Eclectic by Any Measure, a Dinner with Mannie Berk
With Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co, in town for the Unveiling of the George Washington Special Reserve Madeira we decided to get together for a small dinner. The theme was eclectic both in region and particularly in vintage. I do not know if it is more interesting that there were wines from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to write the least or that two were from the venerable 1955 vintage and two from 1969. The quality of the wines in the glass varied but the individual personalities spoke, creating such interest that we stayed up very late that night.
All of the wines were opened at the table to be drunk in any desired order. I have organized my notes in vintage order first by white then red and finally the sole Madeira. Finally, I have limited my comments to a handful of wines for brevity.
We kicked things off with the 1985 Laurent Perrier, Grand Siecle, Champagne. Grand Siecle was conceived in 1955 as top cuvee to be blended from three of the very best vintages. So our bottle is a particular anomaly being from the single, outstanding 1985 vintage. The cork was firmly seated, refusing to budge, and ultimately twisted into two pieces which were then dug out. Perhaps the tightness of the cork ensures an impeccable seal for the quality of the bubbles is outstanding. This is no recent disgorgement. At best it is savory, complex, and racy.
The 1955 Chateau Carbonneiux, Graves solicited many remarks as the bottle exuded promise. The fill was high, the color youthful, and the cork well-seated against the neck. From the last vintage before the Perrin family purchased the estate, this mostly Sauvignon Blanc based wine was fermented and raised in oak. The nose did remind me a bit of gasoline before it righted itself. With clean, floral flavors of lemon and even some weight it is in fascinating shape. It is a bit simple and short making it more of an academic reference point than quenching old wine.Moving back in time, the oldest red wine came in a squashed 66 cl bottle. The 1947 Marchesi di Barolo, Reserva della Castellana, Barolo is from one of the greatest Barolo vintages of the 20th century. The Reserva della Castellana represents a supposed secret stash of top wine secured behind a lock of which there was one key. Quantities of wine were released each year with the serial numbers recorded in a book. Bottle #2506 improved in the decanter. This salty, zippy wine is in the stage beyond fruit of bottle aged flavors. It is enjoyable, though not remarkable.
I suspect our bottle of 1955 Torres, Gran Coronas, Gran Reserva does not represent the heights this wine can achieve. A bit of nail-polish and oxidation is present both on the nose and in the mouth. Beyond that, though, the wine is quite rich and savory. Time in the decanter broadens the wine. I would certainly drink this wine again.
The pair of wines from the 1969 vintage were great fun. The 1969 Domaine de Mont-Redon, Chateauneuf du Pape adds to my recent experience with 1960s Chateauneuf du Pape. Unlike the examples I have tried from the 1978 vintage, this is an original release. Mont-Redon from the 1950s and 1960s are praised by Rhone lovers. John Livingstone-Learmonth found them to have strength and concentration with Robert Parker writing they were amongst the finest wines of France. During this period the wines were 80% Grenache, 10% Cinsault, and 10% Syrah.The second wine from this vintage came from California. J. Pedroncelli was founded in 1927 was John Pedroncelli planted 135 acres of vines on hillsides near Dry Creek. According to Robert Lawrence Balzer, the site reminded him of his native Lombardy. The vineyard would receive the fog that moved up the Russian River which then receded to provide sunshine. The coolness and warmth was found to make “grapes richly concentrated with flavor” when Robert L. Balzer first visited in 1975. According to Charles L. Sullivan, this was the first vineyard to be planted with Pinot Noir in Northern Sonoma after the Repeal of Prohibition.
Robert L. Balzer’s visit was prompted both by his enjoyment of the wines and the fact that they tended to place well in competitions. Nathan Chroman was chairman of a few competitions who noted the difficulty of growing Pinot Noir in California. In 1972, when Nathan Chroman tasted through 23 California Pinot Noirs, he found the 1969 Pedroncelli Pinot Noir a wine to lay down. Robert L. Balzer found the 1972 vintage in need of age as well. I doubt either of them expected the 1969 J. Pedroncelli, Pinot Noir, Private Stock, Sonoma County to be drinking with full vigor nearly 50 years later.
The Pedroncelli is a fun wine to taste with the Mont Redon. They both smell of similar age and a traditional style of winemaking. The Mont-Redon is more round, with sweet fruit whereas the Pedroncelli is vigorous and grippy with the addition of leather and animale flavors. John Winthrop Haeger offers one possibility for the longevity of the Pedroncelli, in the 1960s the Pinot Noir bottles included a hefty dose of Zinfandel.
