The annual dinner of Bipin Desai’s winemaker friends dinner takes place at the restaurant Laurent. This is the twelfth edition of an event that I have been organising since 2001 and, since the format is the same as that of my dinners, it will be counted as the 165th edition of my wine-dinners. These twelve events would not have existed without Bipin Desai, a great wine aficionado and an organiser of prestigious dinners.
The friends answering my call are: Didier Depond, Caroline Frey, Richard Geoffroy, Thomas Henriot, Louis Michel Liger-Belair, Bérénice Lurton, Jean-Charles de la Morinière, Jean-Luc Pépin, Sylvain Pitiot, Eric Rousseau and Aubert de Villaine. Unfortunately, the heavy snow falling over a good part of France will prevent us from enjoying the company of Thomas Henriot and, unexpectedly, Richard Geoffroy will not join us either.
At 5pm, I proceed to the opening of the wines. I could just have let the restaurant’s very efficient team of sommeliers do their job but, like a physician delivering a baby, I like to see how all those wines are brought to life. I therefore open all the bottles. The only one that I am slightly concerned about is the 1983 Chambertin, which smells camphorated or chemical. It is likely that this will disappear, but it seems quite persistent.
Many wines have been rebottled and/or recorked at the various domaines. The 1971 La Tâche followed this process in 1996, as did the 1970 Romanée in 1999, the 1985 Corton in 2003, the 1990 Hermitage in 2008. The 1937 Climens also recently went through this process.
I had scheduled, as an interlude in the middle of this concert of six Burgundy red wines, to serve Richard Geoffroy’s magnum of Dom Pérignon. Since he eventually does not take part in this dinner, we agree with Patrick Lair that we will not open it. It will be replaced by the 1978 Clos de Tart which will be paired with the risotto.
Our friends are all on time and we start the apéritif with deep-fried sprats and the 2002 magnum of Champagne Delamotte. This is a beautiful, pleasant to drink blanc de blancs, but will need a couple more years to obtain the strong personality of the 1970 magnum of Champagne Delamotte which is served at the table with the sprats and a very tasty creamy sauce. This second champagne has an extraordinarily assertive nose. In the mouth, it is quite penetrating, and I will use this adjective quite a lot during this dinner. This champagne with a great personality is more than a good surprise; it really is a great champagne.
The menu created by Alain Pégouret and Philippe Bourguignon is as follows: marinated scallops and layers of mushrooms / Lightly smoked pigeon, pommes soufflées Laurent-style / Risotto with white truffle from Alba / Lightly grilled veal kidneys, sautéed wild mushrooms / Stuffed pasta, sauce from a Hare à la royale / Delicate wafers with pears and Sichuan pepper, chestnut cream / Palmier cookies.
The 1988 Corton Charlemagne Bonneau du Martray is extremely elegant and highly delicate. The sweetness of the scallop is paired perfectly with its delicacy, whereas the 1992 Musigny blanc Comte de Vogüé, which is all power and penetration, does not pair so well with the dish, except maybe with the thin slices of mushrooms. These are two very different expressions of Burgundy whites, one being all about elegance and charm, the other being about assertiveness and conviction. The Musigny comes from a fantastic vintage for whites, which is easily confirmed by this wine which calls for a match with stronger dish.
The pigeon is all softness and subtlety. Once can wonder if the Corton Charlemagne could actually have been a good pairing here. But there is a beautiful range of wines to try out. Bipin Desai is annoyed by the fact that the order in which the wines are served to him does not correspond to the order established for the menu. He doesn’t understand why, and wants explanations. Actually, since I moved the Clos de Tart to be paired with the risotto, the wines are not served in the correct order. And then suddenly, a handful of the winemakers, far from staying in the background, attempt a coup d’état and force me to open the Dom Perignon, on the fallacious pretext that Richard Geoffroy would not be happy if it ended up not being served. And just like that, the 1978 Clos de Tart Mommessin is magically back to its original spot in the wine list schedule.
The 1970 Romanée Comte Liger-Belair is the most delicate of the three wines that are served, of great refinement but slightly shorter in the mouth than the other two. It is much more pleasant that the one I drank with Louis-Michel during the impressive vertical flight of 41 vintages of Romanée Liger-Belair that took place in Austria six months ago. The wine pairs well with the pigeon and its divine pommes soufflées.
The 1971 La Tâche Domaine de la Romanée Conti is impressive. It has a profoundly moving nose, and the way it runs its course in your mouth makes you wonder when it will stop. What persistence! It is refinement incarnate. It is the expression of the soul of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, which I was able to identify during a blind tasting of the same wine a couple of weeks ago. Today’s wine has even more tension than the previous one.
The 1978 Clos de Tart Mommessin, for which I had discovered that the cap had been cut off before I received the bottle, is extremely rich in complex aromas. In the mouth, it is long, and finishes on this typical Burgundy roughness which I like a lot. The La Tâche also has this beautiful roughness, but less intensely so, and I find the Clos de Tart’s more appropriate to the dish, because the La Tâche is such a gift that it could be drunk by itself. These three wines have a lot in common and I am glad that I grouped them together.
