Vintage Tastings

By John Kapon

Experience the finest and rarest wines in the world through the eyes and palate of Acker Chairman and globally renowned master taster, John Kapon (our “JK”). “Vintage Tastings” is a written journal chronicling the incredible bottles opened at some of the most exclusive tastings, wine dinners, and events all over the globe. These entries represent JK’s commitment to capturing and sharing the ephemeral nature and ultimate privilege of tasting the world’s rarest wines. Although ratings are based on a 100-point scale, JK believes there is no such thing as a 100-point wine. Point scores assigned to each wine are his own personal attempt to quantify the quality of each experience.

An Evening with Jean-Louis Chave and more

Fellow wine lover,

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, I have resurrected my newsletter in a weekly, email format and will try to stay current from here on out. This past year saw some personal changes in my life that did not afford me the time to produce volumes 5 and 6 due to the massive scale of producing a volume. What I have decided to do in the meantime is send out weekly emails of the past week’s endeavors and fill the holes for weeks I do not taste wines of note with the 75+ events from 2003 that I have already stockpiled for your reading pleasure. (Hopefully it will also keep me honest and at home on the weekends more often!)

This week’s events are An Evening with Jean-Louis Chave, Dinner at Cru, and Reflections on Gruaud Larose. I hope you enjoy.

On Thursday, December 2nd we were very fortunate to have Jean-Louis Chave and his lovely wife Erin join us in New York City for a spectacular retrospective of Hermitage: Blanc, Rouge and Cathelin, of course. Later Jean-Louis confessed that this was the first time he has ever had all Cathelins together in one sitting (Vintage Tastings to the rescue again!) The setting was Union Pacific, soon to be another dinosaur in the New York tar pits of the restaurant business. December is UP’s last month open before Laurent Tourondel (formerly Cello and now BLT Steak) takes over with a new BLT operation. Thankfully, Laurent was on hand to prepare an outstanding meal, and UP’s always debonair sommelier, Fred Price, was also there to insure outstanding wine service to match. It was another memorable evening, and Jean-Louis. personal insight and observations were worth the price of admission alone.

We had eight vintages of white, eight red, five Cathelins and two vin de pailles twenty-three wines in all. We went in vintage order, youngest to oldest. The first flight was Blanc: 2001, 1995, 1992 and 1991. Chave’s white Hermitages are probably one of the best-kept secrets in the world of wine, with the ability to age a minimum of twenty years in a great vintage, capable of achieving the complexity of Montrachet with its own, unique flavor profile, unmatched by the rest of the world. It seemed as if Jean-Louis was fonder of talking about the whites due to their relative anonymity compared to the reds, like a proud father standing up for his second child. The 2001 had a young nose with a whiff of judicious, buttery oak very Montrachet-like. In fact, I would have guessed White Burgundy if served to me blind since the wine was so buttery its youth seemed to mask its Rhonish characteristics. Ray chipped in how the Chave Blancs always have this Burgundian edge in their youth. The palate was very rich and oily with a long finish and a pinch of what I like to call the bitterness of youth, a touch of bitter flavors more associated with the wine being young then anything else. The finish also had good minerality and freshness. Jean-Louis called the 2001 a good vintage with good balance, and also chipped in that the problem with the world today is that many are trying to make bigger wines…(94). He is a true terroirist, classicist and naturalist all in one, and that will become more and more evident with each passing quote. The 1995 was very fragrant, with the first signs of some glue and marzipan that points in the Rhone direction. The wine was very creamy with a light pungency similar to a sun-baked fig a day or two more than the chef would allow. The wine was still youthful and (white) meaty, with additional flavors of mineral, seltzer, toast, chalk, nut and marzipan. Ray added the wine would continue to offer more in five to ten years. Jean-Louis noted that the wine was in an interesting stage and just starting to open.. (95). He also stressed that Hermitage Blanc in general is a wine meant to be drunk with food. The 1992 was next. There was a touch of straw, orange peel, tank water, cement and rubber (though not rubber cement) kind of like wet galoshes fresh off the pavement. The wine was exotic and mature, with good structure but probably at its peak. Doug remarked that there was a touch too much exotic oriental spice for me, but interesting… The wine did get a little medicinal in the glass. Jean-Louis called it classic Hermitage with the honey, wax and no acidity.. (89-90). The flight finished with the 1991, a controversial wine that was fresh for a few minutes but took a left turn at Albequerque and took on this distinctive aroma of bad weed. Yes, bad weed. Let’s just say that kids that grow up in New York City are experienced. The 1991 had light citrus, earth and barnyard aromas with a touch of wild herbs, for sure. The palate was still round and rich, but that bad weed thing marked its flavors as well. Was it the wine or the bottle? Jean-Louis seemed more fond of the wine, calling it 2001 ten years older.. He also remarked that truth is in the old bottles.. I could not agree with him more there. It is the fundamental problem with wine critics today no one provides enough of that truth (I will be trying!) The 1991 got worse in the glass (85?).

