I suppose I asked for it. No sooner do I lament the baking hot weather than I am punished by a day so cold I woke up to find the cats huddled up to the heater, which had come on during the night. Ah, back to true summer in San Francisco. But that’s just fine by me; it made Sunday night’s decidedly wintry food and wine fit right in.
I’m very lucky to have my friend Phil. Not only is he a great friend, he’s a great cook. As if that were that not enough, he’s been buying Château Montelena on release for decades and storing it perfectly, and every once in a while he’ll pull out a mini-vertical to share with a few lucky friends. His birthday last weekend provided just such an occasion; Phil kindly brought forth the ’86, ’94, ’95, and ’96 Montelena to pair with his braised lamb shanks. Oddly, Phil, who is Scottish (see the tartan tablecloth?), and another friend Phil, who is English, have the same birthday, exactly 10 years apart. I won’t give out the years, but I thought I’d average their two birthdays and bring a ’61. Oops, that did give away the years, didn’t it? Sorry, Phil(s)! After some rummaging around in the cellar, I came across a 1961 Giacomo Borgogno Barolo Riserva that I thought might do the trick. And here are the tasting notes. Take these with a grain of salt — this was a dinner; a party, even. My attention was on my friends and the whole meal, though I did manage to dash off a quick tasting note or two.
- 1961 Borgogno Barolo Riserva. Old, traditional Nebbiolo might just be my greatest love in the world of wine, though wine has so many wonderfully diverse delights I hope I’m never asked to choose. Giacomo Borgogno e Figli, a historic producer, makes traditional-style wines made to last. So much so that the firm’s motto is “Il nostro miglior alleato è il tempo” — our greatest ally is time — and unlike most other Piemontese producers, they keep back a sizeable library of back vintages to trickle onto the market, sometimes decades later. Thus, the 1961 is still available directly from the producer’s cellars, and I had the fortune to taste one of these a few years ago at a trade tasting, where I recall that it was mature but with that timeless power of great Nebbiolo. This bottle, as you can see from the picture, is not one of those; it seems to have been released, well, whenever they first released the ’61 (Borgogno has a tradition of holding onto their wines for a decade or so prior to first release). I found it a few years back at a retailer I have no reason to distrust, but one never knows where a bottle has been! So I tried to keep my expectations in check as we opened the bottle. The color was in line with expectations, sort of a pale-plus garnet-ruby. From the glass sprung forth mature and fairly pronounced aromas of smoky, dried porcini (some at the table suggested salty bacon), dried leaves, and rose hip, with hints of mineral and butterscotch. The medium-bodied wine had moderate but slightly astringent tannins, surprising concentration, medium-high acidity, and a long, long, complex finish. Very pretty. Quite a bit more evolved than the direct-from-producer bottle I recall, but a real treat. We all nursed this for as long as we could, enjoying the development in the glass.
- 1986 Château Montelena. The first wine of the Montelena quartet (an unpublished Lawrence Durrell novel?). I suppose my wine tastes run more towards the European, but anyone who says “I don’t like wines from despisedregion” or “I only like wines from favoriteregion” is doing themselves a massive disservice. The beauty of wine is its incredible diversity, and there’s something special from almost every region. Montelena is one of the producers that makes the Napa Valley special, not just because they won at the original Judgment of Paris, but because they continue to produce powerful yet balanced wines in an area where that seems increasingly rare, whether by avoiding malolactic fermentation in their Chardonnay or by their early-ish harvest dates. At any rate, here’s this wine: Deep ruby-garnet, with a medium-pronounced, mature nose of porcini, hints of rubber and leather. Medium-full bodied, medium-plus acidity, with medium-low slightly drying tannins. The nose is quite pretty, and the wine is quite complex, but fading a little: the finish is cut short by the drying tannins. The consensus seemed to be: a lovely wine, but if you’ve got it in your cellar, drink it sooner rather than later.
- 1996 Château Montelena. Deep ruby, this wine started off quite closed, but opened up to reveal medium-pronounced, developing aromas of plum and black cherry, a green pepper note, and hints of dried leaves and tar. Full-bodied, with medium-high acidity, alcohol and tannin, it has lovely focus on the palate with a long, complex finish. Not a massive wine, but one that plays on elegance. The structure, concentration and the time it took to open up suggest that this has years to go. My favorite of the four.
- 1995 Château Montelena. Medium-plus ruby with hints of orange. A floral nose, with raspberry candy, violet, and a hint of herbaceousness. Medium body, medium(+) acidity, medium-high alcohol, medium(+) slightly hard tannin, with a fairly long and complex finish. This wine seemed fresh and remarkably youthful, but with more ripe exuberance and less restrained elegance than the ’96. My second favorite of the bunch.
- 1994 Château Montelena. Medium-plus ruby, with medium-intensity, developing aromas. The wine had an odd, rubbery, perhaps reduced character at first. As it opened up, I got raspberry/cherry notes and a hint of tar, all overwhelmed by the “rubbery” character. Medium-high acidity, medium slightly hard tannins. The alcohol (14%) came across as slightly hot, cutting the finish a little short, and the wine seemed a little one-dimensional. This was a famously ripe vintage, and despite the accolades, I preferred the complexity and relative restraint of both the ’95 and the ’96. Phil was disappointed with the bottle, and swore this was remarkably different than a “mindblowing” example he’d had only a few days earler. I guess bottle variation is part of the beauty and mystery of wine. I can only say that this particular bottle didn’t really do it for me, though I’d gladly try another! If this example were typical, I’d say drink up; it had richness but didn’t seem to have the complexity, structure or length to suggest ageworthiness.
Well, there you have it, if you wanted it! It was a fantastic evening, but as always, it’s the friends that make the wines taste special. The rest is just a bunch of glass and liquid, and I’m sure my paltry notes don’t even do that proper justice. Happy birthday, Phil! Thanks for sharing with us.