My cellar is 90% European – of which 70% is French, and in turn, 35% of that is claret. Even before knowing how long ‘lockdown’ would be, I decided to go “off piste” for evening red wines, opening bottles that had been forgotten for years. First up were the last of three 2001s from the Douro, early in the adventure of table wines away from Port. The Prats-Symington Chryseia – only the second vintage – showed good fruit with Medoc firmness on the finish, Dirk von Niepoort’s Redoma was still full of briary energy, while Quinta do Vale Meao, my favourite of the three, combined richness, spice and smoothness.
The information that Carlos Falco, Marques de Grinon, had died from the coronavirus aged 83, led me to open a 2000 Syrah from his Dominio de Valdepusa estate near Toledo, still full of velvety vigour. Carlos Falco was the founder of the “Pagos” single estate vineyards that brought justified attention to wines from northern Spain. My Spanish wine rack reminded me of several old vintages of Rioja Gran Reserva from Marques de Caceres, so on alternate evenings I decanted the 1998 and 1991. The ruby red colour of the former led to wonderful Tempranillo flavours, years in American oak beautifully blended in, while the latter showed fine textural fruit, a classic Rioja in all its mature glory.
Next came Hungary, from Domaine Mondivin in Villany, co-founded by my Academie Internationale du Vin colleague, Belgian wine merchant Eric Sauter. Recognised early on by Michael Broadbent, who stated that “the southern wine district of Villany is the natural home of Cabernet Franc”, Villany- Cabernet Franc now has its own appellation as the most highly regarded red wine in Hungary. Eric had left several bottles with me at the end of the AIV’s visit to English vineyards five years ago and I went first for the 2000, a superbly elegant expression of the grape with not a hint of exaggeration. Then the 1996, the Domaine’s third vintage, but from 35 year old vines, which was still youthful and claret-like in its fragrance, elegance and southern warmth.
Of course, France could not be ignored and my last bottle of Dominique Lafon’s sumptuous Volnay-Santenots du Mileu 1999, one of Jasper Morris’s favourites, was worth waiting for. Ch. Angludet 1996, punching as usual above its weight as a Margaux Cru Bourgeois, showed this vintage’s staying power, while the Cote-Rotie Seigneur de Maugiron 1999 Delas confirmed the greatness of both wine and vintage.
Next, I moved to Tuscany for more 1999s, starting with two wines from Felsina Berardenga, Giuseppe Mazzocolin’s Chianti Classico estate overlooking Siena. His single vineyard Rancio Riserva, still robust in colour, was superbly expressive, while his flagship Fontarello was still earthily intense. Both have a few years in front of them. South to Montalcino for three 1999 Brunellos: Tenuta Emilio Nardi, one of the most northern vineyards in the DOCG, was still youthful and firm; La Gerla incredibly elegant, almost feminine in style; and Casanouva di Neri, a simply marvellous wine.
Now it was the turn of the New World, starting with South Africa. Staying with 1999 for Rustenberg’s Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon, named for the winery’s founder, the wine brought to mind a “fruity Latour”. Cuvée William Deutz 1999 showed how slowly Champagne ages in a cellar that averages 10°C over the year, and then it was off to Tasmania for Piper’s Brook Opimium 1997, then owner Andrew Pirie’s Bordeaux blend. At just 12% ABV, it was firmly in the claret style, my wife, Bella, loving it. Even better in the same style was Cullen Diana Madeline 2001 from Margaret River. Bella and I had met Vanya Cullen’s strikingly elegant mother at the estate a few months before she died and this vintage was the first of many to carry her name.
Moving to New Zealand, Hawkes Bay, Unison 1998, a Cabernet/Merlot blend from their best Gimblett Gravels vineyards, showed precision and vigour. It caused me to remember John Buck of Te Mata, Hawkes Bay’s oldest estate, and his famous Bordeaux blend Coleraine.
Finally, it was time for the Americas, starting with my close friend Jose- Manuel Ortega-Fournier’s Alfa Crux 2004, a superb Malbec from his ground-breaking winery, now sadly sold, high up in Mendoza’s Uco Valley. Vinedo Chadwick 2005 raised Cabernet Sauvignon – planted by Eduardo on his late father’s polo field – to new heights, while Sena 1996, a blend of 91% Cabernet and 9% Carménère, only the second vintage made by Eduardo and Robert Mondavi, blossomed with warmth and depth, having sat for over two hours in the decanter. Finally, Saint-Supery’s Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1989, the Napa estate built up by wine visionary and art collector Robert Skalli, proved that you can wait for Napa Cabs as long as you like and they won’t disappoint. Each and every one of these wines had a story to tell. As Michael Broadbent said, “One always comes back to claret,” so this is where I will return for more memories.
It is wine lore that terroir is the key to fine wine. In my view it is the base of fine wine, but the key are people. A few years ago I attended a conference at the historic Abadia Retuerta estate on the edge of Spain’s Ribera del Duero region on the theme, “A Tribute to Terroir”. Bordeaux-born Pascal Delbeck, head winemaker since the start 25 years before, opened the event by saying, “Terroir is like music, it can’t play itself, it can’t even discover itself, it needs the hand of man.” The theme for the morning was “How can man influence Terroir”, which Carlos Falco, Marques de Grinon summed up with: “By knowledge and desire.” Such experience and passion will allow the terroir, via the grape varity(ies), to fully express itself which it cannot do on its own. The result is a wine that tells a story and the best stories, like the best people, are worth remembering.