Friday, May 1, 2009

Rainy Day Monday

Tom Gannon is the playwright in residence at Rothmann's Steakhouse in New York City. He is also the sommelier and serves as America's Host.

Two weeks ago I dodged the rain for seventy five feet across 54th Street south through the building of 520 Madison out on 53rd to take a hard right into Alto where I had been invited by a friend to be his guest at a dinner and vertical tasting of Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande hosted by Clive Coates (Master of Wine, the 72nd MW) who authored Cote D'Or and more recently The Wines of Burgundy.

Coates was on a five week tour of the U.S. doing wine dinners, charity events and other wine related appearances which were apparently all linked to Burgundy until a Nashville based collector who is an investor in Alto convinced his snowy bearded eminence to do this dinner on a night they both had free in New York.

Coates began with the history of the Chateau with the requisite mention of the Dutch draining the swamp that was Bordeaux transforming it into the land that is Bordeaux. The estate was founded in 1689 and was divided in the 19th century due to Napoleonic laws but was run more or less as a whole until 1860. Both properties received deuxieme cru (second growth) status in the 1855 Classification. The sibling is known in Bordeaux shorthand as Pichon Baron. Pichon Lalande is just to the west of first growth property Chateau Latour in the southeastern corner of Pauillac. The vineyard holdings spill over into St. Julien and Coates noted that until the early 60's around an 1/8 of total production was bottled as St. Julien instead of Paulliac (he also noted that Lafite had similar geographical issues on the northern side of Pauillac with St. Estephe but Lafite was never forced to signify anything on thier label...)

What makes Pichon Lalande so distinctive for a wine from Pauillac is the relatively high percentage of merlot that is used in the blend, giving it a softer, more "feminine" style- indeed Coates at one point declared that "these are Margaux wines." The typical blend has around 35% merlot.

First flight paired with Uovo "Bio" con Animelle e Marsala- soft poached egg, sauteed veal sweetbreads, marsala

2000- Sweet mocha, black cherry, creme de menthe, licorice and a tarry edge to the nose balanced tannin still evident on tongue supple sexy long finish, a very modern plump style. If you have this in your cellar I would wait at least five years.

1996- Black cherry , eucalyptus, soy, earthy caramel, star anise, tannins starting to soften but still showing a bit in cheek and gums, long spicy earthy finish. Nice structure to this wine will continue to develop but I like it now. This paired the best with the dish- the richness of the egg and veal made nice with the tannins.

1994- Funky cherry, a bit wet dog edge with leather and tar, soft in midpalate with round supple tannin medium length to the finish. Best consumed in the near future, considering the price relative to quality there is value here.

I would rank them in the following order, 1996, 2000, 1994. My opinion on the flight was not shared by CC. He claimed the 1994, which is the least heralded vintage, was his favorite. He claimed the 2000 was a bit too modern for his taste and didn't have the tannic background of the 1996 but that the '96 "Charms me the least. What I'm looking for in a wine is the sweetness."

Second flight paired with Agnolotti del Pin, Spugnole e Marsala- piemontese duck ravioli, morel mushrooms and veal sauce.

1991- Leather, earth, sweet tannic wild strawberry, more fruit than I expected still slight tannin on attack, medium length to the finish a truffled edge to the nose, the greenest nose of the three but surprisingly good.

1990 -Sweet stewed red fruit, rich and full nose, truffle, walnut and dark chocolate, clove in midpalate, sexy silky tannin on finish. This is a nice glass of wine but does not show the depth of the 1989.

1989- Dark chocolate, sugar plum, lead pencil, wet leather, rich earthy edge, clove, rhubarb panna cotta, incredible balance with a long gorgeous finish. Easily the best of the three. This will also age the longest of the three but is drinking well now. This wine was fantastic with the soft ravioli and the spongy fiber of the morels in the veal sauce. The earthy, spicy edges of this wine stood up to a deceptively powerful dish.

In this flight it seemed to be obvious and I don't recall much dissent over the order of most to least impressive (although there was at least one person who did declare the '91 to be their favorite). The '89, '90 and then '91 is my lineup. Considering the conventional wisdom regarding the 1991 vintage (CW says disaster) the 1991 was a pleasant example what a good estate can pull off in a challenging vintage. The high percentage of early ripening merlot gave them an advantage over their neighbors who lean much more heavily on later ripening cabernet sauvignon. Coates said the 1990 was not as great as it should have been given the glorious nature of the vintage. He believes "they may have racked the musts too early." It is a bit of a disappointment given what their more muscular sibling Pichon-Baron and the big boy on the block Chateau Latour produced in 1990.

