In This Issue
If you've ever wondered what a wine that sells for $200 a bottle might taste like - or better yet, a wine with a $950 retail price tag - stay tuned, as we wrap up the week with a virtual tasting report on a half-dozen bottles that most everyday wine enthusiasts can only dream about.
A room full of 100 people, most of them in the wine business, got a taste of such an all-star slate of wines yesterday at a most unusual (and generous) tasting sponsored by Republic National Distributing Company of Kentucky in Louisville. The "Great Wines of the World" tasting was a highlight of Republic's annual "Wine Experience," where the distributor shows off its recent arrivals to retailers and restaurateurs.
Invited trade people had the opportunity to sign up for the tasting, first-come, first-served. I had to work for my taste, having agreed to serve as a panelist and tasting guide, along with Gene Parham, a longtime local wine distributor who teaches an adult wine course at the University of Louisville.
I said the tasting was generous. Here's just how generous it was: Republic opened six high-end wines whose "suggested retail" prices (well on the high side of usual "street prices") would ring up a tab approaching $2,500 at the cash register. Multiply that by the six bottles of each wine needed to serve 100 guests, and you'll get the idea.
How did the wines taste? Very, very good, of course. But that said, it should be noted that these wines - like virtually all wines that sell at these breath-taking prices - are not wines to enjoy immediately but should be cellared for a decade or more before they achieve maturity and develop the ethereal complexity that, for those who can afford it, justifies their price. Frankly, except as an academic exercise, two of the wines were too immature to drink with any real enjoyment, two more would really require extended breathing and a good food match at this point in their development, and even the two that could be enjoyed immediately are showing only a fraction of their potential.
Still, the experience was a rare one, and I didn't hear anybody complaining at the end of the hour.
Here are my notes, quickly scribbled during the program. Again, prices are the distributor's estimate of Kentucky retail; actual street prices for some of these rarities (if you can find them at all) may be less.
Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne 2003 ($200)
Corton, in the northern reaches of the Cote de Beaune, is best-known as a source of great Pinot Noir, but the hilltop Corton-Charlemagne vineyard, owing to its cooler microclimate, produces some of the world's greatest Chardonnay.
Transparent, pale gold, great intensity, tropical fruit, pineapple and butter washing over more subtle chestnut and a whiff of smoke. Excellent wine, memorable white Burgundy, but the hot 2003 vintage has produced a fat, buttery and fruit-forward rendition that could almost be mistaken for a very good California Chardonnay. There's nothing wrong with that for those who like the tropical-fruit-and-butter style, but it's an odd thing in a top Burgundy.
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 2004 Romanee-Saint-Vivant ($950)
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti of Vosne-Romanee is surely the most famous name in Burgundy. It produces seven wines, all Grand Crus, including the top-of-the-line Romanée-Conti and such other hallowed names as Grands Echezeaux, Richebourg, La Tache, the white Le Montrachet, and today's wine, Romanee St. Vivant.
Clear, brilliant garnet, not too dark. Kirsch cherry liqueur aromas, very closed and tight on the nose and palate. Hints of meat and smoke mix with subtle but deep cherry-berry fruit flavors. Very tannic, very tart, much too young to drink even with aeration and a rare-meat food match, but balance and substance and great length hint at its long-term potential.
Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2004 ($130)
One of only three Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers that still uses all 13 of the permitted grape varieties, Beaucastel is generally recognized as one of the best wines of its region; it's also one of the most expensive, although street prices may range as low as half of this suggested retail. The 2004 vintage saw a return to classically styled Chateauneuf after the overheated 2003, and the winery seems to have banished the characteristic "barnyard" character that made Beaucastel instantly recognizable for so many years. This one is big, ripe ... and clean.
Deep, youthful garnet color with an almost day-glo violet edge. Raspberry liqueur, red plums and anise jostle for attention on the nose; just a touch of earth but no sign of Beaucastel's once-notorious chicken-coop barnyard character. Big, full and tannic, nicely balanced. Another youngster, best saved in the cellar, but full, appealing fruit makes it more accessible now than the Burgundy. I'd certainly drink it for dinner tonight with a medium-rare steak on the table.
Penfolds 2001 Grange Shiraz ($240)
Made predominantly from Shiraz, often with a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grange has become an iconic Australian wine with a price to match. A giant, blockbuster of a wine, it's frankly so far from ready that I can't declare it appealing ... now. But given 10 or even 20 years to come into its own, Grange can be one of the world's great wines.
Blackish-purple, opaque. Oak, oak, oak, and a little more oak on the nose, all the subtlety of walking into a new house with freshly sanded wooden floors. No disaster here, just the standard behavior of Grange in its infancy. On the palate you can already detect some deep, brooding black plums and mixed berries with hints of spice. Blockbuster dimensions and imposing structure, but it's too young to consider opening for another decade.
Tenuta San Guido 2002 Sassicaia ($250)
Preceding the fabled Super Tuscans by a full generation, Sassicaia was the first Tuscan wine to break with tradition in pursuit of greatness. Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the founder of Tenuta San Guido, began experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc soon after the end of World War II, and was producing this all-Cabernet blend, brought up in French oak, as early as 1948. By the end of the 1960s, a decade before the Super Tuscan wave really started, it had already become a "cult" wine.
Dark garnet with a clear edge. Perfumed, floral, subtle and complex scents of violets and fresh herbs. More dark fruits and dried-fruit nuances in the aroma, well built on a balanced framework of acidity. Very much like high-end Bordeaux, it needs much time to come into its own, but it would already show well at the table with red meat or game.
Chateau d' Yquem 2001 ($890)
Truly the world's greatest dessert wine, made from hand-selected, botrytis-affected bunches of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. This storied property, in the hands of the Lur Saluces family from 1785 until the 1990s, Yquem is now in the corporate hands of the luxury firm Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.
Rich, light gold color. Whoa! Huge aromas leap from the glass, apricots and honey, a whiff of butter and a dash of brown spice and a distinct, appetizing scent of orange marmalade. Rich and sweet, luscious and very full-bodied, coats the mouth with complex flavors that unfold in layers. Steely, shimmering acidity provides a sturdy backbone, but you've got to work through all that lovely fruit to find it. On a quick hand vote, the easy winner as favorite of the day for a majority of the tasters.
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