James gives a blow-by-blow account of the memorable Chardonnay Pinot Noir 15 Dinner, hosted by Gary and Julie Hounsell at the Healesville Hotel.
Gary and Julie Hounsell (proprietors of Toolangi Estate) were the hosts of a dinner on Friday 10 July, 2015, which ranks among the greatest I have been privileged to participate in. It was for the panellists/judges of the Chardonnay Pinot Noir 15 event that followed on the next two days; the private room at the Healesville Hotel was ideal for the 10 attendees.
Proceedings opened with two Champagnes from the celebrated 1996 vintage, a year with high levels of both sugar and acidity in the grapes, providing the potential for the exceptional quality of these two wines – though not all the Champagne houses rose to the inherent challenge of a year such as this.
The first was Dom Perignon Oenotheque, now beautifully supple and gently honeyed, its balance faultless, followed by Krug, more deeply coloured and altogether richer, with brioche to the fore. While the Krug had plenty of CO2, there was a feeling it had developed more quickly than the Dom, and needed drinking – no hard chore, however. Goat cheese gougeres, freshly shucked oysters, and salmon roe, rye and cucumber were the accompanying canapes.
Thence to two Grand Cru white Burgundies and a Village wine, the third made by the uncrowned King of Meursault (which doesn’t have a Grand Cru in its borders), JF Coche-Dury. All three were from 2008, Montrachet La Belle Voisine, Chevalier Montrachet of E Sauzet and Les Rougeots of Coche-Dury, three mighty wines, the Meursault right in the thick of the contest.
The Montrachet was part of a short-lived, brave experiment of Treasury Wine Estates that led to a series of Grand Cru red Burgundies and the Montrachet being bottled with screwcaps, so there was never going to be a chance it would be oxidised, the scourge of white Burgundies over the past 20+ years. As befits this Queen of Burgundy, it was the most rich and powerful of the three, but had to yield to the glorious Chevalier Montrachet, its sheer, silky perfection imprinting itself on every corner and crevice of the mouth.
The Meursault was the essence of the Coche-Dury style, energetic and combative, with its typical edge of funk, impressively tight and compact, its length every bit as long as that of the other two wines. A David and Goliath contest if ever there was one. There was unanimous agreement that the Chevalier Montrachet was the best of three great wines, diamond-cut in its purity and precision. The smoked salmon, leek and apple bowed gracefully to the wines, making no contest.
A quartet of 1985 red Burgundies followed with a tried and true match of duck breast, red cabbage, celeriac, chard and house-smoked pancetta. There were two Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Echezeaux and Richebourg to provide the book ends for the flight, with Domaine Comte de Vogue Musigny and Nuits St Georges of Henri Jayer, one of the greatest makers of Burgundy arrayed in the middle. Even in Jayer’s lifetime his genius was revered; the wines were even harder to track down than the DRCs, and while I had purchased bottles from Christie’s in the early ‘70s made by his father in the ‘30s, I had never tasted one of his son’s wines.
The DRC Echezeaux had bell-clear, light colour that, as ever with DRC, gave no guide to the quality of the wine. An incredibly fine and intense bouquet drew me back again and again, the palate initially verging on ephemeral so light-bodied was it, but grew and grew in body and length.
The transfer to the Jayer Nuits St Georges was an unintended replay of the commoner (David) lined up against two Grand Crus (princes rather than Goliaths, perhaps) that we had with the white Burgundies. Murphy’s Law tried to get in the way courtesy of a cork issue that seemed to flatten the bouquet, but the palate came over the top with a thundering herd of complex and sustained flavours.
The de Vogue more than made up for any shadow left by the Jayer. It came at the end of a disappointing era for a great vineyard and winery, a series of changes that commenced in 1987, and in time completely restored its reputation. The vintage shone through, and time in bottle had softened any rough edges of an ultra-powerful wine, with great structure, drive and length. As it sat in the glass, it softened deliciously over the ensuing half an hour. The final flight of three Burgundies began with a reprise of the DRC Echezeaux, this time with the ‘59. It was at the peak of its power, with the inimitable birthmark of DRC’s pinots, an ever-changing display of racy, forest floor notes contrasting with floral scents of violets and flourishes of spices – all adding up to what I call the sauvage character of mature DRCs from great vintages such as ‘59.
Next came ‘55 Seguin Manuel Beaune, part of a discovery of a huge cellar of unsold wines from this Pimpernel of Burgundy, eagerly snapped up when they were sold through Christie’s Auctions in London. It had fabulous colour, and a mouthful of pure, simple seduction, red and black fruits seamlessly interwoven. It, and the last wine, showed that the often slightly dull wines of Beaune are but one side of the commune.
The ‘26 Beaune came from the greatest horde of wines ranging from 1911 through to ‘57, purchased in barrel by Doctor Barolet, who was more than happy to accept great wine (in barrel) as payment for his medical services. It was known that he had a considerable cellar, but the size of it unearthed when he died caused a sensation.
Christie’s was approached to auction it, but could not give the Barolet heirs any guide to its value, simply because it (Christie’s) had no way of knowing how big the potential market was. Once saturation point was reached, the remaining wines (which could have been many thousands of bottles) would effectively be unsaleable.
De Villamont, a large negociant, came to the rescue, buying all the wine. Most was released under a distinctive Dr Barolet label, but the oldest vintages were labelled and sold under the Villamont banner.
De Villamont then set about selling the wines throughout the major markets of the world, Australia being one. A tasting of more than 30 wines was held at Len Evans’ Bulletin Place; I had arranged a trout fly fishing trip involving others, and left it to my great friend the late Tony Albert (a member of the Bulletin Place Front Row and founding co-partner of Brokenwood) to go to the tasting and order wines on my behalf. This was circa 1969, and I have often wondered how much more than the four dozen or so bottles he selected for me I would have bought had the position been reversed.
I subsequently purchased some bottles in London while on a legal trip and, later again in 1984, in Melbourne (rather more than in London). All up I must have owned eight to 10 dozen bottles (from 1921 to ‘52), with only one or two poor (cork-affected) wines. It goes without saying that I would dearly love to have some of the wines still in my cellar, but they are all gone, and I have never regretted opening and sharing great bottles. The alternative is someone else drinking the wine during my (permanent) absence – decidedly less appealing.
The age of the ‘26 Beaune showed in its onion-skin colour, but its intense and penetrating bouquet and palate, with all the ephemeral perfumes, spices, violets and cedary notes of extreme age on full display. Rare venison, potato galette, truffle and onion was a perfectly pitched accompaniment to this great group of old Burgundies.
The ‘45 Graham and 1915 Seppeltsfield Para to finish the evening were an odd couple, but each magnificent in its own right. The 1945 vintage was one of the greatest port years of the 20th century, Graham (to quote Michael Broadbent), “Outstandingly the loveliest ‘45”. Its power and depth as it celebrates its 70th birthday this year leaves no doubt it will still be a glorious wine when 100 years old. By then its age will be more apparent, but the reservoir of intense, sweet and spicy black fruits will ensure it will be more than just liquid history.
The Para was, of course, already 100 years old, so viscous and so hyper-intense, a small sip is enough to send all the senses of smell and taste into overdrive. Unlike Graham, it will not change with further time: bottled this year, it has spent its 100 years in barrel, and only small changes (of the remaining wine) will take place.
I went to bed feeling wonderful, but the same could not be said of the following morning. Vitamin B taken before the meal, before bed and (combined with paracetamol) when I arose started the recovery phase; a long, hot shower phase two.
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