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2006 Decanter Fine Wine Encounter Masterclasses

Truly 21st century wines - Jancis Robinson MW Château Margaux - Corinne Mentzelopoulos & Paul Pontallier Food & wine matching - Raymond Blanc Explore the Médoc - Antoine Merlaut, Céline Villars, Claire Villars, David Launay Fine wines of Tuscany - Michael Garner Mas de Daumas Gassac - Samuel Guibert & Andrew Jefford Fine wines of Spain - John Radford Chocolate & fine wine matching - Roberto Bava We are also hosting videos of the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter on decanter.com

Truly 21st century wines

Speaker: Jancis Robinson MW

Selected wines: Domaine Matassa, Matassa Blanc 2003; Grace, Chairman’s Reserve 2004; Viña Falerina, Alta Tierra Syrah 2004; Passopisciaro Red Sicily 2004

Like pupils hanging on every word of a favourite teacher, the attendees at this packed masterclass eagerly awaited the selections of wine head girl Jancis Robinson MW. Her challenge: to choose 11 wines that signify what the 21st century in wine has in store. With a new edition of her acclaimed Oxford Companion to Wine just published, Robinson introduced ‘wines which are interesting and which didn’t exist at the last edition of the Oxford Companion (in 1999)’.

The line-up touched on some rather unexpected corners of the globe: Chilean Syrah and a native Sicilian red rubbed shoulders with an Albarino from Oregon, a Chinese Bordeaux blend and a Brazilian Cabernet-Shiraz blend, among others. ‘It’s sad that only two wines here are white,’ Robinson noted. ‘But fewer groundbreaking new wines are white, so the focus naturally is on reds.’

The inclusion of Brazil – situated just 8* south of the equator – is an indication of the progress being made in mastering tropical viticulture. ‘Producers in these regions now can use growth hormones to trick vines into thinking it’s a different season, so they’re getting two vintages a year. These wines aren’t going to challenge the greats, but they are an indidcation of the spread of the wine world beyond its conventional geographical boundaries.’

Meanwhile existing regions are continuing to evolve. ‘Chile had a reputation for being good value but not very exciting. A few years ago, producers tried to improve that image by launching several very expensive wines. That’s not the way to do it – you need to have lots of slightly more expensive wines. Luckily Chile realised that and has developed its offering radically in the last few years.’

Most surprising fact: ‘China is the sixth most important grower of vines in the world.’ (‘At the moment Chinese wines are pretty ordinary mouthwash, but one day they could present a serious threat. In a look at 21st century wines, it would be foolish to ignore them.’)

Most contentious quote: ‘Central Otago Pinot Noir and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc are both immediately attractive and easy to like but aren’t complex enough to satisfy intellectually after the 100th example.’

Quote of the class: On introducing Domaine Matassa’s white wine: ‘The south of France isn’t a new winemaking region, but it is the single most exciting corner of France today in terms of fabulous new wines. Some whites from here are more interesting than white Burgundy.’

Highlight of the class: A fantastic Syrah (Finca Sandoval 2004) from Manchuela, a high-altitude Spanish region, won the vote for best wine hands down. ‘This is one of dozens of Spanish regions we hadn’t heard of, making fantastic wines. Spanish winemaking has become much more refined in the last couple of years.’)

Attendee reaction: ‘Wine is evolving at such a rate that it can be hard to keep up. It’s great to have an expert like Jancis advocate new producers and regions that are working hard to improve quality.’ Mimi Aye and Ken Lamb

Amy Wislocki

Château Margaux

Speaker: Corinne Mentzelopoulos & Paul Pontallier

The wines: Pavillon Blanc 2005 & 1996; Pavillon Rouge 2000 & 1996; Château Margaux 2002, 1999, 1996, 1993, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1983

Few owners of Bordeaux’s first growths ever emerge from their châteaux to meet the consumers – or would-be consumers keen to taste legendary wines that they probably can’t afford to buy. Corinne Mentzenopoulous has been a shining exception, and usually spreads the word in harness with Paul Pontallier, whom she appointed as winemaker in 1983.

They make a formidable double act, proprietor and director in perfect harmony. More importantly, they never patronise their audience and communicate as directly as possible (in flawless English) the reasons why Château Margaux and its wines are so very special.

