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From the Comet Vintage through the Victory Vintage: A casual fine wine dinner with Mannie Berk and Ricardo Freitas


Last week started off strong as I attended A Blast from the Past: Madeira Extravaganza in DC which celebrated 20 years of collaboration between Mannie Berk (Rare Wine Co.) and Ricardo Freitas (Vinhos Barbeito).  The week ended in Philadelphia where I gave a talk about Henry Hill and Madeira.  It turns out that the week was steeped not only in old Madeira but also in old red wine.  There was a Madeira from the famous 1811 Comet Vintage and a red Burgundy from the 1945 Victory Vintage.

These important vintages were drunk with dinner at Ripple.  Present were Mannie, Ricardo, Darryl, Nancy, Tim, Lou, Kevin, and myself.  Many thanks to Marjorie Meek-Bradley for sending out plates of lovely food and Danny Fisher for taking care of us.

To be presented with any glass of wine from the Comet Vintage is a treat.  Even some fifty years after the harvest, John Timbs wrote in 1862, “Who has not heard of the comet wine of 1811?”  Just over a decade later Charles Hindley defined “comet wine” as one “of superior quality”.  He noted that this was perhaps “because the comets themselves exercise some chemical influence on them.”  Henry Vizetelly wrote about this vintage a few times, describing it as “famous” and “grand”.  I was, admittedly, infected with historic excitement.  Bemused why no one at the table was discussing comets, you can only imagine my great laugh when Mannie suggested all of the people who cared about Comet Wines had long since passed away.  Indeed, I bear no resemblance to the following satire illustrating the type of men who might have cared about it.

The sort of people who cared about the Comet Vintage. Anacreontick's in full Song. Gilroy, James. 1801. #1868,0808.6974. The British Museum.

The sort of people who cared about the Comet Vintage. Anacreontick’s in full Song. Gilroy, James. 1801. #1868,0808.6974. The British Museum.

Comets aside, the 1945 vintage was on everyone’s minds with the difficulties in the vineyards and of producing the wine.  But first we drank Champagne as everyone arrived.  There was discussion of flawed state of the Champagnes.  I did not mind too much, though I found the 1989 Krug Champagne Vintage Brut Collection too aggressive.  The 1990 Philipponnat, Champagne Brut Clos des Goisses had a rather short finish, the mousse was soft and it reminded me of an old wine.  I enjoyed it.   There was no disagreement about the sole white wine.  Simply put, the 2000 Vincent Dauvissat (René & Vincent), Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses was electric!

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1989 Krug, Champagne Vintage Brut Collection
The yeasty, deep nose made way to good bubbles that burst from aggression in the mouth.  The wine was minerally with a little creamy spiced flavor.  The flavors themselves were mature.  *** Now – 2025.

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1990 Philipponnat, Champagne Brut Clos des Goisses
Imported by Vieux Vins.  Disgorged February 2001.  Alcohol 13%.  I found a beautiful core of fruit then apple orchard hints.  The fruit is ripe and texture with smaller, gentler bubbles bringing it forward.  The flavors leaned towards that of a mature still wine mixed with baking spices.  No doubt good to drink but the shorter finish is obvious.  ***(*) Now – 2020.

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2000 Vincent Dauvissat (René & Vincent), Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses
Imported by Vieux Vins.  Alcohol 13%.  The yeasty, electric nose of yellow fruit prepared the palate for the young and lovely flavors in the mouth.  The wine showed more fruit both with air and with food.  There was a very focused, gentle weight, and an attractive hint of cream and note.  Note quite saline.  Certainly lovely.  **** Now – 2025.

A stunning old Burgundy

Though Clos de Lambrays is a centuries old estate my particular interest is that of the past century when the estate, under the Rodier family, went into decline after the First World War.  Fortunately, Albert Rodier had a wealthy mistress, Renee Cosson who acquired the estate in 1938.  The Appellation Controlee in Burgundy had just been established a few years earlier in 1936.  The vineyards of Clos de Tart, Clos de la Roche, Clos Saint-Denis, and even Bonnes Mares were  classified as the finest.  Despite Clos de Lambrays being surrounded by these Grand Cru vineyards, the Cosson’s never pursued this designation potentially due to taxes, according to Clive Coates.  It is commonly reported that as the old pre-phylloxera vines died off they were never replaced and the soils were not composted.  Chaptalization was never allowed and the wine spent a very long time on the skins.

