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Free Royal Wedding Champagne!*

April 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I care about these people as much as they care about you.

For those of you who live under a rock, in a cave, at the center of the earth, a couple of pretty Brits known as Royals plan to wed tomorrow, but wealthy attractive people, who don’t invite any of us to the party, get married every day. I’m fairly cynical and while I don’t have the words to explain how little I care about this, it seemed as good an excuse as any to have a tasting of non-vintage Champagne, including Pol Roger, the official Champagne of the Royal Wedding. So I assembled a small group of revelers, two boxes of organic strawberries (which were inexplicably less expensive than the same size package of non-organic strawberries) to accompany 3 NV Champagnes in the under $40 (pre-tax) category: Nicolas Feuillatte Blue Label Brut NV ($29.99), Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut NV ($34.99), and Pol Roger Reserve Brut NV ($39.99), which of course is the official Champagne of the Royal Wedding.

Not the Palmes d'Or, but not bad.

These retail prices reflect prices paid today at Sherry-Lehmann, one of New York‘s oldest and finest wine retailers, know largely for being deep in big Bordeaux. Historically, their prices are all over the map. In the case of the NV Pol Roger Reserve Champagne and the sadly now sold out (and quite stunning) Evening Land Pinot Noir, they have/had some the better available prices on the vile rock they call Manhattan (and certainly in the neighborhood), yet the fees for their marquee Bordeaux and Burgundy, can be considerably higher than other merchants, but the rent on Park is pretty steep. I’ve been buying wine on and off there for years (previously on Madison), going back to the days when one was able to pick up an ’86 La Mission Haut Brion for around a hundred bucks.

I am not a Champagne drinker generally. I’ve tasted many of them and I certainly have my favorites at a number of price ranges from the almost free to the borderline obscene, but the place Champagne holds in the universe of my wine consumption is as a high quality cocktail for a celebratory moment. I rarely drink more than a glass before moving on to wine sans gas. That being said, my favorite summertime brunch beverage consists of decent cava and Red Jacket Orchard Fuji Apple Juice. But on to the tasting.

The packaging may be its finest quality.

Nicolas Feuillatte is primarily known for the reasonably profound Palmes d’Or, but to stay within the NV (and the price cap), the Blue Label Brut NV was the first Champagne of the evening (in line only, all bottles were opened, poured and tasted within minutes of each other). The Feuillatte has small tight bubbles, is visually pale and soft in the glass, and the palate is a touch sour, but not the least bit unpleasant. It has a nose that’s almost salty, with white peach, pear, and a hint of green apple on the palate. For under $30, this is a very nice bubbly.

Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut NV displays larger looser bubbles, much more apparent yeast on the nose, the sweetest of the trio, by a fair margin, and with the least discernible character. Compared to its compatriots, it’s the light beer of the bunch and gives the impression that one could suck down a pint of it and not recall many specific flavors, not to mention eventually waking with an earth-shattering headache. It’s simply an irrelevant wine at its price point, but much like it’s higher priced, hand-painted big brother, the bottle is quite attractive.

The Royal Bubbly.

Pol Roger Reserve Brut NV, the official Champagne of the Royal Wedding, shows the smallest bubbles, has a crisp mouthfeel, and is by far the most complex palate of the evening. It was an unfortunately attractive wine and the crowd favorite, unanimously, which is a problem because I had prepared a bunch of toothy comments with which to bad-mouth the the Royal selection. But as the sharp French gentleman who sold me the wine told me this is his favorite Champagne under $40 and amongst it’s company tonight, I begrudgingly agree. Pol Roger Reserve Brut NV is a class above and a truly palate-smacking experience. Slightly more golden in color, the nose displays a balance of fruit and yeast, it’s rich and creamy with enough acidity to keep it short of over-bearing. So, they picked a nice Champagne. Bah Humbug.

*Pol Roger Champagne is being held hostage by the Royal Family of England and it must be freed! If you don’t think that’s funny and actually only clicked through because you thought you were getting free Champagne, please fee free to send hate mail. If your hate is sufficiently humorous, I’ll bring you a glass myself. Cheers!

Abbreviated Notes on a Past Private Tasting in Boston

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

A few weeks back I was invited to a private tasting in Boston, held by a group of three friends (thanks Noah, Steve & Tad!) who take turns hosting themed wine nights for each other and their guests. The premise of the tasting I attended was Cultish Cabs and the line up looked like this:

The Cultish Cabs and their invited guests.

Since it’s not the clearest picture on this blog, here’s what we tasted (left to right): Whispering Dove Cabernet Oakville 2002, Whispering Dove Cabernet Stag’s Leap 2003, Agharta Syrah (Pax Mahle) 2004, Lail J Daniel Cuvee 1999, Dunn Cabernet Napa 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 2003, Scarecrow 2006, Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. What follows is more of an experiential tale than a set of proper tasting notes as I spent more time enjoying than note taking while amongst these friends.

Classic Napa Cab at it's finest.