This Decanter masterclass was no exception. Moreover, the wines on show were among the estate’s finest vintages, giving those who attended a rare opportunity to taste some truly great wines now approaching maturity. The tasting kicked off with two examples of the second wine, Pavillon Rouge, from two top vintages: 1996 and 2000. Then two examples of the estate’s remarkable white wine, Pavillon Blanc, a pure Sauvignon Blanc: the explosive and youthful 2005 and the wonderfully nutty, mature 1993.

Then on to the grand vin: eight vintages, concluding with the legendary 1983 and taking in, en route, the superb 1996, 1989, and 1986. Paul Pontallier paced his commentary perfectly, allowing the attendees ample time to taste and ruminate. Corinne Mentzelopoulos took a back seat during these commentaries, but made the occasional shrewd and good-humoured intervention.

The grandeur of the wines and the modesty and professionalism of their presentation added up to what must surely be one of Decanter’s most memorable masterclasses.

Most surprising revelation: that Corinne Mentzelopoulos had a Scottish nanny. And that a second wine is no novelty at Château Margaux: in its search for only the highest quality, the estate has always produced one from its earliest days

Masterclass highlight: The 1983 certainly lived up to its great reputation, but I was blown away by the sumptuous 1989, which magically combined a hedonistic opulence with the inimitable finesse that characterises Château Margaux at its best.

Most engaging issue: Concentration. In response to a question about techniques such as reverse osmosis, Pontallier replied that although his team had experimented with this method of concentration, it had not been persuaded to adopt it. ‘We prefer to bleed the tanks to increase concentration. But here too we are very careful, as we fear losing some important elements in the wine by removing juice during fermentation.’

Quote of the class: Mentzenopoulos: ‘Our terroir has evolved over generations, as our precedessors have passed on the results of their experience. We benefit enormously from those centuries of knowledge.’ Pontallier: ‘That means we take a big risk if we think we know better than those who worked at Margaux in the past. Yet it’s an equally big risk if we don’t continuously try to do better.’

Attendee reaction: I sat next to Ridge’s Paul Draper, who noted: ‘This has been one of the most detailed yet clearest explanations of how a great Bordeaux château goes about its work.’

Stephen Brook

Food & wine matching

Speaker: Raymond Blanc

Radiating genial self-confidence, Raymond Blanc was as much showman as teacher for his ambitious masterclass on food and wine, presented with his sommelier, Xavier Rousset—he began on a top note (‘Consider how to create the landscape of a sauce!’), and never looked back.

Revelations of the class: We tasted veloutés made with gewurztraminer, Chablis, Frascati, and water (the latter immediately spotted and ranked last, to his delight: ‘Good news! Water will never replace wine!’). We tried boeuf bourguignon made with Volnay and a much less expensive Marcillac—which we preferred (precisely his point: ‘It’s silly to cook with expensive wine.’). We tasted lobster jus with Chablis and Rioja and preferred the latter, by a wide margin. By now slightly giddy from all these insights, we blind-tasted three red wines with and without chunks of steak; Peter Michael Cabernet, from California, was initially preferred, but after the steak, and agreeing that all the wines tasted better, the clear preference was for the Mouton-Rothschild. The big finish was a comparison of foie gras, one cold and one seared, with two vintages of Dom Ruinart Champagne (1988 and 1996), and Monbazillac Touron 1983. Chef Blanc was somewhat taken aback when the overwhelming favourite for both flights was the sweet Monbazillac: ‘I’m surprised, not what I expected.’

Highlight of the class: the clear revelation of how the Rioja (Marques de Murrieta 2001, hardly a shy wine) fitted so snugly with the lobster jus once it had cooked and reduced—clearly, this is the wine for lobster or squid américaine, perhaps even cioppino or bouillabaisse?

Wine revelations of the class: The reminder of how good Monbazillac can be when it’s good. Then, there was much less of a consensus on the first half of the blind tasting of three Cabernet-based red wines. On their own, the two Californians, both from Peter Michael, in Sonoma’s Knights Valley, were preferred over the Mouton-Rothschild, though the divisions were narrow enough among all three that Blanc and Rousset had to count votes twice. There was no such problem after a few nibbles – perhaps the 40th Anniversary ‘Paris Tasting’ if one is staged, should include steak?

