Some people live in dread of surprises, but not me. One of my greatest pleasures is going for a meal, meeting some life-enhancing person for the first time and tasting a wine I’ve never had before. Recently, Adam Brett-Smith, managing director of wine merchants Corney & Barrow, invited me to lunch with Andrea Franchetti, an Italian winemaker I hadn’t met before, though his distant cousin was familiar. His relative owns one of the most spectacular villas in Tuscany and speaks with a convincing Cockney accent he picked up from his nanny.
We tasted a handful of Andrea’s 2017 wines — still brooding and surly, but impressive bones to flesh out. Before we sat down, a Berncasteler Doctor Riesling Spätlese ’08 was served — a supremely delicate lemon sorbet with a hint of cream. So far so good.
Then the surprise. I had thought it would be the 1997 Palazzi, Andrea’s impressive Merlot-based red from southern Tuscany, but instead it was a white Burgundy I had read about for decades but never tasted, the Montrachet from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The entire appellation is not even 20 acres and the DRC portion is less than 10 per cent of this, which means total annual production is a couple of hundred cases. That makes it difficult to get hold of, and bottles can change hands for more than £5,000. Corney & Barrow, the UK agents for DRC, allocates these wines to its best customers at somewhat lower prices, but still high enough to put them beyond everyday drinking.
I recall tasting ‘ordinary’ Montrachet for the first time at the Tate Gallery restaurant, when half-bottles of Mouton Rothschild were £5. Someone had offered me a glass, so the next time I had lunch there I rashly told the sommelier to start off with a bottle of that nice Montrachet. It was 1978, and at the end of lunch came the shock of having to pay £20 for a bottle.
The DRC Montrachet 2011 tasted last week was poured straight from the bottle without decanting. It was an intense gold colour; the nose was all spring flowers, but that changed with the first taste. There was a fleeting hint of a familiar vegetable — asparagus? — before a rush of marmalade and minerals. Normally with a great wine, there is a ‘dumb’ phase before it is properly aired, but this was full throttle instantly.
Le Montrachet is a relative newcomer in the DRC stable, with three small plots purchased between 1963 and 1980, though most of the vines are more than 60 years old. Most white Burgundies are well beyond their peak after 20 years, but Adam assures me that the ’69 is still totally expressive, and the greatest one he has ever tasted.
After an hour or so in the glass, our Montrachet was turning slightly to butterscotch with a peppery aftertaste, but the mineral backbone kept it amazingly clean and fresh. Montrachet’s greatness is due to its harmony and balance. The only white Burgundy I have had that came close to this was a ’99 Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet from Leflaive — one of the four other Grand Cru whites with Montrachet in their title. This too had precision and elegance, but ended with a tiny tingle which suggested it was not yet fully mature. In some ways, I prefer a wine to show a minuscule imperfection so that you have something to explore the next time.
I realise this is far too abstruse for many wine lovers and it is doubtful that I will ever taste DRC Montrachet again. Fortunately, there are many white Burgundies around for a fraction of the price, though there isn’t much worth drinking under £20 a bottle. The less grand communes in white Burgundy, such as Rully, Montagny, Givry and Mercurey, can offer highly enjoyable wines, especially from the exceptional 2014 vintage.
There was another surprise in store, in L’Epicure, the three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. Sommelier Marco Pelletier, formerly of Taillevent, is an old friend, and when it came to the wine he said: ‘Would you like to be surprised?’ The red was a luscious 30-year-old Beaujolais (a Moulin à Vent ’86 from Jadot) but the white was harder to place. It was quite steely and austere but beautifully focused — perhaps a Corton-Charlemagne? It turned out to be a ’95 Bourgogne Blanc from Leflaive — in other words, a generic village wine, but so perfect that I was extremely happy to be fooled.