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David from Switzerland

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WTN: Weekend with Ambrus

by David from Switzerland » Thu Aug 09, 2007 7:28 pm

Our new friend Ambrus from Hungary flew over for the weekend from London, also had Albino, Andrea and Rainer for dinner on Saturday, all at my parents’ house.

Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Rangen de Thann Clos St-Urbain 1994
Kept my last bottle for Ambrus, after another I had taken to Alsace when we first met was cork-tainted. Full, quite deep yellow-gold. Strong volcanic minerality and iron, the typical bitter note, grapefruity aged dandelion. An intense, quite highly concentrated wine, hugely minerally on the mid-palate and aftertaste. Still quite full-bodied and powerful, not alcoholic at all, but loosing rather than gaining harmony lately. Strong acidity that has turned a bit brittle, more noticeably so by the following day, when this smelled of verbena and stale saffron powder, and tasted of stale chamomile tea. Seems on its way to get a bit cheesy with age. Drink up! Rating: 91-/90-!

René Rostaing Côte-Rôtie Côte Blonde 1998
More youthful, more primary from my cellar than the bottle Markus brought to the Gupf a year ago, just as convincing, but in such pristine condition, this really needs more bottle age. Still lightly purple ruby with black reflections. Clean iron and violet, some white apricoty blossoms. Lightly jammy strawberry. A touch of lavender to the tannin, nice metal underpinning. Some smoky graphite. Clean bacon fat with a little airing. Quite full-bodied, very long. 12 hours later this showed more garrigue, mainly roasted rosemary, medium grey and green pepper. Racy and well-focused. Black pepper tannin and aftertaste. Rating: 94+

Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 1997
Ruby-black, purple hue. Smoky complexity on the nose, fruitier, or rather, as this seems to have entered its plateau of maturity, more subtly fruity, more refined and sophisticated than Rostaing’s 1998 Côte Blonde at this comparatively early stage, more complex on the palate, more barnyardy, less pure. The longer it aired, the more accessible it seemed next to the Rostaing, tasting as if several years older. More rusty kind of iron underpinning to the minerality here. Longer, more finesseful. “This is what I would want to make” is what Ambrus said – I was glad he could see why we all love the Chave style so much. The 1997 should keep for many more years, but I would not hesitate pulling a cork now and then: the tannin seemed less dry than of a bottle from the same case three quarters of a year ago, even so, in comparison to the Rostaing’s mouthfilling juiciness in this regard, I thought it would be a pity to stretch this tasty, easy-to-interpret vintage of Chave too hard. Rating: 93

Emmanuel Rouget Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux 1997
The last vintage of Emmanuel Rouget bottlings to be vinified by his by then officially retired uncle Henri Jayer (Rouget apparently suffered some health problems at harvest time). Medium-dark ruby-black, with a faint purple hue left. Faint roast duck fat to raspberry, a 1997 with impressive subtlety, some quite noble tobacco leaf. Mild beef juice, increasingly precise raspberry, fresher with a little airing (pulled the cork and poured it, albeit into the huge Riedel fishbowls), nicely so for a wine from this vintage, showing more minerality, length and sweetness, as well as soft smoke, blue and white blossoms or “floral” berries. Interestingly, Albino thought it must be from a high-acid vintage, Rainer was convinced from the get-go it must be a 1997 – and a typical (if a rather good) one it is. Having grown up in a house where Burgundy is being served at the dinner table more often than any other red wine, I agree with my mother that 1997 is not the kind of vintage that emphasizes the characteristics Pinot Noir lovers look for most – 1997s that are typically sizeable yet make believe none of their finesse (and terroir typicity) got cooked out by the heat seem exceedingly rare (Dugat-Py, Jadot and Hubert Lignier are producers that made at least a handful such examples). While I again prefer the Cros Parantoux to the Echézeaux, either is a far cry from the respective 1996. Ambrus half-surprised me finding this “bigger than the 1997 Chave, if not Rostaing’s 1998 Côte Blonde as well”. Rouget’s 1997 Cros Parantoux seems to hold (tempting to say: hide!) some upwards potential, in other words, we are resolved to keep our paws off remaining bottles for at least two to five more years. Rating: 92+?

