By: Ryan Woodhouse | K&L Staff Member
When Mr. Clyde "King of the Medoc" Beffa Jr. said he was hosting an educational Bordeaux dinner showcasing the '95 & '96 vintages, my only question was, “how do I sign up?!”
The stage was set: dinner in a private room at John Bentley's Restaurant, just down the street from the Redwood City store. The huge table set for twenty was weighed down with expectant stemware and rows of polished silver. For weeks the “big guns” at K&L had been scouring inventory and (most generously) their own cellars. The line up went from good to great, with the late addition of '95 & '96 Ducru Beaucaillou pushing it to the sublime.
The evening started, as all should, with '95 Launois Blanc de Blanc Champagne from jeroboam, courtesy of Mr. Gary Westby. The bubbles were good enough to consider sticking with all evening, but the complex aromas of '94, '95 & '96 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc rising from the next round of glasses kept us on track. The '94 showed signs of oxidation but was rich with toasted grains, baked bread and even a hint of apple pie. The '95 stole the show with a sharp petrol note, intense white blossom, spicy oak and hints of lemon-infused tea. Every time I returned to the wine it showed another layer of depth. The '96, whilst perhaps not having the complexity of its predecessor, had a remarkable fruit purity and floral quality. I got lilac on the nose with peaches and some citrus on the palate.
We studied these wines along side a beautifully seared diver scallops. Unfortunately after this course the wines really took center stage and I failed to get any further food shots so you’ll just have to believe me that everything was exquisite!
With lamb terrine up next, it was time for the first flight of reds. As the '95 & '96 Grand Mayne, St-Emilion and '95 & '96 Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Léognan were poured, we reviewed Clyde’s original notes from En-primeur week tastings of the respective vintages. Clyde and Ralph Sand’s knowledge and experience tasting Bordeaux was a constant presence throughout the evening. They discussed the climatic features of both vintages and the intricate terroirs of each property included. They provided an impartial exposition of the flight before us and illustrated once again there is absolutely no substitute for first hand experience.
The '95 Grand Mayne was showing the upfront cedar and cigar box notes I associate with fairly mature Bordeaux. Still brightly red fruited with intriguing spice, elegant dry tannin and a hint of tobacco emerging with more air. The '96 by contrast was showing a perception of sweetness up front and a more decadently fruit-laden nose. On the palate however the acid was more pronounced and the tannins lithe and perhaps a touch astringent. I thought the wine was more savory on the palate than the aromatics suggested, quite interesting. The Haut-Bailly duo was next. The '95 showed fresh pencil shavings, cedar and new leather. In the mouth I found a fine mineral intensity, crushed dark red fruits and very minimal tannin. The '96 Haut-Bailly turned out to be one of my favorites of the night. Its youthful concentration was startling, blackcurrant up front, sweet baking spices and sandalwood. The wine showed brightness, purity and a concentration that belied its age. This one will go a couple more decades.
The seared duck breast arrived to the table and was met with two elegant glasses of d’Issan, Margaux. The subtle, delicate character of these wines played very well with the new course. The '95 showed violets, sweet tobacco notes and fresh Loganberries. The tannins were fine, smooth and polished. The '96 was a similar weight but with an intense botanical character of wintergreen and nettle. These typical green notes indicate the cooler vintage. The higher acid was also notable. This is a great food wine for those who enjoy less fruit concentration or more savory, herbaceous wines.
This was followed by the Ducru Beaucaillou, St. Julien flight, which brought another level of intensity. Dark, smoky, meaty and brooding, the '95 showed an almost liqueured concentration and richness - a true heavyweight after the elegance of d’Issan. The '96 was lighter and brighter, with crunchy red fruits and tomato leaf aromas and flavors, and remarkable purity and vivacity.
