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May/June 2018: 2012 Montelena Estate, 2002 Gracia, 2014 Jean-Louis Chavy Puligny-Montrachet, 1998 Penley Estate

August 15, 2018

Veuve Clicquot Rose Brut, drunk over dimsum lunch at Asia Grand, 01 May 2018. Deep orangey hue, displaying overtones of grapefruit, tangerines and mandarins with good concentration, freshness and zest on a dense minerally base. Finished with dry blazing intensity.

2008 Rockford Black Shiraz, popped and poured at  Otto Ristorante, 08 May 2018. Exuding effusive tones of rich dark plums and black cherries layered with strong overtones of mocha and licorice, this is a beautiful example of Black Shiraz at its best, displaying excellent concentration of ripe dark Barossa shiraz with great linearity and definition underscored by a deep liquered presence, thoroughly open and engaging with some emerging complexity, finishing with seductive sweetness and intoxicating sophistication. Outstanding

2005 Mount Mary Quintet, popped and poured at  Otto Ristorante, 08 May 2018, courtesy of John Law. Malt, rye and hot stones on the nose that was rather reticent at the start, though the palate oozes with dry subtle sweet tannins coming from an excellent depth of dark fruits and black currants, developing some bright spots with velvety textures and supple acidity. Drinking well. Excellent.

1998 Penley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, popped and poured at Wah Lok, 11 May 2018. Deep garnet red. Powerful bouquet of ripe dark berries, raspberries and blackcurrants amidst earthy tones, cedar and roasted coffee. Still amazingly tight, developing further notes of black fruits tinged with licorice and dark plums. Well extracted. Mellowed quite quickly, opening up with good detail and transparency with mild sandy textures and crisp acidity, turning more expansive and minty at its finish. Excellent, though still seemingly far from its peak.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV, tasted at Changi Airport T3 Krisflyer lounge, 26 May 2018. Gentle yeasty and crystalline tones amidst an ample spread of yellow citrus, displaying clear definition, its very fine soft bubbles offering excellent presence and depth on a bed of distinct ferrous minerals. Very fine.

2015 Albert Bichot Saint-Veran, tasted at Changi Airport T3 Krisflyer lounge, 26 May 2018. Distinct grassy elements with traces of nutmeg, medium-bodied. Rather placid though well-rounded with good presence of understated white fruits, chalky tones and acidity, tapering to a gentle finish. Very serviceable.

2009 Ch Le Doyenne, popped and poured at Ka Soh, 29 May 2018. Dark purple. Quite generous in dark fruits violets and blueberries on the nose though this sleeper of a wine is now less flattering on the palate compared with previous tastings. Good concentration, acidity and suppleness but missing in opulence, a little nondescript this time.

2004 Domaine Paul Aine Jaboulet Le Chevalier de Sterimberg, popped and poured at Imperial Treasure Asia Square, 30 May 2018. A luxurious sheen of creme and vanillin flavours dominate on the nose and palate, displaying good complexity with an aged stony glow of caramelized paraffin amidst aromas of glutinous leaves, replete with an opulent mid-body. The best bottle of this wine I’ve ever had. Excellent.

2007 Clos du Marquis, popped and poured at Imperial Treasure Asia Square, 30 May 2018 (courtesy of Ben). Deep purple, displaying excellent depth of blackcurrants, dark cherries and strawberries, highly supple, imbued with graphite minerals that shone with fine detail. Surprisingly good for the vintage.

2015 Maison de Montille Saint Romain, popped and poured at Asia Grand, 03 June 2018. Ample in green fruits and green melons with traces of icing on a delicate chalky base, very well balanced and open with  transparent textures, showing plenty of verve though it is generally rather understated, finishing with a minerally trail. Great value at SGD59.

1986 Ch Leoville Poyferre, popped and poured at  Otto Ristorante, 04 June 2018. This wine opened with quite a bit of bottle stink, distinctly medium-bodied, proffering aged rosy notes, light cherries and raspberries with traces of wood, still possessing intense acidity that imparted some lovely tension across the earthy minerally palate, finishing won a stern note of iron filings. Slightly past its prime.

2006 E Guigal Chateau D’Ampuis, courtesy of Sanjay at  Otto Ristorante, 04 June 2018. Bright with an exuberance of red fruits and cherries that exude a rosy feminine fragrance, medium-bodied, gentle on the palate with detailed tannin structure amidst great suppleness, developing a lighter tone of bright citrus over time. Very lovely.

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2002 Ch Gracia, courtesy of Vic at  Otto Ristorante, 04 June 2018. Endowed with an abundance of dark roses on the nose and palate, exuding a lovely feminine fragrance with great purity of fruit, soft and rounded, layered with excellent depth of dark fruit that grew in intensity over time.

2005 Ch Lynch Bages, courtesy of MH at  Otto Ristorante, 04 June 2018. Rather backward at this stage, exuding an understated bouquet of dark roses, dark cherries and blackcurrants though there’s undoubtedly a generous abundance of fruit beneath the rounded sheen of ash and earthy pungency, very open and gently layered. Unexpectedly feminine. Could do with a bit more focus at its finish. Not ready.

