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Words About Wine
A feature of Robin Garr's Wine Lovers' Page

A wine tasting of
'historic proportions'

By Victor de la Serna

© Copyright 1997 by Victor de la Serna. All rights reserved.

My heartfelt thanks go out to Munich-based wine buffs Florian Miquel-Hermann, Richard Pérez and Galen Bales (who's originally from San Francisco). They set up a wine tasting of historic proportions with Spanish winemakers Mariano García (of Vega Sicilia) and Alvaro Palacios (now a cult producer in European circles, although his wines haven't been available in the US until now). They thought there'd be room for one more participant, and Mariano and Alvaro thought of me. (Probably because I'm multilingual and can order "Kaffee, bitte"). So I jumped at the chance of a 22-hour lightning trip to Munich including a thoroughly informal, 8 p.m.-3 a.m. (!!) tasting session before, during and after dinner at Galen's home. It was not quite one of those revered Rodenstock tastings, and I'm certainly not, God forbid, RP reporting on it. I know this has little practical significance since these wines are seldom found anywhere, but chances at rare vintages in good companionship are always part of the wine experience, and I thought I'd pass these brief notes along to the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group:

Outside the tasting:

1988 vintage Champagne, Perrier-Jouët. Smooth, with the fatness given by the two Pinots in the blend, the kind of Champagne that would go well with a whole meal and not just with some (very good) "tapas".
Vilerma 1995 Arsenio Paz, DO Ribeiro. I brought this along on a lark, knowing it wouldn't be in a class with the rest of the tasting, but as an example of a peasant wine made with passion and purity by a small (5-hectares) vintner in northwestern Spain. Golden, ripe; peachy aromas; mouthfilling roundness, the necessary acid backbone. A cult wine in Spain, with tiny production.

Flight 1

Meursault Genevrières 1982 Comte Lafon. Lovely, pastry-laden nose; low acidity and medium body with not too much length, a testimony of a low-acidity vintage. (The organizers were disappointed at this bottle; other 1982 Lafons have shown a lot better).
Chevalier-Montrachet 1986 Domaine Leflaive. Immense but delicate nose of orange blosson, elegant nervous body, very long finish. Kept evolving in the bottle and the glass, acquiring new layers of complexity. Very great. Montrachet 1986 DRC. A dark golden, very dry monster of power, of ripe toasty aromas and of a full, amazing body. Another wine that kept evolving in the glass, more powerful but never classier than the Chevalier.

Flight 2

Unico 1942 Vega Sicilia. A healthy tile-tinted ruby color, the telltale, Port-like, "cooked", high pitched Vega Sicilia nose, extremely smooth body with a hint of tannins, quite flattering, unending finish with coffee and pastry overtones. Not an archaelogical monument, but the kind of fine wine you'd dream about to accompany a great meal in 1997. Unforgettable.
Castillo de Ygay 1942 Marqués de Murrieta. Sweet, vanilla nose with dried flower overtones, somewhat lighter in color and in concentration than the Vega, but very smooth and elegant still. Interesting since this wine had certainly a highish content of Garnacha (Grenache), which isn't supposed to age well for 55 years!
Château Montrose 1945 (St. Estèphe). Ouch! Something happened to this bottle along the way. The cheesy nose (meaning blue cheese...) only got more pronounced as the evening progressed. Lack of luck.
Château Pétrus 1947 (Pomerol). Tremendous dark, brooding, youngish (!!) wine. Intense, animal nose; mouth-filling intensity. This is a great wine, perhaps lacking a bit in complexity, that might still evolve.
Château Lafite-Rothschild 1959 (Pauillac). As dark as a 1985, intense, still fruity nose (raspberries, no less), huge concentration, unending array of layers of complexity that keep changing for more than an hour, perfect balance. Perfection?

Flight 3

Château Pétrus 1975 (Pomerol). If the 1947 was still young, imagine this one... Still somewhat closed nose, but extremely pure, big tannic backbone that one finds in 1975s, but with the fruit and stuffing to make it go. Needs a few more years. Château La Mission-Haut Brion 1975 (Graves). Another bottle with a problem. A mouldy nose overpowers the hints of Graves cedar-box aromas. Unico 1975, Vega Siclia (magnum). Good at first, great later. The port nose is Vega, with exotic tropical notes added, but the body appears lighter, quite elegant, balanced at first. Then, as the evening progresses, the wine seems to acquire increasing depth and complexity without losing a drop of finesse. Very great.

(Throughout the tasting, the effects of exposure to air in large decanters and glasses were apparent on several wines, again demonstrating that opening bottles hours ahead of tasting had a much smaller effect, probably because the contact with air is so much more limited...).

Flight 4

Côte Rôtie La Turque 1989 Marcel Guigal. Huge spiciness, a very toasty (too toasty?) nose, a huge wine but with a "hole" in mid-mouth thta slightly disappoints, particularly in comparison to La Chapelle.
Grange 1990 Penfolds. A brooding black wine, huge, complex, "exotic" (read "un-European"), meaty and structured but quite closed in the mouth. Other tasters were slightly disappointed but I believe this is a very fine Grange that will grow onto something great eventually. Including the strong dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon, this is quite different from the European Syrahs we tasted.
Hermitage La Chapelle 1990 Jaboulet Aïné. This has got it all. Healthy dark but brilliant robe, an unending complex nose with blackcurrants and wet autumn leaves intermingled, phenomenal concentration without detracting from the drinking pleasure, unending finish.

