Jay Miller, the toastmaster general of the New York City Burgundy set, never met a holiday that couldn't be celebrated by opening bottles of Pinot Noir. So it is that a dozen or so NYC geeks gather for a Columbus Day weekend celebration of Chambolle, Chassagne, Chambertin and the occasional Chablis.
We're meeting at Inside, which is that rarest of birds, a nice little place. Here's Elyse Fradkin, there's Jeff Grossman, there's somebody named "Justin" (Case?) who I don't know and who is suspiciously quiet. Is he a spy? Is he wearing a wire? I'll keep a close eye on that one.
Wine therapy's own SFJoe arrives and announces that he's going to be taking extensive tasting notes tonight, as befits his new status as a Gentleman of Leisure. We conspire to sit across from one another in the middle of the table in order to facilitate the stamping out of noisy, bothersome socializing that might detract from our respective notetaking endeavors.
We start off with two bottles wrapped in foil, one with a twisted foil collar, one without. Both wines go around and are thought to be quite similar at first, not helped by the fact that both are far too cold. Someone ventures a guess that they're the same wine, the noncollared bottle having gone through malo, the collared not. An interesting notion, but once the wines start to warm up the differences become more apparent. The noncollared bottle especially opens up over the course of a few hours.
Collared Bottle: Flinty-smoky undertones underneath yellow fruit, butterscotchy hints above. A sip, and the mouthfeel is somewhat angular, although the wine seems quite substantial. In the middle the lemony yellow fruit takes a turn towards a figgy earthiness that runs parallel with the minerality underneath. Firm and crisp, the yellow fruit isn't quite meshing with the high and low notes, but there's a lot of ground to cover and perhaps it just needs time. This one shows better out of the gate, and is quickly declared the favorite. (Maison Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1996)
Noncollared Bottle: At first almost neutral, this needs an hour or two to warm up and open. Light peachy-tropical hints, creamy, with a whiff of vanilla rather than the butterscotchy smokiness of the first. Softer than the other, creamier, lighter and more velvety. There is less overt wooding and better cohesion, but less weight and substance as well. It's a pretty, smaller style of chardonnay that is honestly flavorful and easy to drink. I like it better than the other, although I'm in the minority. (Domaine Drouhin Chardonnay Oregon Red Hills Estate 2000)
Just as we're about to defoil the wines, Marty the L arrives. We let him have a go and while he's puzzling over them we move on to a couple of fizzies.
Jean Milan Champagne Ogier Carte Blanche Blanc de Blancs NV: Light, elegant. Subtle nose, flickers of smoke and yeast, green bosc pear and yellow apple. Perky in the piehole, lots of fizziness, quiet lemon-accented flavors, thin in the middle, gingery dancing finish. Elegant, light.
Jacques Selosse Champagne Blanc de Blancs 'Substance' NV I posted a note on my last fling with this Partonesque wonder a few weeks back; it hasn't changed, remaining the Rubenesque opposite of a nimble fizz like the Milan. I take the opportunity to ignore it and try and get ahead with the next wine.
Which is a Bottle with no label. Muted, aromatically flat tropical nose, overripe pineapple soaked in butterscotch and laced with nutmeg. A sip, and here's exhausted yellow fruit and a good amount of toastiness. The middle is flattened out and applejuicy--there is balance here as well as an interesting stony undercurrent, but this is tired, faded chardonnay of some kind. (Stony Hill Chardonnay Napa Valley 1985)
SFJoe is carrying on about some cult Muscadet he loves that has just arrived in town. He turns to me: "It's the most expensive Muscadet in the world, it must be the best, right? You must buy some. You WILL buy some!" Alarmed, I write down the name of the producer and promise to buy some first thing Monday morning.