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve NV, on board Singapore Airlines premium economy SQ32 SIN-SFO, 10 Jun 2018. Forward balance of light yellow citrus and clear fruits encased within a lovely glow of chalk and yeasty tones. Open with subtle dry intensity, displaying excellent fullness and presence, finishing well. Surprisingly good.

2016 Vina Borgia, on board Singapore Airlines premium economy SQ32 SIN-SFO, 10 Jun 2018. Earthy tones, wild berries, twigs and forest floor dominate with an abundance of dark plums and dark cherries, slightly forward. Agreeable but nondescript.

20180611_190422.jpg2014 Domaine Jean-Louis Chavy Puligny-Montrachet, a half bottle from the list of Michael Mina, San Francisco, on 11 June 2018 to celebrate our 24th wedding anniversary. Displaying a beautiful luminous glow, this wine produced quite an arresting bouquet of creme de la creme and chalky minerals matched by a glorious presence of dense white fruits and floral characters on the palate. Utterly refined, rich and elegant, developing some early complexity as it tapered towards a long glowing finish. You simply can’t go wrong with 2014 burgundy white from any producer. Superb.

2012 Ch Montelena Estate, a half bottle from the list of Michael Mina, San Francisco, on 11 June 2018. Violets, dark cherries, exotic spice and a dash of bell pepper dominate on the nose while the palate is richly layered with dark cherries, raspberries and mulberries that conferred great ripeness, detail and lovely intensity, structured by pliant chewy tannins. Highly supple though rather understated in acidity, becoming more dry and earthy over time, finishing on a note of ground pepper and spice. Excellent.

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2016 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Chardonnay, a half bottle at Fish Hopper’s, Monterey Bay, 16 June 2018. Good presence of green fruits, zesty lime and citrus, its crisp acidity a fresh clean feel, developing further notes of white flowers and vanillin later with pronounced grainy minerals. Not bad at all.

2016 Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, a half bottle from the list of John’s Grill, San Francisco, 16 June 2018. This wine offer a good concentration of ripe raspberries and dark cherries, forward in fruit balance with a touch of earthiness amidst its dry intensity, developing further nuances of cedar and sweet incense over time though it never got any further. Serviceable.

1982 Joseph Perrier, 2000 Pichon Baron, 2001 Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche, 2002 Bouchard Montrachet, 1989 d’Yquem

August 7, 2018

20180520_121457.jpgSanjay very generously laid on a lunch party at Cassia, La Capella Resorts at Sentosa, Singapore, on 20 May 2018 where not only has he (or perhaps more likely the wifey?) arranged a full 8-course Cantonese cuisine of the highest order, he had also sponsored the entire line-up of top flight wines. Only God knows the raison d’tre for the occasion but the lucky ones like me who were invited were definitely not complaining. We began with not one, but two champagnes. The 1982 Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale Brut, poured from magnum, displayed a lovely depth of citrus, lime and pomelo, firm and well-delineated with overtones of smoke, gentle yeasty tones and a delicate trace of ember, still amazingly crisp and fresh with a wonderful deftness and transparency, finishing well on a note of bitter lemon amidst dry intensity. Superb. In contrast, the 2004 Champagne Salon Cuvee S, undoubtedly younger, is a different sort of creature, exuding a light luminous glow on the nose that led to darker savoury tones on the earthy palate tinged with yeast and wild flowers, appropriately dry in its intensity of fruit, fleshing out with excellent detail.

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We moved on to a glorious pair of whites. I initially thought the 2001 Domaine Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru may have been tinged with traces of oxidation, but this disappeared  after some time to yield light grassy tones on the nose coupled with excellent depth of delicate lime and clear citrus with traces of nutmeg supported by deeper green elements, very cleanly focused, finishing with lovely glowing intensity. The 2002 Bouchard Pere et Fils Montrachet Grand Cru was shy at first, taking its time to open up with a deep complex of crème de la crème and chalk laced with elements of glycerine and agar, all the while restrained and backward, eventually developing silky intensity with glowing plummy tones on a base of distinct saline minerals, finishing with exotic spice and white flowers. Rather ethereal in its elegance and poise, very much the Holy Grail of all whites. Outstanding, but still far from its peak.

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The pair of reds that followed was equally outstanding. The 2001 Domaine Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, as usual, displayed a deeper tone of ruby, exuding a lovely perfumed fragrance of predominant red fruits, rose petals and red currants, distinctly feminine in its grace and subtle poise, structured with fine acidity, mellowing beautifully in the glass. The 2000 Ch Pichon Longuevlle Baron, poured from magnum, revealed a magnificent abundance of dark cherries and blackcurrants within its glorious depth, producing a lifted deep fragrance whilst the palate is defined by a highly detailed intensity of fruit along with dense minerals and heated stones, rounded with great succulence, finesse and balance just as it was beginning to develop some early secondary nuances, eventually smoothening out with just the distilled essence of dried tea leaves, glowing in a trail of gun smoke long after it’d left the palate. Wonderful stuff.

