Just imagine being in an empty hall when you see a number of strangers walking towards you with their hands outstretched. You grab them, say a polite ‘Hello’ and then continue in different directions. Instead, think how much more interesting and informative it would be to meet one of them, sit down and have a wide–ranging chat for an hour or two. To me, that’s the difference between a restaurant meal with wine pairings and spending time with a whole bottle. My real gripe occurs when you are offered a kaleidoscope of wines said to precisely match different dishes. The problem is that wine is a living thing, so in all likelihood it won’t be in optimum condition, or have been open for long enough, or even be at the ideal temperature for its fleeting moment on the stage.
All this logic implodes, though, when you are dealing with the rarest and greatest wines on the planet. For a start, unless you run a bank or rob one, chances are you can’t afford to acquaint yourselves with a whole bottle, let alone a selection of bottles. In Burgundy, there are only two domaines that rival each other in terms of greatness and price — Domaines Romanée-Conti and Leroy. I have drunk dozens of DRC wines but not even a handful of Leroy — they just don’t turn up, especially fully mature ones. However, this deprivation was rectified recently, thanks to the generosity of a Scandinavian collector who offered his Leroy-produced wines at below cost for a dinner in London so that people like me could understand what the fuss is all about. He met Lalou Bize-Leroy, the owner, when he was a student hitch-hiking through Burgundy and has been allocated them on release for nearly 30 years.
In Burgundy, everyone is related to each other, so it is no surprise that Lalou’s family also has a stake in Domaine Romanée-Conti, although Lalou was thrown off the management committee in the early 1990s for some under-the-counter sales to Japan and the States. Lalou is one of the trickier wine people in France. During blind tastings, she takes notes of what distinguished wine writers say and then reads out their verdicts when they get it wrong. Roald Dahl was once sent to do a profile of her and produced an unprintable account of his fury at not even being offered a single sip from her vineyards. Still, no one denies that Lalou is one of the greatest wine makers on the planet, even now in her 85th year.
Our Scandinavian host provided eight different wines, all but two from the superb 2002 vintage, at a dinner organised by a new wine company called Wine Owners at La Trompette in Chiswick.
There was little danger of the dishes clashing with the wines as they were specifically chosen to complement the food rather than vice versa. Each dish was served with two wines — in the case of the langoustine tails with gnochetti and black truffle, it was an Auxey-Duresses Les Clous and a Puligny-Montrachet En La Richarde, both from the Domaine d’Auvenay 2002 vintage. To begin with, the Puligny won hands-down with its effortless balance and citric edge. By comparison, the humbler Auxey had the flintiness and searing acidity of a young Chablis. But, half an hour later, the Auxey emerged from its shell and stunned everyone with its minerality and focus. This village wine made the Premier Cru Puligny taste almost flabby.
The reds, too, produced surprises — the Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes 2002 from Domaine Leroy was my favourite of the night, despite some fierce competition from Grand Crus such as Latricières-Chambertin and Richebourg. At this stage of their evolution the Chambolle had weightlessness and balance while the Richebourg had a great deal of coiled energy, but needed several more years to open up.
This was certainly the most memorable Burgundy tasting I have ever been to. Everyone agreed that the most extraordinary thing was how each and every wine perfectly expressed itself and gave no sign of being in a particular house style. These are wines that were sometimes just a few hundred yards from each other in the vineyard and yet had completely different personalities and levels of maturity. Lalou might be acerbic and obsessive about biodynamic principles, but I can forgive her quite a lot when the result is so near perfection.