Another mystery wine drifts past, a Bottle in a brown paper bag. Not much here, aromatically speaking. Quiet nose, light hints of rainwater and... and... well, nothing. No, wait, here are some very light frozen-pineapple hints, flecks of steel and ice. Fills out a tiny bit with air, gains a light satiny layer of flesh over the impassive core. Just tight as a drum. Puzzled, I tap on my glass and shout "Hey! HEY! OVER HERE!" but I can't get the damn wine to respond. (Raveneau Chablis Butteaux 1998)
The bagged bottle is passed and universally derided. As Jay puts it, "It has no smell and no taste." But after it is unveiled as Raveneau, the verdicts veer suddenly in the direction of 1) "In need of time"; 2) "In an awkward phase"; 3) "Only just starting to come out of its shell"; 4) "Suffering from travel shock"; 5) "Angry because it's not being served in the proper Riedel Sommelier Series Raveneau Blind Tasting GlassĒ"; and about half a dozen other borderline desperate rationalizations. If you're drinking this soon, decant for a week or so. (Four hours later I come back to it, and it's showing a little more color; slightly-thawed pineapple and hay hints have emerged, although it's still basically a sleek, steely-rainwatery wine.)
Manuel pulls a Bernard Morey horizontal out of his Felixian bag of tricks. He makes friends with the women at the table next to us, who are probably wondering why we're still conscious with all the wine we're slugging down. I see several glassfuls make the leap to the next table; best to keep the neighbors happy. Lisa is cursing out the Salvation Army members who used to leave tracts instead of tips when she waited tables. "To this day I just lovvvvve not contributing to their little kettles," she announces. We cheer her on. I think someone even says "You go, girl," but I could be wrong.
Here come the Moreys, boys--stand back and watch 'em fly!
Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1988: Airy, minerally, crisp, lean and steely. Bracing acidity, lots of rainwatery minerals, a bit severe on the finish. Good stuff--lean, taut Chablis. Oh wait, it's not Chablis. Whatever, then. Quick, on to the next!
Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Beaudines 1988: Not as stony as the Morgeot, touches of baked apple, honey and walnuts in the nose. A bit looser, more yellow than the all-white Morgeot, plenty of acidity, still crisp and lean. Wait, did another one just go by?
Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Caillerets 1988. This one flashes past me as I puzzle over the first two. The bottles are hurtling by at alarming speed. Marty and I both beg for mercy from the onslaught, but Camblor cries "No quarter asked or given!" and continues to fling them down the line. I vow to catch it on the way down the other side, but by then there are two more entirely unrelated bottles coming at me, and it falls by the wayside in the name of vinous triage.
I do, however, snag the last one, a Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Embrazées 1988. Touch of caramel, flint and a green note ("Smells like baked zucchini" offers SFJoe). Showing more oxidation than the others, but similarly crisp and nimble in the piehole. Even damaged it's pretty good.
I've got the three out of four that I managed to catch arranged in front of me, but I quickly lose track of which glass holds which wine and am forced to scratch out half a page of scribblings that were probably illegible anyway. At any rate, the three '88s are pleasant, racy and graceful; all pretty wines that fall short of being compelling. Just well-built, slightly underripe chardonnay more along the Chablis model than what I'd normally think of for Chassagne.
Is it over yet? Can we slow down now? My wrist is cramping. Is there any food in this place? Some bread, maybe...?
No, no, it's time for reds! Jay fires his metaphorical starter's pistol, sending the bottles flying down the table once more.
To begin we have a Domaine Christian Confuron Bonnes Mares 1996. Smells rather simple right off the bat, cherry-clove and a light smokiness. Upon first sippage there's a tart cran-cherry bang, but the wine turns dilute in the middle and simply stops dead, leaving the acidity hanging in air like the coyote off the cliff. With air and time a funky streak emerges that might pass for earthiness, but SFJoe labels more properly as 'two-day-old burritos.' Dilute and disjointed, a shrill, mean wine. There is an awkward silence as this one moves around the table. To break the tension, I leap to my feet and accuse Jay of slipping a Baco Noir ringer into the proceedings. He hems and haws for a minute or two, then sums it up as "A decent village wine... perhaps...", but he is shouted down with cries of "Sucks! Suuuucks!" This viewpoint is soon vindicated: as the thing airs out it comes rapidly unglued, soon resembling nothing so much as turpentine with red food coloring. Glasses are quickly dumped and vigorously rinsed. It must've taken some doing to get Bonnes Mares fruit from 1996 to emerge as a wine this insipid.
