Here’s wishing everyone a happy 4th of July with an article about”¦Beijing, or rather my recent trip to Beijing before our inaugural Hong Kong auction, interrupting my not-so-recent ‘Four in a Row’ series of articles. Better late than never, I know. But, in a way, I can’t help but notice the irony, and I can assure you it was strictly unintentional! Without getting into a social and economic paper about it, let’s just say that China has got the world’s attention with its blistering economy, not to mention all the profits it is making for foreign companies as well. Is it me, or do Americans seem to be getting fatter and lazier? Well, the Chinese are hungry, and they are coming, three or four for every American, too. It is clear to me that China is the world’s next superpower, and I hope America will continue to keep up. Work, people!
Where were we”¦Bipin’s auction was Wednesday night the 21st of May, and I was off to Hong Kong on the 22nd, meaning that I got there on the 23rd. Time flies when you head to the Far East. Before I could say ‘ni hao,’ I was off to Beijing that Saturday morning to attend the International Congress of Chinese Cuisine and Wine’s seminar, featuring sessions of Penfolds Grange and Chateau Margaux, led by Peter Gago and Paul Pontallier respectively. Robert Parker was actually in Beijing this very same weekend, but doing a different event.
It was my first trip to Beijing, and the first thing that I noticed upon descending into this great and emerging city was the haze that surrounds it. The pollution is definitely a problem, and one could argue that there is no sky once inside this bustling metropolis, where bicycles still seem to be as equally as popular as cars for transportation, undoubtedly a financial consideration for many. However, one could not help but feel the energy of the city, building away and growing rapidly by the minute, the anticipation and pride of the Olympics everywhere. Despite the overall ‘gray’ feel, and the shadows of deep-rooted Communism still lurking, one could still appreciate the change that has and will continue to take place, especially when discussing with those that had been there even ten years prior.
I was a bit discombobulated, and by the time we had gotten settled in, I had to crash for a power nap, one from which I could barely resuscitate. I stumbled downstairs to seven vintages of Grange, and although I thought I wasn’t going to be able to take notes, after a few sips and spits, I got into the zone for Australia’s first growth, which averages between 7,000-9,000 cases a year.
The first vintage of Grange was the 1977 Penfolds Grange, which was very oaky in the nose. 91% Shiraz, 9% Cab and eighteen months in 100% American new oak were the staples of this vintage, although Peter said about the Grange recipe that ‘nothing was pre-ordained, nothing formulized, but there is a template.’ This was a vintage that had blown me away about three or so years ago, only to disappoint me on the following occasions. This was again a bit disappointing given that one magical bottle I had with the Colonel in LA. Aromas of tea followed the oak, and it did sweeten out a bit to reveal dark black cherry fruit and eucalyptus. Overall, I found it a bit square and unforgiving, but I was still getting my sea legs back (90?).
The 1980 Penfolds Grange was 4% Cabernet and spent 19 months is 100% new oak. It was much more my speed of Grange, elegant and more Burgundian in style while still possessing that sweet, signature Aussie fruit. Horseradish (!) jumped from the nose, and Gil found it ‘herbal’ in a good way. Its sweet, musky nose signaled ‘home sweet home’ as far as Grange goes. There was nice roundness in the mouth, with excellent spice and better acidity than the 1977. It was just beautiful and in a great spot right now (94).
The trong>1982 Penfolds Grange (6% Cab, 19 months oak) Gil found to be ‘a fruitier nature, more the style of Grange.’ There were bright red fruits in the nose and more citricity, and still that eucalyptus glaze in a good way. Its flavors were round and spicy, with red fruits and confectioners’ notes with a leathery spank, and excellent acidity (95).
The 1990 Penfolds Grange was a strange fellow, causing Gil to question, ‘chemical?’ It was very shut down in the nose compared to the ’80 and 82, although matchstick and mint were slow to emerge, as well as a black cherry core. There was deeper concentration here in the ’90 if you had the patience to dig that deeply. More blackberry nuances emerged. It was much blacker in its fruit flavors, thick and with lots of citricity, a much beefier style of Grange. Down the road, this might emerge as the best of the bunch, but not for a while if ever (93+).
