Part II and Part III

Photo courtesy of Al Stewart Online

The week started off with a bang on Easter Sunday; not normally a holiday I particularly take note of, or celebrate. Usually I just have a quiet dinner at home, no different from any other evening meal. Yet several weeks earlier, at my wife’s urging, we had arranged to get together for dinner with Al Stewart (right). While perhaps not a household name today, you may remember the name if you were listening to pop or folk music in the 1970’s. Al had a few pretty sizable hits back then, beginning with “Year of the Cat”, to be followed by “Time Passages” and a few others as well. He still records and performs, and in fact will embark on a tour of England later this month. I had met Al at a dinner with one of my wine groups, the X-pensive Winos. An L.A. resident, Al is not a member of the group, but he had been invited by one of our members who is a former Capitol Records executive. Turns out that Al is quite an oenophile and experienced wine geek. He even titled one of his albums “Down in the Cellar”. While his contemporaries in the music world were smoking, snorting or shooting their brains out, Al was getting high the old-fashioned way, by drinking First Growth Claret, Grand Cru Burgundy, and the best wines he could find from France and elsewhere. Affording the best was certainly no problem in his pop-star heyday, and he has drunk wines most of us can only dream of. Beyond that, however, he’s a really down-to-earth, unassuming guy with a great sense of humor, intelligence, and a genuine enthusiasm for the fine art of eating and drinking.

Anyway, my wife Linda and Al had hit it off at a Winos dinner last December, so we decided to arrange to meet for dinner at a West L.A. restaurant, Josie, to enjoy some good conversation, and even better Burgundies. Al said he’d bring some whites; I was to bring the reds. The results were memorable.

When we arrived, it turned out Al had brought only one white, and a red wine. I said “only” one white, but what a white it was: 2002 Chevalier Montrachet, Domaine Leflaive. OK, that’s getting things off the ground in a hurry. Rich yellow color; the nose is rich, ripe, exotic, but very fresh and without a hint of any premature oxidation that has plagued too many great white Burgundies in recent years (but not Domaine Leflaive, apparently). What’s amazing about great white Burgundy is how they can combine great richness and depth on the one hand, with the impression of lightness and delicacy on the other. Although quite young and still a bit restrained when first poured cold, the wine has great complexity with hints of lemon, grilled bread, some tropical spice and cream. Warming brought out additional nuances, and everything was in perfect balance. Only with additional bottle age does white Burgundy get any better than this. Find this wine

1985 Grand Echezeaux, Domaine Rene EngelThe three red wines were poured oldest to youngest. First up was my two contributions, the 1985 Grand Echezeaux, Domaine Rene Engel, followed by the 1988 Clos de la Roche, Hubert Lignier. The 1985 vintage was much praised when it was released, and the wines were immediately delicious, but some thought them to be not particularly ageworthy. And in fact many 1985’s are getting a bit tired today, but not this Grand Echezeaux, which seems to be at a perfect peak of maturity. This is what I love about older Burgundies—a wonderful, fulsome fragrance of great complexity, a silky texture that glides across the palate, and a lingering finish. This is not about fruit, power, richness, or impact. No, it’s about grace, elegance, and something hidden, revealing itself slowly, just a bit with each sip. At first, this seemed overpowered by the Clos de la Roche that followed it, but gradually the depth of the wine revealed itself as the fragrance seemed to fill the table. Only 700 bottles (about 2 barrels) of this wine were made, and I wish I had them all! Find this wine

1988 Clos de la Roche, Hubert LignierAs for the Clos de la Roche, it’s a much more impactful wine, richer and with deeper color and body. Showing a bit of the abundant tannins for which the vintage is known, this is now almost mature and is close to being a great wine, but not quite yet. Showing darker fruit flavors and more richness than the Engel, this is more immediately appealing but didn’t develop in the glass to the same extent. Nevertheless, it’ shows all the class, complexity and staying power one expects of a Grand Cru from a top producer. Another 3 to 5 years should bring this to full maturity, when I expect it to be absolutely magnificent. Find this wine

Al’s final contribution was quite a change of pace, the 1999 Chambolle Musigny “Les Amoureuses”, Robert Groffier. Among hard-core traditionalist Burg-o-philes (isn’t that most of them?), Groffier sometimes gets kind of a bad rap, a “damning with faint praise” for his ripe, full-bodied style. Some dismiss them as too fruit-forward, too easy, and the worst insult of all, too “California pinot-like”. Well, I think most California pinot producers would be thrilled to make a wine like this. Yes, it has plenty of fruit, but of course it’s only a 1999, so one would expect more primary fruit than wines 10 years older. But the fruit is primarily red, not black, and the impeccable balance of great Burgundy is unmistakable. There’s that wonderful wild strawberry elegance that typifies Chambolle, a delicacy that’s discernable even in the presence of plenty of rich fruit. Al thinks the Groffier wines are best drunk on the young to medium-aged side, say 8-15 years from the vintage, but based on this 10-year-old example, I see no reason why this wine won’t be delicious in another 10 or 15 years from now, as the balance for extended aging is clearly there. Great stuff. Find this wine

That was a helluva collection of wines for one meal, but Al wasn’t done yet, and he invited us back to his place to cap off the evening. A few Rhoney possibilities were bandied about, but ultimately we selected a 1998 Domaine de la Mordoree, Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvée de la Reine des Bois. I’ve heard much about this estate and its wines, but can’t recall ever tasting one. Although some 1998’s are approaching maturity, this one seemed very primary and young with little development. After the Burgundies, this seemed huge and a bit soft and oafish by comparison, but I think it’s just too young and undeveloped to show much of the spice I like in CdP. Very rich, ripe, deep, and packed with fruit, there’s a bit of new oak in there as well, but not too much, and the tannins are smooth enough for the wine to be enjoyed now, although undoubtedly it would show better with grilled meats or cheese than drunk on its own as we were doing. I’d give this wine several more cellar years. Find this wine

At this point we needed a palate cleanser, and after learning that Linda’s taste in whites veers toward crisp, high-acid wines, Al opened one out of our sight and asked us to guess what it was. One sniff and it was immediately clear that the wine was a German Riesling, fairly young and very fresh, with just a hint of sulfur under the surface. Very crisp, with superb delineation and cut, and noticeable but not a high level of sweetness, I first guessed a Fritz Haag Spatlese. Al said I was close, so I said “well, in that case it must be J.J. Prum, probably Wehlener Sonnenuhr.” Bingo! Except that it was an Auslese, 2005. Remarkably refreshing after so many reds, the perception of sweetness was much less than I would expect of an Auslese, probably because of the very high acidity and young age. This is just a baby, but is drinking very well, a delicious infanticide, and a great way to end the evening. Find this wine

Part II and Part III

Bennett Traub
Reporting From The Left Coast
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© April 2009

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