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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Seventeen 'Highest Level' Wines Between Six People
© Adair Durie
Recently I was invited to a once a year dinner for six people which was billed as a “Macrobiotic gourmet experience whilst tasting wines at the highest level.”
First I must thank our host Attila Halasz for his invitation. Not only was the night an enormous success in terms of enjoyment, it was possibly the most educational wine night of my life. I now have even greater budgetary considerations now that I have caught a glimpse of what “tasting on the highest level” actually entails. Furthermore, Attila’s no meat (except seafood) Macrobiotic cooking was appreciated immensely by a group of meat eaters.
The only attendee
I had met previously was Ric (TORB) while I knew of both Marion and Attila.
Marion Stewart was indeed a lady whose efforts and patience greatly enhanced
everyone’s enjoyment of the evening. Her palate also made a good contribution
despite being the designated driver. Ric showed a more understanding of
European wines, both white and red, than many would believe. Attila, Peter Zeictsh
and David Pearson each had palates and understanding of wine at the highest
level. More importantly, they were more than willing to share their
understanding. I could have easily been made to feel uncomfortable when tasting
European wines in this environment, next to these people, but the limited
assessments I was able to provide on these wines was well received and
discussion was made generously and in a welcoming spirit. Thank you all. It was
a great night.
1. GOSSET Grande Reserve Brut. Champagne. 12%vol.: Length and Breadth of the highest level. I had not experienced persistence like this before. Opened with apple, pear and honey sweetness then spicy and bready. Finished dry and amazingly long. This was obviously French. Nothing I had tasted previously came close to it. However, the number of top Champagnes I have tasted can be counted on 2 hands. It was discussed that its relatively sweet breadth was contributed/enhanced by a relatively sweet dosage indicating a Non Vintage wine. Discussion over Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dominant houses ensued. I allowed the more knowledgeable to brainstorm it out. Rated Outstanding/Ultimate: my ambiguous rating due to my feeling that my inexperience with this style at the highest level makes the giving of the Ultimate rating foolish. It was mentioned that this wine costs around $70. If it does, I will be buying a few bottles. They will be worth every cent.
2. LAURENT PERRIER Vintage Brut 1993. Champagne. 12%vol.: Did not have the complexity of the previous but it was long and fine, not as long as the previous though. Still closed. The colour of the wine concurred. Attila commented:
“The previous wine was a beautiful woman and this wine is a 10-year old girl.”
This wine indeed needed time to mature and will not be served at Attila’s table again until it was legal! The wine did open a little when warmed but a rating at this stage seems pointless. The silence from David, our MW student, a man with an obvious affinity with age-worthy wines, as displayed by his wines and comments later in the evening, concerned me that this wine is never going to be great.
3. R.L.BULLER & SON Family Reserve-Reginald Langdon Buller Sparkling Shiraz Cabernet: 1968 reserve 40%,1972 Reserve 15%,1996 Reserve 45%. 15.5%vol.:
“The first two wines were like James Bond; this is more like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even worse, Sylvester Stallone.” – Attilla
“This is my first sparkling Port. Ric, I thank you.” – Attila
Although it was already obvious to Ric, Marion and I that Attila was a unique individual, this wine indeed brought out some theatrics. However, despite the aloof nature in which Attila speaks, as usual, his words conveyed understanding. Although I do not agree that the wine was unbalanced, believing it more to be part of the style, after tasting and analysing the previous two wines, I could only agree with Attila’s conclusion that the winemaker of this wine was not Champagne trained and did not have great skill in putting bubbles into wine. I had been served this wine before by Ric and easily identified it. This was not difficult or surprising. It is a unique wine that I enjoy. Ripe, rich palate-filling flavours with great complexity. Most thought it from Barossa or McLaren Vale. I allowed Ric the pleasure of revealing the wine as Victorian. After the previous wines, I felt it slightly cloying but how often do I drink the wines of the previous' calibre. I have not had a better sparkling red. Rated Excellent, I think it could have achieved a higher level with better winemaking. However, this wine stood tall in a great line up of significantly more expensive wines. A call to the winery is on my to-do list.
“Ric, you know the Italian word Primitivo; that is what I expect from your Pinots!” – Attila
4. PETER LEHMANN The Black Queen-Barossa Sparkling Shiraz 1994. 13.5%vol.: This wine simply could not compete with the Buller and unfortunately was served after it. This wine seemed relatively simple and cloying. After guessing it as the Vixen due to its obvious warm climate material, I revealed that I had not actually tasted the Vixen. I was duly reprimanded by Attila:
“You choose from what you have tasted, not what you have not.”
I then had a second go and picked the wine but not the vintage. Ric tells me that this wine have gone further into the ripe spectrum in more recent vintages. This disappoints me. When Ric is disappointed about something being overripe, I need not even consider tasting it. Rated as Recommended, I had previously rated this wine Highly Recommended but on a different night in different company. It is still good value for money at $35 but I will save up for the Buller.