The 1994 Penfolds Grange (11% Cabernet, 18 months in oak) Gil kept cooing over. I got unusual but benevolent rubber tire and cola in the nose, along with more typical eucalyptus, menthol, black licorice and a mélange of cassis and black cherry. Peter felt the 1994 ‘calls out for food.’ It did have huge t ‘n a with a tidal wave of a finish and great minerality. Big, long and massive with port-like flavors, this ’94 left the 1990 in the dust as far as the matchup of the two heavyweight styles went (95+).
The 1999 Penfolds Grange was a rare 100% Shiraz and spent 17 months in oak. Gil observed, ‘classic eucalyptus and mintiness from the wood,’ jokingly calling it ‘koala food’ lol. I found the ’99 more medicinal, perhaps due to the lack of Cabernet, I wondered, along with a weird fruitiness to it, still very aromatic but a touch sickly. Its flavors were more classically in line, but still very youngand hot with spicy szechuan flavors (92).
The 2002 Penfolds Grange was the last on our list this afternoon, recently released and only 1.5% Cabernet, also spending 17 months in oak. Gil called out ‘mandarin rind.’ It was also red in style, full of cherry and dust. More complex than the 1999, it had sweet cola flavors along with lots of citricity and just a pinch of medicine. There was more regal breed and elegance in the ’02, and it was thick, rich and young (ahhh to be that”¦I suppose the thick part is a result of the rich and young lol). Gil admired its ‘great potential.’ It still retained elegance despite having enough stuffing to make up for a lot of other Australian turkeys (94+).
I think I crashed again after that, only to wake up for a midnight snack and then retire again. The next morning we were off to the Great Wall with Gil, Paul Pontallier and his wife amongst others. It was about a ninety-minute drive, and upon arriving to the Wall, at least the part we went to, there was a hill of shack shops selling t-shirts, hats, umbrellas, sandals, dried fruits, nuts, water etc. I needed a hat and some sandals, and fierce negotiations began. I nearly went under due to the competition for my business, as aggressive women waved things in my face, changing their prices by the minute. Thankfully Gil, who lived in Hong Kong for ten years, assumed negotiations for me and closed the deal. It was a bit overwhelming, even for a New York City slicker like me.
The Wall was magnificent, and a good workout to boot. It is an amazing testament to the will of man given the steep mountains upon which it was built, especially considering when it was built. The sky was able to emerge from the haze of Beijing more, but not completely, and what amazed me most was how much cooler it was inside the stone towers, even though it was 90+ degrees out. It had to be 20+ degrees cooler inside the towers, with open doors and windows (and no air-conditioning). Natural stone underground cellar, anyone?
After a healthy hike and return to Beijing, it was time to return to civilization and drink some Margaux, as civilzed gentlemen are prone to do. We started with an oh so fresh 2006 Pavillon Blanc du Margaux. I must confess I do love this wine, especially from the past few years. I am a closet Sauvignon Blanc fan, often grabbing one by the glass on more casual evenings out. Ok, make that two glasses. One cannot live off Montrachet alone lol. The 2006 jumped from the glass with aromas of grapefruit, grass and sweet melon, penetrating my nose deeply with its minerality and rind edges. There was a pinch of ‘Equal’ to its sweetness, ie a hint of synthetic sugar. I was stunned to find out this was 15.1% alcohol! Gil noted, ‘great power but awesome balance.’ The palate was rich and concentrated, its alcohol more noticeable yet still reined in. Delicious flavors of mineral, straw, honey and grapefruit were present, ‘in a non New Zealand sort of way,’ Gil added, also finding ‘wet limestone.’ It was hailed as ‘one of the best Pavillon Blancs ever,’ and even after having all the reds, this wicked white still held in the glass, mellowing into decadently good gooseberry flavors (93).
Cardboard was the first thing that I noticed in the nose of the 2004 Pavillon Rouge du Margaux, in the best way possible and not in a corked way, I should add. Coffee, roasted nut and cassis were all secondary, with pinches of earth blending into the coffee. Tertiary aromas of cedar and fir spice emerged in this round and tender wine. The palate was earthy with that gout de terroir, possessing candle wax flavors and a very dry finish, typical of the vintage. I remembered this wine being more impressive at the winery, but then again doesn’t it always taste better there? Gil insisted that the white was so good, it knocked down the ’04 a notch or two (88?).
