2016 has been a truly wonderful year, replete with great wines. Exploring the 2015 vintage in Burgundy and Germany in particular has left indelible memories—after all, who could forget tasting 2015s with the likes of Klaus-Peter Keller and Marie-André Mugneret? And I’ve been reminded time and again of the kindness and humanity that abound among the wine world’s denizens. The wonderful people I’ve met, like the promising young wines I tasted this year, could easily fill an extensive account of the year’s high points. But it’s the mature bottles, their promise fulfilled, upon which I want to reflect below. Because if 2016 has held a vinous message for me, it’s that there’s nothing like a wine at the peak of its evolution, expressing all its plenitude.
1964 Engel Clos Vougeot: From a Burgundian cellar, and bearing the name of Pierre Engel, René’s son and Philippe’s father, this wine had been bottled by its purchaser rather than at the domaine. Whoever conducted the mise clearly did a magnificent job, and also selected a splendid barrel, as this was an utterly brilliant bottle of mature red Burgundy that it would be fatuous to score any less generously. A spectacularly kaleidoscopic bouquet of ripe black fruits, licorice, rose, incense and squab evolve in the glass, seguing into griotte cherry over the course of the evening, with notes of nutmeg and other warm spices beginning to emerge by the last glass. On the palate the wine is rich, concentrated, and incredibly intense and satisfying, framed by a beautiful chassis of melted tannins.
1978 Jean-Claude Monnier Meursault 1er Cru Charmes: I am studiously researching the Monnier clan, whose several branches are an important presence in village of Meursault, because this was one of the greatest wines I had all year. Blossoming with air, a captivating bouquet of orchard fruit, subtle hazelnut, peach, beeswax and oatmeal introduced a beautifully refined, intense wine with filigree, almost saline, minerality and bottomless depth. The wine’s elegance made a mockery of the crude caricature which paints Charmes as a corpulent, rather vulgar climat, though it also set a standard which few contemporary Charmes can equal. The most striking thing about the wine, however, may have been just how viscerally satisfying it was: once the bottle was drained, and the Engel too, there was no need nor desire to open anything else. It made me ponder whether being fulfilling ought to be part of the definition of vinous greatness.
1947 Domaine Pierre Guillemot Savigny-lès-Beaune 1er Cru Les Serpentières: Guillemot’s 1947 Serpentières is simply stunning, showing all the “solaire” generosity of the vintage but retaining beautiful energy and freshness. A glorious bouquet of griotte cherry and strawberry compote is complemented by bass notes of moss and dried ceps; the prelude to a silkily expansive, broad and intense palate impression, underpinned by vibrant acids. The tannins are sumptuously melted but lend the wine enough savoury edge to temper the wine’s almost candied fruit character. The product of minuscule yields. This bottle was the culminating glory in a series of older wines served blind to conclude a fascinating tasting in the Guillemots cellars; and it prompted me to think again about the implicit hierarchy of villages which often informs the discussion and critical appraisal of Burgundies.
1921 Château Montrose: Part of an extraordinary vertical tasting back to 1895, the 1921 Montrose might well be my favourite vintage at this address. An extraordinary bouquet of menthol, exotic spice, baked black fruit, rich soil tones and truffle is followed by dense, rich wine of incredible savoury amplitude, persistence and intensity. Magical stuff that is going to cruise past the century marker with ease. While on the palate the wine is classic Médoc, there was a certain exoticism to the aromatics that made it spectacularly singular. I’m tempted to pick the ’47 and ’55 too, but one Montrose tasting note is probably enough. Thanks Jordi!
1945 Château Palmer: Whereas the 1921 Montrose was enjoyed amidst an embarrassment of riches, I opened this bottle of 1945 Palmer to celebrate my second wedding anniversary. Shared between two, there was ample opportunity to watch its full complexity unfold over the course of several hours in the decanter (which is really not a problem for any of the better ’45 crus classés). This is still a very firm, powerful wine and there is no hurry to drink it up. A bouquet of dried red and blackcurrants, loamy soil, dried ceps and cedar wood is the prelude to a dense, concentrated and savoury wine with a firm core of tannin and extract and nicely balanced acids, with a persistent finish. Serious unreconstructed claret, and really quite a masculine Palmer, without the exuberantly decadent fruit of the 1961; more firm and taut at the core.