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2001 Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru

We rounded off the long afternoon with the obligatory 1989 Ch d’Yquem, a wine that was very good to return to, displaying honeyed tones of dense apricot and aged nectarine, surprisingly light with open textures amidst traces of ember and sweet incense that got better and better with each sip, finishing with a lovely complex glow. Many thanks, Sanjay. This is one great unforgettable afternoon.

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2013 Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos Ambres, 2006 Dom George Roumier Bonnes-Mares, 2001 Marcassin Sonoma, 2002 Clos de Tart, 2004 Chateau Rayas Reserve

August 2, 2018

Some of us from Bacchus met on 15 May 2018 at Origin at the newly-renovated Shangri-La Singapore where, thanks to Kieron, corkage was completely waived. The original theme was to drink monopole grand crus from Burgundy. However, that got twisted and we ended way off theme, but the eventual line-up still turned out to be absolutely smashing as everyone pulled out the stops. Thank you all for your generosity, as always.

Champagne Pierre Peters Cuvee Resérve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV, from the restaurant list. Dull golden. Lovely bloom, evoking characters of smoke, some incense, generous green melons and delicate citrus, showing great freshness, open on the palate with excellent definition and intensity tinged with sweet pomelo and bitter lemon, exuding a lovely yeasty pungency over time, snapping into sharp focus at the finish. Superb.

2013 Domaine Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos des Ambres, courtesy of LF. What a gorgeous bouquet, effusive in honeyed toast and heated stones with superb lift, most mesmerising. Highly delicate and supple on the palate in spite of its ample fullness, distinctly minerally and rounded, very focused with fine definition, gently layered at first before going on to develop wonderful depth, glowing with traces iron ore at its persistent finish. Truly outstanding. What a privilege to have tasted this rarity, ranked on par with Coche-Dury for Meursault for both quality and pricing. Merci !!

2009 Domaine Henri Boillot Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, courtesy of Vic, poured from magnum. Rich in concentration of fruit with a clean lift of early aged crème and cool characters of vanillin chalk, slightly reticent at first, eventually developing glorious depth and intensity that produced a superb stinging mouthfeel. Excellent now, and will be outstanding in time to come.

2008 Domaine Ponsot Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru, courtesy of Pipin. Deep ruby, exuding intense notes of red fruits and dark cherries tinged with earth, very ripe, amidst a lovely glow of heated stones, open and fleshy with traces of dark undertones. Absolutely superb in concentration and acidity, finishing with great persistence. Excellent.

2005 Domaine Prieure-Roch Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru, courtesy of LF. Deep opague dusty red, as is quite usual for this domaine. The bouquet is superb, forward in camphor and fresh red fruits, conveying great excitement and verve, matched by an abundance of delicious dark currants and ripe dark berries on the highly supple palate, taut with superb focus and linearity as it drew to an intense rounded finish with slight medicinal tones, still remarkably youthful. Outstanding.

2001 Marcassin Sonoma Coast, courtesy of Andre. Dark in color, exuding a superb earthy pungency with tremendous lift, leading to darker but supple tones of raspberries and dark cherries on the palate, gently layered, underscored by a base of ferrous minerals. Highly focused with vivid detail, opening up with a lovely tangerine glow over time, superbly balanced with great elegance and refinement. Outstanding.

2002 Domaine du Clos de Tart Clos de Tart Grand Cru. Deep clear ruby. Absolutely superb in its wonderful bouquet, displaying a deep effusive glow of dark cherries and red fruits, exuding great purity of warm ripe fruit with a deep core of tangerine, structured with exciting tannins on a bed of velvety intensity, utterly seamless. Outstanding.

2006 Domaine George Roumier Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru, courtesy of Kieron. Glorious in color and bouquet, just slightly forward, delivering bold darker tones of ripe raspberries and dark currants on a cedary floor with certain intensity that immediately conveys the classic terroir of Bonnes-Mares. Racy, open, extroverted and supple, carrying just a bare vegetal tinge. Excellent.

2004 Ch Rayas Reserve, courtesy of Andre. Showing some evolution towards vermilion, this wine proffers a superb bouquet of predominant red fruits and tangerines, very lovely in depth, concentration and intensity, yet never heavy on the palate, displaying a certain deftness with great linearity and focus, tightly controlled. Excellent.

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Iggy’s: 2011 Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet, 2012 Domaine Arlaud Bonnes-Mares, Chateau Haut-Brion 1995 & 1996

July 30, 2018

20180725_200941.jpgOn the day that the Third Edition of the Singapore Michelin Guide announced that Iggy’s has retained its star, Iggy himself chose to spend the evening at his restaurant with his loyal friends and customers where he had customised a dinner degustation at a friendly tag of SGD 175++, paired with a specially curated list of wines to go with, all priced to sell. For those who have followed its fortunes since its time at The Regent, Iggy’s has always stood for unpretentious food prepared with thought and imagination but, like all successful dining establishments, staff retention is always an issue and Iggy’s has had to put up with its share of troubles. However, Iggy’s has persevered well with its new Spanish-Australian chef Aitor Jeronimo Orive to engineer a new Renaissance and it is gratifying to note that, for its efforts, Iggy’s has been awarded a Michelin star since 2017. The real winners though are lucky consumers like ourselves who are spoilt for choice nowadays and we must thank Iggy for flying the Singapore flag high in the culinary world.

