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Decanter Fine Wine Encounter 2003 Masterclass Reports

Amy Wislocki, Adam Lechmere and Guy Woodward give you their accounts of the Fine Wine Encounter masterclasses featuring some of the greatest names in the world of wine.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild

Château Beychevelle

Vega Sicilia


Cheval Blanc

Penfolds Grange & St.Henri

Baron Philippe de Rothschild

Speakers: Hervé Berland, commercial director, and Philippe Dhalluin, technical director

Wines tasted:
Aile d’Argent 1999
Château d’Armailhac 1999
Château d’Armailhac 1996
Château d’Armailhac 1989
Château Clerc Milon 2001
Château Clerc Milon 1995
Château Clerc Milon 1990
Petit Mouton 2000 & 1996
Château Mouton Rothschild 1998
Château Mouton Rothschild 1993
Château Mouton Rothschild 1988
Château Mouton Rothschild 1986

With wines lined up from the three Rothschild châteaux in Pauillac, the audience for the first masterclass of the weekend were all lovers of the first–growth Mouton Rothschild, but had not all tasted the fifth growths, Clerc Milon and Château d’Armailhac. Here was a rare opportunity to compare the styles, side by side, guided by experts from the estate.

The tasting began with the white wine of Château Mouton Rothschild, from the 1999 vintage. ‘We watned to make a great white wine on great red terroir,’ explained Hervé Berland. ‘!999 is one of the best vintages since we planted the vines in the mid–1980s.’ The wine, 66% Semillon and the rest Sauvignon Blanc (with a dash of Muscadelle), showed the fatness of the year, with toasty flavours and a grassiness behind.

‘Château d’Armailhac has the biggest percentage of Cabernet Franc,’ said Berland, introducing the three reds from this property, which is located between Mouton Rothschild and Pontet-Canet. The blend usually contains 20–30% Cabernet Franc, and the vines date back to 1890. ‘1996 was a great, classical vintage in the Médoc,’ said Berland when asked about the difference between the 1996 and 1995 vintages. ‘We had perfect conditions, and the wine is more refined than the sunnier 1995.’ Philippe Dhalluin agreed: ‘The tannins are more subtle in 1996 than 1995’. Going back to 1989, the heat of the summer can still be tasted in the wine, which is powerful with some mintiness, and is ready to drink.

Clerc–Milon generally contains more Cabernet Sauvignon than Château d’Armailhac, and is a purer, more traditional Pauillac style. ‘It isn’t as easy to understand as d’Armailhac,’ says Berland. ‘The 2001, bottled last June, is a very interesting wine,’ explained Berland, ‘as it has lots of fruit but is slow to mature.’ 1995 was typical of 1995 Pauillac, and contrasted with the 1990, which showed opulence and evolution on the nose, with an impression of fatness.

There are only 50–60,000 bottles of Petit Mouton produced each year. Mouton Rothschild’s second wine can be compared in the 1996 vintage to 2000, said Berland, though the blends were very different. Both vintages enjoyed perfect conditions and were late maturing, but while the 2000 blend contains 72% Cabernet Franc, the 1996 has 95% Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines are drinking deliciously at the moment.

Before tasting the four vintages of Mouton, Berland explained that every one of the 82 hectares of vines there is a potential contender for the grand vin. ‘It’s very homogenous,’ he said, ‘and at harvest time everything is potentially Mouton Rothschild. We don’t decide on certain plots in advance. The final selection is made just before bottling.’

The four vintages were all wonderful, with different expressions of the Pauillac terroir. ‘1998 is not a rich year,’ said Berland. ‘We had to gather the whole harvest in over four or five days due to rain.

‘1993 was another difficult year. ‘The evolution of this wine is very interesting, and I think it’s indicative of how 1998 will mature. It has the same fatness, though 1998 is more tannic.’

Berland described 1988 as the first of three great vintages. ‘This is the most classical of the three. It wasn’t as hot as the other two years and has a more Atlantic style. It was a late harvest, in perfect conditions. The Petit Verdot was also exceptional in this year.’