Jean-Louis spoke at length at the end of the first flight, and the following all represent snippets of that. I always try to make Hermitage first it was here before me and will be after. Terroir is the origin, and the origin of Hermitage is very special. There are very different soils within Hermitage. You can make Syrah anywhere, but the white is more complicated and there are only two places where it does well. In people’s minds, Hermitage is more red than white history is made of fashion and trends. When the red became famous, the price went up for grapes, and the red got pushed. The whites are not easy to like, and white Hermitage is not a refreshing white, it is meant to be drunk with food. White Hermitage is built on the glycerol, fatness and texture, not acidity. In fact, in the early 1900s there was more white produced than red. It started to change in the 1920s..

The next flight was comprised of the 1990, 1989, 1983 and 1978 Blancs. The 1990 had an intense nose full of glue, citrus, honey and wax lots of vigor here. There was a nice nutty quality to the palate, with a pinch of citrus and great terroir/minerality. It was round, rich and waxy if it is not a wine made on acidity then it must have been the alcohol that made the wine quite zippy, although many whispered that they felt a lot of the wines had good acidity. There was good petrol, mineral and benevolent sulfur flavors on the finish (95). The 1989 was the Blanc of the night. It had an intense nose full of alcohol with more nut in its nose, vanilla nut in fact, but in that unique Hermitage way. The wine was a victory for terroir over winemaking I sat in awe and couldn.t help but think how the wine gave me this impression that it made itself, and Jean-Louis was wise enough to let it do just that. The palate was fabulous, definitely great and still young, full, rich and long. There were great flavors of wax and honey wrapped in toast and nut (97). The 1983 had a lot of glue in the nose, complemented by more old wood and forest, bordering on a mint/eucalyptus thing. This particular bottle lacked definition, especially after having the same wine in magnum a month ago that showed much better perhaps a magnum is necessary at this point? The wine seemed confused and a touch medicinal (88?). The 1978 had a buttery, honeyed and divine nose with great bread aromas that carried over to the palate. Mike and Wendy combined forces for peanut butter satay. while Mike expanded into the world of coffee and butterscotch. around the edges. Doug found the 78 a little old and starting to show some sherry.. There was some citrus spice and lingering acidity. Brian chipped in how the great whites seem to get fresher as they get older because they get more focused (95).

It was time for the reds. We started with the 2000, which was very youthful in that Autobahn way. Ray’s premonitions of the young reds being too oaky for him were misguided. There were lots of earth and stems, but underneath the vim, stones and black and red fruits, there was a touch of barnyard. The wine had lots of alcohol and acid on the back end, decent structure, and was long and firm&a bit dormant perhaps, or as Ray put it, a bit diluted… (92). The 1999 was much more classic full of the pepper, bacon, roasted earth and menthol quadrafecta known as red Hermitage. The t n a (tannins and alcohol for those of you that forgot or do not know) were tremendous; we were in the presence of a big-time wine that was still a baby. There were loads of structure with the rustic earth and leather, with Jean-Louis noting that Northern Rhone is more like Burgundy than Chateauneuf. The wine is more soil than climate, and soil is more important than the sun this is very important… (96). The 1995 had a classic nose it was a touch more forward than the 1999 fruit-wise, but it also had the bacon and pepper, with more violet, meat and flesh. The wine was full-bodied, with lots of roasted, earthy flavors and outstanding expression of terroir again. Jean-Louis stressed the importance of terroir again, We don.t talk about Syrah, we talk about Bessards, Le Meal, etc where the grapes come from… (94+). The 1990 was one of the better bottles of this wine that I have had. It had an amazing wave of roasted meat, earth, and almost a bloody mary/worsteschire spice. The wine was open, fleshy and meaty with a splash of vitamins. The palate was very polished and refined with a long finish. It was Ray’s favorite, while Doug was trying to work through the tomato/vegetal side, and Mike called out a bullseye of hickory wood.. Speaking about the flight, Jean-Louis noted that the 2000 was more softness, the 1999 good structure and good everything, the 1995 more granite and tannins, and the 1990 classic… (95+)