Happily, the extended and increasingly boisterous expressions of disgust slow the proceedings down somewhat and allow me to prepare for the requisite Gruenchers mini-vertical. They also seem to be attracting the attention of the other patrons of the restaurant, but we're infected with that ol' Burgundy fever and beyond worrying about that now.
Domaine Fourrier Chambolle-Musigny Les Gruenchers 'Vieille Vigne' 1998: Smells earthy--cloves, underbrush and wet dirt dominate the dark cherry fruit. Tastes dusty and dark, mostly structure at this point, hard and shut down, with some fine glassy tannins swarming in on the finish. Hold until mid-May of 2008, at which point you may drink, but only until late January of 2010, when you must stop until early March of 2012, after which you have a green light.
Domaine Fourrier Chambolle-Musigny Les Gruenchers 'Vieille Vigne' 1999: Strikingly fruitier nose, big dark red cherry laced with clove and a hint of mintiness. Sweetly fruited almost to the point of being candied, but not quite. The pillowy fruit gives the wine the impression of greater softness, plusher at the edges and more loosely knit in the middle. With air, however, it loses some of the baby fat, the high-toned acidity asserting itself as the slight glossy sheen comes off the fruit. Similar fine glassy tannins kick in on the finish. A little flashy, but fun. Drink this while waiting for the '98 to come around.
Two very different wines, both interesting in their own way. I'm not sure how they keep making this wine so well every year from that single old vine, but I certainly applaud what must be an Herculean effort.
I'm momentarily distracted by the following snippet of conversation drifting over from my left: "...everything I've EVER done on the job could be called sexual harassment. Just grab their ass and get it over with!" I attempt to locate and pick up the thread of this conversation, but the damn wines keep piling up in front of me. Curse these wines!
Ghislaine Barthod Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras 1996: Smells dark and rather intense, boiled beets and raspberry suffused with tree bark and fresh lava (for those unhappy few of you who have never smelled fresh lava, it's sort of a hot black rocky kind of thing--a darkly pungent, borderline acrid stoniness). Tastes tight and concentrated, a substantial wine with fine weight and balance, but shut down and aggressively tannic now. Keep away, this wine needs its space. Several of us attempt to pronounce 'Ghislaine,' but suffer tongue-related injuries. Don't try it at home.
Now the Amoureuses mini-diagonal.
G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1997: Spicy, complex nose--forest floor and cola over powdery cherry, traces of mushroom. Surprisingly soft and fleshy in the piehole, good concentration while retaining a sense of elegance. The red center expands warmly in the middle, gaining a heavier red plum/red beet flush, then ebbs and turns two-toned leafy/cherry pit on the finish. A very nice ride.
Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1995: Aromatically reticent, shy cherry-beety redness laced with hints of forest mud and horehound. A sip, and there's a good core of meaty red fruit wrapped up tightly around a firm spine of acidity and followed by some sandy tannins. Cohesive and warm, but not very forthcoming. A quiet, thoughtful wine, it seems to have some interesting things on its mind, but now it's muttering crabbily in its sleep and wanting to be left alone.
Someone is taking photographs. Flash, flash, flash. I vamp for the camera, flipping my luxuriant brunet locks for maximum effect. Theresa, this is for you, baby!
Settling back in after the shoot, here's a Claude Dugat Gevrey-Chambertin 1999. Hey now. This wine is strikingly darker than all the others, almost inky. At first the burst of dark candied plum-beet fruit seems amiably silly, but it soon becomes almost suffocatingly insistent ("Fruit me! FRUIT MEEEEE!" it seems to say, like Yixin's favorite over-the-hill hooker). Plus, there's too much smoky wood, a charred streak emerges with air and the whole thing turns bitter on the finish. Seems marginally monstrous in this company, a steroided Frankenburgundy, bent out of shape and suffused with toasted wood. Someone yelps "Ye gods, who slipped a Flowers pinot into this bottle?!" The response called back from the other end of the table is "It's all about the fruit--GAHHHHHCHK!" As the night goes on the glossy shiny happy fruit fades to matte and the taste of charred wood becomes more and more dominant. Ugly, peculiar Gevrey.
