In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, “Brideshead Revisited – The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”, narrator and central character, Charles Ryder says, “Wilcox welcomed our interest; we had bottles brought up from every bin, and it was during those tranquil evenings with Sebastian that I first made a serious acquaintance with wine and sowed the seed of a rich harvest which was to be my stay in many barren years.”
Many wine lovers, I feel sure, will know what Ryder meant when he said, “my stay in many barren years.” Especially after the torrid two years the world has just endured, years in which the prospect of a life-affirming glass of wine at day’s end brought solace and comfort in a maelstrom of worry and uncertainty. Above all that is what this sextet of ‘Vinous Vignettes’ delivered —
a comforting caress on palate and soul in a time of crisis.
Champagne Jacques Selosse, Millésime 2009 – France
I am forever telling people to think of champagne as wine, to treat it as a fullyfledged wine and not as some winerelated drink that sits in a category of its own, only to be wheeled out for celebrations or, if allowed to the party, served with canapés at the beginning of a meal. The first is an entirely frivolous situation and the second sees it corralled into the non-serious part of
the evening, before the diners move on to ‘proper’ wine. However, my message is slow to get through and I am still often asked: “Is champagne wine?”
Truth be told much of the blame for champagne’s pigeonholing lies at the feet of the big producers, who promulgated a one dimensional message about how their wine could be enjoyed. These big brands, some of which are excellent, some bland, were not interested in nuance, all that mattered was the bottom line. The job of moving champagne into the vinous mainstream fell to quirky individuals, not so concerned with their brand image, maybe not so ‘clean shaven’ as it were. And on the palate their wines might have the odd ‘wrinkle’ in the flavour, none more so than Selosse.
This bottle reeked of class and savoury substance; it was mouth-filling and almost chewy, replete with nutty notes in amongst the fruit. And what did we eat with it? Quail’s eggs.
Salomon Undhof, Alma Riesling 2011 – Austria
In truth, Austria still struggles to be taken seriously by more than just the coterie of wine lovers who recognise the impressively high standards and sheer class of many of her wines today. A seat at the top table is only granted to her on occasion; polite praise is dispensed on whatever wines have been so favoured and then it is back to the French classics, thank you. Taking a contrarian view, that situation suits people like me, won over to the delights of Austrian wines years ago, and now revelling in their class while rejoicing in the fact that being not-sofashionable keeps their prices out of the stratosphere.
This is the sort of wine that should be served blind, so as to let people identify it as, perhaps, an Alsace grand cru from a top producer, for that is what it could understandably be mistaken for. There was a sumptuous quality to the flavour, with no empty spaces, no gaps that might prompt a critical frown. In character the wine displayed a beguiling oscillation between richer, floral and tropical fruit flavours, and the more taut, linear signature that came by way of Riesling’s classic acidity. And if all that wasn’t enough, there was also a mineral ‘snap’ on the palate to keep the taste buds alert and paying attention.
Domaine Tollot-Beaut & Fils, Beaune Grèves Premier Cru 1995 – France
I have long championed the wines of Tollot-Beaut and for nearly as long now I have also mourned the change, about 20 years ago, from the ‘standard’ Burgundy bottle size and shape to a heavier one adorned with a less ornate and rather utilitarian label. The old labels were pleasantly decorated without being over-embellished. I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but the old cover was nice, warm and welcoming, where its successor leans towards austere and forbidding. And in the case of this bottle the label was in elegant and pleasant harmony with the wine, a precursor
of imminent delight. Thankfully, through all the change, the wines have remained benchmarks for quality at a reasonable price, indeed no other Burgundy domaine scores so highly on the price-quality ratio.
