[Cross-posted at http://www.calgaryisawesome.com]
There are wine tastings and there are WINE TASTINGS. And then, about 500 feet above those, there was the tasting I went to this past weekend. It is not blog-boosting hyperbole to say that most of us who walked into Vine Arts on Friday night were stepping into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try wines that we would literally never see again. The rarity of the event was not lost on the buying public: the Friday tasting sold out so quickly that Vine Arts scrambled to add an encore showing on Saturday, which sold out just as fast.
What was so incredible about it, you ask? It was the near-unheardof chance to taste six of the world’s most famous, celebrated, acclaimed and expensive wines in a single sitting. Over a span of two hours, I crossed a number of vinous firsts off of my bucket list: Try a 100-point rated wine. Try the top dessert wine in the world. Try a well-aged First Growth Bordeaux. Try one of the all-time best wines from my favourite region. And so on. I have never seen ANY of the bottles in Friday night’s lineup available at another tasting in town, so having all of them together in one room for one occasion was a huge coup for owner Jesse Willis and the Vine Arts team: it would be like a music lover arranging for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen to play at a single concert, with the Beach Boys and Queen as opening acts. For wine geeks like me, this was almost a religious experience. If you’re not a wine geek, hopefully the excited rambling above has gotten across that this was kind of a big deal.
In order to get its miracle tasting six-pack of bottles together, Vine Arts pulled out all the stops and exhausted its network of contacts, both agents and private collectors. Unlike many higher-end tastings where premium wines are provided from current or recent vintages, this one pulled back-vintage (and in some instances, VERY back-vintage) bottles for all six wines, a critical requirement to ensure that people got the most out of each offering. While most wines are best served young, nearly all upper-echelon wines benefit from some bottle age, and many of these, especially the big reds, are absolutely unapproachable without at least a few years in bottle to mellow out and open up. Drinking a $800 bottle of First Growth Bordeaux should always be a pleasurable experience, but if you try it immediately after it is released to market it will quickly become a harsh and tannic nightmare; if you instead wait a decade or two, it will gradually become a symphony. On Friday, with very few exceptions, we went to the symphony. Here’s the blow-by-blow of a wine night not soon to be forgotten, starting off with a Chardonnay to end all Chardonnays:
#1: 1989 Bouchard Pere et Fils Le Montrachet Grand Cru ($400++)
Le Montrachet is just under 8 hectares of mildly sloping agricultural land in the southern half of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or subregion. It is also the consensus top Chardonnay vineyard in the world and quite possibly the single best white wine production site on Earth. So great is the reputation of Montrachet that two villages (Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet) and four neighbouring Grand Cru vineyards (Batard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet, Criots-Batard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet) have appended its name onto theirs to share in the legend. This is the first bottle of Montrachet I have ever tried, thanks largely to the huge financial barriers that generally block me from such an experience: the price listed above is only a guess because 23 year old Montrachet is more or less unavailable locally, but the current vintage of this wine was released to market at $800 US a bottle. The producer, Bouchard Pere et Fils, is one of Burgundy’s largest landholders and negociants (companies who buy grapes or finished wine from other sources and bottle it under their own label), and they are the proud owners of one of the largest parcels of Le Montrachet, the whopping 1.1 hectares of sacred soil from which this wine originates.
The 1989 Montrachet was a deep straw colour in the glass, albeit not quite as dark golden as I had expected for a white that has seen a couple decades in the bottle. Its nose was vivid and almost confectionary, and it kept shifting and developing as it sat in the glass, starting out as a whirlwind of shortbread, baked apple, petroleum jelly, angel food cake and cotton candy (although I’m sure it is sacrilege to say that the king of Grand Cru white Burgundy smells like cotton candy), and taking on increasing hints of burnt sugar and maple syrup as it was exposed to the air. The inaugural sip started out soft and mellow, but just as I was starting to wonder if the wine had lost its luster, its verve and acidity kicked in, like a classic car revving its motor, emphatically proving that it was still very much alive. After the candied nose, the Montrachet took on a baked, almost roasted flavour on the palate, with a hint of apple/pear peeking through a maze of burnt wood, toast and a sort of bruléed nuttiness surrounding a mineral-laden depth that lingered throughout. The finish lasted at least 2 minutes. My guess is that this bottle would have been even better 5 years ago, but it was still singing on Friday.
#2: 1985 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ($600++)
From one member of French wine royalty (Grand Cru Burgundy) to another (First Growth Bordeaux). One of the first things aspiring oenophiles learn about Bordeaux is that the top producers, or Chateaux, on the western half of the region (called the Left Bank because this portion of Bordeaux runs along the left-hand bank of the Gironde river) have been classified since 1855 into five tiers, from the First Growths down to the Fifth Growths. For over a century, there were only four First Growths: Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion. But in 1973, after decades of persistence, Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from Second to First Growth status, one of the only changes ever made to the 1855 Classification. In addition to being one of the most celebrated and expensive producers in the world (Mouton’s current vintage was released at $1,000 US a bottle), Mouton-Rothschild was the first to adopt the now-widespread practice of bottling its wine itself at the estate as opposed to shipping it out in casks for bottling at the point of delivery.