This particular evening, it was decided that there would be an initial blind tasting, for fun, and after all guests made there guesses, decanters were properly labeled, so everyone would have accurate palate reference. The ’06 Scarecrow and the ’94 Dunn were both the crowd favorites and were the two wines that nearly everyone guessed correctly during blind tasting. As far as I’m concerned, Dunn Cabernet is the classic long lived Napa Cab in the same way that Chateau Haut Brion is the classic Bordeaux. As of this year, Dunn’s ’86 and ’87 Napa Cabs are still drinking quite well, with little sign of their age. This particular ’94 Dunn Napa, while showing beautifully, still has a number of years to improve in bottle, and many left to live. The 2006 Scarecrow, being such a big wine from a recent good vintage (sandwiched in between 2 great vintages), was supple, round, and encompassing. After significant breathing time, it was damn near seamless. There was a waft on the nose and considerable weight on the finish that our host insisted tasted of “vanilla cake”. While I experienced no crumbs, the vanilla (rich rather than sweet) character was undeniable and quite stunning. And while I know the price of this wine is relatively high (bordering on absurd), it’s a truly beautiful product, inside and out.

Nice juice, not just a clever name.

When I was first invited to this tasting, our fearless host expressed his desire to locate a bottle of Screaming Eagle for around $1200, which is next to impossible, making the cost of said Scarecrow seem quite reasonable. To most mortals, Screaming Eagle isn’t a real wine, but a legendary endpoint of what the highest end of the market will bear (or would bear before the Chinese started paying $1500 a pop for Lafite too young to drink, and then started drinking it). For pennies on those dollars, I brought the two bottles of Whispering Dove which I snapped up with great curiosity back when they were released for around $30/btl.

While every wine opened on this particular evening was well worthy of it’s company, the ’02 Whispering Dove Oakville not only had the most mysterious pedigree of the bunch, but was also 3rd on just about everyone’s blind tasting preference list, and was, by one less experienced taster, mistaken for Scarecrow. To the best of my knowledge, this wine was only produced in 3 vintages from ’01 to ’03, and was very likely different grapes (and likely winemakers) in each release. Rumors that Whispering Dove was in fact declassified Screaming Eagle juice were quickly dispelled, but that didn’t change the marketing boost it got from the false notion. Nor does it change the fact that the 2002 Whispering Dove was most certainly vinified by someone who knew how to handle reserve quality Oakville fruit. And I will likely give my remaining stash another 3 or 4 years before tasting again.

Though new labels don't wear his name, Pax Mahle still makes remarkable syrah-based wine.

And then there was the obviously out of place ’04 Agharta Syrah, which while cultish, contains no cabernet, and was not part of the blind tasting. Bolstering said cultishness, prior to it’s debut, it was given a 98 point rating by some guy named Bob and before that it was vinified, oaked, aged (58 months!), and bottled (unfined & unfiltered) by a winemaker named Pax. And while Pax himself has said that the just released ’05 is “twice the wine” as is this monsterous and complex ’04 Agharta, he’s almost out of running room on the 100 point scale. I’ve tasted it on 3 occasions and giving notes would require the transcription of a short novel I haven’t yet written. It’s deeply complex stuff that changes dramatically over many hours of breathing and is an experience in itself rather that something to drink with any nameable specific food stuff. Structurally the experience of this debut Agharta is similar to Sean Thackrey’s Orion in that the sheer number of flavors per breathing time makes these wines infinitely faceted (and fascinating) gems. Looking forward to following the evolution of these bottles over the next decade or two.

Like Agharta, the depth of SQN Mr K wines crush the feeble descriptives of the written word.

And I don’t mean to disparage Chateau d’Yquem. There’s a reason it has the reputation it does. Yquem has been producing some of the words finest sweet white for centuries. By the time Jacques Sauvage was granted feudal tenure over Yquem in 1593 special growing techniques and late harvesting were already in practice and the estates finest vintages live for over a century. Very few estates, winemaking or otherwise enjoy such a rich history, which certainly comes with a hefty per bottle tariff, here in the future. For my dollar, if I’m going to spend way too much money on a half-bottle of sweet white, it’s more often going to be a 6 puttonyos tokaji, essencia, or something on which the Austrian genius, Alois Kracher, once had his hands.

Speaking of which, our final wine of the evening was Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. The Mr K series was a partnership of Sine Qua Non proprietor Manfred Krankl and the aforementioned Kracher, which ended abruptly upon Kracher’s untimely passing. Kracher’s family continues to produce the eponymous wines that made him famous. While the SQN Mr K The Nobleman 2002 (Chardonnay) is one of the lighter, thinner wines ever produced under this label, it is still a beautiful, balanced, nuanced, (almost) unreasonably honeyed joy to sip. The ’02 Nobleman is only “lesser” in the way that a mediocre Radiohead record is still worlds better than all of the crap on the radio. This golden wine is a treat on it’s own, but pairs well with a range of cheeses and non-chocoalte desserts, and with residual sugar at this level, the remaining wines may outlive many of us.

Few partnerships have ever created such beauty.