Clive Coates writes that the 1945, 1947, 1948, and 1949 are “some of the finest Burgundies I have ever drunk.”  Robert Parker echoed the sentiment stating “the 1945 Clos des Lambrays I drank would certainly quality as one of the greatest and most potent burgundies I ever tasted.”  He does continue that other bottles were never quite as good.  Michael Broadbent tasted three bottles in the 1980s.  From his “ecstatic notes” he wrote “reminiscent of Petrus ’47; incredibly sweet, sweeter than the port (1887 Sandeman)”.  Charles Walter Berry, writing in the 1930s, was ecstatic about the 1898 vintage remarking, “This was a WINE! Very, very fine.”

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The 1945 vintage in Burgundy saw a severe frost on May 1st which significantly reduced the potential crop size.  A cyclone hit in late June further reducing potential size to one-sixteenth of what was anticipated.  Thus the hot weather combined with a tiny number of grapes resulted in very concentrated wines.  Indeed, our bottle of 1945 Domaine des Lambrays, Clos des Lambrays lived up to the historic hype clearly reflecting the “traditional manner” of production as described by Alexis Lichine.  The wine smelled unique and in the mouth were old-school flavors that still contained fruit with a seamless, minerally, weighty  nature.  The wine drank great for about one hour after it started to fade by drying up.  There is no doubt in my mind that well stored examples will drink well for many years to come.

The label for the wine is quite attractive and was designed a friend of the Cosson family, the Alsacian Hansi.  If you examine the label, it previously stated “Cosson Seul Proprietaire de Clos des Lambrays”.  Subsequent to the printing of the label the words “Seul” and “Proprietaire de Clos des Lambrays” was over struck.  The word “Heretiers” was added above “Cosson”.  In the 1960s, Robert Cosson took over the operations from his mother Renee Cosson.  Alexis Lichine writes that he sold wine to shippers.  This makes sense because this bottle was shipped by Jean-Claude Boisset who formed his Negociant company in 1961.  Perhaps reflecting his new management status Robert Cosson felt “Heretiers Cosson” was only appropriate given that he was heir to the estate.  I have made a few enquiries and will update this post with anything I hear back.

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1945 Domaine des Lambrays, Clos des Lambrays
Shipped by Jean-Claude Boisset Wines USA..  Imported by Jean-Claude Boisset.  Alcohol 12.5%.  There is a unique, attractive nose with dark soil notes and a hint of band-aid.  In the mouth a significant amount of fruit still exists with a minerally, weighty nature.  The tannins are nearly resolved with the acidity bound in a seamless package.  There is great balance and plenty of concentration and power for future life.  With air the wine took on a sweaty, pungent nature with old-school flavors, and an attractive hint of saline and soil.  Clearly unique.  After one hour the flavors became drier but then my glass was emptied.  ****(*) Now – 2025+.

Mature Bordeaux

Three red Bordeaux comprised our red wine flight.  Kevin decanted the 1953 Chateau Latour, Pauillac whereas I simply opened the other two bottles.  The cork of the 1955 Chateau Margaux, Margaux was in good shape, only slightly soft, and came out in one piece with the help of my Durand.  The top of the cork was branded with two overlayed T’s.  I meant to check the body of the cork but forgot and left it on the table.  Though the cork of the 1961 Chateau Calon-Segur, St. Estèphe came out in one piece, it was coated on the top and indeed all the way along the sides with a dusty, moldy smelling layer.  Hence the low-shoulder fill.  The cork did not smell right and one whiff of the wine confirmed it was past drinking.  As Mannie noted, it was the darkest wine of the trio, which to him, indicated oxidation.

That left us two chateau-bottled wines both produced by traditional  methods.  Whereas the Chateau Latour represents a style of management and winemaking that had been in place for decades, the Chateau Margaux represents efforts to return the estate, vineyard, land, and chateau back to form.

Chateau Latour was owned by shareholders with the estate administered by a Societe Civile since the 19th century. Incredibly the Phylloxera arrived late.  The first vines only replanted onto American rootstock around 1901 with the entire vineyard completed in the 1920s.   The 1950s eventually saw a doubling of yields over the previous decade.  The fruit was destalked by hand then was fermented in oak vats.  Les Forts de Latour would not exist for another decade until the 68 shareholders sold off a majority of their stakes.  In wasn’t until this ownership changed in 1962 that the modern tools of mechanical destalking, stainless steel vats, and temperature control were introduced.  Even the vineyards were extensively expanded.

The Ginestet family had completed purchasing shares of Chateau Margaux so that Pierre Ginestet became sole proprietor in 1940s.  Under the Ginestets the sprawling vineyards were reduced to just the best terroirs and there was a return to selecting the best vats of wine for the grand vin.  Like Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux had mandated chateau-bottling in the 1920s but this was abandoned from 1930 through 1949 when shipping in wood was allowed.  The Ginestets were able to restore chateau bottling as well as the chateau itself.

