Sunday, July 23, 2006

Salon Vertical

At the beginning of May, myself and fellow Naughton Dining Club founder Pete Crawford travelled to the Great North Eastern Hotel by Liverpool Street to taste my favourite Champagne, Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil. Corney and Barrow hosted the tasting; a dinner with a selection of vintages to match the different courses. Overall, I was unimpressed. Not with the wines, but with the course selection and the behaviour of some of our hosts. With tickets priced at £200 per head, I feel I'm allowed to nitpick on the finer details. Salon make superb, beautiful wines that only get better when matched with the right food. As such they deserve food that highlights the best of the wine. It is not the place for a chef to throw down a gauntlet to the wine, or worse, ignore it entirely.

The two reps at the table seemed intent on corralling opinion, making what were blatantly bad choices seem inspired and relentlessly going for the hard sell, not just on Salon, but on C & B's entire list. This felt inappropriate. I didn't pay £200 for you to sell me something, I paid £200 for the wine to sell itself.

The highlights of the evening were the exceptional canap├ęs, served with Delamotte (Salon's sister house) Blanc de Blancs NV and the chat from winemaker Didier Depond - a lovely man clearly enthusiastic about his job and product. He's rightfully proud of the wines he crafts.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV
One of the stars of the evening. Clean & fresh and very moreish - ideal to start the evening. Luscious citrus fruits curbed by joyous effervescence. Lively, but not overly so. An incredibly fun and drinkable drop.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1997
Nose is a bit metallic, then toasty. The fruit is subdued, more texture on the edges. The palate is all about mouth-feel, and the texture is lovely, supple & subtle. Not a great deal of depth but lovely nonetheless. The scallops bring the citrus out a bit more.

Salon 1996
The nose is pure mineral brilliance with lemon on the edges. Floral notes follow. Eventually toast but not brioche as of yet. The palate is large - larger and more forward than expected. The tart zing on the finish is typical young Salon - I think that may be to do with the recent disgorging. Amazingly, with air, it becomes younger, more vibrant acidity, the toast retreating to a more lees-y flavour - incredible complexity and length with great texture and minerality. Fantastic now, but far greater with age.

Salon 1988
This was served with fillet steak and an incredibly rich jus with caramelised onions, a gross disservice to the wine. It held its own, barely, but shouldn't have had to - how much better would this have been with a fine seafood course or even game bird? I won't know. Throughout the meal people marvelled at how the wine stood up to the meat. This irked me. It shouldn't have to stand up to it, it should compliment it and be complimented by it.

The nose has an edge of toasted caramel but again flinty, minerally, still youthful and very, very sexy. The palate is voluptuous and every bit as sexy as I remember - the bang comes at the finish, or the beginning of the finish - the forward palate is still a bit subdued. Mouth-filling and luscious and like the palate, very, very sexy. The texture and secondaries are well knit and there's great nuttiness. Great memories as well, from the first time I tried it.

Salon 1976 from magnum
And now to the greatest crime of the evening. This fantastic wine, one very dear to me as it's my birth year and tied with Dom Perignon 1966 as the greatest champage I've ever tried, was served with dessert. A fresh mango based dessert that had no place next to a 30 year-old champagne. It's simple chemistry - the sugar in the dessert overcomes whatever sugar remains in the wine and strips it down to its acidity. You're not tasting the wine as it's meant to be drunk. As such, what was the greatest wine of the night was treated as a curiosity - with people questioning its age-worthiness and quality. These notes were written tasting around the dessert.

Nose of lovely wild mushrooms laced with honey & butterscotch - there's a dark cocoa powder kind of nose coming through as well. The palate seems to be sleeping. Will come back after dessert.
Coming back to it... incredibly dry - fruits dried apricots, peaches, roast lemons and lime come out with air. Incredible fruit considering the age. Layered and textured with the opulence of great white burgundy but with the tightness, structure and minerality of great Alsace Riesling. This wine, like myself hopefully, will age for many, many years to come. Possibly more youthful than the 96. Quite amazing. Does not go with the dessert, which annihilates any richness.

Quite a few people walked away wondering what the fuss was about. With so much emphasis placed on how ageworthy Salon was, to pair the two oldest vintages so poorly defies belief. Would they have paired Le Montrachet with sticky toffee pudding? No. Well, after that, I'm not so sure. They all seemed so caught up in selling the wines they forgot about the wine itself.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

a little glimpse at heaven

I have been dipping my toes back into the wine trade recently. Tastings with Isabel Estate from New Zealand and Finca Allende from Spain, courtesy of Fields, Morris & Verdin, have been interesting, both for the wines and the surroundings. I will get around to posting my tasting notes eventually, but first I wanted to share a little pic I took surrepticiously while rooting around the Berry Brothers cellar after the Allende tasting.

First of all, the cellars were incredible. Every nook and cranny held ancient, crusted bottles that would never appear on their list - they existed simply to be drunk eventually by directors with visiting VIPs. Neck tags, not labels, described their contents and I remembered why wine fascinates me so much, why I've bankrupted myself several times over in the fervent desire to taste the sublime, and sometimes the disappointing. So what, in this web of catacombs, could pound my heart like a gong? Well, it was a selection of ancient Tokaji Essence, dating from the start of the 20th century. I didn't really have time to check all the vintages and feared I would get in trouble for taking a shot, but they were a sight to behold. It was sad to see them caged up. I'd be more than happy to take part in their liberation.