At a tad over a quarter-century old this wine was by no means tired or frail. The colour was a bright crimson and the nose gave off scents of fruit laced with earthier elements and a mild whiff of spice. The palate was composed and correct, with fruit, acid, tannin and alcohol seamlessly interwoven by the passage of the years. Above all, it was vibrant, there was no sign of decay, it wasn’t ‘fraying at the edges’. The only quibble is that all that remains now is the memory…
Château La Mission Haut- Brion, Graves 1941 – France
In Michael Broadbent’s book “Vintage Wine”, the 1941 vintage in Bordeaux warrants little more than three column inches, introduced by: “Small crop harvested under difficult conditions.” The world was consumed by war. The Nazi jackboot trampled Europe from the North Cape, inside the Arctic Circle, to Mediterranean Africa, with the Sahara next door, and when this wine was still in barrel the Japanese launched their infamous attack on Pearl Harbour. Bordeaux didn’t escape the conflict and today the grim U-Boat pens, virtually indestructible, still sit as a reminder of the war, within sight of the far more appealing Cité du Vin.
The decade of the 1940s was halved into wartime and post-war, and the glorious trio of 1945, ’47 & ’49 all lay in the second half. The earlier vintages offered the slimmest of pickings. This bottle was opened late last year and drunk mainly as a curiosity, and with the specific purpose of celebrating an 80th birthday. There was no expectation of vinous glory and so it proved, indeed my note almost echoed Broadbent’s from 1990: “Plummy brown colour; rich, coffeelike bouquet; lightish, lean, with a touch of end acidity.” If anything it had thinned out further in the three decades since that note and there was no sign of rich coffee, though there was a tingle of fruit. Quoting Waugh again, this wine “whispered faintly” and despite its shortcomings I’m delighted I got a chance to drink it.
Domaine Cauhapé, H Ramonteu, Quintessence du Petit Manseng 2011, Jurançon – France
A revelation! I cannot claim great familiarity with the wines of Jurançon, for they are something of a lay-by on the great wine route. And – truth be told – Petit Manseng is not a name that trips off many tongues when people are asked to list their favourite wine grapes. Geography compounds Jurançon’s banishment to a place in the shadows, for it lies way down south in France and off the beaten track, adjacent to the Pyrenees. Sweet wine drinkers are well served — by Sauternes, Barsac and Monbazillac — further north in Bordeaux, not many seek out treasures such as this.
And yet… if they did they would be delightfully rewarded, particularly by the wines of Domaine Cauhapé, regarded as the leader in the region. The grapes for this wine were picked on Christmas Eve — a circumstance that surely qualifies it as the perfect sweet wine for the Yuletide season? The colour was a glowing, burnished yellow-gold, deep but still bright. Lavish scents of ripe tropical fruit tantalised the nose and carried onto the palate, there joined by mild whiffs of toast and nuts, all of which resolved into a lingering finish that echoed in the throat for minutes. I sipped a chilled glass on its own, without food, and simply revelled in the kaleidoscope of flavours that rolled and tumbled across my palate.
Bodegas Toro Albalá, Don PX Pedro Ximénez Seleccion 1958 – Spain
In many respects PX — the Pedro Ximénez grape and the wines made from it — gets a bad press, or at least a limited press that focuses on nothing more than saccharine concentration. PX is consigned to the “sweet ‘n’ sticky”naughty corner and there it languishes, usually shunned until used as a sexy substitute for hot chocolate sauce, to be poured over ice cream. True, there are examples — the LLs, liquid liquorice — that deserve little better than ice cream duty. And then there are others…
Such as this beauty. At over 60 years of age this wine was as far removed from the saccharine stereotype as could be imagined. It was complex, long and satisfying. And the satisfaction began with the stygian dark colour, almost impenetrable, with hints of walnut and olive green at the rim. The nose could be sniffed and sniffed again, with scents of bitter orange marmalade, smoke and spice — all of which carried onto the palate and then some. The sweet framework was formed by flavours of dates, figs and prunes, which was then embellished by a refreshing balsamic quality. After that came the minor players: the coffee and spice, smoke and nuts. All of which then resolved into a ‘forever’ finish — and a resolve to take proper PX far more seriously in future.