All wine lovers have a story they like to tell. Mine involves the claret-loving drummer of Iron Maiden, the band’s end-of-tour gig in Moscow and an after-show party I never attended. Others may remember a famous bottle, or a brush with winemaking royalty.
Iron Maiden has now been superseded by an event in Paris on a gorgeous late summer evening. As a wine writer, I’ve had my share of opportunities to taste fascinating wines: ancient Ports and shipwrecked Champagnes, verticals of Petrus and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, venerable Sherries, sprightly 70-year-olds from Coonawarra and Napa, cobwebbed bottles from the cellars of Chateau Musar. The Paris Legends dinner introduced me to a whole new world.
Omar Khan is a collector and bon viveur, what the French call an amateur de vin, serious enough about wine to have an annual spend easily reaching seven figures. An affable, sociable type, he loves to show fine wines to groups of like-minded people. Today, at the George V in Paris, he’s hosting the fifth dinner of a series he calls Convivia.
The 11-strong group includes London financiers fresh from Eurostar, a lawyer who has just brokered the purchase of a clutch of Bordeaux châteaux, a property developer, a New York wine merchant. They have in common a love of fine wine and the very finest food, as well as a willingness to pay several thousand pounds to enjoy bottles that no one is likely to see twice in a lifetime.
‘I want to create a kaleidoscope of wines that are rare and eminent,’ Khan tells me. ‘They are intriguing with their age and pedigree, and they are something a genuine wine lover will look at and say, “I cannot imagine another evening when I could possibly taste another range of wines like this.” But they are not all trophies. This is an evening for connoisseurs, not those looking for bragging rights.’
There’s a ’47, sure, but it’s from Burgundy. It’s a good but not great vintage, and it’s not nearly as sought after as Bordeaux from the same year. There’s a ’59 and a ’29, but they’re Rhônes, not Bordeaux or Burgundy, where wines from those vintages are among the greatest ever made.
Of course, at any gathering of this sort, provenance is a question that hangs heavy in the air. Memories of the great wine frauds of the past 20 years – from the infamous Jefferson bottles, to the forger Rudy Kurniawan – are still raw. Khan is aware of this, which is why he stresses the difference between connoisseurs’ wines and collectors’ wines. These wines are intriguing, but they aren’t prime targets for counterfeiters. ‘You’d be hard put to persuade me there’s a market for them. They’re not the kind of wines the really big collectors want to dine out on.’
After the cages are twisted from magnums of an electric Bollinger RD 1979, we file into dinner. Two more Champagnes: Charles Heidsieck 1945 and Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 1975. Both astonish. The ’45, its mousse by now a mere memory, is the colour of Palo Cortado with a Sherry-like nose to match, the palate vivacious, concentrated – a venerable wine. The ’75 is fresh as hedgerows after rain, with perfume of passion fruit, potpourri and rosewater.
We’re being looked after by one of the best chefs in France, the Michelin three-star Christian Le Squer, who has just sent out Dublin Bay prawns that I can only describe as an epiphany of succulence.
The first major flight is prepared: a trio of eminent white Burgundies with DRC Montrachet pre-eminent. Then a leap to Bordeaux, and the ’66 Laville Haut-Brion (the label was discontinued after 2008 – the grapes now go into La Mission Haut-Brion): honeyed, beautifully dry and balanced. Next, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the spicy and exotic Château Rayas; it’s as if a curtain in an elegant, faded drawing room has been pulled open to reveal a sensuous boudoir beyond.
The atmosphere is not one of veneration; rather, one of restrained glee, astonishment – and occasional resigned disappointment. The Mandive Vigo that begins the next flight pre-dates the Battle of Waterloo and with its luscious molasses would be easily taken for a good Pedro Ximénez. But then a fall to earth: the 1896 Corton is on the wane, and the Calon Ségur is dead on arrival; the Lafite Rothschild – 1880 – thrills many at the table with its violet-and-strawberry perfume, but to me it’s the mortal sweetness of bottled rot. But then the Cos d’Estournel, a youth compared to the rest of the flight, is buoyant, the tannins soft, with fine red cherry and hints of mint. It is a magnificent wine.
There are now plates of delicate veal sweetbreads on the table, vying for space with a forest of glasses. We dip in and out of previous vintages (some – the DRC – reveal depths only hinted at half an hour before), argue, lay down opinions. A pre-war Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny seduces with spice and Turkish delight; then the ’47 La Tâche, which, in a flight of soaring brilliance, is the finest of the evening for many around the table.
One of the joys of a tasting like this is that many of the wines are outside of almost everyone’s ken. ‘Who has ever tasted a 1780 Málaga?’ Khan asks. So it is with the next flight. In Bordeaux, 1955 was a fine year that produced some excellent wines, but they are very seldom shown. Opening with the Ausone is perhaps a mistake. Its astonishing prices (nowadays releases start at €600/$690 a bottle) seem to raise a few hackles.
‘The most overrated château in Bordeaux,’ one of the company mutters. No matter. This bottle was intense with fine potpourri on the mid-palate, with an agreeable finish that our host describes as a ‘waning lushness’. In contrast, La Mission Haut-Brion is wonderfully alive, as is the Mouton Rothschild, which is the highlight of a hedonistic flight of classified growths and prized Pomerols.
Into the final straight and a flight of Rhônes, led by the region’s titans, Chapoutier, Guigal and Jaboulet Aîné. The oldest wine of the flight, 1929 Chatel du Roy Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is still very much alive. ‘Improbably delightful,’ someone murmurs. The wines delight in equal measure: dried flowers, sweet dried raspberry and old armoire (as the Americans say) are the leitmotifs of the flight.
Le Squer has now conjured a Mediterranean dish of lamb and harissa sausage that doesn’t so much match the Hermitage as affirm it. An inspired chef will match not only flavour but texture. (Later, Le Squer worked a miracle with the ’34 Yquem, producing a soufflé as light as spindrift with a juicy blood-orange core.)
How to finish such an evening? Why, with a tongue-caressing Málaga that was made when Nelson was a midshipman. It’s often said that one of the wonders of wine is that it brings history to life. With every vintage, you’re tasting the essence of that year – so in the past few hours we have experienced the Napoleonic Wars and seen a frock-coated Gladstone in Downing Street; we’ve witnessed the end of a war in Champagne and the beginning of a century in St-Estèphe. It’s been quite a trip.