Quote of the class: ‘My favourite is Burgundy, but I love almost all wines. Except the big oaky ones, which I removed from my list, mostly New World, and a few French imitations. . . For cooking, look for good acidity and good fruit, but don’t spend more than £5, shop around. . .Taste everything often as you cook. Trust your palate!’

Attendee reaction: Afterward, I asked the lady sitting next to me what she’d found most useful. ‘I don’t have to spend a fortune cooking with wine,’ she replied, ‘I feel liberated.’

Brian St Pierre

Explore the Médoc

Speaker: Antoine Merlaut, Céline Villars, Claire Villars, David Launay

The wines: Château Citran 2000 & 2003; Chasse-Spleen 1998 & 2001; Camensac 1999 & 2001; Ferrière 2000 & 2001; Haut-Bages-Libéral 1998 & 2001; Gruaud-Larose 1999, 2001 & 2005

Most surprising revelation(s): Château Gruaud-Larose is one of the few Bordeaux châteaux to use all five permitted varieties in the blend. Château Ferrière is the smallest of all the crus classés. And Chasse-Spleen means ‘to dismiss sadness’. (The word ‘spleen’ was used by Byron to depict bad moods, and the château first came up with the name in an attempt to conquer an emerging market – the UK.)

Most contentious issue: Just how good are the 2000 and 2003 vintages? Could they – just possibly – have been overhyped by the Bordelais? Launay admitted he has been ‘disappointed’ by 2003 since its first release en primeur, but feels it is going through a ‘closed’ period, and would, given time, go on to emerge as a ‘great, classic Bordeaux’.

Quote of the class: ‘You never know how vintages will age. It’s like having a baby: it can be beautiful at the time, but who knows how it will eventually turn out?’ (Céline Villars)

Highlight of the class: The Ferrière just edged the Chasse-Spleen and Camensac, notably the 2000: all forest fruits; ripe and dense, layered with cedarwood. Explosive, vibrant and succulent.

Guy Woodward

Fine wines of Tuscany

Speaker: Michael Garner

Selected wines: Castello Banfi, Poggio alle Muro, Brunello di Montalcino 2001; Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia, Bolgheri 2003; Antinori, Tignanello 2003; Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Ornellaia 2001; Isole e Olena, Cepparello 2003

The fine wines of Tuscany have become so sought-after – and, frankly, expensive – that the opportunity to taste a string of them at one sitting is not one to be bypassed lightly. Starting with Isole e Olena’s Cepparello 2003 and ending with Ornellaia 2001, this star-studded line-up took in top Chiantis, Vino Nobiles and Brunellos, plus a couple of greats from the Tuscan coast, all introduced by Italian wine expert Michael Garner.

Few regions of Italy have earned such a starry reputation in such a short time as the Tuscan coast. ‘It was traditionally considered far too near the sea to make decent wine,’ explained Garner. ‘Then in the 1920s producers started experimenting with different grape varieties there, and hit on the Bordeaux varieties. Now they have abandoned Sangiovese there entirely.’

Brunello, by contrast, has always been 100% Sangiovese. ‘Brunello is created as a wine that will age for decades, and often repays longer ageing. If you want to judge whether or not a wine is ready to drink, try and assess how developed the fruit component is; the tannins will always be there.’

Despite the presence of international grape varieties in some Tuscan wines, where allowed, Sangiovese remains the defining grape of the area. Garner described its hallmark characters as ‘fresh and dried fruits, figs and also a herbal / leafy note; with age, a coffee and liqueur note shines through. On the palate, Sangiovese wines tend to be high in alcohol, with lots of tannins and acidity, and a good structure. ‘These are wines you can enjoy now with the right food, but they will also age for a decade plus.’

Most surprising revelation: The 2000 Brunello was surprisingly forward. ‘It’s the character of the 2000 vintage,’ said Garner. ‘Usually Brunello will last 10 years or more. It’s safe to say that 2001 will age better as it’s less more balanced; less showy with more structure.’

Most contentious issue: ‘Until fairly recently – 10 years ago, say – many Tuscan wineries went completely over the top with ageing in new oak. I truly despaired. Today, thankfully, it’s much better, with producers restricting the use of new oak to 25–35%.’

Quote of the class: ‘The Italians would be scratching their heads that we’re tasting these without food. The classic match is a juicy T-bone steak. Without food, the tannins can seem vice-like.’

