Tiffany and I are the most unlikely couple to hit the sports pages of The Daily Telegraph, but we are in the image accompanying their article, ‘Cadillacs and chandeliers in a car park like no other’ enjoying a glorious day at Royal Ascot. In fact, what the camera missed was the extraordinary selection of wines on our picnic table that were totally befitting for the headline.Celebrating his 50th birthday, Tim, one of our party, decided he would raise the bar a little this year. “I think we’ll have my last two bottles of 1996 Château Margaux with our main course this year,” he told me a few weeks ago. Not wanting to deter him, I most definitely wasn’t going to spurn the opportunity to enjoy one of the world’s greatest clarets, picnic or not. But it did somewhat put the pressure on the rest of us to turn up with something good, and boy did everyone come to the party!!
Tom, fellow wine merchant and friend, arrived rather sentimentally with a Magnum of Millennium Cuvée Pol Roger, selected by me in my previous life as Buying Director for our friends and competitors Berry Brothers & Rudd. It was disgorged in 1998 so as to be at its peak on New Year’s Eve 1999. Today, with an additional and unplanned 17 years bottle age, the question was how would it fair? The cork fell out without even a sigh… a moment of panic as just before, whilst unwrapping the foil, I had rather boldly extolled that I had been responsible for the blending of this delicious cuvee, and now it was going to be flat!! In fact, deep golden yellow in colour, the mousse was still there, gentle and persistent, full of deep brioche and yeasty biscuit aromas. The wine was rich and, powerfully concentrated. With 20 years’ age, it is possibly more a food wine rather than an aperitif, and so accompanied the smoked salmon canapes perfectly. Just before moving on to the claret Tom declared a palate cleanser was in order and so 2004 Dom Pérignon it was! I simply love this wine for its elegance, purity and lovely perfumed floral characteristics offering a brilliant contrast for DP lovers (of which I am one) to the powerfully structured and more turbo-charged 2002.
1996 Ch Margaux must rank as one of the greatest wines of the last century and for many the finest wine to be made by the late and much missed Paul Pontallier during his 30 plus years as wine director at the château. My challenge was to find a lead-in wine that would do Tim’s Margaux justice, without overpowering it. So, I plumped for 1998 Ch Pape Clément from Pessac-Léognan a neighbour to Ch Haut-Brion. I loved this wine at the primeur tastings back in 1999, but haven’t tasted it since. It most definitely lived up to my expectations and proved the perfect foil and lead. Maintaining the characteristic boldness of the ‘98 vintage, Pessac was arguably the most successful of all the appellations in this vintage. The Pape Clément still remains youthful, with a lovely brooding smokiness and an almost medicinal character with structured dark black fruits and hints of fresh tobacco leaf and spice. On its own it would have been a highlight, but on this occasion, it had to play second fiddle to the great 1996 Ch Margaux. Words sadly cannot do justice to this wine: now 21 years old, it has poise, elegance and refinement, whilst still maintaining a core of cassis and currant fruits, the tertiary flavours are evolving to provide layers of complexity, and the characteristic freshness gives lift and life to what is a truly glorious wine.
The day finished, our wallets a little lighter, full of smiles and happiness a glass of St Baillon Rosé en magnum and the road home, courtesy of our friendly driver Richard the Hare.
Purists, I am sure, would be highly critical and even question the extreme of drinking such fantastic wines in 30 degrees of heat, at a picnic in a car park! I couldn’t disagree more. For me some of the most memorable wines I have had are as much about the occasion as in their intrinsic quality. I have in my time experienced wines of exceptional quality but in the most sterile of conditions and they have left little or no memory. We, in contrast, had a truly wonderful day. Granted the conditions may not have been perfect, but the company most certainly was, our wives’ picnic delicious, and one thing is for sure, none of us will ever forget such a delicious collection of wines, and the flavours of the Margaux yesterday were, for me, even more enjoyable than on any of the other occasions I have enjoyed the fabled 1996, which incidentally is fellow friend and director Jamie Strutt’s wine of his lifetime…
On reflection, the headline would have been better written “Cadillacs, claret and chandeliers in a car park like no other.”