It’s not every day you celebrate a thirtieth and fifth anniversary at the same time so we decided to invite a few people who had been key in my wine writing career to help us. At least, some time last summer I suggested a guest list to Nick and he rather testily told me that he had already invited exactly them for dinner on 1 December 2005 anyway.
So, last night we popped not a few corks with Hugh Johnson, my literary agent Caradoc King (I was one of his first clients, though am far from his most successful), Helen Fraser who published my first book in 1979 and their partners, all of whom are great friends of ours anyway.
We started with Krug 1989 which is the most complex, multi-layered and intriguing champagne, much less evolved, broad and toasty than the 1990 which is perhaps more of a wine to drink with food. Speaking of which, Nick had prepared some slices of raw toro, the fatty underbelly of tuna, on Poilane toast with, as he has just told me, a little bit of soy (umami! I wondered why I had a fleeting Marmite sensation).
We also tried some Krug Grande Cuvée in the light of my recent disparaging remarks about its performance in a blind tasting and still found it pretty austere, I’m afraid. I’m sure it will develop into something fascinating but I would recommend those for who have bought it in the UK recently to cellar it for a year or two until it has built up sufficient bottle development to counterbalance its youthful acidity which emphasizes the dryness of this particular wine.
First course was absolutely stunning, I must say, inspired by a dish of Alberico Penati’s at the London Harry’s Bar in South Audley Street: the freshest of scallop sashimi with generous shavings of white truffle, sea salt and very little else. The room smelt magical – what a treat. (Interestingly, and rather unfortunately I feel, there is not a trace of that heady truffle fume this morning.)
With it I served a classic bottling of perhaps the classic Riesling, Clos Ste Hune 1989 Vendange Tardive alongside, very meanly really, Petaluma Riesling 1997 Clare Valley. You may well wonder why I inflicted this pain on an Australian wine and I think my subconscious desire was simply to serve at least one wine that wasn’t French and came from an impeccable source. On its own, the Petaluma might have stood up better, but I think it needs drinking. The Clos Ste Hune was its usual stunning self. No longer painfully young but perhaps 20 years away from being at all old. It clearly has great intensity, extract and richness but certainly isn’t obviously sweet. It went beautifully with the food.
Helen doesn’t eat meat. Hugh adores fish, as anyone who reads his recent and beautifully written A Life Uncorked will know. So our main course was seared (and baked for about 20 minutes) tuna with beautiful purple and white beets from Secretts (www.homegrowndirect.com) who grow a wonderful range of seasonal produce in Surrey for home delivery and a bright green sauce of flat parsley, coriander, garlic, pine nuts and superb olive oil brought back from our recent trip to Piedmont. The thick slices of tune had all the subtle gradations of colour from dark outside to bright red in the middle that one might expect of a very fine mature red wine.
But we drank white as it happens. (Although there would be many reds that could have partnered this. Since I knew we were going to drink some 1975 claret, I didn’t want to have it follow any Pinot-based reds.) We really only needed one bottle at this stage but I thought I would compare a white burgundy from the controversial 1996 vintage, a Puligny Montrachet, Folatières 1996 G Chavy, with Puligny Montrachet, Enseignières 1997 Coche Dury. The more I taste 1997 whites, the more I admire them. This like most was full of subtle fruit burt with the Coche Dury density and tension. It was already lovely drinking but will continue to develop for about another four or five years I suspect. (Most other 1997 white burgundies are at their peak now, I have found.) The 1996, like the Petaluma, was not flattered by the comparison and was, like so many 1996s, losing its fruit and starting to show the acidity that has always been such a characteristic of this vintage.
While the less greedy of us were finishing their main course I poured Ch Pichon Lalande 1982 (opened and decanted just before dinner) which I wanted to re-taste in the light of the recent comments about it in your turn. On the basis of the bottle I opened last night (which has been in my cellar since I bought it en primeur) I can confirm Jerry Magnin’s group’s view that this famous wine seems to be past its peak. There was a serious lack of acidity in this case and its previous lusciousness just seems too formless now. Shame – especially since I still have quite a few bottles left (which I will not decant in advance of serving in future). Wine collections – who’d have ‘em?
On to the real red wines of the evening which unfortunately I had had to buy specially since I started collecting wine only with the 1976 vintage. I served Chx La Mission Haut Brion 1975 and Cheval Blanc 1975 side by side and a very handsome, if varied pair they made. The dark, still concentrated and structured La Mission has many years ahead of it yet although it has fully developed that wonderfully local ‘warm bricks’ nose of the Haut Brion family. Cheval on the other hand was utterly charming, round, fragrant and fruity with hardly any of the 1975 vintage’s famously heavy charge of tannins in evidence. Both wines were lovely with the foot-long wedge of Comté that just about fitted on to a salmon plate. (Nick had wanted to serve Vacherin but I thought it might be a bit too pungent for the old bordeaux, which I opened and decanted just before serving incidentally – although in the event La Mission could probably have withstood an hour or so in a decanter.)
And finally, a seasonal favourite, stuffed Calabrian figs covered in chocolate as sold at this time of year (in beautiful handmade straw boxes) by the Algerian Coffee Stores in London. At the end, taxi time, we felt like the figs. Thank you very much indeed, Nick.