István Németh Badacsonyi Aszú 2005
Thanks to Ambrus. Technically a 5 Puttonyos, even if not labelled as such. Composed of a fermenting Riesling base must (making up for ca. 80% of the total) and Welschriesling Aszú (dry) berries. Included in it were the 2 liters of Welschriesling Eszencia that achieved about 800 g/l residual sugar. The finished product holds 127 g/l residual sugar, 59 g/l dry extract, 11 g/l acidity, and somewhere between 11 and 11.5% alcohol. About 300 liters were made and bottled in half liter bottles. Actually forgot to note the colour, but remember it as a medium-deep strawy gold. Smelled and tasted very much like a Tokaji Föbor (the “prime wine” produced in the Tokaj region since the 15th/16th century, that is, before the invention of the Aszú-szölö bor – probably the best-known modern bottling trying to emulate Föbor is István Szepsy’s Tokaji Cuvée, even if he apparently sacrifices some of this best Aszú material and/or adds Eszencia sometimes to improve quality) right after the cork was pulled (note Rainer said Wachau-like, Albino Neusiedlersee-like, but Ambrus agreed with my Föbor notion – no wonder, as the wine appears to have been bottled in April following the harvest), primary as of a sweet bread dough with the faintly smoky-flinty metal underpinning of the region (the basalt soil there contains iron, magnesium and potassium aplenty), cleanly floral-buttery botrytis like acidic spring butter, touches of grapefruit (that tiny volcanic soil bitter note) and limey herbs, later also pineapple, elderflower and lemon. Guesses at the grape varieties included Welschriesling (as Albino said, inimitably, “too much of it” – as it showed on Saturday evening, I would have believed it if Ambrus had said it was Welschriesling, that is, both base must and Aszú berries), Chardonnay and Grauburgunder. Not too complex at this stage, but as Ambrus said, this needs plenty of airing, so we retasted it about 15 hours later, at which point the primary-tropical Welschriesling seemed to have subsided, and the metal soil notes-driven and softly smoky-minerally Riesling started to dictate, and the wine finally smelled and tasted more Aszú- than Föbor-like. Dominant pear liqueur, the prevalent iron seemed to have yielded to a rubbery magnesium top note, nice bitter almond and hazelnut paste. Ambrus explained that in Hungary, people believe volcanic soil to be most interesting, and alkaline soil best for grape growing, so basalt (less acidic than slate and the richest in potassium) is favourite. Rainer and I found the wine clearly more fascinating on Sunday, hinting at more depth. Still, I must say Welschriesling fruit components tend to be more static (sometimes even heavy-handed, though not here) in general, less airy or floating than what I like, and I really started pricking up my ears at the prospect of Aszú made from Riesling base must and dry berries. Had the last glass when the bottle was open 24 hours, at which point the wine seemed nicely harmonious but again a bit flatter. Fair enough length, the aftertaste is not too remarkable. Not easy to judge at this stage perhaps, and there is so much to be said in favour of the soil notes, it is easy to see potential in Badacsony wines, of which I have little doubt the four examples we have so far tasted rank among the finest of modern times. It is, after all, another neglected, but historic, once highly-regarded wine-growing region. Rating: ~90(+?)

