The bottle of Henschke Hill of Grace 1996 rested in my cellar for about a decade, waiting for the right occasion. It came out Sunday night at the annual dinner I donate, along with my longtime friend Archie McLaren, to the Central Coast Wine Classic auction. Last year's lot centered on Rhône-style wines—French wines from Archie's cellar, Syrah- and Viognier-based bottles of Australia and Washington from mine.
We had some great names in the lineup, including top vintages from Jean-Louis Chave, M. Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Château de Beaucastel. But the HoG stole the show. As well it should, being the greatest single-vineyard wine in Australia in the greatest vintage there of our lifetime.
The wine was phenomenal. I described it as a perfect sphere, no parts sticking out, not even slight bulges—massive but not heavy, richly textured and deep with oceans of blueberry, currant, animal and spice flavors that did not quit. Non-blind, I would have to rate it 100 points. (In a blind tasting four years ago, I rated it 98 points.)
On the plate, an equally rich but balanced dish played two thick slices of aged New York strip steak against bone marrow sauce, red wine essence and new potato agnolotti. The refined food and thoughtful matches reflected the efforts of chef Hiro Sone and his wife, Lissa Doumani. We did the dinner at Ame, the San Francisco sister restaurant to Terra, their St. Helena home base.
Archie's contribution to that course was an M. Chapoutier Ermitage L'Ermite 2001, a stunner with pointed intensity, cascades of cherry, mineral and spice flavor and impeccable balance, finishing with power. (Non-blind, 97 points for me.) That was actually a backup wine. Archie had meant to pull the white version to drink with an earlier course, but in his dark cellar he inadvertently grabbed the red. That was fortunate in the end because the wine slated for this point in the menu, Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 1990, came up a bit short, minerally and earthy around a core of red fruit. "It's not the best bottle," Archie whispered in my ear, "not corked, but not as full as it should be." I thought it made up in elegance for any shortcomings in power and penciled a 92-point rating in my notes. But it was great to have the L'Ermite coming off the bench.
The Henschke Hill of Grace 1996 and Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 1990.
We started the evening with a pair of New World Viogniers alongside a lovely plate of halibut, sea bream and sea urchin sashimi. The Clonakilla Viognier Canberra 2008 (Australia) kept its spice and richness in check so that it came off as elegant. A K Vintners Viognier Columbia Valley 2009 (Washington) wove minerally notes through the spicy lychee flavors. The Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage White 2001 made a racy match with the second course, which involved a grilled Hokkaido scallop and prawn. Non-blind, 91 for the Clonakilla, 92 for the K and 93 for the Chave.
The first red wine pair played Clarendon Hills Grenache Blewitt Springs 2004 (Australia) against Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1989. Both wines superbly reflected their origins, the Aussie featuring rich ripe fruit and spice, the Beaucastel delivering its signature gaminess against dark fruit and coffee notes. The fricassee of veal sweetbreads with morels and fava beans tasted fine and did not get in the way. In a normal dinner, those two wines would have been the stars of the evening, each rating 95 points non-blind for me, but even better was to follow.
A Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Bionic Frog 2000 (Washington) showed the same pure cherry and mineral flavors that it had when young, but it had gained elegance with maturity. The first vintage of this bottling, rich and deep, held its own against a Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1998, amazing considering Cayuse's vines were only three years old. The Jaboulet had equal power and more depth to its flavors, showing more grace to the finish. Non-blind, 96 for the Jaboulet, 93 for the Frog. Sone matched them well with seared foie gras served over a slice of Kurobuta pork jowl (for extra richness) in a light dashi broth.
After the Henschke-Chave pairing with the steak, we got a couple of encores to the printed program, both from Archie's cellar: a Jaboulet-Isnard Hermitage 1961, which had started to turn earthy and fragile but still showed a haunting core of spicy fruit, and a Penfolds Grange 1989, along with HoG's iconic Australian red. It's not fair to rate the '61, but the Grange deserves at least 97 points for its seamless structure and pure flavors of blueberry, plum, spice and a hint of wet earth. It has decades to go.
Collector José Luis Nazár, who bought the auction lot, invited a lively crowd of friends that shared enough experience with wine to appreciate what they were drinking. He also finished the wine lineup with a couple of true collector's rarities. From his cellar he brought two venerable bottles by Massandra, a winery in the Ukraine celebrated for its fortified dessert wines, both in Sotheby's bottlings. The 1914 Malaga was a revelation of clarity and balance in a fortified wine, beautifully preserved, and the 1905 Muscat had the spicy, nutty, prune flavors of a great Australian Rare Muscat. I wish I had known. I would have brought one to compare.
Angela Medeiros Slade — Oakland, CA — June 7, 2011 1:24pm ET
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO, US — June 7, 2011 3:54pm ET
Marco Laico — charlotte nc — June 8, 2011 2:59pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — June 8, 2011 10:59pm ET
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO, US — June 9, 2011 6:29pm ET
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