Ran Shapira's 40th Birthday (Oct. 22, 2009)

Ran Shapira is your typical manifestation of a Mephistolian wine geek as host, heaping temptations upon his unwary friends even on mundane occasions. So a fortieth birthday celebration naturally upped the stakes, making me tremble in expectation when the invitation arrived and I read the proposed menu and wine list. Later, in a half-drunk mood, I rewrote John Lennon's lyrics as "imagine all the people drinking Montrachet" and it seemed like an appropriate epitaph. Although perhaps the perfect epitaph would be a simple "wow!".

Ran supplied some of the wines, we guests brought a few. The creative catering was provided by the "personal chef services" of Scarlet and finally, to heap insult upon injury, Ran came up with a cheese platter with enough penicillin to inoculate the entire United States Army.

And now on to the hard work of transcribing the notes.

Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame, 1990

The nose is so intense it is almost liquerish, yet it manages to preserve an air of elegance while showing lightly oxidized notes as well as brioche and sauteed mushrooms. The palate manages to show its maturity while retaining a youthful vigor. The acidity is still obvious but well integrated and, with or without bubbles, this wine has a lovely cut. And a flavorsome chalk finish. I could have sniffed it all evening and I could have finished the bottle alone. It's that kind of wine.

Zind-Humbrecht, Brand Grand Cru, Riesling, 2001

It might be youth, it might be the serving temperature, or both, but this grand Grand Cru, on this particular occasion - joyous though it might be - has nowhere near the Grand Dame's complexity or vibrancy. The class of the nose, however, is quite obvious, with its faint notes of petrol complementing lightly sauteed apples and a touch of minerality. And enough of the aromatics are carried over to the flavor packed palate to prove its mettle, just not enough for its inherent qualities to be very overt, or, indeed, enjoyable today.

Vincent Girardin, Clos del la Roche Grand Cru, 1998

Terrific Burgundy aromatics.: typical red fruit, with an earthy-meaty complexity. On the palate I find healthy tannins that are still somewhat harsh, although the overall effect is quite tasty and powerful. If a Grand Cru can be identified by diligent Bourgogne-spotters by dint of greater power or greater finesse (or, ideally, both) then this wine's entry to that exalted circle is by way of its length and size. Sadly, it lacks the elegance or the magical, electric thrill of better Grand Crus. Such as the next wine.

Rene Engel, Clos de Vougeout Grand Cru, 1996

There are hints of barnyard on the nose, which I love, but sometimes their presence can cost a wine a measure of elegance. Not here, though, as the poo only serves to add more complexity to the delicate Bourgogne spices and the deep and pure strawberry fruit. The palate suffers from following the more muscular Girardin, so I took a break and when I returned, I found the Engel's freshness very captivating. The only caveat, which I feel obligated to mention, is that a previous bottle was more complex.

Olivier Leflaive, Montrachet Grand Cru, 1995

We screwed up here. We had an initial whiff and sip and decided to go on to the Barolo flight and come back to the Montrachet later. Bad idea. The body temperature of twelve adults round the table and too little liquid in each glass was too much even for the product of the world's greatest vineyard. The nose was all butterscotch, too sweet and simple. The palate, on the other hand, was very minerally and powerful but too crude for me.

The wines weren't served in flights per se, but I used my Burgundy glass to enable me to enjoy the following two Barolos side by side.

Ellio Grasso, Barolo, Gavarini Vigna Chiniera, 1990

Barolos can present the most difficult aromatics to decipher. This is taut at first, almost cryptic, the nose showing red fruit and iron, and dusty like your grandma's old carpet. The palate is classy yet austere and I was going to pronounce the Conterno Fantino the better wine, until time endowed the Ellio Grasso with an extra dimension, further complexities and greater cerebrity.

Conterno Fantino, Barolo, Sori Ginestra, 1990

This is a riper wine and the nose has a touch of kink to it, like someone had sex on your Grandma's old Carpet. And quite recently. The aromatics are surely more pungent, gamier too. The palate is full without trying unduly to flatter and I thought it had the Ellio Grasso beat until, well, you've already read my verdict.

Enjoying the ride so far? The big guns are still ahead...

Rene Rostaing, Cote Rotie, Cote Blonde, 1999

The nose is a stunning blend of red and black fruit served on a platter of sewer stink that is lovely to behold, especially as it is complemented by black pepper and minerals. What would the world be like with the great Rhone Syrahs? Big yet elegant. Tannic but at this level, tannins such as these can be delicious in their own right, even if they're not what Robert Parker calls sweet tannins (and thankfully so, I might add). Despite the current great performance, the Cote Blonde still has much more to give, although it is already complex and, despite the tannic crunch, elegant.

Chateau Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan 1er Cru, 1990

Alright, I really loved the Cote Blonde's nose but the Haut-Brion offers even greater finesse and tantalizes in ways that are difficult to verbalize. It has sweet red fruit, saddle leather, minerals, a touch of sewer yet again. The palate is claret with a capital C! Very elegant, with laser sharp tannins, a tobacco twang on the finish and a never-ending aftertaste. Bliss.

Chateau Lafite, Pauillac 1er Cru, 1990

The nose is another fine trophy, with black fruits, lead pencil and a touch of barnyard. The palate is not so much austere as it is discreet. It is smooth and muscular, meting out is power like Joe Louis setting up Max Schelling for the knockout. But it's still too early to drink. Proof positive of the 1855 Classification.

Vega Sicilia, Unico, 1986

The nose is so fresh it feels like the smile of a pretty woman. I must admit I was growing tired but the palate has such length and such incredible vibrancy and finesse that it woke my palate up with its succulent, juicy acidity. This is at its peak and easily proves the Unico's claim to be Spain's greatest wine.

Alfred Bonnet, Rheinpfalz, Friedelsheimer Schlobgarten, Beerenauslese Riesling, 1976

The nose is charming if not too complex - orange marmalade, spices even a hint of cigarette smoke, oddly enough - but I must admit I found the palate tired and somewhat flat and kept looking for more complexity.