The longevity is also, of course, due to the winemaking. This wine was made by the sons of the founder John Pedroncelli who followed the traditions and styles set by their father. It was only in 1968 that Pedroncelli purchased their first French oak barrels and began switching their old Redwood tanks to stainless steel. This was the start of the American wine boom that would see a year after year increase in vineyard acreage and number of Californian wineries. Thus the Pedroncelli marks the end of a phase and so does the Mont-Redon for the winemaking changed in the 1970s towards producing an early drinking style. After tasting these two wines I naively wonder why change?
I have become a firm believer that when a tasting of old vintages is finished with a dessert wine, it should be of similar or older age. What a treat then to have a glass of 1934 Cossart Gordon & Cia., Bual, Madeira. From an excellent vintage, this is a Madeira that excels on the nose. Old Madeira fills your nose and the air around you, transporting you to a traditional period without the need to actively smell your glass.
1985 Laurent Perrier, Grand Siecle, Champagne
Imported by The Rare Wine Co. The very fine, lively bubbles are crisp, precise, and vigorous. With a bright entry, this saline and savory wine mixed baking spiced flavors with a racy body. With air the bubbles remain undiminished but the complexity comes out and the wine develops even more racy body, wrapping it all up with a mature finish. Drinking fantastically right now. **** Now – 2021.
1955 Chateau Carbonneiux, Graves
Shipped by Alexis Lichine. Imported by Clairborne Imports. An excellent looking bottle. The light amber color defies age and matches the lemon and floral tree flavors. The wine has weight, drapes the tongue, and almost becomes racy. I think the Semillon is coming through. It is, though, a bit simple with a short finish. ** Now.
1996 Nicolas Joly, Savennieres Coulee de Serrant
Imported by The Rare Wine co. Alcohol 14%. This is a round wine with perfumed flavors of apple and mature lemon. It is round, fairly clear, and mature with a racy vigor in the finish. It seems to be all about the fabulous texture. **** Now – 2022.
2004 Domaine Leflaive, Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru
Imported by Wilson Daniels. This somewhat complex wine mixes lemon flavors with unintegrated oak. It is taut in the middle, leaning towards the acidic side of things before taking on some cream in the end. It is, perhaps, in need of time. ***(*) 2020-2025.
1947 Marchesi di Barolo, Reserva della Castellana, Barolo
Imported by T. Elenteny Imports. The dark core hints at life. In the mouth this salty wine reveals how it improved with time in decanter. It is all about bottle aged flavors with tangy acidity giving a zippy personality. The mouth remains but the flavors ultimately thin out. *** Now.
1955 Torres, Gran Coronas, Gran Reserva, Penedas
Imported by Forman Bros. Inc. Alcohol 12.65%. The color is deep. The nose offers up barnyard and some not-quite-right aromas of nail polish but is still enjoyable. Slightly oxidized in the mouth this is clearly from a rich wine. It is savory with acidity and even improved a touch in the decanter. But the oxidized hint is there and the finish is short. It is easy to imagine other examples being very good. *** Now.
1969 Domaine de Mont-Redon, Chateauneuf du Pape
From a Belgian cellar. Imported by The Rare Wine Co. Alcohol 13%. A proper set of aromas which are animale. There is round, mouth filling sweet fruit with a subtle hint of Kirsch, and wood notes. The fruit resolves to be sweet strawberries. This is clearly a beautiful wine in fine shape which tightens with air. **** Now.
1969 J. Pedroncelli, Pinot Noir, Private Stock, Sonoma County
Alcohol 12%. This smells proper and of a wine-making style that no longer exists. With air this old wine smells of leather. In the mouth this is a vibrant wine with taut, grippy flavors of complex red fruit, leather, animale, and more sweetness. It has fine texture and life. Our bottle is in fine shape and capable of drinking at this level for years to come. **** Now – 2022.
1988 Fattoria dei Barbi, Brunello di Montalcino
Imported by The Rare Wine Co. With one of the youngest profiles this wine offers attractive, fruit driven flavors which focus in on violets. I would say it became younger with air. ***(*) Now – 2026.
1990 Chateau de Fonsalette, Syrah, Reservee, Cotes du Rhone
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines Ltd. Imported by Wine Cellars LTD. Alcohol 14%. Ah, there is some of that Rayas character on the nose! This is a mature wine with youthful vigor. It is a little round but still possesses tannic grip. With air this exhibits spectacular body with articulate and textured flavor. The acidity is spot on as this wine enters its second, mature phase of life. After a few hours of air this is lovely. **** Now – 2022.
1934 Cossart Gordon & Cia., Bual, Madeira
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines. Imported by Wine Cellars LTD. Alcohol 20%. A lovely nose of moderately pungent aromas of caramel, orange, damp campfire, and hints of sweet leather. Flavors of leather mix with a focused, weighty body but the acidity builds until the finish where it becomes prominent and almost searing in the aftertaste. The aftertaste is of citric flavors and a persistent sweetness. ***(*) Now – whenever.