Flight 5

Old Vines Grenache 1995 Clarendon Hills. A truly original, different, highly perfumed nose makes this a wine to savor. Unfortunately, beneath the dark color the concentration and particularly the tannic backbone are not up to par compared with the other wines surrounding it.
Unico 1986 Vega Sicilia. (To be released in mid-1998). Add a pint or two of damsons and blackberries to the trademark Vega aromas and structure, and that's the very impressive feeling you get from this sensational "new age" Vega, i.e. with longer maceration and "only" 6 years in wood instead of 10.
Alión 1994. (To be released late in 1997). The Vega Sicilia sibling adds French oak smoothness to the backbone-and-fruit combination now prevalent in the winery and the result is a very great younger wine, probably the best Alión since the inaugural 1991 vintage.
Finca Dofí 1995 Alvaro Palacios (cask sample). Surprisingly drinkable at this stage, with a sweet nose to go with the huge, mineral Priorat body. It will be great in the future and can be enjoyed already. This is 60% Garnacha, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cariñena, Syrah and Merlot.
L'Ermita 1995 Alvaro Palacios (cask sample). Huge, dense, tannic, monolithic, you van sense the great wine in the making but little else. RP would love it, one guesses maliciously. But it WILL be great by 2002-2005, no doubt. 80% Garnacha from 70 year-old vines, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Flight 6

Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Eiswein 1983 J.J. Prüm. Lively nose of oranges, stewed apricots, "petrol". Dense, mouthfilling but never cloying (nice acidic nerve), with amazing toasted notes of "caffè latte" that go on and on in the finish. One of the greatest of sweet wines in the past 20 years.

The stars? A lot! To me: 1959 Lafite, 1942 Vega Sicilia, 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle.

The following comments are some of Victor's responses to questions raised online by Wine Lovers' Discussion Group participants:

To set the record straight: NO this was not a blind tasting. As I explained, it was informal, it was carried out before, during (meaning we actually ate while we tasted, an absolute no-no from any scientific viewpoint) and after dinner, and it went on leisurely, with a lot of chat, for seven hours. All the dangers of subjectivity and distortion were thus reunited. But, to me, ever the iconoclast, that was the absolute ideal, replacing wine in its natural environment. Also, no notes were supposed to be taken unless one wanted to, and there never was any pretension of "scientificity". That's why I didn't try to make my brief notes appear scientific.

On to the points you raise. The tasters (10 from Germany, Spain and the US) might have been pro-European style in their preferences, and that may have showed in their appreciation of the 1990 Grange. As I explained, I did not agree and thought it was going to be a great wine, although no doubt still in need of much more bottle age (seven years is absolutely not enough for a Grange.) I had no personal favorites because I hadn't tasted most of the wines, including the 1942 Vega Sicilia which stood out so much. (Actually I had already tasted the controversial 1990 Grange, so maybe that also influenced my opinion). I had never thought the 1959 Lafite (not a 100-point RP wine, whereas there were four or five of those...) would dominate, and I'm not usually a fan of Lafite.

I was happy at the solidity of the showing by Spanish wines, most often absent from these kinds of tastings in the US (but not in Germany, where they're going nuts over Spain), but that did not sway me, of course.

The "too young" tag I used, I believe, for the 1975 Pétrus, does not mean in my mind that the wine is not good, pleasant, delicious even. Heck, even the monstrous 1995 L'Ermita was good. But we all had the distinct impression (as indeed happens with lots of 1975 clarets) that the tannins were not yet fully integrated in that great wine. But, contrary to most other Bordeaux 75s, the Pétrus can be relied on to keep its fruit and its sheer stuffing in perfect condition until the whole is finally greater than the parts. It's not going to turn into a skeleton on you... or so I would think.

By the way, we tasted all the powerful wines in the latter flights (the syrahs and grenaches) without any food. The blindness factor is indeed crucial for more scientific results, but let me point this out:

    1. When you're tasting a bunch of wines that all have the "legendary" tag attached to them, it's not that much different from tasting blind, since you are equally well disposed towards all of them.

    2. When you're tasting blind, and unless ringers are thrown in, to the knowledge of the tasters or not, predjudice also plays a part. Take an example. The Wine Spectator has not given a wine from Spain more than a 92 rating for the past five years or so. It will be hard to convince me that, when the WS tastes Spanish wines "blind", their tasters don't have a built-in mental "maximum" that shouldn't be surpassed. When I see some of the lavish ratings of Piemonte and super-Tuscan wines in that magazine, I always wonder -- would these tasters be ready to face a blind tasting in which Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Tuscany and Piemonte were placed together without any distinctive marks? Who knows what the results would be...


Victor de la Serna is a veteran non-wine journalist in Madrid, Spain, but they kindly let him write a little bit about wine in his own newspaper, El Mundo, in London's Decanter magazine and in a couple of Spanish wine publications. He used to be an adopted New Yorker many years ago and still returns there rather often. Some people, he says, never learn.


A Word About 'Words About Wine'

If your love of wine inspires you to want to write an article or essay about the subject, or if you've had a wine-related article published in print that you'd like to share with wine lovers on the Web, I'll be happy to consider placing it on the Web in this new feature of my Wine Lovers' Page.

Although I can't offer to pay for submissions at this time, I'd like to see this feature become a showcase for serious wine journalism and essays in a format longer, more thoughtful, and less transient than message board discussions.

I'll be happy to consider both previously published work (as long as you retain copyright rights) and unpublished work, and while I reserve the right to reject submissions on the basis of content or style, I'll make every effort to be generous in those judgements and err on the side of inclusiveness, in order -- I hope -- to build a good collection of quality Words About Wine. If you'd like to propose an article now or show me one that you've already written, please feel free to send me E-Mail.


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