Vinous Vignettes

The story around the wine is what makes wine special, says Raymond Blake.

Some wine lovers delight in describing themselves as ‘collectors’, a term that could probably be applied to me. Although I fear the less appealing ‘hoarder’ might be closer to the truth. I am a born magpie, forever salting away mementos of events and travels – tickets, theatre programmes, magazines, restaurant menus, wine lists… and wine. For me, the enjoyment of a wine begins the day I buy it and consign it to the cellar. Thereafter, there may be years, in some cases decades, of anticipation before the cork is finally pulled to reveal whether I was right to keep this or that bottle for so long. Despite some crashing disappointments over the years the dice have usually rolled in my favour and profiled below are half-a-dozen wines that have given particular delight in recent months. Each bottle has a back story, so what follows are short tales rather than formal tasting notes. For me, wine without a story is not truly wine at all, but simply a beverage, a means of ingesting alcohol with no care for its provenance, its cultural or historical significance. Once invested with a back story wine is elevated, its validity is enhanced. It warrants our attention, it is the facilitator of convivial enjoyment. That’s what makes it special.

1970 Dow’s Vintage Port – Portugal
At the conclusion of the ‘Vintages of the Century’ Port tasting held in Porto’s Palácio da Bolsa on 12th June 1999, the assembled tasters from across the globe readily agreed that the 1970 vintage had shown most consistently. Some individual wines from other vintages, such as the 1927 Niepoort shone with incandescent brilliance, but as a vintage rather than an individual wine it was 1970 that took top honours, ahead even of the storied 1963 that was beginning even then to look a little frail around the edges.

This wine was a wedding present from my father-in-law who, being in the wine trade, bought a large quantity in 1975. The cork was weeping slightly, there was a little ullage and – it being 50 years since the great Brazilian team of ‘strolling geniuses’ won the World Cup – that was reason enough to broach this bottle. The colour was a glowing ruby, while the nose was sweet and sumptuous. Caramelised fruit shot through with mild spice dominated a satin-textured palate, the flavour of which echoed long on the finish. Another bottle is currently earmarked to celebrate the 50th birthday of a Port loving friend.

1999 Pewsey Vale, The Contours Riesling – Australia
In the closing years of the last century the famed Berry Bros & Rudd of No 3 St James’s Street, London opened a branch in Dublin at No 4 Harry Street. As befits the most venerable of all wine merchants the premises were sumptuously appointed with beautiful wood-panelled displays, a cellar with arched, brick-built bins and a private dining room upstairs where exclusive dinners were hosted for private clients.

Writing in the October 1999 issue of Ireland’s Food & Wine Magazine I opined, “… the Berrys’ shop is probably the finest new addition to the Dublin wine scene in recent years.” For a few years it brought a touch of glamour but sadly tough trading conditions led to its demise and – crucially for wine lovers – a clearance sale that included some real treasures at genuinely never-to-be-repeated prices. I pounced on this and bought three dozen of this wine.

It was closed with screwcap and the most recent bottle, drunk on 30th March this year, was lime-scented and bracing, if a little lean on the finish. The years had leached the sweetness out of the fruit, with a marked grapefruit pith sharpness. But the flavour was still pure, vibrant and arresting.

1995 Paumanok, Tuthill’s Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – US
Long Island’s Hamptons have been a favoured bolthole of New York’s elite for decades, home to luxuriously appointed seafront mansions, prestigious golf courses and the like. I visited for Thanksgiving many years ago, staying at The American Hotel in Sag Harbour, and was taken on an extended tour of the local wineries by the hotel’s owner, Ted Conklin. This was back in the days when you could carry wine as hand luggage on aeroplanes, so this bottle and a few others made it safely back home to Ireland with me.

It lay almost forgotten until earlier this year when I decided to open it, convinced it would be a bag of bones, a conviction enhanced by the cork’s crumbling almost to dust at a pull from the corkscrew. Filtering it through a fine sieve, I allowed myself a little hope, for the colour was a full garnet and as the wine splashed into the decanter a wonderful ‘clarety’ aroma wafted upwards, soft and fragrant, a caress of silk on the nostrils. That impression segued onto a fully mature palate suffused with the lovely ‘sweet’ savour that marks the best aged Cabernets. It was gentle and easy, there were no hard edges.


1997 Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand
It is difficult today to describe, to any who did not experience it, the frenzy that once accompanied each new release of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. The bottles barely hit the shelves in the off licences before they were scooped up by avid fans keen to snaffle a few. At the height of that crazy period, in August 1997, I visited the winery and, having tasted the 1987 vintage with then winemaker Kevin Judd, I noted the 10-year-old, “… convinced me that I should buy some of the current vintage, not for immediate drinking but for long cellaring.” Sadly, I never made good on that conviction but in December 1997 a friend gave me a bottle of the 1997 and I salted that away, deep in the cellar, until 30th April this year.

I simply could not believe how good this wine was. The colour was buttercup yellow, with pineapple fruit on the nose followed by a mild smoky note. Plump, nutty fruit on the palate called to mind a mature Meursault. It was beautifully aged and not in any way tired. I would never have guessed the grape but 24 hours later it had lost some of the initial fatness and a racier element was revealed, more redolent of Sauvignon. It was excellent.

2001 Château Léoville Barton – France
Anthony Barton, current patriarch of the Barton family, was born in Straffan House in County Kildare, Ireland in 1930. The house had been built by his ancestor Hugh Barton in 1835 and it was Hugh who, some years prior to that, had bought the two Bordeaux châteaux that still bear the family name, Langoa Barton in 1821 and Léoville Barton in 1826. Today, they remain the Bordeaux classed growths in the longest continuous family ownership. Straffan House, meanwhile, is now a country club – the K Club – host venue for the Ryder Cup golf tournament in 2006.

I clearly remember chatting with Anthony in the spring of 2003, while tasting the about-to- be-bottled 2001 vintage of Léoville Barton, and his assuring me that, though 2000 was more celebrated, his 2001 was only a whisker behind it in quality. Recently I put his assertion to the test, drinking the two side by side. The 2000 did have the better of the younger wine but only just, a little more gracious to the 2001’s crisper countenance. While the 2000 was more settled and harmonious the components in the 2001 were still standing a little separate, needing a few more years to meld together. If you have some in your cellar there is no rush to drink it.

1969 Domaine Ramonet, Chassagne- Montrachet Clos Saint-Jean
Premier Cru rouge – France
The Caveau Municipale in Chassagne- Montrachet is one of the finest wine shops in Burgundy and my wife and I have made many a fruitful visit there, always able to taste before we buy. Or nearly always. A beauty such as this would never be ‘open for tasting’ so we bought a bottle, dashed home and pulled the cork. It was delicious, prompting us to high-tail it back to Chassagne and buy the remaining eight bottles, which have been used over the years to mark significant anniversaries and birthdays – such as the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing and the 50th birthday of a neighbouring vigneron in Burgundy.

The wine has never disappointed, a tribute to the excellence of Ramonet’s reds, which are always overshadowed by the whites, and to the quality of Chassagne rouge, which remains my favourite ‘hidden’ Burgundy, always bypassed in favour of more storied villages from further north in the Côte d’Or. There has been almost no bottle variation, each sang the same song, starting with a gorgeous crimson colour and a scented perfume that was delicate yet insistent. On the palate it was lacy and a little frail, the still tingling acidity linking the flavour elements and holding them from drifting apart. The finish rang true and long and memorable. A delight.