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We began with a glass of complimentary Laurent-Perrier Brut Reserve NV that boasts toasty oak with a generous spread of lifted yellow citrus, open and highly inviting with a rich creamy lovely expanse, excellent in concentration and detail that left a lasting impression.

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We chose two wines from the list, all courtesy of Pipin. The 2011 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru lived up to our lofty expectations, shy and reticent at first though it developed rapidly enough to proffer lifted tones of concentrated clear citrus amidst a powerful minerally glow on an open palate that displayed rich chalky detail, oozing with sweet intensity and depth of fruit that recalled caramel and honeysuckle, eventually coiling up with exquisite tension and acidity like a shy debutante overwhelmed by the occasion. Highly enticing and excellent in every way with so much more to offer.

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The 2012 Domaine Arlaud Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru boasts a fabulous deep bouquet of dark cherries, raspberries and dark roses tinged with earthy minerals, highly supple and fleshy, becoming slightly darker in tone with greater earthiness over time before blossoming beautifully with an explosion of bright flavours amidst overtones of smoky incense, displaying great linearity in its intensity of fruit. Little wonder that Domaine Arlaud is now on the radar of burgundy lovers.

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Iggy thanking his team headed by chef Aitor Jeronimo Orive when news of his Michelin-star reached us

Kieron and I must really share some sort of oenophilic telepathy, for we’d brought two other reds of our own coincidentally from the same estate. The 1995 Ch Haut Brion (courtesy of Kieron) displayed a lovely deep bouquet of tea leaves and earth with traces of dried tobacco; very juicy, fleshy and supple on the palate imbued with ripe dark berries, blackcurrants and ferrous elements, subtly structured with gentle intensity, eventually exuding some of the Pessac signature of pungent earthiness. Drinking well, perhaps just a tad short. In comparison, the 1996 Ch Haut Brion, though younger, came across like a bigger sibling, far denser and darker in tone with greater depth and structure, more minerally as well as it exuded a deep hallowed glow with an abundance of ripe dark fruit held in reserve. Very much like a clone of the 1986 caught at its peak, bringing an evening of very fine dining to a wonderful conclusion.

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Ric visits Harlan Estate

July 17, 2018

DSC_1988It has been long overdue, on my part, to reciprocate with a visit to Harlan Estate in Napa Valley for Don Weaver, Director, has always made it a point to fly all the way to Singapore annually just to meet up with his old friends. It finally came through on 13 June 2018 through the kind courtesy of Don and his associate Francois Vignaud. Making your way to Harlan Estate, on the other hand, isn’t that simple. I ought to have heeded Don’s advice not to rely on GPS. Due to mobile signals that are almost non-existent in the open Napa country, the GPS trail simply fades off and disappears as you think you are almost nearing Harlan Estate, leaving you high and dry on a dirt trail. Happening to chance upon a car driving down the hill, we were told Harlan Estate was just up yonder. True enough, right at the hill top was a rustic-looking building that would have suited my impression of Harlan Estate. As we happily got down from the car, the groundkeeper informed us we had arrived instead at BOND Estates, a winery set up by Harlan in 1997 on the grounds of the old Harlan Estate (focusing on single varietal cabernet sauvignon from very select plots). A representative from BOND pointed across to the next hill where Harlan Estate was just within sight and, most helpfully, drove us across to our intended destination which is totally unmarked along the dirt road. But I suppose that’s the way it has to be. If you make one of the most highly sought-after wines in the world, your address has to be just as difficult to locate.

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The pioneering vines in the foreground overlooking the floor of Napa Valley

After generously tipping off our Uber driver for joining us in our pursuit, I was warmly greeted by Francois as I stepped into Harlan’s verandah that peered downed on the floor of Napa Valley, facing east and south-east. Francois still recalled our recent meeting back in Singapore in April and he wasted no time bringing out a bottle of Krug Grand Annee, already sitting on ice. This is what I really call a welcome drink particularly after a long and stressful search for the property, its lifted bouquet of almonds and honeyed toast well matched with a lovely complex of dense clear citrus and crystalline minerals that refreshed the palate with great vigour and detail, replete with traces of bitter lemon and yeasty undertones, not too dry. As we sipped this excellent champagne, Francois proceeded to fill me in on the estate.

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Newer plantings of Harlan Estate

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Harlan Estate stands truly at the pinnacle of all Californian cabernet, not just because of its very limited production made available only to those on its mailing list but, more importantly, the grand vin of Harlan Estate is really a wine of great sophistication, precision, elegance and power all sheathed within the proverbial velvet glove. Its founder William Harlan had been sufficiently impressed by the Cote d’Or of Burgundy such that when the first vines were planted at Harlan back in 1984, he had insisted on the same basics: vines planted at altitude on slopes facing the morning sun (whereas much of Napa is grown on the flat valley floor). In those days, the slopes were covered in dense vegetation which had to be de-forested before the vines could be planted. The pioneer plots still exist and, in fact, are now at their prime close to 35 years of age, planted at a low density of 4,000 vines per hectare across the slope in accordance with state laws (primarily to prevent soil erosion) rather than the preferred downslope orientation which would facilitate drainage in wet conditions. The first vintage that was declared and bottled was the 1990. Since then, Harlan Estate has expanded with more plots on the hills, now totalling 17 hectares planted at a higher density of about 10,000 vines per hectare in downslope fashion. Thankfully, the devastating wildfire of December 2017 did not touch Harlan at all. Severe grape selection criteria ensure that only a third of the grapes harvested make it into the prestigious grand vin while another third is designated for its so-called second label “The Maiden”. The remainder is declassified and sold off as ordinary Napa cabernet on condition that the name Harlan Estate would not appear anywhere on its eventual bottling.