While this wine was in everyone's glass Attila exclaimed: “Ric, you are eating tofu with your Shiraz!” And we were all enjoying it too!
5. TAHBILK Marsanne 1989: 1989 and 1992 are considered great Tahbilk Marsanne vintages. Tahbilk kindly supplied me bottles of both to present at wine dinners of this level, therefore, cellaring should not be an issue. Apparently most believe the 1992 to be better but I choose the 1989 for this dinner as Alistair Purbrick, the winemaker, believes it to be the better. I will present the 1992 at a similar dinner in coming weeks. Unfortunately the 1989 did not show well. Everyone except Peter, who believed it was a Chardonnay, thought it to be an aged Hunter Semillon. This led to discussion about the great Lindemans 1970 Chablis. Back to the 1989 Marsanne, while Attila believed it to be going straight to its grave, David led greater discussion on Marsanne, Chave and White Hermitage in general. As was made obvious many times throughout the night, David was a taster of great experience. David noted that good/great Marsanne is known for going through many “flat” and “showing well” stages until reaching maturity after 15 years and could not be sure whether this one was over-the-hill or in one of those flat stages. I have one more of these wines and will be keeping it in my temperature controlled cellar for a couple more years before probably opening it on an unsuspecting Attila again. To give credit where credit is due, once the options of Semillon, Riesling or Marsanne were given, Attila picked it as a Tahbilk Marsanne. For the record, the wine still had very good acidity but the palate was dominated by slightly madierised fig and marmalade of not great lift or intensity.
6. DOMAINE PIERRE JOUARD Batard Montrachet 1994. 13% vol.: Disappointing. Not great intensity, nor complexity, nor structure. Just ripe banana with a sprinkling of nuts on bread. Boring, disappointing and not worth writing more about except that I was a bit concerned at this stage that I would never be invited back!
I knew that this wine was not as good as expected from the night’s attendees, especially after Attila asked me whether it was a McGuigan, but I became more concerned when I heard Attila mumbling to himself in the kitchen: “Who can I poison next?”
7. LEROY La Piéce-sous-le-Bois Meursault 1973: As soon as this wine was within 3 inches of Peter’s nose, he exclaimed: “This is great wine”.
After further inspection, this statement was found to be an obvious truth. So great was this wine, Attila believed that he knew the identity of it before the options game had begun. However, the alcohol was obviously starting to take affect on Attila when asked for the wine's identity: “There are two reasons why I will not tell you: One, I don’t want to help you; and two, I don’t remember.” Hmm.
It opened with burnt toast then many layers of honey, marmalade and bacon fat followed. Amazing depth and restraint. Every phrase from Attila with a glass of this wine in his hand contained the word “balance” and he was correct. I am sure Ric took a second sip. As became usual with David’s wines, we could not even get the decade right in the options game. This 30 year old wine had time on its side. Unlike the Gosset Champagne tasted above, my experience and fascination with aged whites provides me with the confidence to rate this wine as an Ultimate. Developing flavours like those described above on a wine with amazing depth and balance are too rare. This is now my deserted island drink of choice!
8. FERENC TAKLER Szekszárdi Kékfrankos-Barrique Selection 1999: Did you know that 1999 is greatest Hungarian vintage of the decade? David did. When presenting this wine Attila explained: “Cabernet Franc has a 13th century forgotten cousin” and this wine was made from it. Apparently this grape is only made as a varietal in the best vintages. It was quite obvious why. Although I acknowledge that I probably don’t understand the wine, I would rather spend my time understanding others. Attila assured us that it was a great wine. To its credit, it did present depth and bright complexity with savoury, iodine, pepper, smoke and spice flavours but unfortunately the show ended with fine, green tannins. I thank Attila for the opportunity of trying this wine but admit to not enjoying it. As Ric concluded, the grapes needed to be left on the vines longer.
9. ROBERT CHEVILLON Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Vaucrains 1er Cru 1989: This wine provided a great learning experience. As soon as each person sniffed the wine, they concluded without reservation that it was a very good, if not great, Burgundy. It definitely had some farmyard and sappy fruit. However, this wine did not have the silky texture I thought great Pinot was supposed to possess. Once I went beyond this fact, it was obvious that this was a great wine. It had extremely lifted complexity of savoury farmyard characters, liquorice, strawberry and sappiness; depth; and balance: perfect acidity and ripe tannins. As it seemed to me more like a great Syrah than a Burgundy, I opened discussion on the topic. Attila in his usual, most friendly way made it very clear that this was the case with all great Burgundy. With that the case, I could definitely see why Australia used the term Burgundy to describe its Shiraz, particularly Hunter Shiraz, for so many years. As with the Gosset, I rate this wine Outstanding/Ultimate.
11. WYNNS COONAWARRA ESTATE John Riddoch Limited Release Cabernet Sauvignon 1982: “Quintessential Coonawarra cabernet of the highest quality” as stated by Attila and agreed by all. It was easily identified as Coonawarra Cabernet but the vintage was a surprise to all. Ric guessed it straight off as 1991 John Riddoch whilst others, once given a choice of 1982, 1986 and 1991, all said 1986. I love this wine and have yet to taste a superior Australian Cabernet. I rate this as Ultimate. Buy some, try one, and cellar the rest for at least another decade. Ensure it comes from a good cellar though, but the risk is probably worth it anyway.
