial rush of white fruit fades quickly into a watery, dilute midpalate with a streak of sharp unsupported acidity. I am surprised, but I find this lean, tart and unpleasant.
A Château Cantemerle Haut-Médoc 1989 comes around, and I take a sniff. Rich, ripe, almost choco-red Californian in character, very forwardly fruity. The taste echoes the nose, a meaty-rich and warm wine, low-acid and lush, a Kane wine all the way, and just as I am saying to Lisa "This is a Kane wine all the way," Kane bounds behind me and says "Have you tried the '89 Cantemerle? Wow!"
Consistency is, after all, a virtue. It really is a nice, easy wine, fleshy and rich, hard to dislike but rather earthbound, not a wine to stir the loins.
Here's a Château Pichon-Longueville--Comtesse de Lalande Pauillac 1993: Here's a pleasant nose; smoky cassis, cedar, redfruit and minerals. Tastes leaner and more disjointed than it smells, with a lean streak, a bit soft and dilute in the midpalate but quite drinkable, if not much more. Unimpressive, if decent.
My bavette frites in a pamplemousse glaze has arrived, and I eagerly pour a bit of Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 1981 just in time to see Lisa, her nose averted, throw her yellow flag at this bottle. Corked, damn it. I wistfully taste at the wine beneath the taint, but it's just no use, no use at all.
Instead I grab a pour of Château Cap Léon Veyrin Listrac-Médoc 1976 and swirl hopefully. Seems thin and pallid, but soon the smell of wet newspapers wafts up at me just as Lisa grabs the yellow flag right back and throws it once again. Yet another casualty. Can we get those damn screwcaps or Yanicorks or SOMETHING, please? For the love of god, we're dying out here...
Okay, deep breath... here's a Château Canon St. Emilion 1990. Smells nice, some rich graphite and cedar over pleasant coffee-limned red fruit, a very decent wine that for some reason has other people doing backflips. I go back to it again and find it once more a very decent, pleasant wine that is right down the middle of the road in terms of complexity and depth; rich, but not dense; deep, but not profound. Some well-integrated oak, rich fruit. A very nice wine that is very well balanced and quite correct in every detail--this one has all its T's crossed and I's dotted, but I can only look on impassively at the gushing that it seems to inspire in others.
Here's another mini-vertical.
Château Gruaud-Larose St. Julien 1982: Deep medium-dark garnet color. Smells rich and ripe, dark blackberry and cassis up the wazoo, with tarry undertones, hints of licorice. A big wine, ripe and lush and full-bodied, a blockbuster style of Bordeaux that overpowers me with ripeness and Rubenesque flesh rather than seducing me. It's impressive, but I want more structure and more layers of flavor than this wall of unctuous Kaneish gobbiness provides.
Château Gruaud-Larose St. Julien 1990: Okay, this is more my speed--this wine has a pronounced mineral spine clothed with rocky tobacco-edged dark black and red fruit. The graphite/gravel streak underneath buoys up the still-lush fruit, giving it the structure that I found lacking in the 1982. This is the more complete wine for me, big and firing on all cylinders, a wine with real character and balance.
This is the last straw. I stand up and feverishly announce that I am officially off the '82 bandwagon. "Who's with me, laddies?!" I cry, and to my joy .sasha leaps up and swears that he too is off the bandwagon for good and all.
Trouble is, he has misheard and decided to leap off the '28 bandwagon. He twists his left ankle doing so, but certainly won't feel it until the morning.
Here's a Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 1989: Some swirling brings up a quiet but rich proboscis, nice hints of tobacco, gravel, earth and cedar in a tight red-black base. Not a biggie, this seems rather reserved when I pour some into my piehole but with some time and air it opens up, turning silkier and richer, smooth and dark in the midpalate with some stern young tannins taking over in the aftertaste. Rich and balanced, a wine with elegance and restraint, too young now.
Mr. Connell is having his yearly cassoulet. I feel a warm sense of solidarity, as I had my yearly cassoulet last week; I wave happily in his direction. Our eyes meet, and I unaccountably feel compelled to begin passing him all the bottles that are within my arms' reach. He gradually becomes a vinous singularity, with his section of the table an event horizon beyond which no bottle can reach escape velocity. The agitated waiters attempt to clear away some of the almost-empties but are shooed away brusquely, and soon he is beaming quietly over thirty bottles in various states of consumption.
What's up now? I go and fish around in Mr. Connell's crop of bottles, find a Château Léoville-Porferré St. Julien 1994 and give it a sniff... spicy, cedar/cigarbox nose, dark cassis fruit, coffee-toasty notes. A sip, and it's rich, hard and aggressive. There's good depth here, it's a rather boisterous wine, getting rowdy, making an impression, then turning puckery-tannic in the postgulpal phase. Way too young to drink, but interesting nonetheless.
These two youngsters have me happy to see a Château Palmer Margaux 1979, and I eye the medium-ruby-amber-edged fluid with relief. There are some lovely hints of development, earthy-tea and stewed tomato hints over bricky muted red fruit, a pleasure to smell. Doesn't taste too bad either, although I find the taste to be less beguiling than the smells; it's a lightish, understated wine that is prettily balanced and quite whispery going down the gullet. Seems to be on the downslope, but it's going down in style.
After the twenty-fifth glass I have my usual out of body experience. This time I look down and see myself gushing to David Ruth about Beaujolais; I find I am slowly becoming Andrew Scott. Does this mean that Mr. Scott is somewhere talking up Turley zins, or is his the dominant personality in this equation? I keep talking, and David is writing things in his notebook. Is he taking down the names of the producers I'm yammering about, or is he writing "Boy, is this guy ever a drunken yobbo"? I float over his head to sneak a peek, but, as if sensing my astral snooping, he snaps his notebook shut. I retreat back into my corporeal shell, chagrined and thirstier for the journey.
