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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
2 Feb 2008

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See Latour, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Moss Wood, Vergelegen... for more details of the tastings described below.

I host wine tastings reasonably regularly and am used to keeping an audience, even a crypt-ful of fund managers, under control. But last Thursday night, halfway through a look at 10 wines with - can you believe it? - a mining theme, all eyes suddenly swivelled to the door of our room in the Hotel Seehof in Davos and everyone stood up. It took me some time to see why because neither Shimon Peres nor the glamorous young women who comprise his entourage are particularly tall, but eventually the President of Israel made his way to my table and allowed himself to taste South Africa's most garlanded dry white and a fine Western Australian Cabernet Sauvignon which he said reminded him of a Pinot Noir. He came, I think, because he is clearly a wine aficionado, and had to be prised out of his seat after 15 or 20 minutes by his minders.


Forbes' seventh most powerful woman in the world, Cynthia Carroll of Anglo American, had been ushered into the seat between him and me in order to provide a buffer of suitably elevated quality at this event funded by (absent) Ukrainian Rinat Akhmetov of System Capital Management. Only in Davos.


I apologise for failng to match the seriousness of last week's coverage of this year's World Economic Forum in this newspaper but this is a wine column after all. My stint in Davos last week comprised three nights of distinctly superior wine and distinctly inferior food. I blame the curse of the canapé.  


The Mines and Wines evening was one of many entertainments laid on for specific groups of delegates, in this case those in the mining and metals industry. My brief was to choose some seriously notable wines from countries or regions with a tradition of mining. I interpreted this extremely liberally however, even allowing Ornellaia 2003 from the Tuscan coast in on the basis of marble quarrying (tenuous, I know) and Domaine de Trevallon 1990 because it is made near Les Baux which gave its name to bauxite.


In the event the group's favourite wines were much more closely related to real mining. Triumphing by popular vote over Giaconda Chardonnay 2005 from the gold rush town of Beechworth in the Australian state of Victoria and a worryingly dark Kistler Chardonnay 2000 from the Kistler Vineyard in Sonoma was the Sauvignon-Semillon blend enjoyed by President Peres, the current 2006 vintage of the top white made by Vergelegen, Anglo American's showcase winery in Stellenbosch which Cynthia Carroll assured me was particularly dear to her heart.


The room's favourites among the seven reds, which included a comforting Château Montelena 1995 Cabernet from Napa Valley and Viñedo Chadwick 2001 from Chile, were the two Australians, Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 from Margaret River which seemed at the peak of its complex yet restrained powers and the most expensive wine of all, the 1982 vintage of Australia's most famous wine, Penfolds Grange, which was almost more like a liqueur than a wine, so rich and soft is it now – and arguably in the gentlest of declines.


Australia also triumphed in a blind tasting of 11 top 2001 Bordeaux blends from around the world the night before. I'd suggested 2001 as it was a California vintage that produced rather bordeaux-like wines that have evolved relatively slowly, thereby minimising some of the more obvious transatlantic differences. I'd also tasted the 2001 bordeaux recently which helped me make a selection from those available in the UK by the bottle (not that many – Brits are expected to buy by the dozen when wine is this expensive).


I knew what the wines were – one each from Chile, South Africa and Australia, three of California's most famous, and five grand bordeaux, including three first growths – but had no idea what was in each glass. The 35 other tasters included wine lovers from the US, UK, Korea, Kuwait, India and Brazil, and the usual smattering of FT colleagues who had somehow managed to sign up for this off-piste event before 8.30 am when it filled up.


The team at the Waldhuus set everything up beautifully. Each of us had quite enough room for our 11 giant numbered glasses, poured about half an hour before we tasted, from bottles that had not been decanted as not much sediment had built up during the five years these wines had been in bottle. I urged everyone to concentrate on the wines' quality rather than trying to work out where they came from and set to tasting, trying very hard to follow my own advice.


There was one wine, number five, which looked a little more developed than the others, had a particularly complex, earthy nose with the sort of flatteringly beautiful mineral balance that Ch Haut-Brion so often offers. "The polar opposite of wine number one", I wrote, comparing it with the Viñedo Chadwick from Chile that was so obviously New World and trying desperately hard to charm. In the event this fifth wine turned out to be that rarely tasted but much discussed wine Screaming Eagle from the Napa Valley about which I wrote last year. This was by far the most expensive wine in our tasting, released at $500 a bottle to those on its mailing list and subsequently traded at multiples thereof.


The real surprise for me was how much I liked the only South African red, Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, another Anglo American production but far from Vergelegen's most expensive wine and the least expensive wine in our tasting. At the time of writing it is on sale at for just £12.99 a bottle and Bridgeview Discount Liquors, New Jersey at $29.99. This charming combination of savoury nose, super-ripe fruit with real energy and very fine tannins, supplied direct from South Africa by Vergelegen's chairman and Davos old hand Michael Spicer, was my favourite of all and the group's third favourite.


But the group's favourite was another Australian wine, Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 Margaret River, which currently lists at £43 in the UK and a bargain $31.99 in the US. My third favourite, after the super-luscious Harlan Estate 2001 Napa Valley, this Western Australian managed to be both opulent and refreshing which is presumably what made it appeal so much.


As so often in these sort of comparisons, even the smartest bordeaux – perhaps particularly the smartest bordeaux – did not shine especially brightly. The favourite example was Ch Latour which was fifth favourite overall although Ch Lafite did not show nearly as well as it had done when I had a chance to taste all significant 2001 bordeaux blind last September. In this company it seemed uncomfortably tart.


There are many arguments of the apples and pears sort against doing these sorts of comparisons but I think that while consumers are free to choose how to spend their money, and it is no longer absolutely obvious where wines come from when tasting them blind, the exercise, which should be viewed as a one-night snapshot – wine judgments are never definitive - can be instructive. Especially for price snobs.


But this evening of first growths and their equivalents was not the high point of my Davos wine drinking. That was the coveted Accel Partners party at the Kirchner Museum on Friday night. We were greeted by decanters of Ch Talbot 1989 from double magnums, I saw a case of Ch Latour 1975 being borne aloft by one of the waiters through the throng and both 1966 and 1955 featured. I suspect it will be some time before Vergelegen will be served at the Accel party.


The wines had been supplied by the late Bill Baker of Reid Wines who assured us they were worth prolonging our stay for.  Thank you. Bill.


See Latour, Harland, Screaming Eagle, Moss Wood, Vergelegen... for more details of the tastings described above.