Highlight of the class: The trio of Vino Nobile wines, from Tenuta Valdipiatta, Poliziano and Saiagricola – these were stunning, showing balance, depth and real terroir character. ‘Most people wouldn’t have guessed it, but Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was Italy’s first DOCG. At that time, it was one of Italy’s lesser known wines.’

Attendee reaction: ‘It’s really useful to have some help in identifying characters in the Tuscan wines – I had no idea, for example, that producers were making Bordeaux-style wines on the Tuscan coast. The highlight for me was tasting the three great Brunellos in a row, from Banfi, Frescobaldi and Col D’Orcia.’

Amy Wislocki

Mas de Daumas Gassac

Speaker: Samuel Guibert & Andrew Jefford

The wines: White 2005 & 1995; Red 2005, 2003, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1994, 1988, 1986 & 1978; Vin de Laurence 1998

Although Samuel Guibert charmed attendees talking about his family estate, tasting the wines you could be forgiven for thinking that Daumas Gassac is in a bit of a strange place, and not just its singular location.

The slides projected onto the screen to the left of speakers Andrew Jefford and Samuel Guibert highlighted the property’s mass of tiny, heterogeneous vineyard plots in an Arden-esque forest.

The whites, from 2005 and 1995, kicked off the class. Both were impressive but the ’95 was a revelation – proof that even the experts get it wrong sometimes. Oenologist Emile Peynaud thought they would be ‘too flabby – not interesting’.

A quick word on the Guibert principle of blending multiple grape varieties in their wines (‘the rule at Daumas Gassac is that there are no rules’) before launching into the reds.

Of the list, the 2005 barrel sample, 2000, ’98, ’94, and ’88 stood out. The Vin de Laurence 1998, the estate’s sweet wine, was also particularly impressive.

At the end of an inspiring masterclass, Andrew Jefford asked attendees for their vote. The ’88 came out on top.

Most, including Guibert, agreed that the 1978 (their first vintage) wasn’t what people had hoped – ‘I bought it more as an illustration,’ he said. And that’s just it – young enough to excite and old enough to disappoint – you can’t quite work out whether you should be more interested in the future of the property or its past.

Most surprising fact: The Guiberts took over the Mas from three spinsters, their inheritance having no future due to a deathbed promise to their father that none would wed until their (only) brother got hitched. He never married.

Highlight of the class: The best food match for Mas de Daumas Gassac is wild boar (Sanglier) said Samuel Guibert. ‘About 20,000 were killed in the region in 2000 – so I would have to say that’s the best match.’ Added to which, if you like the white, you can smugly eat the boar knowing that they eat the property’s Viognier. Revenge is sweet.

Most contentious issue: ‘The stems go in sometimes,’ Guibert told us. ‘You decide to add it because you feel it will bring something you’re missing.’

Quote of the class: ‘Do you cook with one ingredient or several? Yes, there are very good single varietals in the world, but that’s not what we do.’ Samuel Guibert on using various grape varieties in his wines, of which there are around 40 – 20 white and 20 red.

Atendee reaction: ‘Shame about the 1978 but it really was a really good and very interesting masterclass. They’re both great speakers,’ said one guest, nodding in the direction of Jefford and Guibert, while re-tasting and discussing a glass of the ’78 with some friends

Oliver Styles

Fine wines of Spain

Speaker: John Radford

Selected wines: Mas d’en Compte 2005; Guelbenzu Evo 2003; Masia Carreras Tinto 2003; Asido 2003; Propriedad, Palacios Remondo 2003; Aster Reserva 2001

Calling John Radford an expert on Spanish wine is like saying Chateau Margaux produces some good drinking claret once in a while. Radford wears his knowledge lightly, but anyone who has sat with him over a few bottles knows that he is a compendium of knowledge, a heavyweight encyclopaedia in braces wide enough to land a small plane on. He began with a quick aside on the soil of Priorat, its slate and quartz ‘like a tiger stripe across the landscape’ (He is a master of the arresting image, describing the Domus Pensi from Terra Alta as having ‘a slight aroma of sweaty socks’.) The masterclass was a journey round Spain, from DO Bierzo in the very north of Leon, to the Costa Brava in the west via Navarra’s tiny Ribera del Quieles and the most surprising of Spain’s wine regions, DO Vinos de Madrid. ‘I’ve made it my life’s work to find the native varieties of Spain,’ Radford told the audience. ‘I have discovered all these wines in the last 10 months.’ The classic regions – Rioja, Priorat, Ribera – were of course well represented, but there was perhaps most interest around the newish and the undiscovered. Cigales for example is best-known for its rosados, and the fact it is just north of the more celebrated regions of Ribera and Toro. But here Radford showed us the massive Lezcano Lacalle Reserva 2000, concentrated and hugely tannic, which he said ‘could be as good or better than Ribera.’