The tasting ended with 1986 Mouton, a legendary year at the château. The wine, rich, plummy and dense with a fragrant finish, spent more than two years in cask, and has years of life still ahead. AW

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Château Beychevelle

Speakers: Philippe Blanc, managing director, and Dr Tibor Kovacs, general manager of Tokaj Hetsolo

Wines tasted:
Amiral de Beychevelle 2002
Amiral de Beychevelle 2001

Château de Beychevelle 2002
Château de Beychevelle 2001
Château de Beychevelle 1997
Château de Beychevelle 1999
Château de Beychevelle 2000
Château de Beychevelle 1989

Hetszölö Tokay Aszu 6 Puttonyos 1996 and 1995

When Philippe Blanc visited London for this Decanter masterclass, 2003 and the wine that would result was forefront in his mind. ‘We’ll be working on the blend in a few weeks’ time,’ he said. ‘People assume that a good summer for sunbathers is a good one for wine, but we were concerned. We had couloure in May, hail in July and 145km/h winds – and, of course, the hottest summer ever. This was the smallest crop in Bordeaux since 1991, and the berries were shrivelled. The quantity will be very small, but they will be interesting wines.’

The 2003 Bordeaux cask samples won’t be unveiled to the press until the end of March. But six other vintages of St Julien based Château Beychevelle had been lined up for tasting, plus two vintages of the second wine, and two vintages of the Tokaji that is under the same ownership.

Blanc introduced the fourth–growth property by explaining what they look for when putting the blend together. ‘We’re aiming for harmony, we don’t want to overpower. At Beychevelle, we want to make pleasant drinkable wines that match food. We go for long wines, not big wines.’ Blanc advised that the second label, Amiral, should be drunk within three to four years, while the grand vin will be best from 8–10 years on.

He has firm ideas about what wine from the Médoc should and shouldn’t be. ‘When we have a backbone of good, ripe Cabernet, we get a fantastic result. There has been a trend recently in the Médoc towards using a higher percentage of Merlot, as it’s easier to ripen. But I think it’s a bit dangerous. After all, Médoc without a big Cabernet backbone isn’t exactly Médoc. Respect for the terroir and for the property is crucial.’ But he isn’t afraid to break from tradition, either. ‘France is considering introducing new laws which would allow producers to add up to 15% of another vintage to their wine. We would be in favour of that if it allows us to make a less interesting wine better.’

The winemaking team aim to use around 55–60% of the crop for the grand vin, though in 1997 this fell to around 45% – the lowest in the property’s history. ‘1997 is an easy drinking year – not a classic year, and highly priced between two better vintages.’

To round off the tasting, two Tokaji wines, from the very different 1995 and 1996 vintages. ‘A text book vintage, with perfect conditions,’ said Tibor Kovacs of 1995, whereas 1996 saw more rain and was more difficult. ‘We recommend five to ten years of age on our wines,’ he said, ‘but they will go on for 150 years.’ AW

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Vega Sicilia

Speakers:Jasper Morris MW, Morris & Verdin; Xavier Ausás López de Castro – Technical Director Vega Sicilia; Rafael Alonso

Wines tasted:
Vega Sicila Valbuena 1998
Vega Sicila Valbuena 1999
Vega Sicila Valbuena 2000

Vega Sicilia Unico 1991
Vega Sicilia Unico 1989
Vega Sicilia Unico 1987
Vega Sicilia Unico 1964
Vega Sicilia Unico 1953
Vega Sicilia Unico 1942

‘Every bottle of Vega Sicilia you open, you hope it will deliver this extraordinary aromatic consistency, finesse and complexity,’ Ausas said.

We did indeed. There was a significant buzz throughout the Encounter hallls as the masterclass approached. A young group who hadn’t managed to get tickets asked me if there was any way I could smuggle them in through the kitchens.

The class started with a brief history of the Spanish producer and its 240ha of vineyards. A packed room heard how in 1859 Eloy Lecanda brought 18,000 cuttings from Bordeaux. In 1915 the first wine with Vega Sicilia on the label was released. We heard about the unusual ageing process, which saw the 1970 Unico sleeping 15 years in barrels before it was bottled. ‘The idea is that you can drink the Unico when it is released – but you don’t have to,’ Morris said.

Xavier Ausas took us through the wines. 1998 was difficult but produced ‘a classic’, with long potential for ageing. The 1999 was another difficult, ‘stop-start’ harvest, but Ausas said he was ‘very, very proud’ of the wine, which was the ‘silkiest’ in the flight. The 2000, yet another tough year, in which nearly half the crop went in green harvest, is a ‘marriage of the finesse of the 98 with the power of the 99.’

Then came a preview of the just-released Unico 1991, which usefully contrasts with the 1989. The 91 is fine, persistent and ‘very, very long.’ The 89, in contrast, has more direct fruit and the balance, and ‘is built out of the persistence of the tannins rather than aromatics.’