Mouton is always made up of a blend of the red Bordeaux grapes and is never a single-varietal wine: the 1985 was a mix of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc. It looked absolutely gorgeous in the glass, a deep yet fully translucent shimmering garnet colour that drew me in instantly. And the nose? At first, I just wrote in my notebook: ”Wow. Mesmerizing.” Then I tried to list the rolodex of intertwined aromas that this mature Bordeaux had built up over decades. Tomato, red cherry, musty leather, cedar, tobacco, smoke, peat, cigar box, pencil lead…I have seen “pencil lead” used as a wine flavour descriptor quite a bit, but I had never come across a wine that demonstrated that quality quite like this one. The wine started to show its age a bit on the palate, as the aristocracy of the nose gave way to a herbaceous delicacy, all mushroom, moss, undergrowth, earth and forest floor, with a hint of tart rhubarb on the finish. The Mouton’s structure was clearly fading, leaving the wine a touch thin and fragile, and within an hour it was gone: the nose had faded, the flavours turned watery, the bottle’s majesty dissipated into the air. I was grateful to have had the fleeting opportunity to experience it first.
#3: 2004 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia ($225)
Sassicaia is a legend in the wine world as much for what it started as for what it is. It began a vinous revolution in Tuscany in the 1970s where producers started making high-quality wines using modern production methods and non-Italian grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Since Italy’s wine laws mandated the use of traditional methods and indigenous grapes for all wines of formal designation, this new rebel suite of premium wines forfeited its national classification status and was downgraded to mere table wine. However, these wines, dubbed Super Tuscans, caught on with critics and wine drinkers alike and ultimately led to a revision of Italy’s wine laws to accommodate the flexibility and freedom to experiment that they demanded (for more on Super Tuscans, click here). Sassicaia was the very first Super Tuscan, made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown near Tuscany’s rugged west coast in the formerly backwater region of Bolgheri. The 2004 was 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc and was the youngest wine we opened all night — a dramatic contrast from the 1985 that preceded it. And maybe it was the depth of that difference talking, but for me this bottle was my lone disappointment of the night.
Unsurprisingly, the Sassicaia came out of the bottle much deeper and thicker than the Mouton-Rothschild, although still with some clear garnet/brick tones to its primarily ruby hue. Its nose was much more overt and forward than both previous wines, but also far less complex: I had to strain to get much from it other than sweet licorice, blackberry and oak, not exactly a cacophony of aromas for a multi-hundred dollar bottle of wine. The exact same pattern repeated itself when it came time to taste: the Sassicaia was an instant punch in the mouth, featuring massive structure and an immediate major explosion of flavour, but that flavour was basically one-dimensional, with raisin, blackberry/blueberry, dark chocolate and spice blasting at full volume but without any nuance. The wine also disappeared almost immediately on the finish, making the whole thing seem fleeting and shut down. Long-aging wines usually go through dumb phases like this in their maturation process, where they seem tight and closed off for a short span before coming back to life in the bottle. A couple others at the tasting who have had ’04 Sassicaia agreed that this bottle wasn’t what they remembered seeing from the wine, so if you happen to have some at home, there’s a good chance it will come back around. It was still a very good wine, but when you’re an icon in the company of other icons, raised expectations come with the territory.
#4: 2002 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($400++)
For those of you who follow wine, this may be the only bottle out of the six in Friday’s tasting lineup that you don’t recognize immediately, and for those of you who don’t, you may be surprised that a wine from Washington State is included alongside some of the world’s best and priciest bottles. Rest assured, this bottle has earned its seat at the table, and it did not seem remotely out of place beside the traditional greats: in fact, it exceeded all but one of them in my eyes. I was absolutely thrilled that the Quilceda Creek was part of this tasting. I have long adored Washington State red wines, and the more of them I try the more I realize the enormous potential of the region and the depth of quality of its producers. It is my favourite red wine region on Earth, and although I expect to get some hate mail for this, to me it produces wines that can match up with the great Bordeaux and Burgundies of the Old World. Washington wines are that good. This one is great. The 2002 Quilceda Creek was the first North American wine not from California to receive a perfect 100-point score from the fabled wine critic Robert Parker; just to show this wasn’t a fluke, Quilceda’s 2003, 2005 and 2007 vintages all scored 100 as well (2004 and 2006 scored 99…slackers). Washington State represent!!
