The Plumed Horse Restaurant, Saratoga, California
Tasted Friday, September 2, 2011 by Richard Jennings with 803 views
David Niederauer has a reputation amongst his wine buddies for doing fun blindtasting dinners, but also for setting up diabolically tricky blind flights, aimed at making us guess wrong and/or extremely wrong. Blindtastings are always a humbling and grounding experience, but many of David's have been particularly memorable in this respect. For example, he once did a "double-reverse" blinding of four Pinots: when they were unveiled, and we were saying "Oh, I thought it was that" or "Now I can see, I should have guessed that," he then revealed that he'd decanted the wines back into different bottles, and then gave us a list of what the real wines were. So he's a great and generous host, but also a tricky guy, and one can count on being fooled at least a couple times when David is behind the brown bags.
The first year David organized this event it occurred on tax day in 2008, April 15, and the menu had a hobo theme running throughout, David having collaborated with The Plumed Horse's Chef Peter Armellino on dishes that David was able to describe, fancifully, with Depression-era-inspired names on our special menu, like "Government Cheese" and "Varmint Stew." Our dishes this time had similar names: "Mush," for Maine Lobster risotto with Australian black truffle, and "Roadkill," for sweetbreads and slow farm egg.
For this year's Hobo Dinner, David provided all the wines, and everything was poured blind. We know he has a cellar full of Cali Chards, Pinots and Cabs--including lots from cult producers--with small amounts of Burgundy. He's also known as "Mr. Yquem" for his collection of the greatest Sauternes going back to 1921. David set us up with questions for each flight. For example, for the first flight of four, all whites, the questions were, "Is there a Bâtard-Montrachet in this group? Which one? Is there a Chevalier-Montrachet in this group? Which one? Is there a 'New World' wine in this group? Which one?" We were pretty sure one was a Chevy, that the first wine in the flight was a California Chard (a few of us were thinking that wine might not even be a Chard), and a couple of us thought one was a Bâtard. When the wines were unveiled, three were consecutive vintages of Domaine Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet, and the one California wine was a 2008 Clos Pepe that Wes Hagen had reportedly claimed would pass for a white Burgundy. (Our verdict? Not so much.)
For the second flight of whites, the questions were, "Is there a Chevalier-Montrachet in this group? Which one? Is there a 'New World' wine in this group? Which one?" A couple of these certainly seemed to be fine white Burgundies, and one was a possible Chevalier. Another was big, blowsy, over-ripe and had to be from California. We'd already had a flight of Bâtards, and David didn't ask any Bâtard questions on this flight. In this respect, of course, he was being purposely misleading. This flight turned out to be an all-Domaine Leflaive Bâtard flight, consecutive vintages from 2000 to 2003. David had set us up and we'd fallen for it. Particularly embarrassed at not guessing Leflaive or Bâtard at all was our buddy Don, who collects large quantities of Leflaive, and who drinks from the various Montrachet grand cru vineyards all the time. In return for our chagrin, David exacted a promise that we no longer refer to an embarrassing phrase he once uttered after a couple of us had done a nasty blind trick on him. We promised.
We continued with a delicious evening that included a number of great Burgundies, including a pair of Domaine Leroys, two delicious Groffier Bonnes Mares, and a 2002 Fougeray de Beauclair Bonnes Mares (i.e., a lot more Burgundies than we thought David possessed). The wines of the night for me were the 1998 and 2002 Domaine Leflaive Bâtards and a 2002 Robert Groffier Bonnes Mares. The evening was also a delightful reunion of old buddies, as Jonathan Dinh was in town for a week, and we haven't seen him much for the last couple of years, since he relocated to Asia.
For more details on each of the flights and my tasting notes, see below.
The Clos Pepe Chardonnay was way out of its league in this flight, and not showing well at all. The '98 was the best of the Leflaive Bâtards, but all three were very good. Domaine Leflaive owns 1.91 hectares of Bâtard-Montrachet, in four separate plots. The oldest vines date to 1962. According to Jasper Morris's Inside Burgundy, Leflaive's Bâtard is typically much less appealing in its youth than the Bienvenues-Bâtard or even Leflaive's 1er Cru Les Pucelles, but age allows "some detail to show and the wine to come into its own." For my report on a dinner focused solely on Bâtard-Montrachets from different producers that one of my groups held last year, see here: http://www.rjonwine.com/burgundy/batard-montrachet/
"Cod liver oil": seared ahi tuna, Tsar Nicoulai caviar and ankimo torchon
This was the flight that most surprised us. It was a flight of extreme contrasts--all from the same producer and esteemed vineyard. The 2002 Domaine Leflaive Bâtard was soaringly good, which is not surprising from such a classic vintage. The 2003, however, was not good at all--showing reduction and super ripe tropical flavors one expects from a lot of ripe California Chardonnays. We were shocked when this was revealed as a Leflaive Bâtard, but we all know that 2003 was one of the hottest and ripest years ever in Burgundy. Nonetheless, the lack of acidity on this Bâtard was still perplexing. The 2000 and 2001 might have shown better had we kept them longer in the glass. They both had quite a bit of reduction, which might have dissipated with some airing. The 2000 was quite complex; the 2001, relatively simple.
