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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Eleventh Heaven on Madison Avenue

When it comes to the extravagance of excess, there’s nothing like playing w/ a stacked deck, and I think Eleven Madison + top Bordeaux constitutes just that. Sitting across from Professor Ben Goldberg brought out the teacher in all of us, demonstrating to the ‘Prof’ that great wine deserves to be drunk. See I don’t want to embarrass Ben or make an example of him, but he’s a great guy w/ a spectacular cellar of bottles that lay undisturbed on far too many occasions. Shake things up and drink a little I say, or drink a lot, in fact. The occasion is the bottle, and drinking is the experience that brings dormant cellar dwellers to life. Without removing the corks they’ll remain as contemplative foreplay pieces; a dream without an ending. Now what was the occasion last night? Who knows, but our catalyst, Steve Elzer, was as good of an occasion as any, and the spoils of our wine wars couldn’t have been greater.

As auspicious a beginning as any, the celebratory bubbly was, indeed corked. Perhaps me and Steve’s excessive tardiness doomed the ’93 Comtes de Champagne Rose from the start, but things certainly picked up right where our amuse bouche left off. The flight of white Burgundies kicked off w/ an overt, almost invasively perfumed ’03 Guffens-Heynen Macon-Pierreclos that revealed toasty, smoked wood notes that obscured the sensible fruit underneath. Surprisingly enough, the palate turned creamy, w/ a velvet-laced caress that let quince and fig fruit linger effortlessly, begging the question ‘will the nose ever catch up to the palate?’ In decidedly different shape, the ’00 Raveneau Butteaux spoke in subtle aromatic voices, whispering scents of hot stones, citrus blossom and a damp, waxed mushroom element that crept in and out of the pure, textbook palate. While she’s as tightly coiled as any, the precision and length hinted that an exceptional evolution is in store. Swinging the pendulum back to the warmth of ’03, Jadot’s Charlemagne tempted the senses w/ an alluring, honeyed richness of apple sauce, cinnamon and clove spice that enveloped the palate w/ a full-bodied breadth, that was kept honest thanks to a river of malic acidity (Malolactic was completely blocked by Jadot in ’03, a brilliant adaptation) that framed the stone-kissed tangerine flavors through the finish. While style, power and grace all took shape separately in the Raveneau and Jadot, they both exemplified a class and symmetry that demonstrates what masterful producers can do with different raw materials.

Sneaking away from the whites was done so gingerly, as the Ducru Beaucaillou flight commenced w/ a rust tinged 1966 vintage, that was the least impressive of the bunch to look at, but easily was the most provocative to taste. A dazzling cornucopia of scents danced from the glass, with stuffed mushrooms, anise, graphite, freshly tilled soil, currant and plum fruit hypnotizing like a timeless Shakespeare play. The attack was still vigorous and vibrant, carrying its middle aged bones along with the finesse and a charisma of a Grace Kelly character, gliding to a finish that seemed void of gravity. Now I’d love to pass along the poetry to the ’83 vintage as well, but the wine was a dog....with fleas. The nose was appalling, expelling enough nail varnish to scare away even the most seasoned of manicurists, weaving in additional scents of tanned leather, stewed tomatoes and other varied malodorous funk. While the volatile acidity did blow off, the palate revealed that it was simply the same dog with different fleas, finishing shorter than Jason Biggs' character in American Pie. While the ’96 was by no means as emaciated as the ’83, it suffered from premature withdrawal of a different sort as it was simply too young. The nose of creamed corn, spicy toast, melted licorice, pepper and cassis was undoubtedly serious, but the taut, almost angular structure prevented the fatness of the palate from developing, begging to sleep further into its adolescence.

What better way to punctuate a flight of Ducru Beaucaillou than with another ’96? While Harlan wasn’t exactly the first ’96 that popped into my mind, I gladly broke my cherry on arguably California’s most exalted Cabernet last night & truly appreciated the opportunity to taste such a gem (many thanks to Mr. Elzer for the solid). The nose, while flamboyant and gushing, foreshadowed a surprisingly structured, tightly focused palate of warm ganache, currant paste, shaved vanilla bean and sweet cherry fruit. While heady and undeniably constituted, the body of the wine managed to be light on its feet, packing its flavors into a bright, channeled beam that proved to be a blissful pairing alongside my beet and fleshy cheese appetizer. This was a singular Cabernet which managed to smell heavy, yet feel light, which is a feature that is unfortunately shared by the Harlan's current price-tag.