12. PETALUMA Coonawarra 1991: I was disappointed with this wine. It did not provide any lifted fruit and was not complex. Like others, I too picked it as Shiraz. Don’t think it is going anywhere. Rated as Recommended and drink now. Maybe not a great bottle.
At this stage of the evening, Attila made it clear that we would not be presenting with dessert: “There will be no dessert as your host is now smashed.”
Although we indeed did not get dessert, to his credit, he was still vertical when we left but with comments like: “Listen, it is very important that you understand; (then in a confused tone) now what did I say?” we knew he was not joking about dessert.
13. Cornas 1978 (I did not take note of the winery but I recall Attila commenting that the maker was the "original" or "best", or giving some sort of praise based solely on the maker's name): Maybe slightly flat fruit to be earth shattering but that is being critical and in consideration of its company. It was definitely still alive with great structure of ripe, chalky tannins. Peter noted “still with primary ripe flavours with reductive sulphuric hints”. Thinking back to Attila’s comment about selecting from what you have tasted, I was the only one to pick this wine as from the Rhone. Everyone else picked it as Bordeaux. Adair: 2, Everyone else: significantly more! Rated as Excellent.
14. BROKENWOOD Graveyard Shiraz 2000: Double decanted at midday. Served at 1am. I was not as disappointed as Attila, who quickly disregarded it as being unbalanced by alcohol, but I still admit to being disappointed. I found it amusing that Ric confused a Hunter Shiraz with “Barossa, actually it could be McLaren Vale.” I took this wine home and finished it off with Sunday dinner. It showed much greater complexity and evened allowed some Hunter characteristics to show. However, it is not clear whether this wine will always be unbalanced by alcohol or will eventually bloom to become a Hunter Classic. Given the winemaker and history, I am willing to bet the later – but am I willing to bet $100 on it? No. Rated only as Excellent - just. (I suspect this to be an uncharacteristic bottle. The only other wine I purchased from the store I sourced this from also presented well below expectation. I remember questioning the storeman at the time of purchase about the positioning and heat of the lights in the “premium” section. I will not purchase from that store again and I will give the 2000 Graveyard another try before I close my book/cellar on it.)
15. ORLANDO Jacobs Creek Limited Release Shiraz Cabernet 1996: I didn’t take notes of this wine; Attila was making too many jokes about a wine with a label containing the words “Jacobs Creek” being served at his dinner table. I was laughing too much. I do however remember finding dill on the nose (US oak - GaryW has trained me well) with great intensity on the palate with a long creamy mouthfeel. It did not cloy. These are the hallmarks of any great Australian Shiraz. I am sure this wine would have put me in heaven on another night but, on this night, it was like playing loud techno music at the Sydney Opera House. Obviously an Excellent wine.
16. PIO CESARE Barolo 1978: Unfortunately this wine was served after the above two. The above two wines not only destroyed whatever taste buds we had left but put most, if not all, of us over the alcohol limit where wine can’t truly be tasted and understood. Despite this, the excitement of being given the opportunity to taste a 25-year old Barolo, when the oldest I had previously tasted was 5-years old, made me put every bit of concentration I had left into tasting this wine. However, all I could note was that this wine was still exceptionally structured with good fruit intensity dominated by savoury flavours giving the feeling of a very well balanced wine with time still its friend. I would have deeply loved to have tasted this wine after the Cornas and before the Brokenwood. I could taste enough to confidently give this wine an Excellent rating but it could have been an Ultimate and I would not know.
17. HARDYS Tintara Limited Release Shiraz 1996: Ric decanted this wine into another bottle so as not to give away the wines identity. What Ric didn’t realise when he did this was that when he was going to serve this wine, no one would have noticed had it been served out of a Riesling Sovereign. I will take Attila’s notes as correct. He obviously tasted the wine the next day to write those tasting notes.
As I conclude this piece, I think about what makes great wine and too often I feel we absorb ourselves too much with the favours present in a wine. I am not hinting that flavour, and definitely that flavour complexity, is not important. However, if a wine’s flavour was as important as most of our tasting notes tend to emphasise, why not drink a chocolate or strawberry milkshakes instead? If you drink wine to get drunk, why not add some vodka to the milkshake? But wine provides, or maybe I should articulate, should provide, appreciably more; a canvass upon which an artistic may paint. A wine’s structure is as important, if not more important, than a wine’s flavours, and our tasting notes should aim to reflect this. It is the wine’s structure that enables the flavours to shine. Only when combined do flavours and structure create depth; restraint; length; and balance. I have no training in any art, I actually shunned the thought of any such pursuit in my younger years, but the understanding of wine might just be the great bridge!
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Copyright © Adair Durie 2003