This night had a good feel to it from the start. Work was no impediment to timing, I caught the subway quickly and I was walking across Madison Park on a beautiful night. The Summer has gotten later and later in New York City, sometimes carrying with it the humidity of August. Not this night. The air was crisp and clean and I was heading to a restaurant on top of its game to drink some of the finest wines that Bordeaux has to offer. Eleven Madison Park is tucked into the corner of a beautiful art deco building just off the park. A heavy revolving door gives way to impressively high ceilings that give a sense of openness that is harbinger of the friendly service. The clean lines of the décor were to match the modernity and purity of the food to which we then looked forward. We arrived in waves and the credenza behind our central table started filling up with wonderful bottles of wine. The last to arrive was Steve Elzer, a real life Xpensive Wino and our guest of honor.
We settled in with an aperitif from Mâconnais, the soft underbelly of Burgundy, a 2003 Guffens-Heynen Mâcon-Pierreclos. It was a pleasant enough wine with a generous nose of white peach, popcorn, a touch of lemon and a bunch of smoky oak. It was soft and a bit unfocused in the mouth with lots of fruit on some decent lemony acidity. The vintage showed in that it had more body than a typical Mâconnais and I couldn't decide whether I liked that aspect or not. Certainly an attractive wine for the price, but nothing to get too excited about. The 2000 Raveneau Butteaux, on the other hand, was a wine to get excited about and we moved onto that after giving up on a tragically corked 1993 Tattinger CdC Rose. The Raveneau was all white flowers; the floral aromatics were so relaxed and relaxing. There was also some lemon and Leo, with his sommelier's nose, picked up some Chamomile tea as it expanded. It was surprisingly subdued on the palate and seemed very tightly wound around itself. I had a hard time getting a sense of the fruit. Nonetheless, it had clean lines from a defining acidity and an appealing minerality. We debated a bit where this one was going to go in the future and I'm erring on the side of age. In stark contrast was the effusive and friendly 2003 Jadot Charlemagne (not Corton). Frokic and Jadot have become synonymous in my mind and Leo delivered again with an excellent wine. While the Raveneau drew you in, this wine came out to meet you with ripe apples and a rack of spice, primarily cinnamon, but let's not debate spices amongst friends. In the mouth, it was a real feat of engineering. The acidity couldn't hold the ripeness of the fruit and, instead, the focus is created by lack of malo, which provides a natural boundary for the wine. Not that it lack acidity, it doesn't, but the malo helps keep the focus and tension of the wine. A heavy maceration creates great weight in the mouth to finish the structural integrity. Add in the gravelly minerality and this wine adds up to a winner.
With the preliminaries out of the way, we moved West and a touch South to the main attraction, Bordeaux. We began with a trio of Ducru-Beaucaillou. The reputation of Ducru has gone up and down partially because of serious taint problems in their older wines and partially because the wines are so ungenerous in their youth that critics may mark them down for their rank austerity. That makes for some wonderful bargains for backfilling older vintages as the wines come out of their tannic shell and show a generosity of spirit that the younger wines lack. Their reputation seems properly restored, but values abound for this classy Second. As for the wines, Gary began hedging the performance of the 1966 early on, correctly noting that it can be a crap shoot with older bottles. He needn't have bothered. The 1966 Ducru was a magnificent wine. Poor Neal Martin, he would have enjoyed this immensely. I am younger than this wine, yet I could not match its vigor. I can match its charm, but I am in fact very charming. The aromas were textbook St.-Julien with smoky cassis, wet earth and spice expanding to reveal leather, cigar box, graphite and a hint of mushroom. I know there are those that decry "I spy" descriptors, but this a wine that wants its story told. The tannins were resolved, but there was still enough extract to lend some heft to the mouthfeel. The finish was long and lingering as it drifted on some welcome acidity. A surprise and a great experience. In contrast, the 1983 Ducru was a mess from the start. This wine was not supposed to taste this way and the volatile nature of it really destroyed all of the charm and most of the Ducru character. Tinny tomato eventually gave way to some smoky cassis and licorice, but by that point who cared. The finish was like Hobbes' life of man in the state of nature, nasty, brutish and short. I initially thought the 1996 Ducru was flawed as well, but notes of creamed corn quickly blew off and revealed layers of black currant, smoke and spice. The wine had similar damp earth characteristics to the 1966, although it lacked much of the nuance. It is not hard to imagine, however, this wine evolving into a wine much like it's older relative; there is clearly a family resemblance. While an admirable wine, I would say the elements of the wine still outweigh the sum. It started a bit angular and coltish at first, but righted itself admirably, smoothing out considerable with air. I would sit on these for a good 10 years as the fruit and structure can support it and time will ameliorate any disharmony that can be found in this youthful state.
