Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Three Decades of Cheval Blanc

Last week, I had the very good fortune to attend a dinner that featured some truly legendary wines. Come to think of it, though, I probably shouldn’t use the word “featured”--after all, the primary point of the gathering was to celebrate more than three decades of a friend’s business (and his birthday, which falls around the same time). So while he brought along wines that in any other situation would have become the focus of the meal, here they played the far more enjoyable role of simply being the wines we drank at dinner with family and friends.

Of course, there’s a caveat here: Anytime you open up three decades of Cheval Blanc, a 40-year-old bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, and a Madeira from the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened (1937), is a special occasion. But the fact that conversation swirled around the wines, and was not wholly about them, made their presence at the table that much more special: We were consuming them the way they were meant to be. Which is to say, joyously.

I’ve written about my friend Scot “Zippy” Ziskind before. He’s the owner of the My Cellar wine storage facility and of ZipCo Environmental Services, Inc., one of the country’s most respected custom storage, cooling, and humidification specialists. He is also a great collector of wine in general and Bordeaux and dessert wine in particular. It was his birthday, and the anniversary of his business, that we were celebrating. As such, and given the nature of the restaurant at which he and his wife Marcie, my wife and I, and four friends of theirs (including my parents), had gathered, the context could not have been better for popping the corks on these particular bottles.

Below, then, are my tasting notes from the evening, but just for the Cheval Blanc. (I’ll be writing up the Yquem and the Madeira in future posts dedicated to those wines, and alongside tasting notes of other vintages for a better sense of context.) All of the wines had been stored in pitch-perfect conditions, which was reflected in their flawless evolution and expression, and enjoyed at Cochon, an excellent, casual, rustic-French BYOB in Philadelphia.

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1959 - The nose here can only be described as “warm”--plush and exquisitely mature with hints of gravel, sun-baked clay, and tobacco. There were background notes of dried sage and cedar, too, as well as flowers and a touch of creaminess. All that lushness followed through to the palate, which coated the tongue yet still remained light and silky. Perfectly concentrated raspberry, raspberry cream, and spice notes dominated, and ultimately gave way to a long finish rich with violets and cherry-liquor-filled chocolate. A perfect mature Bordeaux, and as good as it gets.

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1975 - Of the three vintages of Cheval here, this one was the most classic expression of the great chateau. The nose was quintessential Bordeaux, with roasted licorice, cigar humidor and tobacco, charred green bell pepper, grilled sage, smoky raspberries, leather, and a more pronounced gravel note than the 1959. The palate offered even more, with a swirl of flavors including warm stones, black peppercorn, black raspberries and blackberries, leather, cream, cigar tobacco again, and flowers. The long finish, still-fresh acid, and perfect balance promised another 5-7 years of evolution before it plateaus.

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1986 - You know it’s a great night when the 1986 is the youngest wine on the table. What really struck me, however, was the learning opportunity that this one provided. For even though it was nearly 24 years old, it still showed a distinctly youthful expression of Cheval with its aromas of wet stones, lighter-on-its-feet leather, lavender, and cigar tobacco, all of it lifted by the lovely perfume of cedar and sandalwood. This last Cheval of the night was clearly the youngest on the palate, too, with restrained crushed purple berry fruit, green peppercorn, thyme, fennel fronds, melted licorice, and the telltale gravel and clay that made itself known in all three of the bottles. The finish--incredibly long, balanced, and bright--promised another 12-15 years of evolution, and sang with oolong tea, dried sage, cherry, and cigar tobacco.


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