The French TV channel LCI has asked me to comment the auction of wines from the cellar of the Élysée Palace (the official residence of the President of the French Republic), which is scheduled to begin that evening. It gives me the opportunity to explain that this operation only sends negative vibes: it is yet another sign of a country in dire straits, selling off bits and pieces of its family jewels, but also of a country that is not going forward, which should rather work hand in hand with one of the most promising sectors in its trade balance—the wine industry and more specifically the fine wine sector, a true French emblem, something the rest of the world dreams about. While I originally do not intend to go to the auction, as I anticipate a fantastic fireworks display of prices, the reporter who invited me tells me: « Naturally, you will go to that auction! » I therefore feel obliged to go.
There, I meet several acquaintances and all of a sudden, here comes Gérard Besson, the restaurant chef with whom I have organised many of my dinners and my Casual Fridays. We are happy to see each other again, for the first time since he retired. We both want to see more of each other and I suggest: « Why not tomorrow? We are organising one of our dream team dinners, with very rare wines. » I quickly leave the auction and its insane prices, and send Gerard the wine list scheduled for the dinner. The following morning, he confirms that he will join us.
At the restaurant Garance, I open the bottles at 5:30pm. The scent of the 1961 Lafite is of angelic purity. The cork of the 1951 La Tâche is of very poor quality and, looking at it closely, it has apparently not been helped by a stay in an over-dry cellar. The level is low, the cork smells really bad and when you smell the neck, there is an unpleasant whiff. Tomo joins me and pours a little bit of the wine into a glass and it seems that the unpleasant smell only came from the neck itself. We can still hope. The aromas of the 1928 Margaux are seductive, and when Florent arrives with his 1926 Pontet Canet, I open it and a scent of a rare delicacy invades my nostrils.
I go to the ground floor to develop the menu with William Iskandar and together we determine some guidelines. Here is the organisation of the dishes on the menu, which I recreate from memory: traditional welcoming brioche / blue lobster, traces of orange cream / pollack, arugula and small onions / sweetbreads / shoulder of lamb, asparagus and onions / smoked almond sponge cake.
Our group consists of Tomo, Lionel, Florent, Jean-Philippe, Gérard Besson and myself. One of us being late, Guillaume Muller suggests we have a glass of Champagne Langlet Brut Grand Cru. The champagne does not inspire me and I can’t help myself and criticize the wine— »this champagne would make you fall in love with cider! » That is really spiteful. The 1964 Champagne Louis Roederer brought by Florent is still sparkling and of a nice amber colour. In the mouth it is pure fun, evoking beautiful orange fruits and also marc alcohol, strangely enough. This champagne is curious and exciting and promises to be a great companion to food.
Several times I have had the 1979 Champagne Mumm Cuvée René Lalou brought by Jean-Philippe: the bottle is splendid, but the champagne is a big disappointment, because it has aged too quickly and lost part of its liveliness. It is not bad but it is not what we were expecting.
The 1996 Château Rayas Blanc brought by Lionel makes me smile: it is love at first sight for this generous, easy-going wine, a really convincing dandy of a wine. With the lobster—whose portion size falls rather short of filling our appetite—it is perfect.
The 1964 Château Haut-Brion Blanc also brought by Lionel does not have enough panache to catch our attention. I cannot really say what its problem is, but it is not really focused, even though the lobster helps it a little.
The 1995 Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet Domaine Leflaive that Gérard brought with him starts really strong. This powerful wine, of a rare balance, fills up your mouth and invades it with complex flavours. What fascinates me is the deep and penetrating pleasure it creates. This is the attack of the wine that sets the stage.
The 1989 Chevalier Montrachet Domaine Leflaive is served at the same time and offers lighter flavours. One could imagine that this is a losing battle for the Chevalier, but not at all. It picks itself up, unfolds it rich body and gradually takes over. Both wines are perfect and very different. I like the first one for its generous attack. I like the second for its opulent body and its nobility. I like both because they both showcase the greatness of white Burgundy wines. The perfectly cooked pollack pairs beautifully with both, probably slightly better with the Chevalier.