The 1996 Pavillon Rouge du Margaux I enjoyed thoroughly. It was much rounder and fitting in its clothes, so to speak. Gil noted, ‘high-pitched cherry,’ almost reminding him of a young Nebbiolo. Perfumed and sweet, there were hints of fir, cedar and spice. It was much richer in the mouth than the ’04, and its acidity was still special, typical of 1996. Coffee was the first flavor I noticed, followed by more bean, both coffee and green. Round, rich and tasty, this ’96 was in a great spot with its classic flavors in harmony. A hint of raisin crept in with air (91).
A quintet of Margaux itself followed, beginning with the 2004. The 2004 Margaux had ‘berry cobbler,’ per Gil, and he hit it on the head again, as usual, twirling his hammer and popping it back in his holster. Sweet, crumbly, nutty and crusty, I couldn’t get past the berry cobbler thing ”“ that summed it up 100%. The richness of the wine was a different league than the Pavillons. A quadrafecta of rich, concentrated coffee, earth, cassis and nut flavors paid off big-time. Long and regal, this was excellent stuff. Paul admired, ‘the scent of Margaux, subtle and extremely refined”¦combines power and subtlety so harmoniously”¦soft power.’ The nose became more decadent, with coffee and chocolate emerging (94).
The 2001 Margaux had a leaner style about it, with a bit of stink to it, pungent in a cleaning substance way, along with some cinnamon air freshener. I have been enjoying the 2001 vintage, one that certainly delivers, especially given their prices. In addition, some of the Right Bank wines may prove to be more legendary than people think. Back to the ’01, there were also aromas of weed, chocolate, nut and cassis underneath, and it got more and more foresty in the glass, including the floor with some animal leftovers. Its pungency carried over to the palate, where its acidity really stood out, almost too much so with its heat. Flavors of carob, earth and smoked cedar were dominant. Paul conceded that the ‘vintage was not great but still very good,’ admitting that they ‘lost concentration because of harvest rain.’ Gil added that it opened up to ‘caramel and butterscotch aromas,’ which it did (93).
The 1999 Margaux was ‘leaner and not at the level of the previous two,’ per Gil, and I couldn’t disagree. It was more along the lines of ’01 than ’04, if I had to say, with that lean and pungent side where the acidity and ‘cleaner’ came out first. Nut, smoke, smokehouse, tree bark, flint and fireplace joined the aroma party. There were cedary and spicy flavors, but they were thinner and not as long as the others; this was the leanest of the three. There were still good black fruit flavors, and Paul said that the ’99 ‘ has always been one of my favorite vintages to drink and has been good to drink from the day it was born,’ admiring how it just ‘melts in the mouth’ (91).
The 1995 Margaux was impressive. Gil noticed ‘grilled Gruyere cheese and green bean puree.’ I got the Gruyere, but not the green beans, as cinnamon jumped out at me first. Gil also admired its ‘chalky, dusty’ personality, also finding it ‘tight.’ After cinnamon, chocolate took over, and then sawdust took over from there. The palate was spicy and very gritty with lots of minerals. The thickness of its tannins was clearly in another league than anything prior. It was also rusty like 1995s can be, cedary and edgy yet lean and cut like an Olympic athlete. It was very dry and long, and this might get even better in the future. As Paul eloquently summed it up, ‘the finish is like an unfinished story, a great work in progress’ (96+).
Lastly, we had the ‘lucky’ 1988 Margaux, which had a benevolently cheesy nose, with some cinnamon stick on the side. There was nice spice, and it mellowed into a morning cereal sweetness, with carob and cinnamon returning. The ’88 still had good intensity, and it had rust and spice and was even a bit too austere for Gil. It was definitely a whips and chains wine, more intense than most memories I have of ’88 clarets. ‘Old furniture varnish’ rounded out its finish with a touch of cedar (92).
Paul summed up Margaux aptly as ‘charm before strength, like a great woman.’
It was off the airport and back to Hong Kong. It was to be a busy week.
In Vino Veritas,