‘It’s a second row rather than a wing back,’ said Morris. An apt metaphor, as England had won the Rugby world cup that very morning. He discussed the ‘heavenly elegance’ of the 91, the ‘more massive’ 89, and the ‘steady gentle evolution’ of the 87.

Of the 1964, ‘a great vintage’, Ausas said it was 10 years since he had tasted it, in which time there had been little change. The 1953 has ‘extraordinary aromatic persistence’, and of the venerable 1942 Morris said, examining the deep, pungent, port-like liquid, ‘I’m not sure this one is best handled by detailed analysis.’ Quite. AL

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Veuve Cliquot Masterclass

Speaker: Frédéric Panaïotis

Wines tasted:
Veuve Clicquot vintage reserve 1996
Veuve Clicquot vintage reserve 1988
Veuve Clicquot vintage reserve 1985
Veuve Clicquot vintage reserve 1983

Veuve Clicquot Rose reserve 1997
Veuve Clicquot Rose reserve 1996
Veuve Clicquot Rose reserve 1990
Veuve Clicquot Rose reserve 1985
Veuve Clicquot Rich reserve 1996

‘I suspect this is your first glass of Champagne of the day,’ Fred Panaïotis – who may have missed his vocation as a stand-up comedian – said as he started the 10am Sunday morning Masterclass.

Vintage Champagne only accounts for 5-10% of Clicquot production – even in a very good year. ‘We are very picky,’ he said. He couldn’t say if they would be making a vintage in the ‘very strange’ 2003. ‘Hopefully we will, but I wouldn’t bet my shirt on it.’

First up was the 1996, launched in January this year, with the highest-ever acidity for Champagne. ‘It still tastes like a baby, but it has wonderful peach, apricot, lemony, creamy flavours.’

The 1988 just scraped a vintage. ‘Anything cooler and we wouldn’t have made it,’ Panaïotis said. ‘For the English taste it was almost there but not quite.’

In contrast the 1983 is a mature Champagne, ready for drinking now, with a flavour of ‘hazelnut, almonds, and roasted dry fruits.’

Panaïotis discoursed about bubbles. Tiny bubbles are supposed to show quality, he said, which is true. But the best place to see them is not in the glass but on the palate, where smaller ones make the wine feel much creamier.

The Pinot Noir in 1997 was ‘too exciting’ to miss a Rose vintage. The 1990 came in magnums (Churchill called it ‘the perfect bottle for gentlemen’), then the 1988 and the 85, which Cliquot has set aside in the cellars for future generations. The 85 is ‘gamey, leathery’, and ‘shouldn’t be offered to people who are trying Champagne for the first time.’

Lastly the Rich Reserve, the demi-sec, which was first launched in 1995 to complete the range with a slightly sweeter wine to go with certain foods, like foie gras. It is creamy and dense – and also goes well with chocolate, we were told.

That was proof that Fred Panaïotis knows how to get an audience on his side, Several people murmured that such a combination would never have occurred to them, but might be worth trying… AL

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Cheval Blanc

Speaker:Pierre Lurton

Wines tasted:
Cheval des Andes 2001
Le Petit Cheval 2000
Le Petit Cheval 1999
Le Petit Cheval 1998
Le Petit Cheval 1997

Château Cheval Blanc 2000
Château Cheval Blanc 1999
Château Cheval Blanc 1998
Château Cheval Blanc 1995

A vertical tasting of St-Emilion premier grand cru classé Cheval Blanc is an indulgent prospect for a Saturday morning. Fittingly, manager Pierre Lurton quickly warmed to his theme by introducing us to Cheval Blanc’s new venture in Argentina, backed by luxury brand Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy.

Cheval des Andes is produced predominantly from 15 hectares acquired close to Mendoza at an altitude of 980 metres and planted with that forgotten Bordeaux variety, Malbec. ‘I was surprised by the quality of the old vines,’ said Lurton. ‘In Bordeaux, Malbec is not a quality variety.’ The 2001 was elegent and fruity, showing violet, chocolate and spicey notes, but fresh tannins.

Like any good host, Lurton knew to keep his audience waiting for the pieces (yes, plural in this case) de résistances. So, gently, we worked our way through recent vintages of the château’s second wine, Le Petit Cheval. The 2000, for which Lurton has high hopes as it matures, was still deep and intense in colour, but with a fruity finish. The 1999 was smokey on the nose, but with a full attack on the palate, while the 1998 showed upfront cherry and orange on the nose, but soft tannins (described with fitting indulgence as ‘cashmere’-like by Lurton. The 1997, made on the back of a low yield, was ‘challenging’. The result is a leaner wine, not as powerful or complex, and ready to drink now.

