Tue 4 May 2010
June 19, 1985. A dinner at Cafe Meridian, closed long, long ago but at the time very much a restaurant of the moment in Memphis. I don’t know who organized the event, nor do I know who provided the wines, but I was so dazzled by them that I didn’t even record what we ate, clearly a disservice to chef Joseph Carey, who a few years later opened 25 Belvedere, one of the best bistro-style restaurants the city ever entertained. Cafe Meridian served Mediterranean-style cuisine, I think the first in Memphis to do so, and also had the first, or one of the first, of the mesquite grills that became such a necessity for restaurants in the mid- to late-1980s. The food that emerged from those grills may have been smoky, musky and flavorful, but, lord have mercy, it made your clothes and hair stink. If you got home and hung a jacket back in a closet, the next morning all the clothes would smell like mesquite smoke.
Anyway, these were the wines the group — whatever the group was — consumed on this occasion: Hospices de Beaune Meursault-Charmes Cuvée Albert-Grivault 1982, made by Joseph Drouhin; Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes; and Ridge Late Harvest II Zinfandel 1976, Amador County. Can you imagine what such wines would cost today? Well, look on the Internet for Yquem ’75, and you’ll find prices ranging from $500 to $2,000 for a standard 750 milliliter bottle.
The Hospices de Beaune Albert-Grivault Meursault-Charmes 1982 was the best white wine I had tasted in my life, up to that point. Here are my notes from that night, almost 25 years ago: “Pale medium gold” — all right, that seems like an oxymoron — “exquisite nose, fruity, some wood, complex, blossoming in the glass; oak, smooth but with a bite, medium body, exceptional balance, unctuous, rich and oily, lots of room to grow.”
The Hospices de Beaune is a charity hospital founded in the city of Beaune (the heart of Burgundy) in 1443; the building is a treasure of 15th Century French flamboyant architecture. The not-for-profit organization owns about 61 hectares (around 156 acres) of donated vineyard land, mostly Grand Cru and Premier Cru, and every November, since 1851, barrels of the wines made from those vines are auctioned, at an extravagant three-day event, to benefit the hospital’s services to the poor, these days rendered in modern facilities. The original Hospices de beaune is now a museum. Christie’s has run the auction since 2005.
Meursault contains no Grand Cru vineyards but as many as 29 (depending on who is counting) Premier Crus, some of which can be both pinot noir and chardonnay. Les Charmes is perhaps the best-known of Meursault’s Premier Crus, and it’s the largest, though connoisseurs may give the edge to Les Perrières or Les Genevrières.
Here is where I wish I had a menu from this far-off dinner or at least had recorded what we ate. It seems pretty obvious that Chateau d’Yquem served as a dessert wine, but the Ridge Late Harvest II Zinfandel 1976? At 15.4 percent alcohol? To what stupendous entree did this blockbuster serve as accompaniment?
That “II” in the wine’s nomenclature requires explanation. In 1976, this patch of old vine zinfandel grapes on the Esola Ranch in the Sierra Foothills, “matured well beyond normal ripeness,” as the text on the side label informs us, going on, “Seven and a half barrels were bottled in March” — making Late Harvest I Zinfandel — “while the main crop was given additional barrel age to ferment more of the residual sugar.” In other words, “I” retained enough residual sugar to be a sweet wine, while “II” came out dry. The label tells use that at harvest, the r.s. was 25.5 percent (by weight), but the r.s. in the finished wine was 0.21 percent, far below the detectable level for sweetness. All that extra ripeness went toward making “II” a tower of intensity and concentration. Here are my notes: “Oh my goodness! Deep purple; rich, ripe, fruity, dusty nose; dense, intense, incredible fruit, spice, faint chocolate, almost unfathomable, at its peak, absolutely terrific — still time to grow.”
Chateau d’Yquem scarcely needs any introduction, as people say before they launch into a long introduction of someone everybody knows, but, still, here’s a little background about this legendary property, one of the most famous producers in the world of a highly-sought after and expensive wine, as it happens, a sweet or dessert wine. The chateau itself is one of the oldest in Bordeaux, parts of it dating back to the 14th Century. Before that, in the 12th Century, it was the property of Eleanor of Aquitaine and hence, after her marriage to Henri II, part of England, until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. Through both direct descent and marriage, Yquem remained in the same family from 1593 to 1996, when in a hostile move, the family and relatives of Comte Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, who had run the estate since 1968, sold their majority shares to LVMH for around $100 million. Comte Alexandre was allowed to stay as manager until 2004, when he was ousted in favor of Pierre Lurton, manager of Ch. Cheval-Blanc in St. Emilion. And you thought the rarefied world of fine wine was above petty politics and family squabbles! The estate or property itself is Chateau d’Yquem; the wine is Yquem (“ee-kem”).
Here are my notes: “Medium gold color; subdued nose, just a little melony-apricot, more subtle than I thought it would be; sweet round melony fruit, but a stiff backbone of acid, far from cloying but still sweet, complex & gratifyingly puzzling — a great experience.”
Clearly I didn’t quite know how to wrap my nose and mouth and perception around this wine from a great vintage for Yquem. On the other hand, these wines tend not to show well — or to show themselves reticently and in their own manner — in the first decade. I was lucky enough to taste Chateau d’Yquem 1975 in 1995, and with another 10 years of age it was glorious.
In case you’re wondering how I retained the labels for wines encountered at special dinners and tastings, well, I asked if I could take empty bottles home so I could soak off the labels. Nobody ever seemed to mind. A couple of years later, at a dinner whose menu was organized around the sparkling wines of Schramsberg — this was at another long-gone restaurant, Dux, in The Peabody Hotel — I asked for empty bottles and the wine manager just brought me a box with all the wines we had tasted, I mean, full bottles. I’m sure that was the only time such a thing occurred. It wouldn’t be long before I was tasting so many wines that I abandoned the practice of saving labels.