27 July 2017 On Monday I published Lunch with the Evanses, an account of a recent encounter with the widow, daughter and 1985 Semillon of Australian wine legend Len Evans. As a companion piece I thought you might like to read the article below that I wrote on the day after he died, about the dinner he had hosted two nights previously with such typical generosity and bravado.
18 August 2006 Wednesday night's dinner at Loggerheads, the rococo mud brick house Len Evans built in the Hunter Valley, was typical of Evans the host. Knowing his wife would be in hospital that day I tried to persuade him to cancel it but anyone who has ever met him will know that I was wasting my breath. That morning at least one other dinner guest, Iain Riggs of Brokenwood and chairman of the Hunter Valley Wine Show, found his all-important trophy taste-off interrupted by calls from Evans. The mobile of another senior judge Ian McKenzie also registered an attempted call from Loggerheads. Once Riggsy and I were driving back after this climax of the wine show that Len had transformed into one of the finest regional wine shows anywhere, he returned the call, worried that perhaps there was some urgent development.
Depends what you call urgent. Evans was organising the wines for that night's dinner (having told me the night before that he intended to serve old Australians rather than the great French wines he also loved) and realised he didn't have any old Hunter reds. He wanted to make sure that Riggsy would fill the gap. This might amuse show chairman Brian Croser, who had once been lacerated by Evans for taking a call on his mobile during a wine show.
That this king of the Hunter didn't have any old bottles of Hunter reds left is a testament to his determinedly completist view of consumption. Nor did he have any bottles of the great of Lindemans Hunter Semillons. 'We just drank 'em all, darling', he explained when unveiling his first four whites.
Evans liked nothing more than organising a party. (He liked a lot of other things just as much, mind you.) At this one he schemed to present as surprise fellow guests our friends Paul and Kay Henderson, who used to run Gidleigh Park hotel in Devon. Riggsy and Sally Margan were there, James Halliday, who had been staying a Loggerheads as always during the Hunter wine show, and his neighbour Brian McGuigan. His daughter Jodie, a professional chef, was kept hard at work in the kitchen supplying us with one of the best meals we had in the Hunter: Port Stephens oyster fritters and brandade with the Dom 1995 (a bottle he'd opened for James Halliday's birthday two nights previously had been corked), Billecart Salmon Blanc de Blancs 1997, and Krug 1982 brought by the Hendersons.
We sat down at the long polished oak table which must have seen so much sport to a printed menu promising two flights of whites blind before we got to what he described as 'Quaffing white – Marquis de Laguiche 1994 en magnum'. The first four were obviously Hunter Semillons with one much younger than the others – a 1997 Tyrrell's, probably the one we'd just awarded a trophy to. Also 1983 and 1984 Rothbury (a wine he'd urged me to buy to mark our son's birth year – we did of course but I'm afraid consumed it long ago). This particular bottling smelt a little decayed. Was it corked, Halliday and I ventured timidly, knowing Len's close relationship with Amorim. 'Wet cork', barked Len. The 1983 McWilliams Mount Pleasant was also a little flabby by now but I really liked the 1983 Rothbury, a very rich, round drink, even if for James it was not pure and austere enough.
Some sauteed scallops and sea perch with seafood broth was served at this point, along with three more mystery whites which seemed to me definitely different from the Semillons but Len loved watching me being persuaded they were indeed Hunter Sems, before revealing them as three Hunter Chardonnays, an excellent and still youthful Tyrrell's Vat 27 1989, a slightly stinky 1985 Rothbury and a lovely 1982 Rothbury – tangy and complete. Then we were allowed to get our teeth into the Montrachet.
Len's menu next lists 'Sorbet (No Sorbet)'. Very wise. A beautiful braised oxtail and ox tongue followed – a very Len (and Nick) type dish with two much admired Victorian Pinots, a lively and fine Bannockburn 2004 (on the cusp of Gary Farr and his successor) and the Coldstream Hills Reserve 1992, which James Halliday has realised is so good he is now buying back his own wine at auction.
This was just a prelude to Len's array of six great Australian reds, however – all served blind. My notes show serious deterioration at this point but Len loved listening to us floundering around, providing us with a list of all six regions. The Lindemans 1983 Hunter provided by Riggsy was in suitably good condition: sweet, rich and animal. The Redman 1971 Coonawarra was corked (oh dear). The Eileen Hardy 1970 McLaren Vale was a little bit syrupy but marvellously complete. I found the Preece 1964 Great Western a little tart, while the Saltram 1958 Barossa reminded me a bit of a Reynella 1938 McLaren Vale served at the judges' dinner the night before (very intense, almost porty) and finally there was a very jolly, rich Metala Stonyfell 1957 Langhorne Creek.
This was far from the first time that Len had taken my Australian wine education in hand. There was a marvellous tasting he held, in the 1980s I think, at the Capital in London of great old bottles to demonstrate to us UK wine writers that Australia made great wines as well as good value ones. We need a similar exercise today – though no one could possibly conduct it as convincingly and pugnaciously as Len.
He listed 1983 Grange on his menu as a bonne bouche but couldn't resist serving a 1972 alongside it too. Local cheese was followed by Rieussec 1975 and, at what he claimed was my insistence (ha!), both Chambers Rare Muscat and Rare Tokay, Australian treasures both – like the man who so gleefully poured them, rollling away to his wine bothy in between courses.
He showed absolutely no sign of any weakness and had recently claimed that his recent triple bypass operation had delivered him a whole new lease of life, and made him realise how crook he had been beforehand. He is already being missed.