Wine-trade tastings these days tend to be too big. There are too many wines (and tasters) and, while broad in scope, the wines understandably tend to be of recent vintages, and are in various categories, with less and less differentiation. They are also mainly walkaround affairs with glass in hand (I normally carry two, for comparisons). One scarcely skims the surface after a few hours of jostling and exchanging pleasantries. I prefer a seated tasting with a limited range of related wines – not just because of my age, but to take more time to concentrate.
The grandest of such recent events was the annual white-tie dinner of the Veterani Vitis at The Athenaeum (club, not hotel). A very good turnout: 14 distinguished members who had each served six years as chairman of the club’s wine committee (quite an achievement); and eight honorary members, of whom I am one.
The two other ‘hons’ present were May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, the indomitable (now retired) proprietor of Château Pichon-Lalande, and the equally inexhaustible Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar.
I greatly admire and frequently drink Hochar’s idiosyncratic reds, but he produced one of his whites here, the 2000, which was bravely but effectively twinned with Etienne Sauzet’s Puligny-Montrachet from the same vintage. Quite a contrast: a classic white Burgundy, crisp, elegant with lovely flavour, and another classic, the somewhat softer white from the Lebanon.
I do not propose to give the reader detailed notes of the other six wines. One, served blind, turned out to be a Constantia Uitsig 2004, an impressive Chardonnay from the Cape; and there were a pair of clarets: a youthful 1995 Brane-Cantenac, and Léoville-Poyferré with all the extra dimensions of the superb 1989 vintage. And while I am normally a great fan of Château Climens, the 1988, predictably less sweet, had a touch of hardness. It might mellow with time, but will never attain the richness of the 1989 and 1990.
But I must press on. To a lunch in the restaurant at Tate Britain (what nonsense, it should have been left as The Tate Gallery; the Tate Modern downriver should be called the Tate Tat). When it first opened, and for some years, the restaurant was renowned for its wide range of claret and other recognisable wines with low mark-ups. The food is still good, the wine list fairly extensive but with normal (not cheap) prices.
After visiting, in solitary splendour, the exhibition of Turner’s paintings twinned with similar subjects by French, Italian and Dutch old masters, I ordered a half-bottle of Domaine Christian Moreau, Les Clos Grand Cru Chablis 2005. The first thing I noticed was its colour: pale yellow, but with a very slight brownish tinge; the nose had a flat ‘brown’ maderised character, confirmed on the palate.
Not undrinkable but not quite right. As always on these occasions I ordered another, this time a premier cru Vaillons, same vintage, same domaine. Give him his due, the sommelier unhesitatingly brought out another half-bottle. The contrast was immediate. It was much paler and brighter, the nose and palate fresher and crisper. The 2005 whites might lack the freshness of youth, but they are not old, and I put the difference down to poor storage. I didn’t pursue this to the bitter end, but next time, I might persuade them to let me see the restaurant’s cellar.
The other place I’d like to mention is The French Horn at Sonning-on-Thames. I hadn’t been there for years despite it being only 40 minutes from our country retreat, so I thought I would give my brother, over from Canada, a treat. And so it was. Greeted by the jovial, almost Pickwickian, proprietor astride the entrance, we were ushered into the bar, with nourishing and spicy Bloody Marys before a log fire, followed by a lovely lunch with a garden and riverside view.
To be truthful, having scanned the list, I chose a modest Côtes-du-Rhône to go with the ‘light’ lunch. Then, having time on our hands I studied the wine list more thoroughly, and discovered an astonishing range of great wines. My eyes nearly popped out.
To give green-eyed readers a flavour: among many other top wines, Château Mouton-Rothschild, 21 vintages back to 1945; Lafite, 19 vintages from 2005 to 1949; Château Margaux, 24 back to 1945; Cheval Blanc 21 vintages to 1949, all purchased by the present owner, his father and grandfather. Certainly one of the most comprehensive ranges I’ve come across, surely vying with the world’s best.
Mind you, at the highest level you have to be a Russian oligarch or a seriously wealthy oenophile. Nonetheless, it is an attractive riverside restaurant, and if I can afford to bring a guest, anyone can.
Written by Michael Broadbent