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Ducasse, Latour and a Rookie

Is it possible to fully appreciate a high-end meal with classic wines if you've never experienced either?

Eric Arnold
Posted: November 28, 2005

Is there such a thing as going too far, too fast, when it comes to food and wine? If you've only occasionally sampled the finer delicacies of the culinary world or the rare sip of a high-end wine, how do you know if you're ready to move to the next level?

It's a question I had never really pondered, but it's the first one that popped into my head when I was invited to a Château Latour dinner at Alain Ducasse New York in October.

I accepted the invitation, of course, but immediately felt a strong sense of intimidation. I've only been working at Wine Spectator for a few months, and, at 30, I'm still accumulating the experience that educates a palate. As I walked into the restaurant, I imagined that this is what rookies feel like when they're called up to the majors: Excited at first, then fearful that the first pitch will be unfathomable, never mind unhittable.

But I bravely made my way to my table and tasted the first two wines presented: the 2003 Les Forts de Latour and the 2002 Château Latour. Right away I felt out of my league—2002 is considered to be a pretty good vintage, but the tannins were way too big for me to detect any distinct flavors. (I looked up all the wines the next day, and the 2002 Latour scored 96 points.)

I managed to settle down when the first course, a duck foie gras terrine, was served with a 1973 Latour from a double-magnum. Though '73 is not among the best Bordeaux vintages, I found that the wine's delicacy matched well with the foie gras; a young wine even from a good year, I felt, would overpower it. I cleaned my plate and gulped the wine, the best indication that a good food-and-wine match had been made.

A delicate, flaky Australian barramundi was served with the 1971 Latour (84 points). I have no problem with the combination of white fish and red wine, and I heard one of the other diners at my table offer a satisfied "Mmm" as he sipped his wine. But I immediately began to wonder if my senses had let me down, as I found it green and astringent. How could anything labeled Château Latour taste unappealing, I wondered. Was I missing something? Was I out of my league?

But once the next course arrived, I no longer cared if I was in over my head. I was wowed. Medallions of venison were served with a glass each of 1982 and 1961 Latour. After tasting each, especially the '61 (100 points), I sat in my chair, paralyzed. I couldn't describe the aromas and flavors because they were completely foreign to me. But tasting a wine like this for the first time, I thought, is similar to the sense you get upon arriving in a city you've never before visited—exotic and dizzying, but strikingly pleasing. And with the venison, the '61 made a marriage more classic than Bogey and Bacall.

The '82 Latour (99 points) and venison, however, were more like Brad and Jen. There was obvious chemistry between the two, but it wasn't perfect—only because the wine is still so young, and it overpowered the venison. One half of the relationship was dominating rather than complementing.

There was much more, including Latours from 1985, '66, '64 and '55. And, perhaps inevitably, black truffles, French cheeses and dark chocolate. I left the restaurant wondering if I would ever be served a meal like this again, and if I had truly been able to appreciate what my inexperienced palate had tasted. Could anyone?

But like a recently promoted minor leaguer facing a Randy Johnson fastball, the answer, I believe, is yes, you can appreciate it. Some flavors and touches may elude you as they did me, but you'll have no doubt whatsoever that what's placed in front of you is not only rare, but special. The young batter facing the Big Unit for the first time will probably swing and miss, but he'll have no doubt that the pitches whizzing past him aren't just ordinary fastballs—they're individual works of art, served up by an unparalleled professional. With each sip, I gained a greater understanding and, ultimately, appreciation.

And with each small taste comes an appetite for more.

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