It was at this point in the evening when discussion became livelier and opinions started to become more unyielding. Jeff stood and asked us to consider a hypothesis in which he suggested that while ultimately the '95 vintage showed superior quality across the board, some select properties in the northern Medoc that where spared much of the rain actually produced more profound wines in '96. The table was divided into two clear camps, those who liked the more forward, immediately expressive and perhaps more "complete" '95s. However, the opposition maintained the thought that many of the '96 wines offered a dynamic energy, brightness, purity and intriguing herbal complexity making them ultimately more interesting than the '95s. Certainly I think most would agree the '96s have better anticipated longevity at this stage.
I put forward the idea that if we had taken 100 random wines from the vintages for the tasting we would have had a clear winner in the '95s. The growing season was simply easier, more consistent and warmer. However, what we had actually done is wait seventeen years and with considerable time and effort hand picked wines that we knew to be performing well from properties that produced solid wines in both years. I suggested, “good wines come from good vintages, but often, great wines come from challenging ones.” All you have to do is pick up Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine to find growing season reviews of most vintages dating back to the 1700s. A correlation exists between things such as, bad flowering, poor fruit set, hail damage, summer rains, autumnal heat and some of the ‘best’ long-lived vintages of all time. I believe that the vine thrives on the edge of existence. Remarkable wines often coming from perilously challenging years and often the most consistent sites produce the most consistently boring wines.
After some vigorous discussion we tasted on through the '95 & '96 Pontet-Canet, Pauillac. The '95 showing sweet cherry fruit, cinnamon, clove, a rich mid-palate and stunning silky texture. The '96 this time was quite hard with coarse tannins, charcoal and dried herbs; a very structural wine not nearly ready for drinking.
Finally, we moved into the last pair of reds for the night: '95 and '96 Cos d’Estournel, St. Estephe. The '95 was opaque, brooding and darkly fruited, showing overt charred oak, coffee and some bitter chocolate. I found some found the subtleties of this wine over shadowed by the very noticeable cooperage element. Others however declared it the "wine of the night"! The '96 Cos for me was the most indicative of a wet vintage from the whole lineup. The nose was a tad ‘funky’ with lots of mushroom, wet leaves and damp tobacco. The wine had a strong core of dark fruit but it was shrouded with verdure. Perhaps the water retention of the heavy clay soil for which this property is known played a role? This side-by-side definitely highlighted the climactic variance of the two years more distinctly than any other pairing.
So, how to finish a flight and dinner like this? With d’Yquem of course! Though '95 & '96 are not seen as great Sauternes vintages due to the general lack of botrytis, both wines were delicious. The '96 showed a little more noble character while most thought the '95 to be the brighter more balanced wine with better fruit concentration and freshness.
The evening had many highlights, not one bad wine, and some great debates, yet ultimately left me with little feeling of conviction for the merit of one vintage over another. I scribbled on the top of my notes towards the end of proceedings:
'95- classic cigar box and cedar, mineral, fully expressive now, mature
'96- energetic, pure, lithe tannin, more opulent fruit on nose but herbaceous on palate.
I guess this was my summing up…no real favorite. Perhaps if pushed I’d say the '96’s are better prospects for long term cellaring yet at the same time some '95s are ultimately more expressive now. Thankfully I don’t have to decide one way or the other--this is not a repeat of my Political Science thesis--and I can quite happily sit on the fence and say I enjoyed both! Often I feel there is pressure to like a certain type of wine, or producer, or particular vintage. Many wine "authorities" bestow ratings, scores, etc., and there is a tendency to "like" the chosen ones. I, however, think it is much more gratifying to stop looking for good and bad wines and focus more on what interests and compels you personally. Wine is subjective. Its appreciation varies between people, time and situation. Trying to give a finite judgement on wines such as the ones we experienced at this dinner seems to me, ultimately futile. Just try and enjoy them for what they are.
I welcome comments and feed back from anyone who took the time to read this, I set out only to give my humble, subjective opinion of this fantastic experience.
Special thanks again to all involved especially Clyde for digging deep into his cellar, Ralph for his insight and to Jeff Garneau whose dedicated research and organization helped bring this sensational idea into reality.