"Fishmonger stew": black pepper & parmesan souffle with uni & dungeness crab fondue
This was another fun flight. David's questions for this flight were, "Which wine/wines (if any) is/are from Vosne-Romanée? Which wine/wines (if any) is/are from Romanée Saint Vivant?" The answer to the last question turned out to be no, and to the first question, our second and third glasses turned out to be Vosne-Romanées from the great 2002 vintage. The other two wines, from California, were very interesting. The 1994 Marcassin Gauer Upper Barn was the least strong of the flight, but it was still holding up surprisingly well for being a 17-year-old Marcassin. It's also a rarity. The Melville Terraces, from the same vintage as our two Leroys, showed better than the usually very stemmy Melvilles typically do for me, probably because the nine years of age has given the wine a chance to integrate, and because in this inaugural vintage of the Terraces, winemaker Greg Brewer only used 20% whole cluster. Les Beaux Monts is usually a favorite Domaine Leroy bottling for me, and our '02 was no exception, although showing Leroy's high stem inclusion, both in its velvety texture and tobacco and sous bois flavors. Madame Bize-Leroy owns 2.61 hectares of Les Beaumonts. She owns only a tiny slice of Aux Brûlées, .27 hectare, and our '02 of this was very good too, with the high stem inclusion moderated by the very concentrated fruit flavors, made possible by Leroy's extreme pruning policies, which leave only four grape bunches per vine. Our lobster and truffle risotto was delicious with this flight.
"Mush": Maine lobster risotto with Australian black truffle, lobster reduction and pea tendrils
David didn't ask the Romanée St. Vivant question for this flight, so naturally one showed up. This one, from the ripe '03 vintage and from Domaine Thomas-Moillard, was my WOTF. It is still quite young, however. David tried to be very tricky with the two Cali Pinots in this flight, having us poured two glasses each, from two different bottles. One bottle of the '06 Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge was corked, though, and the two glasses of what turned out to be the '07 Rhys Alpine were so consistent, and so full of the characteristic Rhys Pinot high stem inclusion, that a few of us (me included) were guessing Rhys for both. I hadn't tried the '07 Rhys Alpine for over a year, since it's release, and it is currently so stemmy, albeit well made, that it should be given at least another three years to integrate. I've written a number of times here about my strong opinion that most California Pinot gets overwhelmed with stemmy qualities when the whole cluster inclusion is higher than 15 to 20%. Rhys is including much more than that--to 100% in some bottlings--and even though the quality of their fruit is exceptional, from this look at two bottles of the developing 2007, I continue to question whether Kevin Harvey and company are going too far with stem inclusion in the Rhys Pinots.
"Roadkill": Sweetbreads, "slow" farm egg and toybox tomato
For an intermezzo, David poured an older wine, from a Bordeaux-shaped bottle, which he'd intended as an hommage to Mischa, who collects a lot of older Burgundy and Bordeaux, and often brings great samples to our dinners. Mischa, however, had to make a quick trip that weekend, so wasn't able to join us. This was clearly an older Bordeaux, quite advanced in its maturity. It turned out to be a 1976 Latour. 1976 was a very hot year, where grapes got quite ripe, but there were also heavy rains in mid-September that diluted their concentration. This is a vintage that has been on a fast evolutionary track since its release, and Parker wrote that "virtually every 1976 . . . should have been consumed prior to 2000." He also did not list the Latour among his top wines of the vintage for Pauillac. Nonetheless, this was a mature drop of Cabernet and its ilk that gave us a little welcome diversity in between our huge flights of Old and New World Pinot Noir. And Mischa called in about this time, and we had a chance to visit with him, so the pouring of this mature Bordeaux was a lovely way to include him in our reunion.
And we have two more blind flights of Pinot Noir yet to go! We were pretty much ignoring David's flight questions at this point, as we'd had enough experience to find them quite misleading. This turned out to be a terrific flight of Bonnes Mares, with the two '02s, from Fougeray de Beauclair and Robert Groffier, the easy and runaway stars. The 2003 Groffier Bonnes Mares was another of the evening's weak 2003s, but here it was due more to reduction and steminess rather than over-ripeness. Groffier tends to let their grapes ripen and hang longer than many producers, but how they approach each vintage after that varies greatly--from stem inclusion to barrel treatment. I can't find solid information on what they did in the 2003 vintage, but I suspect they tried to balance the excessive ripeness of the vintage with higher stem inclusion than usual, leading to the very stemmy character of our '03, which hasn't integrated yet (and in my opinion, probably won't, as most of the fruit has already dropped out). The '98 Rochioli West Block, which has shown somewhat bretty for me before now seems to be overwhelmed by the brett.
"Pepper pot surprise": confit guinea hen, root vegetable and okinawa potato
We'd had three 2003 Burgundies prior to this flight, with only one of them, the Thomas-Moillard Romanée St. Vivant, showing well. This flight turned out to have three more 2003s in it, all from Perrot-Minot, and all from Chambertin grand crus. The Charmes-Chambertin was tasty, with black fruit flavors, but also a touch of brett. The Chambertin had lovely texture and more black fruit flavors, as well as minerality. The Clos de Bèze was the tightest of these three, so the least enjoyable now, but also showing those black cherry, black raspberry characteristics. The Charmes-Chambertin comes from .91 hectare of the vineyard that Domaine Perrot-Minot owns; the Chambertin and Clos de Bèze come from purchased fruit, and are simply labeled Christophe Perrot-Minot, the name of the winemaker since he took over from father Henri in 1993. The 2001 Clos Pepe Pinot had a lot of the same flavors as the three Perrot-Minots, so this was the most consistent and harmonious of our six big flights. Also, unlike some of our other Burgundy and Cali Pinot producers represented during the evening, Perrot-Minot is one that consistently destems their Pinot.
braised beef cheeks slider
I've seen some very strong reviews for this Selbach-Oster Eiswein from the great 2001 vintage, and it was generous of David to include it as our final sweet treat. Johannes Selbach calls it "Junior" because of its relatively light must weight and early drinkability compared to the domaine's more traditional eisweins. While I enjoyed it, I think it must be in a dumb phase, as I did not pick up much of the complexity described in a few reviews I've seen. Still, it was a lovely end to a memorable and delicious meal.
"Snowballs": huckleberry sorbet and toasted meringue