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Francois aspirating the 2016 Harlan Estate from barrel

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Given such low yields, it is not surprising that the chai of Harlan Estate is rather modest with just two rows of wooden vats, each of which is filled with hot water for about two weeks prior to vinification in order to expand the wood to ensure perfect seal. I was reminded of Chateau Petrus which is similarly-sized and employs the same technique as well. The cellar, passively-cooled deep with the rocky hills, is fairly sizeable, within which the 2017 and 2016 wines are resting quietly in 50% new French oak with variable aging periods depending on vintage quality and the character of specific plots. Some of the wine is also aged in larger-than-usual barrels to enhance its freshness as the large volume further reduces the extent of oxygen contact, much akin to the advantage of magnum versus standard bottling. The same people who made the first vintages of Harlan, namely Bill Harlan and Bob Levy, are still around to ensure that the wines of Harlan Estate are consistent in every aspect of craftsmanship: wines of concentration, depth, layering and linearity with reined-in power, cushioned in velvety tones of great sophistication and detail. These qualities were easily apparent in the two vintages of Harlan grand vin that we enjoyed as we adjourned to the drawing room:

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Clean, immaculate, stylish and appealing: the chai of Harlan Estate reflects the wine within

 2016 Harlan Estate, tasted from barrel. Displaying a deep garnet red, this wine is already highly seamless and precocious even at its infantile stage, boasting a developing bouquet of Asian spices, nutmeg, ash and herbs, dryish in texture with very good concentration and quiet intensity that produced excellent precision and linearity, very fresh and succulent, structured with very finely-grained tannins at its gentle minty finish. Clearly a wine of huge potential.

2014 Harlan Estate, decanted from bottle. Glorious deep inky red, expectedly more developed on the nose with forest characters and a forward balance of dark cherries, dark plums and rye, rather bright and fleshy. Distinctly rounded, softer and more transparent, developing characters of pencil shavings that imparted a slightly dryish backdrop on a cedary floor, structured with very fine seamless tannins that shaped up to a gentle glowing finish. Excellent, a wine that should grow from strength to strength.

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The 2014 Harlan Estate being decanted and poured

That concludes our morning at Harlan Estate on a most satisfactory note. When Francois enquired about our plans for lunch and I replied, somewhat sheepishly, that I’d booked this place called Mustards Grill, he said that was the de facto lunch destination for himself and the big boys from Harlan! Francois was kind enough to drop us off at the diner where, indeed, half bottles of Harlan Estate grand vin are available on the list! Thank you very much, Francois and Don, for taking such great care of us. We shall meet again soon.

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Some Burgundy monopoles

July 1, 2018

My small group of blind tasters continued its foray, this time on a theme of Burgundy monopoles, either premier cru or grand cru. The private room of Il Cielo at The Hilton, Singapore, on the evening of 26 June 2018 had been impeccably organised by Nicholas for a group of six, each seat prepared with six glasses all properly tagged and numbered. Each bottle was popped on site and blinded with a sock. In turn, the line-up was re-shuffled by a restaurant staff such that the tasters were all double-blinded. All six wines were tasted simultaneously. It turned out all of us had brought reds, which was fine, though Paul had forgotten that the focus was on monopoles. No matter; that simply made things even more interesting. We decided that we would: i) firstly, identify our own wines; ii) pick out the non-monopole wine that Paul had brought; iii) identify each wine by producer and vintage. I felt confident enough to declare that No.5 was the wine I’d brought and that No.1 was the non-monopole, and I was correct on both counts. Interestingly, everyone else was of the same opinion as well. Paired with a delectable menu arranged by Nicholas, we were set for a most intriguing evening.

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1. The first red was clearly a well-aged wine, evolved in colour to the point of duskiness with a soft fragrance of rose petals and aged tangerines with a further mild medicinal tone after some time, highly supple and juicy but clearly short and past its prime. Would not be possible to deduce its origin. Turned out to be a 1992 Domaine Dominique Laurent Chambertin Grand Cru, courtesy of Paul.

2. This wine showed some evolution at the rim with a deep bouquet that was highly perfumed, imparting a distinct feminine fragrance, displaying excellent detail on the delicious palate with a predominance of camphor and red fruits on a minerally base of ferrous elements, very seamless and subtly structured, fleshing out very well after some time. I’d entertained thoughts of a Prieure-Roch Clos des Corvees but should have stuck to my original hunch: the 2009 Domaine du Clos de Tart Clos de Tart Grand Cru, courtesy of Nicholas. Excellent stuff.