Here's a pretty little thing, a Château Prieuré-Lichine Margaux 1990. There's a delicate violet streak to the velvety red cassis nose, light and perfumed; it makes me smile. When I sip I smile some more, as I find a rich, nimble spine of strong fruit that is couched in a bright, smooth body that flickers with dark flowery notes. Well integrated, with the impression of lightness--the balance is what makes this wine, the sense of fluid delicacy that hides a bright, supple strength. Audrey Hepburn. Another favorite, in a very good place right now.
What's next? A Château Pavie-Maquin St. Emilion 1996. Medium dark garnet. Smells young and creamy-red, plenty of nice red cassis fruit. Tastes fairly robust, more smoky red fruit, bit of diffuseness in the midpalate. I dunno. Undistinguished, not bad.
Time for a Château Meyney St. Estephe 1990 and it's got a pleasant graphite-mineral streak under a blackcurranty base, a modicum of complexity here. Good balance on a small scale, a solid, pleasant wine that doesn't do too much but does it rather well.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my ear, I hear myself pontificating. I look around to make sure that the voice saying "In my years of tasting so-and-so..." is mine, then bang my head against the table thrice, the traditional self-administered remedy for this affliction. It works well to nip the threat in the bud, as, between the pounding and the surging alcohol levels, the only thing I can say for the next few minutes is "Muh..."
I'd better have some more wine. Here's a Château Haut-Bages-Liberal Pauillac 1986: Um. Wait. My head hurts. Okay, no, here's some cedar, some tobacco, dark fruit, a foursquare kind of Pauillaciness. Tastes nicely balanced, a bit hard, good follow-through, still a bit ungiving.
Next up is a Château Smith-Haut-Lafite Pessac-Léognan 1989, and it's much softer and more layered than the previous wine, smelling lightly herby-gravelly, light, balanced and velvety. Tastes light, layered and interesting, rich and pleasant, if lacking a bit of the strength of the last wine.
I mix the two, sipping and manipulating the blend.
Château Smith-Haut-Bages-Lafite-Liberal Pauillac-Léognan 1987.5: Nice structure, hints of mineral and herb, dark racy black and red fruit form the core of a delightful blend. Long smoky afterswallow, nice balance of structure and softness. Very tasty; well made.
For dessert, pamplemousse tart with vanilla ice cream. Someone pours a Château Richard Saussignac 1994 and the air around me fills up with the distinctive aroma of a cardboard-factory basement a week after a flood. I gasp for breath and pour out what is now the most strongly corked wine I have ever encountered, just edging out a Turley Petite Syrah [sic] that was poured for me on March 7th, 1999, a twenty-one month run of distinction. The vial of pure TCA crystals that I once purchased didn't smell this pungent; I am deeply impressed.
Someone has brought a lovely tokay, a Royal Tokaji Wine Co. Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyos Betsek 1991. Happily oxidative nose, orange rind and apricot, almonds and light brown sugar. Crisp and racy, medium sweetness, tangy, dense and rich. Impressive grab in the mouth. Pretty darn tasty, if not terribly light on its feet.
Here's a Château Rayne-Vigneau Sauternes 1988: Pale straw color... quiet lemon-vanilla-cream nose, no noticeable rot. Tastes medium-sweet, simple and decent, well-balanced and crisp but with little complexity. Quite botrytisless, and even a little would go a long way towards giving this a bit more interest. Still, pleasant, crisp and easy to sip.
I'm not sure if this wine is entirely from the Bordeaux region of France, but I'm willing to try a Muller-Catoir Rieslaner Mussbacher Eselhaut Auslese 1990. Smells richly tropical, pineapple and Kona orange, with a rich vein of beanbag-chair vinyl underneath. Tastes rich and dense and a bit monolithic, but there's good acidity, nicely balanced and crisp, and there's a tropical-vinyl close that hums pleasantly for a few clear moments. As good a 1990 dessert rieslaner as I've had, I suppose, but I don't find much complexity here.
Why not try a Château Climens Barsac 1971? Pale orange-gold color. There's a lot going on here... oh... heavens... mandarin orange, vanilla, apricot, honey, hay, other stuff, a delight to inhale. Tastes beautiful, crisp and rich, creamy and layered, deeply and impressively flavored, still has a deep core of youth amidst the feathered-brown trappings of middle age. Rich hay-apricot-lemon-creme-brulée flavors flicker and evanesce in the midpalate, which is weighty and nimble at once, before you come to the slow, warm afterswallow. Quite wondrous, a wine to sit back and admire before one pours it down one's appreciative gullet, and the one I squirrel away a splash of to nurse as we head into the wee hours.
By now only the hard geek core remains, hunkered down over the dregs of thirty or so bottles, squeezing the last drops out of every one while talking their geek talk. There is a momentary crisis when Kane's stemware box turns up missing, but a quick-thinking headwaiter manages to fish it out of the dumpster and return it to its beaming owner.
We close the joint at 1:30, when the waiters start to stack the chairs up on the tables and attempt to dislodge us forcibly by "accidentally" poking us with kitchen utensils when our heads are turned. Seven hours of dedicated jeebusing are enough for tonight, and we disperse to the chilly streets, waving happily at each other as our automatic reflexes take over and begin the process of carrying us home to our waiting beds, or, as the French would say, "Les choufleurs."