It was the sort of afternoon wine geeks drool over: Make a deal with the spouse to get away, then spend a long, liquid lunch tasting a dozen or more wines over five courses, with the winemaker on hand to explain every vintage and barrel.
Such was the scene at BlackSalt in late January when I was among a fortunate few to partake in a small vertical tasting of Chateau Chevalier, a Grand Cru Classé from Pessac-Léognan in Graves, Bordeaux. We tried 10 vintages, from 2009 back to 2000, before lunch and then followed with older vintages of Chevalier white and red during the meal. Our hosts were Chateau Chevalier managing director Olivier Bernard and Panos Kakaviatos, who writes for Decanter and several other wine magazines and derives unusual satisfaction from organizing such functions . Chalk it up to a wine lover’s desire to share the experience.
We tasted the reds from 2000 to 2009, the order Bernard prefers. (Some prefer to taste the older wines first, fearing that the stronger tannins in younger wines will dominate the palate. Others argue that tasting younger-to-older gives a better sense of how the wines age. I am usually so happy to have the chance to taste such a lineup that I don’t give a darn what order they’re in.)
The consistent quality of these wines was notable, indicating a chateau style that persisted despite vintage variations. Although the decade under examination was generally exceptional for Bordeaux, 2003 was unusually hot, while 2004 and 2007 were somewhat rainy and less than ideal. Yet Chevalier showed a consistency that had everyone in the room — sommeliers, retailers and just good ol’ Bordeaux lovers — oohing and ahhing at the quality of the winemaking.
Bernard provided commentary in between flights. For example, he warned against a simple focus on alcohol levels.
“The problem isn’t alcoholic degrees, the problem is balance,” he said. “In 2003, you had high alcohol but many wines with low acidity. In 2008, many wines reached 14.5 percent alcohol, rather high, but you had low pH with high acidity, so you don’t notice the alcohol.”
Bernard is a gregarious talker with a great sense of humor, the type who will keep reformulating his point until his audience rewards him with a laugh. He told us how he doesn’t like wines with a lot of “blah blah” — meaning excessive extraction and oak treatment that mask the fruit. He can recall the details of a vintage, such as the frost that struck in April 1991, as we tasted the delicious Chevalier Blanc from that year. As he did so, he would close his eyes and seemingly travel back in time, rubbing his fingers together to conjure details from his memory.
Such experiences are why wine dinners sponsored by stores or restaurants can be a real bargain, even if they seem expensive. I now have a personal connection to Domaine de Chevalier, and I will never forget the pleasure of meeting Bernard that Saturday afternoon over a lovely meal at BlackSalt — and listening to him describe weather conditions in years that I’ve long since forgotten.
And the irrepressible Kakaviatos not only arranged and hosted the event, he produced a video of it, which he posted on Decanter along with his tasting notes of the various wines. You won’t see me in the video, thank goodness — I’m off to the side, expansively enjoying all the wine glasses arrayed before me.