The ’82 clarets demonstrated how class can wear entirely different robes, with the Leoville Barton’s bouquet greeting my nostrils first. A hauntingly brilliant perfume of iron, incense, tapenade and black currant fruit dipped in molasses filled out in the palate, staying elegant & suggestive of truffles and earth. ‘Drinkable Barton’ could almost be likened to jumbo shrimp or military intelligence in terms of its oxymoronic tone, but this vintage was far more than drinkable, it was a sneaky spectacle. The L’Evangile, not to be outshone, subsequently took our collective breath away, smelling like a fine vintage of famed Chateau Lafleur w/ its lilac, freshly cut cedar, plum sauce, lead pencil shavings and grilled beef characteristics. While Cabernet Franc and animale came to mind from the bouquet, class in a glass was the only descriptor I could muster in the palate. A seamless, cashmere sweater inflicted texture massaged its way to a rich, loam-tinged close that I can still vividly taste as I write this.

Onwards and upwards to the duo of 1990’s, the Cos D’Estournel was as sauvage and spunky a Bordeaux as I can recall in recent memory. The nose of fried sausage and sweaty feet were enshrouded in a bed of crème de cassis and molten chocolate that struck me as odd, yet compelling in the same breath. The youthful, tannic spine of the palate was evident, keeping the flesh compact, yet there was an underlying sultry component I detected, suggesting that she's bound to shine in a few years to come. The Cos became an afterthought once its superior vintage-mate, Lynch Bages, was poured. Smelling the ’90 Lynch Bages was as paralyzing as it is to put your nose on a woman’s neck during a slow-dance…right at the moment when her perfume causes your knees to lock, turning them into a commonly packaged Welch’s product. A 100 point shockwave of freshly paved road tar, hoison sauce, grilled game, black currant paste and graphite erupted from the glass, taking a spicy, gravel-infused turn in the palate. A gorgeously constituted wave of flavor rode along a fluid, admirably restrained profile that brought back a memory of the ’90 Leoville Las Cases to mind (thanks again for that one Harlan Bernstein). The superiority claims between the ’89, ’90 and ‘00 will be contentious during the years to come for Lynch Bages, but vintages of this caliber make me wonder what has happened w/ this estate since the greatness of the ’00?

A trio of babies were slain to wrap up the evening, beginning w/ the extraverted ’98 La Mission Haut Brion, which was explosive, yet painfully restrained, revealing a nose of spicy cassis, caramel, high class cigar smoke and an ashy, gravel-infused element. The palate left us all with a polarizing sense of awkwardness akin to a over-developed teenager wearing his little sister’s clothing. Hey, even the great ones get grumpy when they are rudely awakened to satisfy our morbid curiosity. The ’99 Palmer, on the other hand wore its exuberance in a much more polished, streamlined fashion, sporting melted licorice, toast, barbeque spices, milk chocolate and crème de cassis flavors. The sweetness of the fruit shone beautifully against a backdrop of silky tannin in complete harmony, with nary a rough edge to be found. After bombarding my gustatory senses thoroughly w/ sensational cuisine & extravagant wines, the bombshell in the shape of ’00 La Conseillante still managed to lure me off to bed, wearing a red dress of crushed raspberry, freshly ground coffee, cocoa powder and an alluring violet note under her skirt that rendered me helpless. Crammed w/ opulence, sex appeal and sheer intensity, this young dame has got a ways to go until she becomes a more civilized lady.

The ’99 Rieussec was a bit blowzy, trailing away its flaccid, yet generous flavors of bee pollen and waxed apricot fruit. Sticky aside, this was an evening where the company left me as satiated as any wine possibly could. As Elzer said, for all its ups and downs, the virtues of a wine board lie within its ability to galvanize moments like last night’s. Wine may have been the occasion, but people made the experience.

Wine Rating
Comtes de Champagne '93 ?
Guffens-Heynen Macon Pierreclos '03 88
Raveneau Butteaux '00 92
Jadot Charlemagne '03 95
Ducru Beaucaillou '66 91
Ducru Beaucaillou '83 78 (after VA blew off)
Ducru Beaucaillou '96 92++
Harlan '96 96
Leoville Barton '82 92
L'Evangile '82 96
Cos D'Estournel '90 94+
Lynch Bages '90 98
La Mission Haut Brion '98 93+
Palmer '99 95
La Conseillante '00 95
Rieussec '99 86

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