July 31 2011
Wine blogger Tom Harrow, in Pamplona for the bull run, is looking back on a recent unforgettable wine tasting and dinner at Dublin’s two-Michelin-starred Patrick Guilbaud restaurant.
We were trying the “super-sixes” in pairs – Dom Pérignon’s frighteningly rare Oenothèque Cuvée from ’96, ’86, ’76 and ’66 and Grange from the same years, with the latest ’06 release thrown in for good measure. The Oenothèques receive extra lees ageing (11 years), which protects against oxygenation, so preserving their deft minerality and freshness. First up: the ’96, disgorged in 2008, showed great tension and focus, was playful but with hidden power. Vincent, clearly inspired by the recent Wimbledon men’s final, compared the wine’s performance to newly-crowned champ Novak Djokovic but suggested that displaying its first peak of maturity meant we were really only witnessing the architecture of the wine at this stage. The second peak occurs after 12-20 years, depending on the vintage, and the ’86 Oenothèque rosé (not actually commercially available – but from Moët’s library stock) was clearly showing this level of development, with secondary characters of chocolate orange, nougatine, pine resin and a Florentine glove shop.
The ’76 Oenothèque, on its third and final plateau, was showing wisdom but not wrinkles. It should have been dignified and stately but it was just so pretty, like Disney’s Cinderella; all exuberant curls, honeysuckle-scented peachy skin joyously skipping over the tongue. Only as it opened up (and I’d thirstily glugged mine without giving it much chance to develop) did darker tones of figgy biscuit, plum jam and toasted rye creep out of the glass. Finally came the ’66 Oenothèque, far too complex to pick apart its character and almost sacrilegious to do so, like Paxman interrogating the Queen Mother. Suffice to say the contrasting orange blossom and dried apricot aromas perfectly demonstrated the twin poles of complexity and ageless vivacity for which the house is rarely rivalled.
Peter then took the floor to lead us through the selections of Grange – arguably the New World’s (or, given Penfolds’ 167 years of making wine, newer world) most iconic wine. The comparison with Dom Pérignon was initially made because both wines are essentially a blend of the best parcels of grapes from different sites. This notion might sit uncomfortably with the increasingly voguish natural wine movement, in which an individual sense of place is essential for a wine’s personality; but Peter argues that Penfolds, which makes single-vineyard wines, and other regional and inter-regional blends, gets to have its cake, eat it and eat some other cakes too.
We started with the ’66 Grange: beautifully soft, velvety and perfumed, it conjured up prunes and old Périgord truffles left in the sun, and fattened in the glass like a Grand Cru burgundy. Next, the famous ’76: a 100-point score from Robert Parker and, when released in 1981, Australia’s first wine over $20 (it now sells for $1,200). Such an eagerly anticipated wine comes with built-in hubris and was sadly out of condition, and the back-up bottle was perhaps even further gone, fumey with a whiff of limescale. Peter ruefully suggested on this occasion that these were bottles to enjoy in an aromatic ethnic restaurant; I indicated a table near the kitchen bins or washrooms as even more appropriate. The final trio, ’86, ’96 and latest release ’06, were all youthfully juicy and vigorously structured, ’96 the most charming and the latter still taking shape. Grange’s ability to age is impressive, the ’83 according to Peter just beginning to pour really nicely now.
Over dinner at Patrick Guilbaud the fun continued, the meal topped and tailed by more Dom Pérignon: the deceptively precocious ’02 was a lively foil for the lobster and cauliflower pannacotta starter. The ’00 rosé, described cryptically (and in my mind accompanying the trailer of an overwrought religious thriller) as “the colour of the light in the dark, the pinot noir the projector that illuminates Dom Pérignon”, tidied things up nicely alongside red summer fruits macaroon. In between, Penfolds’ excellent Yattarna (’07) – which remains a convincing argument against any provincial wine bore who still believes that all Aussie chardonnay is over-oaked and custardy – was as good a match for the poached salmon as any Savigny-Les-Beaune at the price.
Roast rib of beef with smoked potato and girolles had exactly the straightforward, richly intense flavours for a young Grange, this time ’04, to show at its best, and the subsequent selection of cheeses found an entertaining and rare partner in Penfolds’ Great Grandfather Rare Tawny – a Port-like fortified that I enjoyed in precisely the same degree as I regretted it the next morning.
Fast forward to Pamplona five hours later: I’m standing blearily on Calle Estefeta, after a brief and greasy lunch of braised fighting bull and Padrón peppers (the Grange ’86 would have performed well here, I think); my wineskin full of cheap rioja, my rucksack with The Merrion’s Asprey shower soaps – in case lack of accommodation requires me to bathe in the municipal fountain (avoiding the crowd-diving semi-naked Australians, few of whom I imagine are more than vaguely aware of their country’s finest vinous export). Next to me on the street is a midget, on crutches, covered in wine, smoking a cigarette and eyeing me balefully – an extra from Fear and Loathing, surely – as I’m hoping desperately that someone will answer Noel’s doorbell, if I try a fourth time.
“Who is it?”
“Er, Tom, Harrow. I’m a friend of… Simon’s.”
(Pause, then I remember the pair of Dom Pérignon cuff links that came in the goody bag.)
“I have a gift. It’s champagne-related.”
“Well, you’d better come in then.”