3. The third red was immediately recognisable to me, exuding an explosive brilliance of bright cherries from its clear depth of ruby, very fresh and clean on the palate with a forward balance, displaying good precision and concentration amidst traces of vanillin and smoke with velvety textures that are almost lush. I had no hesitation in calling this a 2016 Domaine Faiveley Clos des Corton Faiveley Grand Cru (though I’d thought it to be a 2012; courtesy of Benjamin). Excellent but Paul prefers an older style of burgundy.

4. This wine, also quite evolved in colour, was particularly striking in its soft gentle fragrance of fresh red fruits and cherries with a earthy minerally glow, quite full and open, highly supple and fleshy, carrying good weight and layered with plummy fruit with some exotic spice, seemingly youthful. Its lack of structure suggested a Cote de Beaune origin. Must be a Corton Clos de Meix. I was correct: a 2005 Domaine Comte Senard Corton Clos de Meix Grand Cru, courtesy of Alexandre.

5. The red that I brought produced quite an arresting bouquet of dark plums and dark cherries with a dash of earthiness, somewhat lean in profile, well-integrated and rounded, becoming richer over time though it doesn’t quite possess real inner detail. Those around the table seemed impressed. Did I hear someone hazard a guess of La Tache? Very flattering indeed but no, I don’t think this is anywhere near. 2012 Domaine Jacques-Frederic Mugnier Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos de la Marechale 1er. Showing much better than ever before.

6. We all knew the final red would be a contribution from Thomas – he was last to arrive. But what was it? Very dark in colour, almost pruny on the nose with a bit of cedar, delivering well its promise of a full palate filled with stern minerals, well crafted and rounded but obviously still tight and quite intense. Definitely too dark and big to be from anywhere north of Vosne. Could be Corton but this one has more extraction. I thought aloud the Domaine Comte Armand Pommard Clos des Epeneaux 1er and was spot on….the 2005.

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I must say I was really on good form that evening with my guesses but it isn’t always like that. Thank you everyone for your generous contributions.

 

San Francisco Opera 2018: Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen

June 20, 2018

Okay, this has nothing to do with wine though as it is San Francisco, a trip to Napa Valley would be in order and indeed I did drop by Harlan Estate. But that deserves another post. My primary concern was to attend the complete cycle of Richard Wagner’s epic masterpiece Der Ring des Nibelungen, my only second Ring cycle apart from a 2004 South Australian Opera production. Since the time of Wieland Wagner (the composer’s grandson) at Bayreuth in the 1960s, most productions have done away with literal translations of the work. Gone are the breastplates, armour, helmut, papier-mâché snakes and dragons. Symbolism now plays a great deal in most staging, whether by means of lighting or props or costumes, or a combination of various.

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For this revival of a production that had previously been presented by the San Francisco Opera back in 2011, director Francesca Zambello would have you believe that the CEO sitting at the top of the next office tower looking down on you is a god. That’s right, this Ring is set in our time with plenty of steel and concrete. It is somewhat disconcerting to first encounter the gods in Das Rheingold dressed in business suits and popping champagne whilst preparing to ascend into Valhalla.  It is all part of de-mystfying the gods, for they do increasingly fall prey to all the human vices of greed, power, lust, jealousy and sheer vanity as the story progresses, eventually losing their own power to change destiny, becoming no different from humans. If that is still too much to fathom, just think of Superman as Clark Kent.

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Das Rheingold: the gods with the giants

Nevertheless, things actually work out pretty well in this staging, marked by outstanding production values, great attention to detail, superb acting, singing and stage direction although some incongruity starts to creep in when it comes to Siegfried. A large lighted grid on the stage floor serves well to convey mood, ambience and various symbolic tones (powerful yellow for the Rheingold, intense crimson for fire, passion and hatred, and green for Siegfried’s forest) whilst facilitating Erda to rise from the earth and Alberich to disappear conveniently while he transforms into the gigantic serpent.  It was good to note that important physical symbols to the story such as Wotan’s spear, Siegfried’s Notung and the cursed ring have not been adulterated, while the use of gold linen to symbolise the Rheingold hoard as well as Tarnhelm is a masterstroke. The magnificent contribution by the full-sized San Francisco Opera orchestra (not the San Francisco Symphony, utilising two harps rather than the specified six) under Donald Runnicles cannot be over-emphasised, an ensemble clearly held in high regard and affection, judging from the enthusiastic applause and cheers preceding each Act throughout the cycle. The acoustical qualities of the War Memorial Hall are quite exceptional as well, carrying the voices well above the orchestra with excellent clarity and balance. For all its modernisation, the San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is one that stays firmly rooted to tradition as it makes its triumphant return. All pictures of the staging here are taken from the San Francisco Opera Ring media webpage.

