A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. For tasting notes on these wines, see Bibulous dinners recorded.
One complaint often expressed on the letters page of the Financial Times concerns the drinking habits of those profiled over a meal in the popular Saturday feature Lunch with the FT. With a few notable exceptions (such as Richard Desmond, then owner of the Daily Express, who ordered a £580 bottle of wine), the subjects seem uncannily abstemious. Readers tend to react with exasperation and disbelief.
Allow me to go some way to compensate for this by sharing the results of leafing through the notebook in which I try to keep track of what was drunk at some of the more bibulous, non-professional meals I’ve enjoyed in the last few months.
The first was a dinner for four at Portland with Bertold and Gertrud Salomon, an Austrian couple who make wine in Austria in September and in South Australia in March. They wanted to test the quality and character of their top Australian Shiraz, Alttus, by tasting their 2012 and 2013 blind with the same vintages of Australia’s most famous Shiraz, Penfolds Grange, and the most celebrated French example of the same grape, Hermitage. (See this similar exercise in 2015.)
These blind comparisons with established icons have been a popular ploy by producers of less well-known wines ever since the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting put California wine on the map by serving it blind with Bordeaux first growths and Burgundy grands crus. I enjoy comparing similar wines without knowing what they are, but in this particular case, the identity of the Grange was pretty obvious in both vintages. It’s such a concentrated wine, with a tell-tale whiff that’s both rich and medicinal, that there was little disguising its identity.
More interesting was trying to disentangle the Alttus, grown in a relatively cool spot on the Fleurieu Peninsula, from the 2012 Delas, Bessards Hermitage and the 2013 from the most respected producer of Hermitage, Jean-Louis Chave. I have noticed that Delas seem to be making their Hermitage, even this bottling from one of the most admired plots of land on the granitic hill of Hermitage, in an increasingly approachable style. (Even the 2016 Bessards is already hugely enjoyable – belying the fact that this wine has traditionally been seen as one of the most tannic, toughest reds of all.)
The Delas wine was the lightest of the three 2012s, but the perfume of the Alttus was so convincingly herbal that I initially thought it could have been French. It was just a little more sweetness on the palate that suggested I was wrong.
The wine that turned out to be the Chave 2013 was the most obvious candidate as the French wine but, perhaps amazingly, I actually preferred the Alttus. It managed to be both opulent and fresh, with power but nothing overdone. The Salomons were presumably well pleased with this exercise.
The next dinner in my notebook was another parade of famous wines served blind – in this case to a group of 10 of us who regularly get together to indulge in such an exercise. Fortunately we know each other so well that a strict omerta operates and allows us to make complete fools of ourselves with wild guesses on occasion.
With Simon Hopkinson's creamy chicken and mushroom pie with buttery cabbage, the stars of a succession of magnums were two completely glorious vintages of the cult Châteauneuf-du-Pape Château Rayas. The 1989 is particularly celebrated, along with the 1990, but the 1998 was looking even better at that west London dinner table. My predecessor as FT wine correspondent Edmund Penning-Rowsell always said that once you’ve decided to pull a cork, you should banish any thought of how much the wine costs. Thank goodness the friend who so kindly donated these magnums follows his advice.
The real bargain of the line-up was the wine many of us took for a white burgundy, Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2010 from New Zealand, which was selling at £38 a bottle last year. It sailed sublimely over Hoppy's beetroot consommé with horseradish cream. For those curious about our livers, the 10 of us shared five magnums and a bottle of Ch de Fargues 1971 Sauternes. Before such indulgent feasts I take milk thistle, a plant-based dietary supplement that I like to believe helps process alcohol. If ever I forget, I do feel a lot worse the next morning.
The same London cellar that provided those stunning magnums of Rayas was raided for an all-American dinner in January – including such relative rarities as Helen Turley’s Marcassin, Three Sisters Vineyard Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast, one of the original cult wines. The 2009 seemed so much richer than most wines I come across from this cool part of California that I thought it was probably past its peak.
Then, with pork tenderloin with fennel salad and mash, two Napa Valley Syrahs, one rather sumptuous 2002 Syrah from Colgin (now part-owned by LVMH) that is still bearing up well and a Kongsgaard 2000 from the much cooler Carneros that was rather overwhelmed by the high-kicking Colgin. It may well have been flattered if instead it had been served with a more restrained example from the northern Rhône, Syrah’s homeland.
Our host with the great cellar is mad about sweet wines, particularly Château d’Yquem, but he also likes a theme. So he served with refried Christmas pudding that rarity, a really sweet California wine. Mr K Gewurztraminer 1999 was a decidedly mature joint effort between the late Alois Kracher, Austria’s king of sweet wines, and Manfred Krankel, whose Sine Qua Non brand is associated with southern California’s wild, wacky and expensive.
Our host at a family supper in Hong Kong just before catching a plane back to London last month also likes themes, numerical ones usually. He’s Chinese. So the vintages on our three bottles of grand cru burgundy (what else in HK?) all ended in 3. He omitted the heatwave vintage of 2003 for fear of overheated wine but kicked off with Domaine Ponsot 2013 Corton-Charlemagne. More butterscotch, à la Marcassin. Give me the freshness of Kumeu River Chardonnay at a fraction of the price.
A slightly dusty 1993 Clos Vougeot was from Domaine Haegelen-Jayer, a defunct domaine belonging to a distant cousin of the world-famous and much-missed Henri Jayer of Vosne-Romanée. (A great cache of his wines was auctioned four years ago in Hong Kong, whose well-heeled collectors paid millions for them.)
The 1983 Griottes-Chambertin carried the name Edouard Delaunay, owned by négociant Boisset from 1992 to 2017 but bought back and recently relaunched by Edouard’s great grandson Laurent Delaunay, who also makes wine in the Languedoc. This 1983 was delicious, and showed none of the mouldy signs of rot often associated with this vintage.
So there you have it, a few leaves out of my tasting book. Fairly sodden, admittedly, but unashamedly so.
SOME LESS EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVES
With the approximate price per bottle of the original mentioned above.
Salomon Fleurieu Shiraz (£110)
Salomon Baan Shiraz 2016 Fleurieu
£12.95 Lea & Sandeman
Kumeu River Chardonnay (Hunting Hill £38)
The Society’s Exhibition New Zealand Chardonnay 2017 Kumeu
£14.95 The Wine Society
Rayas-inspired Garnachas (Rayas 1998 £500)
Frontonio, Supersónico Garnacha 2016 IGP Valdejalón
Dani Landi, Uvas de la Ira 2015 Sierra de Gredos
£23 Wine & Greene of Devon, £180 a dozen in bond BI Wines
Napa Valley Syrah (Colgin £350)
Lagier Meredith Syrah 2011 Mount Veeder
£23.33 plus taxes Falcon Vintners