We interrupt this Bordeaux tasting for a bottle of 1996 Harlan Estate. We will return to your regularly scheduled Bordeaux tasting shortly. I expected the best California Cabernet I had ever had and, while I'm not sure it passed that low bar, it was a truly profound and compelling wine. I always rail against the comparison of Napa to Bordeaux and the description of something in California as a First Growth, but I get it here. A wine of incredible concentration and precision, this wine is only beginning to unpack. The nose is a touch primary with onrushing sweet black fruit, vanillin and spice later sharing space with some tobacco, cedar and herbs. It enters the mouth seamlessly and the flavors intensify. This wine possesses great tannic structure to balance the great mass of sweet fruit and a wonderful acidity that drives the length of this wine. That always gets me, when the finish of a wine is not purely fruit driven, but ushered by acidity. It needs time, but ultimately may prove to be perfect. Now back to your regularly scheduled Bordeaux tasting.
Onward and back in time to 1982 and 1990. Those two vintages have produced some of the finest and most complete wines that I have ever tasted and drive my love of Bordeaux. Our first foray was with the 1982 Léoville Barton, a powerful, manly wine. This wine is such the personification of Claret, you can almost smell the tweed suit. I love these old school Clarets and this one had all the hallmarks with the reserved, but attractive, fruit standing aside for mature nuance of gun metal, bloody game, cedar and licorice. It is burly in the mouth with great weight and grip and the fruit fleshes out a bit, showing sweeter and more concentrated. The finish is sneaky long and runs along like the hum of a machine. We married this wine with its opposite, the gorgeous, sexy 1982 L'Evangile. The nose is generous with seductive black fruit sharing the stage with exotic spice, cedar and licorice. Silky, silky, silky with amazing concentration, this wine could be in the dictionary picture for Pomerol. On an evening of phenomenal wines, this stood out as a star and was my wine of the night. Next, we moved to the 1990 Cos d'Estournel, which was excellent, but suffered for its flight. Where as the 1982 Léoville Barton was a staid and stately wine, I found the Cos to be a bit standoffish and aloof. The black fruit was a touch of sweaty in an interesting Merlot sort of way and the nose had some really nice mature elements of wet earth, leather and tea. The wine is absolutely massive in the mouth with lots of fruit and tannin. My reaction to this wine is somewhat similar to the 1990 Léoville Barton, which is showing as a massive wall of wine right now, but should become a beautiful Claret in the style of the nicely realized 1982. I feel like I'm picking faults with this excellent wine simply because it wasn't as generous as the others, but do not forget the word excellent nor the word patience. In the other corner, a wine that requires no patience is the 1990 Lynch Bages, a bottle that fights well above its Fifth Growth weight class. I long ago fell in love with this wine and it turned out to be a first love for Ben Goldberg and Steve as well. It is one of the friendliest wines I've ever met. It is the Labrador retriever, it is the friend that lets you crash at his place, it is the girlfriend that tells you to go to Vegas with your buddies and means it. From a wine perspective, the thing I love about it is how it pops. I could go through the deep cassis, the dollop of vanilla, the extravagant weight in the mouth, the lush rich waves of dark fruit mingling with tobacco, earth and spice, if you'd like. Instead, I say enjoy. This wine wasn't the most profound wine of the night, but its impossible not to be seduced. Clearly, Brad fell in love as this was his wine of the night.
While we pondered this last wonderful flight, our glasses were pushed deeper to the middle of the table and three more were placed in front of us for some wines of lesser maturity if equal pedigree. What would an evening of Bordeaux be without a little infanticide? For example, I've already drunk through my stash of 1998 La Mission Haut-Brion, so I was glad that the other Ben brought one around. Massive, primary and a touch linear at this stage, it has a ton of personality and personality goes a long way. A modern and lush LMHB, it still retains classic Graves elements of charred wood and tar. It has amazing heft without any flabbiness. Lots of structure for sure, but this wine is about opulent fruit today and greatness tomorrow. I've had this wine several times and it has been a consistent performer. It was less sexy though than the 1999 Palmer. I'm really coming around on Palmer, a wine that I had written off as not to my taste. The last several Palmers I've had have been excellent and this was no exception. The nose was a heady blend of kirsch and chocolate with notes of licorice and herbs. It was very soft and surprisingly showy on the palate with opulent dark fruit. The second half of this wine was pretty fruit driven and I was a little surprised that there wasn't more tannin to frame the fruit. It wasn't flabby by any means, but I wonder where its going to go. I like it where it is though. I like as well the extremely youthful 2000 La Conseillante, the drinking of which was like interviewing a college kid for an intern job and trying to figure out whether they'd be an asset a few years from now. It was true Pomerol and very La Conseillante with pure dark raspberries, cocoa, licorice and spice. It had an appealing gentleness to it given its youth and prodigious structure. I thought I owned this wine and was very disappointed to find that I don't. This will be a star.
We finished the evening with a 1999 Rieussec. It has an appealing character of poached apples and spice, yet lacks the acidity to pull off its size. It starts wonderfully, but turns ponderous as there is no acid to cleanse the slate. Not a bad wine with some sharp cheese. I'd stay away from anything sweet though.