Third flight paired with Involtino di Coniglio con Spaetzle e Ciliegia Agrodolce -seared rabbit loin stuffed with dried cherries, crisp spaetzle, chiodini mushroms and rabbit jus.

- Dark chocolate, mint, soy, fish sauce, smoked meat, black cherry, rich chewy tannin, dried orange peel, long sexy finish. This wine was the best pair with the dish (maybe I wanted the '82 all alone...) because of the smoke, salty gamey character.

- Nutty with a bit of smoke and earth on the edge, with an odd plastic note (but not the funky plastic I find in the vast majority of Long Island bordeaux varietals), sweet dried cherry in midpalate.

- Rich cherry, pistachio, tar, truffle, earth, mint, tobacco, smoked meat, strawberry compote on the nose clove and cherry in midpalate incredible balance long sexy finish.

I would have ranked these wines '82, '85', '83. On a side note the first bottled of 1983 was flawed and so another was brought and decanted ans served immediately where all of the other wines were decanted a hour before the dinner began. Coates called the 1985 "a disarmingly lovely wine with Margaux touches" and noted that there was a very large crop in '85. Of the '82 he named names, "One of these wines where Parker and Coates both had orgasms." He did not name names when he discussed how homogenous Bordeaux had become and felt that the shift was due to vintages like 2000, and 2003 and 'certain critics'. He has not tasted in Bordeaux since 2004 considering himself "semi-retired".

I asked Clive whether he had seen another vintage like '85 which was a stellar vintage worldwide. He said no, we talked about 1990 as almost stellar worldwide but was not declared in Port, then he couldn't resist the dig, "But I don't know what the conditions were like for the wines of the third world. The Californias, the South Americas..."

The next course had originally listed only the 1979, 1966, and 1964 but CC was visibly flustered seeing it would not be included after holding forth specifically on the 1978 in his introduction and review of the history of the Chateau as the vintage where Pichon Lalande broke into producing truly great Bordeaux worthy of "super-second" status due to the vigilance of Madame May Elaine de Lencquesaing and her family's attention to detail (although when I asked later he did admit that Leoville Las Cases would be the first choice when talking if and when another property would ever be promoted to first growth status). Kudos to the generosity of Tom Black, the Alto investor from whose cellar the wines originated and who proposed the idea of the dinner to Coates to then include the '78 mid-meal. Eric went to the cellar for a bottle of '78 and decanted it. Coates declared it to be flawed. A second bottle was brought and passed muster. Kudos as well to the humbling professionalism of Eric Ziller.

Cheese course-
Three cheeses all good quality bit players. Two cow one goat beasts of burden even now.

- Cooked? Prune and chocolate milk earthy chocolate and vanilla cream on nose, no balance on palate confirms the kinky nature of this bottle.

- Graphite, cherry, gravel, flint, lead pencil, wet mint, chocolate mocha, truffle. Length and balance are impressive, wine is delicious, could go a bit longer but I would drink soon. I don't see it improving I believe it is at it's peak. Definitely the wine of the night.

- Creamy milk chocolate, creme de menthe, clove, dried cherry and raspberry, star anise, dried mint on nose still shows a bit of cherry and strawberry on palate with a medium long finish. Still an interesting bottle but past it's prime.

- Funky earthy mint, herbal Amaro Lucano edge on nose, caramel, clove, smoked meat, stewed red fruit, star anise, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, mocha and beef bouillion. Soft tannin with a juicy lingering finish. I preferred this to the '66 though I don't believe with one would show comparatively well in a horizontal Bordeaux (or Pauillac) tasting of either vintage.

So here it is the '78, '64, '66 and then limping in the '79. Coates by now was readying to put a little English on it and so it came...the '78 has "Stupendous class. A ballerina in repose." He allowed that perhaps the '82 was the greater wine but "To my reserved English palate I prefer the '78." He then told a story about the 1979 harvest when some Spainards had come over to work the harvest and cross pollenated with some of the local Pauillac girls. The French fathers and boyfriends had a problem with it, knives were pulled a bit of West Side Story in a second growth vineyard.

But to speak of putting the English on it I have to quote Michael Broadbent from Vintage Wine on the 1964 Pichon Lalande, "...Most recently, its appearance reminded me of my father's old Labrador, lying on its back waiting to be tickled: soft, mature, a warm open-rimmed rosehip and orange colour..." I drank this Labrador but it was the '94 that reminded me of wet dog.

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