The fourth flight was more difficult than any other to decipher. The 1989 was wound up enormously with firm alcohol and a touch of menthol. The bottle was shut down almost completely and had a long, deep, brooding palate (93+?). The 1985 had a touch of stink, just a pinch, and was very meaty and earthy. It had enough menthol to clear out the average sinus and a farm/hay/barnyard edge. The palate was very taut with lots of minerals, alcohol and acid. It was hot and seemed young with its enormous alcohol concentration (93+). I have never been blown away by the 1978, which again proved to be a solid, enjoyable wine, but not what I would call a legendary one. The 78 was very dirty with an earthy, stinky nose and some green, vegetal flavors (.better out of magnum. snickered Ray). This bottle was a touch disjointed (92?).

The Cuvee Cathelin, only made in years when the wine tells Jean-Louis to make it, has been produced in 1990, 1991, 1995, 1998, and 2000. The 2000 had just been released, so this might have been the first tasting of it in America. The next vintage of Cathelin will be 2003. Unlike what everyone assumes, the Cathelin is not the oldest vines in the newest oak (this is what I hate, confided Jean-Louis to us), but rather a barrel selection and still a blend. The Bessards vineyard is the backbone for the cuvee, but Chave was very adamant that the making of the Cathelin would never compromise the normal cuvee. There was no Cathelin in 1999 or 2001 because the wines only had one direction. In some years, it is possible to have two directions, another solution to the question of what Hermitage is like. It is important to make the normal cuvee as special as possible, and for the Domaine to be known for its regular cuvee. I am not always a fan of a special cuvee (from other producers) because it can reduce the quality of the normal cuvee. The difference between the Cathelin and the regular Hermitage is like going to the same 3-star restaurant on two different nights: the regular is like going on a normal night where there are 50 people there, and the Cathelin is like having the restaurant to yourself and a small group of friends. The difference is in the details. And on that note, we dove in ourselves. The 2000, fresh off the boat so to speak, had a brooding, deep intensity to it with lots of violet and bacon, vanilla syrup, a touch of ginger, mint, menthol and a candied, jellied style to its fruit. It was very rich and thick on the palate but shy. There were violet and leather flavors. The 2000 Cathelin was sweet, plumy, young, seductive and grapy and will be enjoyable to continue to evaluate for many years to come (95). The 1998 had much more power, which was obvious right away in the nose, which was full of roasted fruit and alcohol. The nose was intense with dashes of pepper, violet and an explosiveminerality, almost a silver streak to the nose. The palate was humongous with great flavors to match its nose and great t. n a. The wine was at the same time long, fine, refined supersonic (98). The 1995 was perplexing; there was a lot of white pepper, menthol and alcohol but a touch of aggressive wood. There were underlying bacon aromas. The wine seemed disappointing on the palate by Cathelin standards (could be the bottle?) and was all about the minerals and light raisins and did get a touch herbal (92?). The 1991 was the most open and classic, although Dr. B tried to lead a mutiny by calling it a touch unpure. Most disagreed strongly, myself included. The nose was loaded with bacon, violets, pepper, menthol, and roasted earth and had an animal edge. The palate was huge with a touch of yeast and animal flavors to complement the aromas, and with time some of that honeynut sex appeal emerged. The wine also gained in the glass with time (96). Last up was the first vintage, the 1990, now trading at close to $2000 a bottle. The 1990 was classic as well but had a touch more in reserve, in a wintry way. It had all the bacon, pepper, roasted earth and menthol but all in reserve. The palate was long and strong yet still silky. It was class in a glass (97).

There were two vin de pailles for those still standing. The 1996 Ray likenedto a honey cough drop, and it was for those familiar with the now defunct Pine Bros. The wine was kinky and exotic and was definitely on that honey, oat, wheat and earth side, with herbal twinges and a unique character (93). The 1990 was more wound with mineral edges to complement that Pine Bros honey thing, but it was also more foresty and weedy to me, despite Doug’s complete caramel, compliment (91). Dinner was done, but since we were already downtown, we decided to head to Cru for a nightcap. I can’t remember exactly what happened from there on out, except for the fact that a close friend of mine, in town for the weekend as well, generously opened a jeroboam of 1961 La Tache for all to enjoy. There is no doubt in my mind that that will be the greatest example of 1961 La Tache I will ever have. It was so fresh, meaty with such great spine and flavors. It left me with a distinct 2001 impression (97+). Ray also popped for a bottle very generously, an outstanding 1945 Vidal-Fleury Cote-Rotie. It needed about thirty minutes to start singing, but when it did it was also outstanding, overcoming a little barnyard in the beginning (95). Apparently we had a 1943 La Tache before the 61, but to be honest I don’t remember it. Damn. Time for bed.