The subtle differences in character between the wines are testament to Lurton’s approach. Le Petit Cheval is mainly Cabernet-based, while he describes Cheval Blanc as ‘Merlot wrapped in Cabernet Franc’. But this is a simplistic analysis. The proportions in the blend shift substantially every year, but the style does not. ‘We make wine in the vineyard, not the cellar,’ is his mantra.

And so to the Cheval Blanc itself. The 1999, with an above-average proportion of Merlot, showed ripe fruit on the nose and a sweet, woody attack. The 1995 was gamey, with mushroom aromas, but again showing that sweetness of fruit on the palate. But it was the 1998 of which Lurton spoke with the most fondness. The wine has a higher-than-usual dose of Cabernet Franc, which makes it ‘difficult to taste when young, particularly for [the Merlot-loving] Parker,’ he said. Nevertheless, it was, he claimed, ‘the outstanding vintage of Cheval Blanc – the best since 1950.’ Asked to compare it to the 1982, he declared it had ‘more potential to be a great wine’.

Thereafter, Lurton increasingly slipped into French to address subjects close to his heart (notably Cabernet Franc and the ‘Planet of Parker’, for which he revealed a grudging admiration). The 2000 was ‘exotique mais n’est pas classique’ and should age well, but as a vintage in general, remains ‘trop cher’. The honesty of his words and instinctiveness of delivery (albeit lost on the non-French speakers) revealed a natural affinity to his subject. By the end, Lurton had many converts. GW

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Speaker:Peter Gago

Wines tasted:
St.Henri Shiraz 1975
St.Henri Shiraz1980
St.Henri Shiraz1986
St.Henri Shiraz1994
St.Henri Shiraz1998

Grange Hermitage 1975
Grange Hermitage 1980
Grange Hermitage 1986
Grange 1994
Grange 1998

After vertical tastings from a Who’s Who of Old World producers, the responsibility of representing the New World fell to one of its most iconic names.

Penfolds is fast becoming part of Australia’s heritage, and its chief winemaker Peter Gago led an enthusiastic assembly through five different vintages of the producer’s two premium wines – St Henri Shiraz and Grange.

Although the pair were tasted in flights grouped by wine, rather than vintage, it was fascinating to compare the differences between the two, especially in wines from the same vintage.

Grange may be Penfolds’ flagship wine, but Gago was at pains to stress how St Henri was ‘very much coming back into fashion’. One sensed a personal crusade as Gago outlined his disappointment that, ‘People talk about Australian wine as being homogenous. That’s not the case – there’s huge regional variation.’ Much of this variation is harnessed by Penfolds to smooth out vintage inconsistency. Where the contrasts do arise, though, is in the style of the wines.

St Henri’s open fermentation (‘so many wines are stainless steel based these days’) and old oak maturation (‘our youngest vat is 55-years-old’) led Gago to point out the‘pureness and elegance’ of the so-called second wine. ‘We don’t enter St Henri into wine competitions because it’s such an understated wine when young,’ he said, adding that he wouldn’t drink the wine ‘sub 12-years-old’.

Certainly the older wines displayed a far greater smoothness than the Granges. The 1975 displayed a soft, pleasant mouthfeel, and is drinking well now, while the Grange of the same year was still showing prominent tannins, and needs more time. Equally, the 1980 St Henri was starting to show signs of tiredness amid its secondary, vegetal flavours. The 1980 Grange, meanwhile, had promounced, grainy tannins, and great length, which should see it peak over the next 10-15 years.

Only the 1998 St Henri was cloying, and Gago proudly predicted this wine would last 45 years ‘effortlessly’, if properly handled. Its grippiness paled beside the 1998 Grange, though, which ‘grabs you by the throat and shakes you round a bit’ before settling into a massive finish. Such an image is more consistent with most people’s image of Grange, and even Gago admitted that, ‘people expect to be clobbered around the face,’ by the wine. Much of this, however, can be put down to the wines being drunk too young. ‘Grange is about balance and style,’ said Gago. ‘The 1986 can easily last 40-45 years.’

The only disappointment when assessing such ageworthy wines is the vulnerability to cork taint or tiredness over time, a subject which troubled Gago to the extent that he employed alternate pouring, so that attendees would be able to taste the wine of their neighbours should theirs be affected. Penfolds is trialing screwcaps, but it will be some time before they are introduced. ‘We need to make sure the wine is not affected at any stage of its maturation,’ said Gago, ‘which means we need to test [screwcaps] for some years yet.’ GW

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