The Dugat, for reasons not entirely clear to me now, pisses me off more than a beverage ought to piss off a reasonable man. I withdraw from social intercourse for a good ten minutes, snarling and murmuring vague obscenities under my breath. What atrocities were visited upon those poor grapes, I ask rhetorically? The Confuron was bad by accident, this seems an aberration of man's devising. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.
As I fume, I begin to notice peculiar snatches of conversation drifting my way. In one ear I hear Jeff talking about a friend named 'Tuna' who is actually from Sweden but is on The Sopranos, playing someone from Iceland (Miss Nude Rejkyavik?); while the other ear is picking up SFJoe telling some kind of an unintelligible story involving John Kenneth Galbraith. This peculiar juxtaposition shakes me out of my Dugat-induced downward spiral. I may have gone one toke over the line here with all this Burgundy; it's time to grab the reins for the home stretch.
Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques 1993: Another quiet, tight nose. Shy hints of medium red cran-cherry fruit, cola, clove and leaf pile. Quite tight and lean at first, with hand-carved acidity, the red core feathers out subtly over the course of an hour or so, revealing more as the evening progresses. Leave it alone.
Here's another mystery bottle, a Bottle naked except for a $57.50 price tag. Sweet jumpin' jesus on a stick, this is the real deal! Strikingly layered luscious old-Burgundy aromatics waltz up my nostrils, very beety at the core, but feathering out with evanescent hints of leather, honey and truffles. A sip, and through a light patina of charmingly earthy decay you find the beety red heart still pumping, pulsing warmly into a finish like a long-ignored pile of bricks out in the woods. Beautiful. Not quite otherwordly, but a lovely old Burgundy in the prime of late life. Were I in the scoring vein I would probably give this two and a half terra cotta Prongs decorated with pieces of Roman glass inset in a circular pattern around their bases, then buried in a mossy glen until they are dug up by Parisian Carmelite nuns and donated to the Cluny Museum for all the world to see. (Armand Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques 1976)
Heavens, it's another Rousseau, this time an Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Bèze 1973. The fruit aromatics are more faded here, muted preserved-cherry and dried beet smellies play a background role, leaving a light ashtray-bay leaf streak hanging in the foreground. The acidity is assertive, but there's less flesh on the bones. Still, what's there is sweetly faded, bricky and beguilingly leathery and fruitcake-spicy. Yes, it's over the hill, but it's going downhill in style, David Niven in his later years.
Joe fondles the old burgundy bottles affectionately, comments on the deep punts. He does point out, however, that they are not so deep as the punts on his 1919 and 1924 Huet bottles. These old Huets have what he refers to as "Fisting Punts," a technical term of which I had previously been unaware.
Jeff keeps nodding off. Has that Justin guy slipped a mickey into his glass or something?
As we gather things up and make ready to leave we take a moment to burn Josie, Sue Ng, Greg dal Piaz and Eden Blum in effigy, although Jay brightly points out that attendance is way up from the first Burgundy jeebus, where only ten of the twenty promised attendees showed up.
Egad, here's a little lost scheurebe! A Müller-Catoir Scheurebe Himmelscratcher Somethingdinger Moosebacker Auslese 1998: Whee, white grapefruit, lilikoi, pineapple and lipstick, like a fruit salad out for a night on the town. Rich and big and sweet, there's a zippy spine of crisp acidity keeping the wacky fruit in line. I've always had a soft spot for this rather silly wine, and tonight is no exception.
Joe says "It's not bad for scheurebe, which isn't exactly my favorite wine grape." Someone says "You and Mike Squires!" (Parker board guy?) Joe's eyes narrow and he hisses back "Smile when you say that, pardner..." I don't really understand this exchange, but it crackles with electric tension and so I feel compelled to jot it down.
But now I've run out of things to say.
About time, says Lisa.