1996 and all that

If, like me, you started your fine wine journey in the late 1990s, then 1996 will have been the first serious vintage that came onto the radar.  The clarets were and are excellent.  The Burgundies very highly rated at the time though the jury is out for the moment on these.  And Bordeaux and Burgundy was pretty much all I sold at first.  Under the tutelage of Clarethound, I pushed 1996 Batailley, Gruaud-Larose, Pichon-Baron, Pontet-Canet, Hortevie.

BBR’s Burgundy wasn’t quite what it is now: customers will have mostly bought Grivot and Barthod, with the occasional peppering of the then almost unheard of Sylvain Cathiard.  Volnay came from Pousse d’Or and Lafarge and, when compared with today, the wines seem eminently affordable: 1996 Mouton was about a grand a case in 1999, 1996 Lafite was in the Christmas sale..

A group of us congregated at Medlar on Friday night to check in on what we had all been selling back when we were young, carefree and quite possibly didn’t know what we were doing.  The highlights are as follows:

1996 Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne

This is arguably one of the best Champagnes you can buy today.  In terms of sheer quality it edges the current release (P2) of 1996 Dom Perignon and would do the same with even the best bottles of what is the variable 1996 Krug.  I was thinking Dom Ruinart but it’s fresher, more precise.  So, so young it even has a tint of young-Chablis-green to the colour.  A sherbet-like mouthfeel.  This is really something else and, if you were looking to drop £250 on a bottle of Champagne tomorrow, this is the one.  Outstanding.

1996 Ch. Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

This was my (ahem – thank you ML) bottle.  Comtes de Champagne aside, it was easily the wine of the night.  I’ve had this a few times and it appears to be coming out of the slightly dull patch that it was in a couple of years back.  When this wine was young it showed hints of first growth quality; it appears to be moving back in that direction.  Unquestionably Pauillac, with a pin-point precision to it.  The definition of the flavours is HD-sharp, with a tannic edge that reminded me a little of the 1986, though in a less aggressive manner.  Grand Vin.

These two are desert island wines, and are both bankers.  Third place was a little tricky, but probably goes to 1996 Pinot Gris, Hommage à Georgette Trimbach, a one-time-only bottling.  This is impossibly clean and fresh, whilst rich and exotic at the same time.  Apricots, tutti-fruttis, with a savoury edge of sweet-cured bacon at the same time.  One of those wines that tastes like nothing else to the point that you don’t quite know what to do with it.  Clarethound and I had started the evening with a brief tour of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and I was reminded of, well, art that you don’t quite understand yet like very much.

Honourable mentions go to 1996 Meursault Tessons from Pierre Morey, which almost got a round of applause for not being oxidized, yet was clean to the point of being neutered. 1996 Flor de Pingus, which no one could get close to, let alone nail, was a candidate for third place, and 1996 Dunn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet tasted, like many California Cabernets, more like Bordeaux than Bordeaux does.  Or maybe tastes like what Bordeaux wants to taste like.  1996 Dalle Valle Cabernet performed a similar trick.

The brace of Burgundies – 1996 Clos Vougeot, Grivot and 1996 Chambolle, Les Cras, Barthod – flummoxed all of us for a while.  I had the Grivot as being something exceptionally good from Moulin-à-Vent (this is not a denigration); the Barthod as something serious from the Côte de Beaune (likewise).  Neither looked nor tasted like Burgundy to me, at least initially, though did soften with time.  I wonder how they will pan out.

1996 Léoville-Barton and 1996 Ducru-Beaucaillou both impressed, though we had a rather dirty bottle of Barton.  What both wines provoked in terms of thought is this: Bordeaux is making much, much better wines than it used to.  Ducru is leagues better than it used to be thanks to Bruno Borie; I’m sure that there won’t be too many dirty bottles of 2015 Léoville Barton.

The most expensive wine of the evening, an impossibly generous donation from an already generous host (thank you again) was 1996 Bollinger, Vieilles Vignes Françaises.  I’ve never tasted this wine before in any vintage.  I’ve seen the vineyard and know people whose gardens are bigger.  The bubbles in this wine are merely a sideshow: they just happen to be there.  If there was one wine this year that I would like to examine, perform some sort of biopsy on, write a book about, &c, &c, this would be it.  A few words don’t do it justice.  I think that this is one of those wines that are made for the sake of it; to see what can be done.  It’s a wine for academics.  And I’ll probably never taste it again.

To finish: the almost flawless Medlar.  There is one thing wrong with the Medlar: it’s about air pressure.

You have to pass through two doors to get to the gents at Medlar.  A quirk of air pressure means that every time someone walks past the outer door, or maybe when another door on that floor opens, it opens for a second or so, then shuts.  It sounds like someone else is coming in, which can – for some people, maybe those that review restaurants for the Michelin Guide – put one off the task in hand.

And that is the restaurant’s only flaw.  A flaw that I rather like.  Aside from that the whole shebang is perfect, and it was full, as it should be.  Brilliant food; perfect service.  Good show.  Up there with the Pichon-Lalande.