Over nine days recently I was ridiculously lucky enough to be treated to no fewer than five very serious wine dinners – serious as in the quality and age of the wine rather than the demeanour of the attendees. Vintages included three from each of the near-mythical 1959 and 1945 and two each from the famously long-lived 1928 and the best wartime vintage of 1943. If the dinners had taken place in the last century, chances are that my hosts would all have been British. But among these modern-day hosts only one of them was from the UK, a neighbour with a particularly enviable cellar. The others were born in Hong Kong, mainland China and, in the case of the last two of these dinners, in Greece.
My Greek host had lured me to Switzerland with the promise of a complete vertical of Pétrus, famously the most expensive red bordeaux of all, from 1970 to 1982, thereby filling in a whole nine gaps in my collection of tasting notes. The irony is that most of these are the weakest vintages of that period and were particularly difficult for my host to track down. He already had vintages such as 1982, 1985, 1990 and 2000 in quantity but it took some real sleuthing to track down lesser years from the early and late 1970s, most examples of which have presumably already been drunk.
Having assembled a group of friends, a couple of Bulgarian musicians to serenade us, and the young Czech chef David Jehlicka whose talents they had spotted on a private cruise, our Greek hosts plunged us straight into this world-famous Pomerol with glasses of the 1972 and 1973 Pétrus on their terrace before dinner. Neither of these years has much of a reputation but I was amazed by how delicious the 1972 was: seductively heady even if pretty lightweight. Clutching my BlackBerry so as to record every nuance, I actually found myself keying in the absurd phrase “an aperitif Pétrus”. The 1973 was looking pretty good too, even if more concentrated and austere, almost more like a Cabernet-dominated left bank wine than the all-Merlot star of the right bank of the Gironde. In fact I thought the 1973 still had quite a way to go, unlike our oxidised bottle of 1974, the light and charming 1976, the light and leafy 1977, the rather undramatic 1978 and, even more evolved, 1979.
None of the other vintages seemed to have reached its peak, even the less celebrated 1980 and 1981. Neither of them was short of charm though neither had anything like the intensity of the four famous vintages which had been kept for the end, to be savoured with our lamb served two ways (I enjoyed the slow-cooked shoulder so much that I had to decline the rack). There was a massive gear change with these last four vintages, all of them bought en primeur in original wooden cases. Both the 1970 and 1971 were quite stunning, the 1970 being a particularly fine bottle of this famous vintage. (With wines as old as this, individual bottles can vary considerably.) Another famous vintage for Pétrus is 1975 but this bottle was just a tad short of perfection. The 1982 – from such a celebrated vintage that, at over £4,000 a bottle, it was much the most expensive wine we tried – was still too young, and much less seductive than the 1982 from its neighbour Ch Lafleur had been the night before.
The previous night we had enjoyed not just this famous jewel of a wine but also Ch d’Yquem from the great 1928 vintage that was still going strong and, perhaps the most famous port of all, Quinta do Noval, Nacional 1963 that was still almost too young to broach. Almost, but I’m so glad I was not denied the pleasure.
Funnily enough that great 1928 Sauternes was effectively the synthesis of two Sauternes that had been served the previous Friday night at a dinner given by the Chinese businessman and wine lover Desmond Shum at Taillevent in Paris. After cheese we sipped a Ch Lafaurie Peyraguey 1928 that by now finishes quite dry but only after the most glorious crème caramel richness and amazing life. It was trumped however by the even more intense and unctuous Yquem 1955, a classic vintage, served with an intricate passion fruit and mango dessert and agreed by all of us to be the wine of the evening. This was despite competition from a Mouton 1928, a La Tâche 1980, a Cheval Blanc 1959, a Musigny Blanc 1992 and a Dom Pérignon 1966 inter alia.
Two nights later in London my metabolism was readying itself for an onslaught from another generous Chinese host, Paulo Pong, who has founded an exceptionally successful empire of restaurants and wine shops in Hong Kong, all fed by his import company Altaya Wines. This was far from the first time we had exchanged my husband’s cooking skills for a raid on the Pong wine collection maturing under the Wiltshire turf at Corsham, bottles to be shared with Hugh Johnson, my co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, and Michael Broadbent MW, whose Vintage Wine is an unrivalled record of a lifetime of tasting great bottles, mainly as head of Christie’s wine department. Explaining why he had picked out the likes of Mouton ’59 and ’29, Cos ’45, La Mission ’43 and a bizarre port in an Alsace bottle labelled 1893, Pong disarmingly explained: “I just ran down the list picking those that were duty paid.” The Mouton ’59 was the star of this particular evening, inspiring another great quote from Paulo, on this occasion acting as sommelier: “Michael, would you like more ’59?”
Amazingly, the seductive 1959 and unusual 1943 vintages popped up again – gloriously – the following night chez our wine-loving neighbour. To titillate the visiting American writer Jay McInerney, his wife Anne Hearst and Stephen Fry, he had put together the most extraordinary Haut-Brionfest, starting with a distinctly disappointing white 1982 but bursting into red wine life with the almost perfect 1964, 1962 and, especially, 1959. The 1945 seemed, amazingly, still too youthful, but was much, much more enjoyable than our bottle of Lafite 1945 was to be in Switzerland just a few days later.
Now, which chunk of this to send to Pseuds Corner?
Tasting notes on all 47 wines on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Jancis’s Perfect Bottles
Assigning points and suggested drinking windows to wines of this calibre is a fool’s game but I could not resist giving a score of 20/20 to the following wines. I scored a total of 18 wines at least 19 however – in just nine days. Thoroughly spoilt.
• Ch Haut-Brion 1959 Graves
• Pétrus 1970 Pomerol
• Pétrus 1971 Pomerol
• Ch d’Yquem 1928 Sauternes
• Ch d’Yquem 1943 Sauternes
• Ch d’Yquem 1955 Sauternes
• Quinta do Noval, Nacional 1963 Port