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Das Rheingold: the subterranean Nibelheim

DAS RHEINGOLD. Performance of 12 June. This Prologue to Wagner’s epic is superbly staged. The opera orchestra begins reassuringly with the horns on good form in the long and difficult introduction while, on stage, restless large waves in ceaseless slow-motion are projected with an almost 3D effect onto the front screen. The watery effect is well carried onto stage when the curtain lifts with plenty of vapour in the air. A transluscent grid on the stage floor facilitates changing lighting patterns, most helpful in conveying the Rheingold’s brilliance. The Nibelheim subterranean scene is truly convincing in the old world style where Alberich (played to perfection by the German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann) sings and acts with plenty of conviction and power, reaching a thrilling climax as he utters the terrible curse on the Ring. The chorus of children play their part very well as Alberich’s slaves. The latter’s transformation into a gigantic serpent is achieved through the use of rear projection, but the imagery appeared very real and menacing. Equally good was the way he disappeared from stage in an instant, becoming a toad. Rich in velvety tone with remarkable depth and power of delivery, Struckmann in this role is practically on par with the legendary Gustav Neidlinger. Almost stealing the show as well was tenor Stefan Margita as Loge whose craftiness shone through in every line and gesture, especially at the end where he declines Wotan’s invitation to join the gods in Valhalla. American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was excellent as Wotan, singing with great authority and precision though the voice is just slightly constricted in range with a touch of dryness. I liked as well that the two giants Fafner (Raymond Aceto) and Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) really appear appropriately huge on stage, truly dwarfing everyone else. They must be walking on stilts. It is this sort of attention to detail that makes this production so enjoyable. At the end, the gods ascend into Valhalla via a gangway which was a bit of a letdown (surely it isn’t too difficult to transform it into a rainbow bridge?) with everyone seemingly going off on a cruise. Nevertheless, with all the major and minor roles (Ronnita Miller most memorable as the mysterious Erda) played to near-perfection, this Das Rheingold will take some beating.

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Das Rheingold: ascension into Valhalla

DIE WALKURE. Performance of 13 June. Save for Act 1, the setting is otherwise contemporary but it works very well. Combined with great staging and acting throughout with everyone on top vocal form, this is truly the most outstanding production of Walkure I’ve seen live (others were Adelaide 2004, La Scala 2010, Salzburg 2017). Again the almost 3D front and rear projection is used to great effect. Siegmund’s (the outstanding Brandon Jovanovich) frantic dash through the jungle is unmistakable and his exhaustion upon arriving at Hunding’s hut is most convincing, unlike Peter Seiffert’s stumbling effort (overweight and too old) up the side of the stage at Salzburg in 2017. The interior of Hunding’s dwelling is most rustic though the World Ash Tree has been reduced to a limpid one-dimensional cardboard piece. The Salzburg tree is, by far, still the best but here I can see the director’s point of view: the tree actually plays no significant role apart from harbouring Notung. Hunding (Raymond Aceto who sang Fafner too) carries a hunting rifle but prefers to fight Siegmund using a cutlass – a gentlemanly gesture, in tune with his offer of hospitality to the stricken Siegmund perhaps? Whatever it is, it conveniently avoids straying away from what the audience expects of Siegmund’s Notung. The twins (Sieglinde brilliantly acted and sung by Karita Mattilda) sing superbly though Siegmund’s desperate cry of “Walse!! Walse!!” could do with greater piercing intensity. The acting throughout was most natural and Hunding leashing Siegmund before retiring to bed added further realism to Wagner’s soundtrack commentary. Hunding appeared to have been handed carte blanche to grope the ample Sieglinde as Siegmund delivered his great monologue. All the important nuances specified in Wagner’s libretto were observed: the faint recognition between the twins as they made initial eye contact, Hunding’s quizzical look when he first encounters a stranger in his house, the glint of Notung (very well done…how did the sword handle appear from the tree trunk?). The live flame in the fireplace did its symbolic work well, growing in intensity as the twins experienced their initial mutual attraction though, curiously, it died completely as they careened towards their passionate climax.

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Die Walkure: Siegmund, Sieglinde and the World Ash Tree inside Hunding’s hut

The projections made it clear that Wotan’s Valhalla is an office building towering above the clouds looking down on a distant Manhattan-like skyline. Sure enough, Wotan, dressed in business suit, is at his office desk using his telephone. And reading the newspaper. Similarly, Fricka (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton) appears very wifely and expensive-looking while Brunnhilde looks set for an afternoon shopping trip. What are we to make of this? I can only think of Superman in his guise as Clark Kent, that the immortal gods walk amongst us in our daily lives. Or is it implied that the gods are no different from humans in their behaviour. Probably both. Again, the relative simplicity of the stage setting works well without having to resort to Salzburg’s ambiguous ring motif with Wotan scribbling in chalk and the chair-carrying oxen. Wotan’s great monologue is delivered with conviction by Greer Grimsley though I feel Vitalij Kowaljow, the leading Wotan of the past decade, finds deeper range and expression in the same role (heard at La Scala 2010 and Salzburg 2017). In a real masterstroke, the fight between Siegmund and Hunding takes place in a dark litter-strewn forsaken area underneath a highway flyover, watched with quiet disdain by Fricka high above the stage. Astonishingly, two real dogs dashed across the stage as Hunding and his henchmen approached, adding further realism. The swordplay is more extended than most productions and Notung is shattered convincingly by Wotan from a distance, not unlike a Jedi wielding the invisible Force. Siegmund’s death throes is superbly portrayed, reaching a powerful emotional climax as the dying hero recognises that it is his own father who has allowed him to be slain while Wotan’s anguish at his own haplessness is absolutely palpable. Thereafter though, why does Wotan need to use both hands to break Hunding’s neck? Why not use the Force?