Most surprising revelation: That there is a Madrid DOC – and it’s surprisingly good, as attested by the oddly-named and but austere and delicious Asido 2003. ‘Cries out for a dish of cordero asado,’ Radford said, to murmurs of agreement from the audience.

Most contentious issue: Cigales ‘could be as good or better than a Ribera’: contentious because Ribera, and its near-neighbour Toro, is still ultra-fashionable, and because Cigales is only just starting to be associated with big, tannic tempranillos

Quote of the class: ‘Alvaro Palacios is the seventh child of a fourth son. Not a lot of people know that.’ Radford knows it, and now we know it. But are even close members of the Palacios family aware of such an arcane fact?

Highlight of the class: The delicious Guelbenzu Evo 2003 from Ribera del Queiles in Navarra. Tempranillo and some Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah. ‘The fruit punches its way out of the tannins.’

Attendee reaction: ‘That pure Tempranillo tastes almost like the black one out of a packet of Rowntree’s Fruit Gums’. An audience member rivals Radford in his command of wacky flavour descriptors

Adam Lechmere

Chocolate & Fine Wine matching

Speaker: Roberto Bava

An hour and a half on matching fine wine and chocolate and every pairing a winner? Impossible I would have said. But in the experienced hands of Roberto Bava, not only a winemaker but the President of the Italian chocolate society, the Compagnia del Ciccolatto, the tasting ran as smoothly as clockwork.

Bava, a regular at Decanter Fine Wine Encounters, is a bit of joker who wears his expertise lightly. ‘This is not such a serious masterclass – we are looking for pleasure,’ he started. Among the eight pairings were hazelnut praline with his own 4.5% Moscato d’Asti (‘a wine we recommend for drivers, children, joggers and lovers – it gives you energy for long performances…’), a 2003 Recioto della Valpolicella with a chocolate-covered fig (‘when you have tannin in wine I recommend you have a chocolate that contains milk or fruit’) and a 20 year old Ramos Pinto with the first ever public showing of a pure, clean Oioio Otonga 70% Ecuador Guaranda, a limited edition chocolate which had been released to to raise funds to help educate children in the rainforest. Another project in which the energetic Bava is involved.

Another good tip from the maestro – chocolate like red wine should be stored at 15-18 degrees C, rather than at room temperature. ‘But don’t eat it too cool or you won’t get the flavour.’

Most surprising fact to come out of the class: How good milk chocolate could taste. Anyone who reels at the thought of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk should try the Slitti Lattenero, a creamy, medium bodied chocolate with 51% cocoa solids – wonderful with a 1999 Selvapiana Vin Santo which brought out a delicious flavour of caramel in the combination

Highlight of the class: A Barolo Chinato from Giulio Cocchi with a praline made, again by Slitti, from the same wine. One of the wine world’s intriguing rarities – a barolo infused with 25 different herbs and spices, including, most prominently, quinine. The praline just echoes the astringent flavours gently modifying them to create a perfect balance of richness and bitterness

Most contentious issue: Hardly contentious – by the end we were all in a blissful chocolate-induced stupor – but what came closest to controversy was whether a chocolate made from 100% cocoa solids was too extreme – even with an ultra-sweet Napoleon PX Viejo. The majority view was that it was. A similar chocolate of 73% was much easier on the palate.

Quote of the class [from the presenter]: ‘It’s not necessarily true that the darker and stronger a chocolate is the better it is. The quality comes from the beans. Look at the story on the wrapper.’

Attendee reaction: Comment from self-confessed chocoholic Tom Whyts from (appropriately enough) Belgium. ‘I’ve tried pairing wine and chocolate before and found it very difficult but this was a revelation. I’m definitely going to be trying more Italian chocolate.’

Fiona Beckett

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