There is no doubt in my mind, nor was there in my palate, that the flight of Bordeaux could match the 1945 Clos des Lambrays for aroma, depth, and length.  It was, harshly put, an obvious step down in quality.  I write that not to belittle the Bordeaux but to show the clarity with which the 1945 Clos des Lambrays stood out.  The 1953 Château Latour Grand Vin, Pauillac received decanting but to me it maintained a sort of grip on its flavor.  I kept expecting it to reveal more but it never did.  Still, it was enjoying and particularly fun because it offered a strong contrast to the Margaux.  If the Latour offered a more powerful, stand-up profile the 1955 Château Margaux, Margaux was all about fruit with a delicate, gentle nature.  On this night it was a wine to drink and be seduced by.

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1953 Château Latour Grand Vin, Pauillac
Shipped by A. Delor & Co.  Imported by International Vintage.  Alcohol 13%. Consigned from a private collection to Edward Roberts International.  The iron-like flavors maintained a focus that matched the core of red-black fruit hints and good acidity.  The flavors maintained their binding in the structure and I found them particularly interesting n the middle with notes of old, dry leather, iron, and old wood.  Will clearly last but will  not offer anything in addition.  ***(*) Now – 2020.

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1955 Château Margaux, Margaux
Shipped by Smith & Hoey Ltd.  Unknown importer.  Mid-shoulder fill. There were lively, green hints in the mouth.  Some structure came out on the teeth but the seductive, sweet, old fruit match it well and built intensity towards the finish. It is a pretty wine that took on a touch of weight.  The delicate red fruit  **** Now.

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1961 Château Calon-Ségur, St. Estèphe
Unknown shipper and importer.  Bottom shoulder fill.  Clearly tired on the nose but I gave it a go anyways.  The aromas of mushrooms made way to firm flavors with roast notes and an old mushroom note.  Dying.

Very old and figuratively young Madeira

I first tasted an 1811 Malvasia Candida wine earlier this year in New York City which you may read about in the post “[W]hen of the best kind, a most delicious wine.” An historic 19th century Malvasia Madeira tasting.  In all honesty, the bottle from NYC proved the worst experience of the evening.  This did not deter my excitement to try the wine again for there was a difference.  The previous experience came from a Burgundy shaped bottle sealed with red wax.  For this dinner the bottle bore the same label but the glass was Bordeaux shaped and the wax was a dark, military gray.

I had reasonably assumed, that when the 1811 was bottled the Burgundy bottles ran out so whatever else was on hand, Bordeaux bottles in this case, were then used.  Or vice versa.  That the wax was different implied two separate bottlings.   However, from the very first sniff I knew this was a different wine and in no way related.  In addition, it was way too young. Just the night before I drank the 1866 and 1837 Barbeito Bual with perfect provenance through Mannie from Ricardo.  This particular bottle of 1811 tasted even younger!  I will write a follow up post focusing in on this particular bottle in detail.  There were other Madeira’s that night as well.  It was getting late so my notes are short.  The 1901 D’Oliveiras, Malvasia, Madeira was less sweet and showed an attractive nutty profile.  The 1973 D’Oliveiras, Verdelho, Madeira was rich, racy, and pungent. All aspects that I really like.  This is a young wine to consume in the future.

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1811 Malvasia Candida, Madeira
Acquired from a private collection Acker Merrall & Condit auction May 21st, 2015, New York.  This was very sweet on the nose and with air, a prominent thyme note came out.  In the mouth this wine was sweet, concentrated, vibrant, with a hint of Big Red flavors and a bit of greenhouse.  There was sweet sugar and lots of thyme flavors.  Way too young to be an 1811 and of the wrong flavor profile.  Nevertheless, whatever was in the bottle, provided a tasty experience. Not Rated.

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1901 D’Oliveiras, Malvasia, Madeira
Imported by Vieux Vins.  Alcohol 19%-21%.  There was a musky nose with nut flavors in the mouth, acidity on the sides of the tongue, and good liveness.  It had an oxidized note in the long finish.  **** Now – 2090.

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1973 D’Oliveiras, Verdelho, Madeira
Imported by Vieux Vins.  Alcohol 19%-21%.  This was rich and racy with fine power and structure.  The pungent flavors mixed with orange peel before the powerful and dry finish.  The wine returns again with strength.  Young! **** Now – 2115.

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