The 1982 Champagne Dom Pérignon Rosé Œnothèque magnum arrived in my cellar in a splendid black-laquered box, with a metallic label that reads: « Rosé Vintage 1982 / Chef de cave’s Private Cellar ». Under a flashy, purple-pink label, one can read under the name of the champagne, « Altum Villare ». It is the first time that I have seen Hautvillers spelt this way. After these musings about the packaging, let’s tackle what is inside: the pink colour is unusually intense and surprisingly young. The aromas are intense. It is a penetrating wine, and the pairing with the risotto is extremely sensual. It is one of the two most brilliant pairings of the dinner.
Of course, this champagne cannot leave one indifferent. It is to this prestigious champagne house’s credit to have imposed codes luxury and lust which affect the emotion that one experiences. It is indeed pleasant, but one cannot but notice that the message is quite linear, even if the length is there. This impression is modified the next day, when I drink what is left in the bottle; the bubbles have dissipated, and I can taste the nobility of the base wine of this great champagne, which has become more amber-coloured than pink.
I would like to thank the group of rebellious winemakers who forced me to steal the Dom Pérignon.
The 1985 Corton Bouchard Père & Fils is the most compact and the simplest of the three Burgundy wines that are paired with the veal kidney. I am pretty sure that it would have been better if Thomas had been able to join us.
With Éric Rousseau, we observe that the attack on the palate of the 1983 Chambertin Clos de Bèze Domaine Armand Rousseau is not completely frank, even if it is quite close to what could have been expected from this wine. And this wine’s wounds are healed by the extremely tasty dish with which it is paired, all the more so since these wounds are, in the end, superficial. It is a beautiful Chambertin, full of life, but it is not the greatest that I have had from that archetypal domaine.
The 1991 Musigny Vieilles Vignes rouge Comte de Vogüé is as penetrating in its red version as it can be in white. The 1991 vintage is indeed superb at the moment. This powerful, sharp wine is a good example of a triumphant Burgundy. It pairs easily with the dish that it is the only one to tame, while the two other wines are simply trying to domesticate it.
I have long discussions with Caroline Frey, who sits next to me at the table; we exchange views on the various vintages of the Hermitage La Chapelle. And we easily agree that the 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle Paul Jaboulet Aîné is among the very best vintages of this wine. It is a square wine, coherent, apparently easily readable, which does not preclude a very well integrated complexity. The length is beautiful, finishing like a whiplash, and the pairing with the stuffed pasta, especially with the sauce of the hare “à la Royale”, is pure gluttony. This is a very beautiful wine. And the pairing is one of the most seductive.
The 1937 Château Climens is of an almost black colour. It has the deepest colour of all the 1937 I have tasted so far. Its aromas are extremely seductive but, more importantly, of supreme purity. And what is interesting about the Sauternes of this level is that you cannot wonder if it could be better, because it is indeed perfect, deep, very long, providing you with infinite pleasure.
The meal ends with my wine contribution, a 1912 Bastardino Setubal Fonseca. I need to explain why I brought this wine. Two days after this dinner, my mother, had she still been alive, would have been 100 years old. Since I have no family meal scheduled to celebrate this anniversary, I thought that to drink this 100-year-old wine with winemakers that I appreciate, some of who even being friends of mine, would be a beautiful way to pay tribute to my mother. My friends note this particular attention, especially the two young women present tonight, who are mothers also.
I am pleased to realise that everyone praises this extraordinary wine. When I opened it, and smelled it, I knew it was going to be a great wine. And it exceeds my expectations. The nose is penetrating, smelling of prunes and sweets. In the mouth, it is so much more than a port. For it tastes of strong coffee, even of tar. It has the strength of a Pedro Ximenez and the delicacy of a Port. Bipin Desai congratulates me on my choice, which is no small feat. This is an intensely, almost infinitely pleasurable wine.
The tradition in those dinners is not to vote, since the winemakers take part in them. For memory, I will give points to my four favourite wines, which correspond to my taste:1 – 1912 Bastardino Setubal Fonseca, 2 – 1937 Château Climens, 3 – 1971 La Tâche Domaine de la Romanée Conti and tied for fourth place:1988 Corton Charlemagne Bonneau du Martray magnum and 1970 Champagne Delamotte magnum. This is not a qualitative judgment, but a judgment based on personal taste.
The mood of this dinner is extremely friendly, and the guests share great friendships. Everyone is happy to be present. Bipin tries to force everyone to present and comment his or her wine. The first winemakers were happy to oblige, but spontaneous conversations progressively take over.
During dinners such as these, one is loath to bring it to an end. I had brought one more trick up my sleeve: a 1934 Château Caillou Haut-Barsac which, while I was reorganising my cellars, had caught my eye because of its low level but pristine and beautiful colour. I suggest opening it with those of us still there, in the lounge at the entrance of the restaurant. One should have captured on film the expression on Bérénice Lurton’s face when she put her nose to the glass! It is quite obvious that if that wine had been opened at the same time as the others, the smell would have long since dissipated. But it is quite present, yet vanishing rather quickly. This golden Barsac, infinitely more clear than the Climens, could not keep us entertained for long, so Didier Depond offers a 1996 Champagne Salon, made even more magnificent for being served after the Sauternes, marking in a remarkable way, with opulence and maturity, an intense moment of friendship.
We have exchanged suggestions for celebrating in a fitting way the 40th birthday of one of the guests, and the 50th of another. We are obviously delighted with the prospect of seeing one another again to share such intense moments.