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2001: Napa “First Growths” vs Bordeaux Seconds

November 1, 2009

The occasion was a combined dinner for wards 48 & 49 on 29 October 2009, something unprecedented, back at the reliable Ming Kee, where we occupied 3 tables, setting new standards as well was the attention paid to the obligatory wines. This time, we opted for a 2001 theme, pitting a pair of top-flight Napa wines against a pair of St Julien, and we even brought our own decanters!

As usual though, we began with a couple of whites to go with the excellent seafood, particularly the signature beehoon crab. The 2006 Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc (courtesy K), made by the former winemaker of Cloudy Bay, was light straw colored, displaying an initial note of lime and citrus that was fairly deep, but with a twist – more grassy but lifted, not unlike the hue of fresh morning dew, without any of that “sweaty armpit” nonsense associated with sauvignon blanc. With time, it expanded on the palate, becoming broader and full bodied, thicker in texture, developing even greater intensity and saturation, with distinctive notes of ripe pear, peach, lychees and, ultimately, jackfruit appearing, full of liveliness, ending in a long and satisfying finish. This is really quite excellent. Let’s just hope that with too much success it doesn’t screw up like Cloudy Bay did.

Next to this, the 2006 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay (courtesy PS) seemed rather sedate and four-square. Beautiful luminous yellow. The bouquet appeared to be dominated by a strong detergent note (I was reminded of “Fab”) that gave the wine a very clean feel, robbing it of much of the classic chardonnay character. A hint of vanilla was discernible, but there was none of the usual minerality and limestone notes. Although  the wine took on a broader feel, with more biting intensity and richness after the customary pairing with century egg, it failed to really excite the senses. Clearly not in the same cerebral fold as a Kistler or Talbott, not to mention Leflaive, the benchmark reference.

Yummy signature beehoon crabThen came the highly-anticipated challenge, beginning with the Bordeaux pairing. The dullish-red 2001 Ch Ducru Beaucaillou, aired in bottle for almost 2 hours, gave off a classic Bordeaux bouquet of slightly sweet, plummy dark and red berries, laced with a trace of liquorice and a hint of menthol. Soft, but quite full-bodied nevertheless, with a rich, intense core gripping the palate with early secondary flavours, the supple tannins leading to a lingering finish with a persistent trace of menthol. The classic graphite note of St Julien was evident, but if blinded, I wouldn’t have been able to call this St Julien. Definitely still developing, and will probably be wonderful in another 5-8 years, but that was my last bottle. I’ll be looking out for this at the year-end sales.

In comparison, the 2001 Ch Leoville Barton (courtesy PS), decanted over 2 hours and showing quite a similar impenetrable red, was marked by a very dense, powerful nose, suggesting at once rich and luxurious textures, combined with deep notes of earth and soy. The weight, however, didn’t really come through on the palate; neither was it as deeply layered as hinted by the bouquet. The graphite character was similarly less evident and initially the finish seemed shorter as well. The overall impression was more rustic, whereas the Ducru bordered on aristocracy and refinement. After 3 hours though, it evolved to become more rounded, bigger and more tight-knit and intense, yet remaining very balanced. In fact, it managed to maintain its poise right up till the end of the meal, even after having tasted the New World wines, whereas one couldn’t quite go back to the Ducru after the powerful Napa wines. Excellent stuff. But between the two, the Ducru is still the more complete wine, I’d say.

We moved on to the two Napa wines late into the dinner. The 2001 Dominus, showing a deep dark red, still seemed rather muted in spite of having sat 3 hours in the decanter. Nevertheless, there was a great sense of depth, the warm dark fruit caressing the palate with a firm grip, finishing very long. Very lush and opulent, but in a quiet understated manner without any hint of over-extraction nor any hard edges at all, very much in keeping with what was to be expected from the same maker of Ch Petrus. It developed a bit of a saccharine quality towards the end. Still yet to develop real complexity, but that’s merely a matter of time, for its deep velvety tannins left a real lasting impression. It has power and elegance, without being showy, but it won’t be mistaken for a Bordeaux. A French on American soil, behaving impeccably. Excellent stuff. Pity it’s my last bottle, but I have absolutely no regrets sharing this with great company.

How does it compare with a 2001 Ridge Monte Bello (courtesy K), aired for 3 hours in bottle?  Like an American to the manner born, there was nothing modest about the Ridge – deep dark red, giving off a loud bouquet showing off layers of deep dark fruit, very rich, very intense and multi-dimensional. There was an exotic touch to its flavour, a lifted aroma of spices that I can’t quite pinpoint, although I was reminded of the smell of antiseptic, but in the most positive way. The mid-palate had a nice velvety feel, but the texture was still rather thick and unresolved at this stage. Powerfully built but balanced, definitely for the long haul. Great stuff, but it was a pity we came to this wine so late into dinner, for by then, my palate was worn, and the sulpites were beginning to go to my head.

So, does the best of Napa measure up to Bordeaux? The latter will always be unique, so much so that it can never be replicated elsewhere. When one drinks a Bordeaux blend made in Napa Valley, one is drinking the terroir of Napa. To try to believe that it is Bordeaux-like is not quite right, as one must always respect the way the terroir maketh the wine. A Napa wine has its unique qualities as well, and one must accept that. This came through very clearly on the palate. You can tell them apart. So it all boils down to individual preference, and pricing. I like the good wines of both regions, but I feel a Bordeaux claret will always have the edge in complexity. At the release price of almost SGD300 (if not more) for a top Napa wine, I’d rather go for a Bordeaux Super Second anytime.

We rounded off with a 1989 Ch Rieussec, which was, surprisingly, showing much better than my two previous experiences with this wine, the last at the SMA dinner in May, which had led me to think that it was past its prime. The impression this time was vastly different: clear golden in color (rather than the evolved dark orange encountered previously), with notes of honey, nectar and apricot held in fine balance, still retaining its acidity and freshness after 20 years. Excellent.

We finally staggered out of the restaurant at 12.30 AM (unheard of at Ming Kee and severely delaying the departure of two waitresses), the 6+ bottles beginning to exact its toll on the 4 of us who were the main drinkers, culminating in quite a severe hangover the following day. Too much of a good thing, I guess, but I don’t think it’ll stop us from doing it all over again.

Napa Firsts vs St Julien Seconds

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