1935 Cappellano ‘Super Barolo’: The 1935 Cappellano lives up to the slogan ‘Super Barolo’ which it bears on its label, a rather charming piece of advertising which I really can’t fault for accuracy. With comparatively little air, this bottle revealed an explosive and kaleidoscopic bouquet of red cherries, sweet tobacco, rich spice, dried rose and potpourri. On the palate the wine is ample and expansive, positively billowing with flavor in the mouth and through the exceedingly long finish with an explosiveness reminiscent of a great old Armagnac (though without being at all spiritous). Extraordinary stuff, and really much more open and giving than I had expected it to be; perhaps I’ve drunk too many mean ’64s? Thanks Julian!
1982 Château La Mission Haut Brion & 1982 Château La Tour Haut Brion: Served as a pair, it was impossible for me to chose between them. The 1982 vintage makes for a very large-scaled, broad-shouldered La Mission Haut Brion, which bursts from the glass with a very classic and exuberant bouquet of black fruit, cigar ash, graphite, black truffle and ineffable La Mission bass notes—including dried ceps. Three-dimensional and very concentrated, the wine is strikingly authoritative on the palate (without, it should be noted, the searing alcohol or raw oak tannin to be found in more recent warm vintages here), with lovely balance and depth, and a very strong terroir signature. A legendary Graves, and still a very youthful bottle of wine. By contrast, the La Tour Haut Brion is the more powerful, tannic wine; its bouquet has a more pronounced spicy (medicine cabinet) and ferric dimension; the fruit tones are a touch riper too: there’s some wild strawberry complementing the plush dark fruit. The La Mission is the more elegant. But the La Tour Haut Brion’s tannins are also beautifully refined, and the wine’s extra power and virility makes quite an impression. Such comparisons aside, it’s clear this is both number among the very best 1982 clarets. Thanks Keith!
1981 Château de Beaucastel: The 1981 is simply fabulous, bursting from the glass with a complex and sophisticated bouquet of plums, sweet dark berries, truffle, grilled meat and rich sous bois. On the palate the wine is intense, supple and creamy, with a long, kaleidoscopically complex finish which has all the authority of a great Burgundy, though obviously a rather different format. Perhaps the most striking thing about this is its elegance and completeness, as there is nothing feral or gratuitously muscular about this Beaucastel, despite its considerable power. The wine’s tannins are nicely melted, and this seems like a very good time to approach it. On of the greats from the Southern Rhône; they don’t make them like this anymore. Thanks Dan!
1975 Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: I have nothing but admiration for Heitz Cellar, and writing a Decanter profile on their wines this year gave me an excuse to try a number of magical bottles. While the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard tends to win all the attention, the 1975 also clearly ranks as one of the most thrilling Napa Cabernets produced during the 20th century, and I really like the wine’s tension and reserve. Complex aromatics of red and black fruit, cedarwood, dried rose and cocoa are followed by a powerful, beautifully balanced wine with a firm core of tannin, fruit and fresh acids. A few hours in the decanter really help this still-youthful Cabernet expatiate. To my palate, this could go head to head with the handful of great wines produced in Bordeaux in 1975 such as La Mission Haut Brion and Pétrus.
1994 Kalin Cellars Sonoma County Pinot Noir “Cuvée Billon”: The best North American Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted, husband-and-wife team Terry and Frances Leighton produced only two barrels of this magical wine to commemorate the death of tonnelier Gaston Billon, one of Burgundy’s great artisanal barrel makers. The wine soars from the glass in a blaze of cocoa powder, rich earth, cinnamon, violets and lovely red-black fruit tones—a nose of kaleidoscopic complexity. On the palate the wine is seamless, vibrant and effortlessly balanced, evoking a top Côte de Nuits grand cru—the only standard against which it can be measured.