The 1928 half-bottle of Château Margaux which I brought is of petrifying perfection. Gérard ends up repeating at least a dozen times that he cannot believe that a half-bottle which is over 80 years old can remain so young. He even takes a closer look at the cork to make sure it is indeed original. Seductive, feminine, velvety—this wine has enough charm to make you cry. It has remarkable depth and density, and a grand finish.
Next to it, the 1926 Château Pontet-Canet brought by Florent, whose level is upper-shoulder, has charming aromas and a delicate velvety texture. Were it not served along with the Margaux, it would be the star of the show, being boosted by the great 1926 vintage. But the Margaux is just too damn brilliant.
To make sure that I would produce a good half-bottle of Margaux, I had brought three. Again and again my friends try to pressure me to open the other two. But I resist, especially because I want to remember the positive note of a perfect bottle. The sweetbreads are of great quality and throughout the meal, Gérard Besson keeps complimenting William Iskandar’s cooking. Coming from a MOF, Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best National Craftsman in His Category), it says something.
I can obviously show no objectivity towards the wine I brought, a 1961 Château Lafite-Rothschild. Its fragrance is exceptionally deep with hints of graphite and truffle. In the mouth, the wine is dense, heavy, deep, but also complex and refined. This is a great wine with a never-ending finish.
Tomo’s 1951 La Tâche Domaine de la Romanée Conti is served alongside the previous wine. It has a low level but gives off a scent of rare persuasion. If one wanted to know what identifies a wine from the domaine, it would be exactly that. It makes me laugh because during a recent tasting of twenty wines from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, one participant wanted me to exclude a 1942 La Tâche because its label did not include the names of the owners nor any indication of the number of bottles produced. This disputed bottle turned out to be the most brilliant of the tasting. This 1951 La Tâche has exactly the same label and sports the DNA of the domain without the tiniest shadow of a doubt. I would even say that it is almost a little exaggerated and excessive in its saltiness. The charm of this wine’s aromas is extreme. But, contrary to my friends who praise this wine, I find that it is not perfect. It has been through hard times, as its decayed cork can testify, and it has become slightly pasty. All its traditional characteristics are there, but lacking a little in finesse. This is almost insignificant, for the wine is convincing, dominant and full of charm.
The coexistence of both wines is possible. The Lafite is perfect, pure, and straight. The La Tâche is charming, seductive and complex. The lamb votes in favour of the Lafite.
The 1937 Château Rabaud-Promis brought by Jean-Philippe comes in a rather dirty bottle—which is actually irrelevant—and inside it, one can make out a very dark brown liquid. The nose is very Sauternes but slightly lacks in volume. In the mouth, it is a generous Sauternes with brown fruit, a little dusty, which would have created a superb pairing with the almond sponge cake had it been less smoked.
We are all impressed by the overall quality of tonight’s wines. Among them are some first-class bottles. Gérard still cannot believe that a half-bottle of 1928 can have such liveliness. Jean-Philippe gives first place to the 1928 Margaux. Almost everyone ranks the Lafite and the La Tâche immediately behind, either tied or with the La Tâche ahead.
My ranking is different because of the position of the La Tâche: I place 1 – 1928 Château Margaux half bottle; 2 – 1961 Château Lafite-Rothschild; 3 – 1989 Chevalier Montrachet Domaine Leflaive; 4 – 1995 Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet Domaine Leflaive. Then would come the commendable performances of the 1951 La Tâche, of the 1996 Rayas Blanc and of the 1926 Pontet-Canet.
In times like these, we do not want to part ways, so we decide to dream of our future banquets and share a Chartreuse bottled very recently in Tarragone—far too young a bottle to have the complexity that is expected from this emblematic spirit. The date is set for a future dinner. These meals among friends are blessed moments.