It is almost inconceivable that this wine is 10 years old. It was almost black in the glass, deep and dark and utterly opaque. It was also the first wine to make me swear in my tasting notes. ”Holy shit,” I wrote after smelling a potent but intricately layered nose of blueberry, raspberry, iodine, smoke, blackcurrant, leather, bubble gum and vanilla. The juiciness of the fruit made it seem like the wine had just gotten finished being made, but the secondary aromas interwoven with them gave a hint about what this epic wine would become. The palate was a similar progression of flavour: gobs of beautiful, lush, ripe fruit, pillow-soft but not languid or jammy, and then SO much more: a structure that was massive, refined and approachable all at the same time, gorgeous mouthwatering acid that scoured my palate clean and kept the wine bright and refreshing, and a pure mint-driven finish that got more intense as the wine breathed. This is the best red wine I have had in my life to date, and every indication suggested that it was just at the very start of its peak drinking window. If you happen to own a bottle of this, wait 3 more years, then invite me over.
#5: 2004 Penfolds Grange ($550++)
Grange is without question the most famous, best-reviewed and most expensive wine to come out of Australia. Unlike all of the wines above, which come from grapes grown in vineyards within a fairly limited geographic area inside a particular wine region, Grange is a multi-regional blend made from the very best lots of Shiraz grapes from all of Penfolds’ sites across southwestern Australia. Dozens of lots of grapes are chosen as prospective Grange candidates before the final blend is assembled each year. This is an exceedingly rare practice for a premium red wine, but Grange’s aim is to showcase the best of Australian Shiraz rather than the intricacies of a particular vineyard or area. It succeeds.
Grange is PURPLE, a luridly impenetrable violet colour that coats the glass. A thick, glass-coating wine can be suggestive of higher alcohol, but in stereotype-busting fashion, this one clocks in at a surprisingly normal 14.5%. Despite being decanted for 6 hours prior to the tasting, the wine still featured the most intense nose of the night, one you could smell clearly with your nose half a foot above the glass. When trying to describe what it smelled like, I literally wrote “every fruit”: flamboyant and uncaged notes cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant and blueberry coulis merged with anise, vanilla, milk chocolate and eucalyptus in one of the more delicious combinations of aromas I have ever come across. After this dessert-in-a-glass nose, I completely did not expect to walk into the massive levels of tannin and structure on the palate, but they were a welcome break from the hedonism of the rest of the wine, keeping this explosion of flavour deftly under control. Oceans of blackberry, creme de cassis and oak rushed into a finish that kept my tastebuds buzzing for a couple of minutes afterwards. This wine is an absolute monster.
#6: 1997 Chateau d’Yquem ($250++ for 1/2 bottle)
This is it: what I was really waiting for. The chance to finally, finally try d’Yquem. The first thing I wrote in my notebook was “I might cry”, and I almost did. But I’ll back up. Chateau d’Yquem is the greatest producer of dessert wines in the world. Located in the Sauternes sub-region in southern Bordeaux, they make their legendary wines out of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that have been afflicted with a type of mould called botrytis cinerea. The botrytis grows on the skins of the grapes and pulls out the water from the pulp, shrivelling the grapes and leaving behind a viscous, concentrated, intensely sweet syrup. When these grapes (often barely bigger than raisins) are harvested and pressed and the syrup is made into wine, the result is an intense, racy, extraordinarily flavourful sweet elixir that is given a unique herbaceous/vegetal tinge by the botrytis itself. Many producers make dessert wine like this, but d’Yquem goes the extra mile, making 7 different passes through the vineyards at harvest time to ensure that each grape is picked at the exact optimal point and taking perfect care in field and cellar to create an end product that is consistently world-class. There is no debate about this: d’Yquem is the lord of sweet wine.
I have wanted to try Chateau d’Yquem ever since I first read about it years ago, and as my appreciation for sweet wines grew, so too did my desire to understand what made d’Yquem so great. In one of those time-stops moments, I finally got to find out on Friday. The Sauternes was a glorious deep amber colour and featured a nose that I could have filled up a whole page trying to describe; I settled for “ripe peach, maple syrup, celery, varnish, canteloupe, orange liqueur, honey, brine”, all tied together by a sort of nervy precision that left me speechless. I was so speechless in fact that I didn’t write any tasting notes at all when I took a sip: I appreciate the analytical side of wine as much as anyone, but some moments have to be set aside for pure visceral experience and appreciation, and this was one of them. Afterward I simply wrote: ”Majestic, exalted, otherworldly experience. PURE. Impeccable balance between sweetness and acid, pristine acid framework, eternal finish (over 5 minutes).” It was an absolutely unbelievable wine that made me marvel that people are able to work with the land and come up with magic like this. A perfect end to an amazing night of tasting, and the new best wine I’ve ever tried.
Huge kudos go out to Vine Arts, who stepped away from the standard retail tasting mould and shot for the moon to try to bring something truly special to its customers; in every way, their efforts were a resounding success and were certainly appreciated by those of us in attendance. Hopefully an event like this will prove that ambitious and exciting tastings are the ones that draw the best response and that wine consumers in Calgary want that rare chance to have a taste of something divine. I hadn’t seen a tasting quite like this in our city before, but I bet you I will be seeing more like it in the future, and that is a tremendously good thing.