Dinner at Cru 12/3/04

Friday night a smaller group of us got together at Cru, New York’s finest restaurant at the moment. Not only is the wine list stupendous, incredible, amazing, etc., but what Shea Gallante has done in the kitchen is not to be overlooked. His cuisine is great in its own right, but what he has done is made sure that the food complements wine in general, never over the top or too saucy, and always delicious. a close friend of mine, Rob, Dr. B. Michael Troise and Olivier of Mouton-Rothschild were our evening’s version of a Sinister Six, and we definitely started some trouble.

We started off the evening with an excellent recommendation for our sommelier extraordinaire, Robert Bohr: the 1986 Niellon Chevalier Montrachet. The wine was very young and fresh for an 86, although it did have a touch of botrytis on the finish. that many 1986s have, as Mike pointed out. There was amazing clarity to the nose that reminded me of a tranquil setting, like being at an isolated lake in the middle of nowhere first thing in the morning while taking a deep breath through your nose. The aromas were almost in hiding, but very much there: butter, citrus, corn and minerals. It felt like a wine that needed an hour or two to really start to hit its stride, because you could see the expansion with each sip. The palate was rocky and snow-capped with tremendous clarity again, and medium weight and length, although the finish still had a little screech. in it. The nose got more honeyed with time. The palate was slightly corked, but so slight it did not affect the judgment of the wine, unless this is a 99 point wine (95). Next up was the amazing 1971 La Tache. I have had this wine six times over the last two years, and every time it has been incredible. It remains one of the great all-time La Taches, and this bottle was no different. My notes began, Incredible again&hubba hubba.. That should be enough. The wine had a youthful I.ve just been opened. wave of t n a and menthol with gorgeous red fruits behind it, strawberry and cranberry to be precise. There was a touch of divine mushroom and truffle as well as a bouquet of wet, long-stemmed roses. Dr. B chipped in that the 71 LT embodies all I like in old Burgundy, and it’s still fresh.. Pinches of animal, vitamin and game rounded out the nose for this stallion of a Burgundy, with a great earthy edge underneath and a pinch of herbs. The palate was amazing huge t n a, make that enormous by Burgundy standards. There was great length and leathery flavors, with tremendous tension to the palate with a citric centerpoint to that tension. The wine was ridiculous, and the kind of wine that if no one were looking you would suck the last drops directly from the bottle (98+). Jean-Louis Chave happened to be dining at Cru as well with his wife, his agent Liz Willette, and a couple of others, so we had to order the 1971 Chave and share a glass with him (actually we were sharing every glass with him!). The 1971 had a very fresh nose as well and was consistent with the bottle I had last month at the Top 100, as it should since it was from the same source! There were aromas of beef, noodle, earth and a pinch of wild barnyard, with sappy plums underneath. The wine had a positive, soul-warming, soup-like quality that carried over to the palate, with a touch of foresty complexity there as well. It got a Korean BBQ edge and sweatier in the glass, a good sweaty like hot sex, of course (94). Next up was the 1967 Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda, which for five minutes was pretty intense, but inevitably was more maderized than not. The nose was thick with great nut, tar, and dried roses with that oxidized maturity in a meaty, caroby way. There was good structure and alcohol on the palate, but the fruit was tired, and despite a beefy and meaty texture, the sherry was there. It was sturdy with good grip and leather, but definitely affected (92+?). At this point, Dr. Robert Lowery shared a glass of his dinner selection with us, as we had been sharing a few with him as well! The 1990 Brunel Cuvee Centennaire had a fabulous nose. It was very meaty, rich and ripe full of red fruits, game, spice (cinnamon and nutmeg), t n a, t n a and more t n a with a fire grilled edge and great dust, minerals and earth. It was an A+ nose, and an A+ palate to match that was rich, creamy and meaty the best bottle of this I have experienced out of three or four (97). We made up for the Giacosa with a rare 1958 G. Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva. The nose was firm, full of alcohol, matchsticks and charcoal with loads of structure, tar and cold stones and minerals very intense, a close friend of mine concurred. It was catnip city, a word I usually reserve for my Burgundies! It had deep, chunky, chocolaty fruit and a huge palate. The chocolate flavors were massive to go along with its gritty and sandy texture, and both the nose and mouth developed animal (with the fur) and desert edges. The wine got figgy (or should I say figgy with it?) and started to lose focus in 30-45 minutes, though (94). You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and a friend of mine had another large bottle up his sleeve another Jeroboam of, this time the 1986 Romanee Conti itself. Intense animal and iron aromas jumped out of the glass, along with a very stemmy (positive) streak. As a close friend of mine always tells me, the great Burgundies have a stemmy edge. There was a wild, herbal twinge, but it was still a wine that slaps you stupid. There were pure rose, game, meat and iron aromas and flavors, and the wine was surprisingly smooth out of three-liter. The finish lacked the intensity that the nose expressed, but the wine was still excellent (93). Someone snuck me a glass of 1957 Chateau Rayas Blanc, I think it was John of Cru, which also had an amazing nose of coffee, honey, musk and grilled nuts NYC corner-style. The palate had loads of caramel and candy corn flavors, and the wine was still rich and smooth, right at its plateau (94). In honor of our guest Olivier, we had to have some Mouton, right? Even though nine wines were on the books already, magnums of 1947, 1953 and 1959 were on tap courtesy of a close friend of mine and Rob. Only brief notes will follow due to my cross-eyed condition at this state. Olivier’s personal favorite Mouton is the 1947, and this magnum showed why. I had an incredible bottle of this wine two weeks prior in Los Angeles, and this magnum was a step up from that. It was amazing; razor sharp, chunky, meaty and sweet with that minty edge and 200mph (99). The 1953 was no slouch either, massive and edgy with maple characteristics but a touch more noticeable oak (95). Both wines ran me over like a bulldozer with their power and freshness. The 1959, which Mike called the best ever, was the kind of wine you could taste forever. It was the most classic, long and heavy yet with laser-like precision (98). It was then Dr. B remarked how great it is to taste these wines against each other, and I likened drinking a bottle by itself to a tree falling in the woods when no one heard it. There was one more wine to go, and it actually was my wine of the night, a 1971 Quintarelli Amarone Recioto. The wine was vinified dryly, so it was unlike any Recioto I have ever had. The wine was awesome, massive, huge with loads of alcohol and a light sun bake, Golden Raisin style. It was a monument to Amarone (99).

