Of all the great wines on tap at last week's New York Wine Experience, the ones I keep thinking about are those presented by five individuals tagged as "Wine Stars." Effective as the usual succession of daytime tasting panels are at comparing and contrasting a series of wines, this innovation livened things up by placing a single producer and a single wine in the spotlight for 15 minutes at a time, spread through the weekend.
It was quite a lineup. Angelo Gaja poured Gaja Langhe Sperss 1999 (92 points, $220). Christian Moueix offered Château Trotanoy Pomerol 2005 (95 points, $190), Chuck Wagner offered Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Special Selection 2005 (94 points, $160), Pablo Álvarez Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva 1994 (96 points, $350). Christian Seely, head of the company that owns Quinta do Noval, offered my favorite wine of the weekend, the incomparable Port Nacional 1994 (100 points, $400). Those are release prices.
If you're keeping score, that's one each from Italy, France, California, Spain and Portugal. The individuals' approaches to their 15 minutes in the spotlight fascinated me as much as the wines did.
Gaja, for example, steadfastly refused to even discuss his wine, even though there is quite a story behind it. Sperss is originally a Barolo from a Serralunga vineyard his family historically purchased grapes from but ceased after Gaja decided in 1961 to make only estate wines in Barbaresco; the family later purchased the vineyard and declassified the Barolo as a Langhe wine in 1996 so that Gaja would have more freedom in making the wine. Instead of bringing all that up, he spoke for 14 of his 15 minutes about the question he is asked most often: What is is the greatest wine he ever drank? The elaborate tale, which he attributed to the great Italian wine critic Luigi Veronelli, made the point that context is everything, that the magic of the wines is as much in the setting, the unfolding of a great day and moments with friends in glorious surroundings, as it might be in the specifics of the wine. He had the audience utterly charmed.
At the end, declining an invitation to address the wine in the final minute, he concluded, "You can taste it. If you don't like it, pour it out. I have nothing else to say about the wine!" Well, I'll say something. If all Barolos aged as gracefully as this forceful, expressive bottle, the world would clamor for Piemonte wines as much as it does for Bordeaux.
Speaking of Bordeaux, Christian Moueix did talk about Trotanoy, especially how his family bought it in 1953 and how it was dearer to his heart than his more-famous Pétrus. The wine was eminently slurpable, polished, supple, as seductive as great Pomerol can be. I don't even remember much of what Moueix said, just that he paused several times to take heroic swigs from his glass of '95 Trotanoy, each time commenting on how well it was tasting. "This wine is for drinking, not for tasting," he noted pointedly. When the audience applauded the wine at the end, Moueix toasted them—and emptied his glass a final time. I would be tottering off the stage if I did that. He looked refreshed.
Chuck Wagner's scrapbook of family photos played across the video screens as he spoke of his history with one of Napa's first great modern wineries. I first encountered Caymus on a visit to Napa Valley shortly after I moved to San Francisco. It was a rather basic affair in 1978 or 1979. Chuck's dad Charlie ambled in from the vineyard in his overalls, and we tasted his Cabernet on an upturned door resting on two sawhorses. Who knew that this wine would be among those that ushered in the era of fabulous wines that Napa had ahead of it? All I knew was that I liked Charlie, his wine and his no-nonsense attitude.
Chuck continues that same feeling, even if the price reaches triple digits now. The silky, creamy texture is still there, and the flavors express themselves with a signature seamlessness.
Pablo Álvarez of Vega Sicilia took a similarly modest approach, shrugging at how often he is asked which part of Italy his wine is from. The jewel of Ribera del Duero (in Spain, of course) dates from 1864, but there is a thread of a connection with Italy in that, not unlike the famous super Tuscan wines that blended their native grape, Sangiovese, with France's Cabernet Sauvignon, Vega Sicilia was the first to combine the indigenous Tempranillo grape with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Unico, which ages for 10 years before release, seems to last forever in the cellar. I have had 60- and 70-year-old bottles that tasted youthful and powerful, yet always with a welcome grace. The 1994 was amazing for its power, so artfully hidden under an alluring, welcoming surface, entrancing stuff for richness, waves of dark fruit, yet finishing with such elegance.
Christian Seely heads AXA Millésimes, which owns numerous other European wine estates, including Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron and Château Suduiraut in Bordeaux. He spoke eloquently about Quinta do Noval and the extra focus it places on Nacional, its top-tier wine, but I was lost in the wine itself. Smooth, sweet, an endless pool of flavor and texture that reverberated on the finish for minutes on end; it absolutely floored me.
I often have a bottle of Port ready to serve at dinner parties, but by the end of a bibulous evening hardly anyone wants yet another glass of wine, so it often remains unopened. For something like Nacional 1994, I now believe, who needs dinner? Just open it for friends and munch on some Marcona almonds and fine chocolate. Then take a nap and wake up for dinner.
Bruce Sanderson — New York — October 26, 2011 3:23pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 26, 2011 4:23pm ET
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