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Brunnhilde in Die Walkure

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Die Walkure: Act 3, Ride Of The Valkyries

The Valkyries swoop down onto stage from parachutes at the start of Act 3 in full paratrooper gear. Undoubtedly a wonderful spectacle but, surely, these warrior goddesses do not require parachutes?? The action takes place on an industrial ramp and, quite innovatively, the Valyries collect photo portraits of dead heroes instead of physically dragging dead bodies about as seen in the 1976 Patrice Chereau Bayreuth production. The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin, an eleventh hour substitute for the indisposed Evelyn Herlitzius as Brunnhilde, appeared to be conserving her voice, consistently outsung by Sieglinde in their duets and delivering her lines in a more slivery fashion with a slightly smaller tone but she was to come into her own in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. The magic fire surrounding the perimeter of the ramp at the end was real and magnificent. All in all, this is a Walkure to die for, particularly in the all-important Acts 1 and 2.

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Die Walkure: Wotan surrounding Brunnhilde with magic fire

SIEGFRIED. Performance of 15 June. Act 1 opens in a waste land where Mime (tenor David Cangelosi) lives in a ramshackle caravan, forging swords in the open. This works well and, again, attention is paid to Wagner’s staging for Siegfried actually enters with a very lively black bear! The youthful-looking American tenor Daniel Brenna is utterly fitting as the brash idiotic fearless Siegfried. The sword-forging scene is absolutely magnificent as Siegfried goes through the technical steps of sword-forging whilst singing at the top of his lungs and still managing to hammer out the intricate dotted rhythm right on time, aided by great special effects that make the entire sword-forging highly believable. This scene alone would have been worth the ticket price. Thereafter, things began to unravel. The much-feared dragon turns out to be a ridiculous mechanical machine driven by Fafner, not unlike Dr No’s dragon in the Bond movie. Siegfried stabs his Notung into some opening in the machine and then the fatally wounded Fafner falls out of the door. And there is no Forest Bird. Rather a young woman, like some kind of muse, takes over in a voice (Stacey Tappan, who also doubles as one of the Valkyries) that was too big and assertive for the role. This sort of artistic freedom is fine with me but why not adjust or update the libretto as well to fit what we see on stage? Since Wagner’s time, audiences have accepted that there ain’t gonna be any horse on stage so it’s perfectly fine to see Grane being mentioned metaphorically. In Act 3, the industrial ramp where Brunnhilde lies has become appropriately dilapidated though the magic fire is still raging and supposedly has been raging for 20 years (the approximate time frame since the end of Walkure): why hasn’t anyone called the Fire Department? And when Siegfried and Brunnhilde wax lyrical about each other supposedly by the stream beside the latter’s rock, it is painful to see the singers having to imagine there is such a thing at the ramp. Since the start, Siegfried has always suffered a bit of ignominy, being squeezed between the ever-popular Walkure and the very-happening Gotterdammerung. While this production fares well (Act 1 is thoroughly superb), this opera will always run into interpretative problems with contemporary staging.

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Siegfried: Mime’s home

GOTTERDAMMERUNG. Performance of 17 June. The three Norns in Act 1 are excellent; again the dynamic 3D projection of a complex electrical circuit supports the scene superbly. Ms Theorin as Brunnhilde begins this very long opera conservatively but she goes from strength to strength, still sustaining her vocals very well without any strain by the time she reached the Immolation scene. Siegfried was also in top form in a role that requires far more stage movement and acting detail than Brunnhilde in addition to a lot of singing. The staging is well conceived and highly imaginative: the Rhinemaidens lament by the river bank (presumably, since there was plenty of vapour and river bed junk) though Gunther’s HQ appears to be set in an industrial plant, somewhat Blofeld-like as there were plenty of armed henchmen that appeared in the double-wedding scene. It was also easy for non-Wagnerites to follow the plot’s intricate mid-section that involves Siegfried’s disguise as Gunther (American baritone Brian Mulligan who also doubled as Donner) and his inadvertent betrayal of Brunnhilde as every twist and turn is portrayed in exquisite detail, closely observing Wagner’s stage directions. Hagen’s tone (Andrea Silvestrelli) was a little too gruff at the start but it grew well into the role and his dream scene with Alberich is superbly conveyed (the front projection again important). Curiously, Hagen’s spear looked suspiciously like the same one Wotan wielded in Das Rheingold (the god switched to an all-steel spear in Walkure and Siegfried). The Immolation scene veered more on elegance rather than sheer outright power, the Immolation pyre appearing somewhat subdued compared with the magnificent magic fire of Walkure. While the staging became more abstract towards the end, the wonderful acting and singing carried the opera through such that one didn’t really feel the longueurs within, bringing a genuinely outstanding cycle to a deeply satisfying conclusion. The San Francisco Opera has every right to be very proud of its distinguished achievement. I was glad I made the trip.

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Gotterdammerung: double wedding scene

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Curtain call. Die Walkure.