Úri Borok (Vince Gergely) Tokaji Aszúessencia 1993
Ambrus proudly told me he was able to convince Gergely to sell him his very last bottle of this single-vineyard Bojta insider’s legend and was resolved to hold on to it, but clearly looked sad he had never had an opportunity to taste it – a wine that may serve as a model of controlled-oxidative Aszú (note the term is nonsensical, not to be taken literally since it has less to do with “control” than minimal interference, but then it was coined by wine critics rather than the producers themselves). Gergely still speaks of it as his greatest achievement, and indeed it is the kind of wine that one might, from a purely quantitative perspective, imagine bigger, sweeter, richer, fuller-bodied, what not – but never more complete, balanced, harmonious, longer. I was reminded of one afternoon during harvest in 1999, with Albino having fallen asleep on the sofa in István Szepsy’s living room, when, in his inimitably humble yet confident way, he expressed his hope a yet greater vintage would one day allow him to show the world what ideally, Tokaji Aszú should be like, using the characteristics of the 1999 musts (actually, grape juices) we had just tasted as a vehicle to get this ideal across. That moment remains one of the most memorable lessons I ever learnt on what the “perfect” wine is all about, particularly because of what István never even mentioned: none of those quantitative attributes modern wine critics are so obsessed with! The reason, in hindsight, is so simple and obvious that it is easily overlooked: must weight, concentration, dry extract, acids, seemingly everything to do with superlatives appears a given in Tokaj. An ambitious vintner’s “problems” or at least Szepsy’s preoccupation seemed to lie elsewhere: the characteristics I remember István gave most emphasis to were roundness and smoothness of mouthfeel, balance, early as well as potential harmony, length. The ultimate in great Aszú would have to be inoffensive, glide across one’s tongue and coat one’s palate effortlessly, with its depth and ultimately its seriousness of stature growing on you gradually. No wonder, then, that Gergely’s 1993 AE won such accolades in Hungary. Having said this, I am increasingly convinced it should be left alone for a while. Fascinating golden amber-orange colour. Seemingly more oxidative than ever immediately after the cork was pulled, a sure sign its fruit phase is coming to an end. Dried apricot mainly with a top note roasted almond, perfectly integrated, somewhat less of the typical, gorgeous green tea. Still deep, complex and so long, just in need of half a day’s airing at this stage. Retasting this 12 to 15 hours later, it had opened up considerably, tasting thicker, richer, sweeter and more tea-like, with the Japanese green tea notes now slowly evolving towards more classic black tea, tobacco, and banana leaf. Rainer thought it also showed almost Aussie Shiraz-like herbs, eucalyptus among other. Candied orange, dried apricot, gorgeous honey with touches of acacia and oak, and perhaps at this stage an oak-like little rancio top note. Hugely long on the finish. This seems to have maneuvered itself into an awkward in-between phase lately and may now demand ample time in the cellar – as with many truly great wines, following a monolithic primary (when it smelled and tasted almost like a passito of Muscat de Lunel, so purely tangerine-like) and prolonged fruit phase, it is likely it is going to take equally long until it enters its true plateau of maturity. What I am now curious to see is whether, as I have experienced so often with other great wines, the differences of winemaking will increasingly disappear with bottle age – of course the winemaking here is already of the magic, self-effacing kind. Rating: 96+/97+?

Robert Weil Riesling Auslese #11 Kiedricher Gräfenberg 2006
From half bottle. Pale green “colour”. Much less BA-like in sweetness, balance and character than Weil customers have come to expect, this for once is no understatement bottling: it comes across as a standard Auslese, even if a sweet one, so certainly from a qualitative perspective. Primary apple and mild linden blossom, barely any of the typical honey dew melon, just a little stone dust. Elegant if light for what it is, good length, some retro-olfaction to medium acidity. Ambrus feels it lacks the body and dry extract to go with its sweetness. A bit oilier mouthfeel after 30 hours from the fridge, lovely clean botrytis kiss after all, more tropical vanilla-tinged apple blossom and mild physalis, soft honey dew melon. Shows a better medium-plus sense of density, extract and viscosity, depth and complexity of fruit and slate subtlety, as well as fairly impressive length. The Gräfenberg Spätlese is clearly the more successful wine in this vintage, at half the price (being a quality and not a sugar hunter, I could not care less about what is indicated on the label). On the face of it, the 2006 Gräfenberg Auslese may still seem pretty enough, but in view of past vintages (again, the last decade-plus), it is really a relative disappointment, and as such badly overpriced. Rating: 89+/90?

Robert Weil Riesling Auslese #19 Kiedricher Gräfenberg 1995
From half bottle. Luminescent if quite deep golden yellow. Retains good CO2, keeping it additionally fresh no doubt. Tender golden saffron top note to camomile and lightly roasted Côte d’Ivoire mango and pineapple, raisins in (white) rum, dandelion, integrated clean, almost a bit crunchy botrytis, thicker mouthfeel than the 2006, more BA-like in sweetness and balance, subjectively at least more noticeable extract (although probably still not super-high), thus fuller body in every respect (label indicates 8.5% versus 8% alcohol). Strong, more flavourful, orangey acidity. Slatier character, more viscous, more complex and persistent, longer. Ambrus liked this significantly better than the 2006, as did Rainer and me, not just because it is half mature, thus showing mild tertiary characteristics, but in overall expression, depth, intensity and balance. This still youthful wine nevertheless started closing down in the glass after an hour or two. Rating: 93+?

Greetings from Switzerland, David.
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„J'ai gâché vingt ans de mes plus belles années au billard. Si c'était à refaire, je recommencerais.“ – Roger Conti

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