The week actually started out on Monday with twenty-seven vintages of Gruaud-Larose at Artisinal. Unfortunately, I left my notes there, so I figured I would share some perspectives of that evening while they remain relatively fresh in my mind. The event was separated into two parts, a tasting and a dinner. The tasting portion was split into three flights by decade, 1990s, 1980s and 1970s, excluding the 2000, 1990, 1986 and 1982 which were saved for dinner. What stood out about the tasting portion was the remarkable consistency of the wines, all showing in the good to very good range (86-92 points), but even the ones that were 87 or 88 points were a delicious 87 or 88 points. I could easily see me unwinding with many a vintage of Gruaud, although I was not so keen on the seventies as a whole. The 2001 was a bit modern, but still tasty, and we also had the 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, and 1993. Although the 1995 stood out as the only wine here that I would characterize as very good (ie, 90-2 points), all the others were charming and delightful in their own right, although there was some questions about the 1996 flavor-wise (bottle off?). The 1993 was still holding up, the 1994 was still tannic, and the younger ones were good drinks. The 1989 signifed a step up as we entered the 80s, and a lot of people liked the 1988 a lot (both 90). The 1985 was definitely funky and stewed and the only disappointment, and the 1983 was the class of the flight, in a real good spot right now (92). Even the 1981, although less complicated, was still drinking nicely. Unless you are feeling lucky, I would generally avoid Gruaud-larose in the 70s, although many liked the 1978 and I thought the 1970 was good, though far from great. As far as dinner and the big-boy. vintages as my dear friend Rob would say, the 1945, 1928 and 2000 proved to me to be all outstanding (95). The 2000 bridged the gap between Old and New Worlds quite well and the 45 and 28 were classic, rugged Gruauds. The 1959 and 1982 were right on theheels of those (94), with the 1959 showing a lot of character. The 1961 I found unusual and weird for lack of a better word, and the other wines from the 60s were all solid, that being the 1966 and 1962. I think I gave them each 90 points, but honestly I cannot remember. I do remember they left a positive impression though, the 62 being more fruit forward while the 66 had more structure and earth. The 1949 was a touch maderized although still very good, and the 1942 was still going strong despite being a lost war vintage and was right there on the 90-point border as well. All-in-all it was an enjoyable evening, and a great retrospective on one of Bordeaux’s most famous chateaux.

I should also note that I canceled two other events that I could have gone to this week in the interest of self-preservation.

In Vino Veritas,
JK

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