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The power of one: tasting wine

Christopher Burr MW, chairman of Uvine.com, tries tasting wine from the last two centuries – all from years ending in one.

In recent years I have enjoyed tasting wine with friends and business colleagues. In no way to diminish these experiences, I have just returned from Paris, where I attended what must be a truly ‘once in a lifetime’ black tie dinner, given by the eccentric and extremely knowledgeable Swiss-based Canadian collector Joshua Latner, and his girlfriend Kendal Hunter.

The evening itself was inspired by a previous dinner in London and Mr Latner insisited on a follow-on event. Searching for inspiration, I asked him in what year he was born. His response, 1961, made a very good start. Then I thought of my birth year, 1951 – not memorable, at least wine-wise, so the idea of an ‘ending in one’ dinner didn’t immediately appeal, but then we started to discuss the idea. There have been many ‘ending in nine’ events, and perhaps the ‘ones’ have missed everyone’s attention. But it became even more obvious after thinking about the 1921s in the Rhein, Mosel, Champagne, Bordeaux and Sauternes, then the Noval 1931 – a monument of a port. In 1961 alone there are many more of the all-time greats – La Chapelle, Latour, Pétrus.

There now came the challenge of assembling the best of these wines from unquestionable provenance, no mean task, but fortune and some visionary wine men helped, such as Hardy Rodenstock – a legendary collector – Philippe Guigal, Frédéric Engerer of Château Latour, and Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d’Estournel. The dinner was celebrated in Paris, and started with an aperitif of the legendary 1921 Moët & Chandon, which had never left its cellars in Epernay until one week before the dinner. Philippe Pascal, the former head of Veuve Clicquot, and now boss of the whole of Moët Hennessey, was instrumental in getting several bottles of 1921 Moët specially disgorged for the evening.

For 1941 and 1951 we had to go to California where some of the greatest wines were produced by André Tchelistcheff. Joshua had picked up the Inglenook 1941 in California 10 years earlier, for a cool sum of $1,500. Thank goodness, as the last bottle I sold was in a Christie’s sale in Beverley Hills in 1999, where it went for an unspeakable US$12,000 for the one bottle. Finding the 1951 Beaulieu Vineyard was harder. Fortunately I happened to be dining with Jack Keenan, head of UDV, owners of BV. I dared to ask what I could do to get my hands on one of these precious and valuable bottles, and could he help. The wine arrived in a box, marked on the outside by the boss of BV: ‘Dear Jack, I wanted to taste this wine, but I decided my job was more important’!

My notes on the wines follow, but I would be incredibly remiss not to mention Alain Dutournier’s exquisite and beautifully balanced cooking at his restaurant Carré de Feuillants. Perhaps the most memorable gastronomic experience of a lifetime was the L’Ortolan, fattened then ‘sweetened’ by drinking old armagnac, flash cooked in butter and eaten whole, with a glass of 1921 d’Yquem. Pure heaven.

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