A wine tasting organized to benefit the local Charity Works volunteer organization and the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington recently brought together 150 Washingtonians for what was dubbed the 100-point wine tasting. On hand for commentary was wine author Pierre Rovani, who co-writes much of the Wine Advocate newsletter with its founder, Robert M. Parker, the inventor of the 100-point scale. This scale, which rates wines much like the 65- to-100-point grading system in American high schools, has revolutionized wine criticism.
Since the Wine Advocate's inception in the mid-1970s, only about 120 wines out of the tens of thousands tasted have been awarded a perfect score of 100. This benefit tasting featured 10 of these "perfect" wines, accompanied by a multi-course dinner. (The event and accompanying auction raised $309,000 to give promising inner-city kids a second chance at a first-rate education.) Although I had tasted all but one of the wines at various times, I had never tasted so many wines of this quality together. Here are my notes on the first part of the tasting. (Later wines will be described in an upcoming column.) Prices are estimates, as many of these wines are no longer commercially available.
DRY WHITE WINES
2000 Chapoutier Ermitage Cuvee de l'Oree ($250; France): In awarding 100 points to this dry white wine made from 100 percent Marsanne grapes, Parker wrote that "it boasts an amazing nose of licorice, minerals, acacia flowers, honeysuckle and a hint of butter. Unctuously textured and full-bodied, with great intensity and purity, yet remarkably light on its feet, it can be drunk over the next 3-4 years, then forgotten for a decade, after which it will last for 40-50 years." But he also characterized it as a "controversial" wine because it tends to "taste great young, go into a funky, nearly oxidized stage, and reemerge at age 10-15 as full-blown, waxy, honeyed, dry wines with the potential to age for 20-50 years."
My score: 100 points. Frankly, I don't see the controversy. If ever a white wine deserved a perfect score, it is this one. It tasted precisely as described and is absolute perfection right now. Were I lucky enough to have a few bottles of this, I'd have no concerns about it going into a funky, oxidized stage for 10 to 15 years, for the simple reason that it would be drunk up within two weeks of getting my hands on it.
1999 Chapoutier Ermitage l'Ermite ($350; France): Parker described this wine as "the greatest expression of terroir I have seen outside of a handful of Alsatian Rieslings. . . . Drinking it is like consuming a liquefied stony concoction mixed with white flowers, licorice and honeyed fruits. It is frightfully pure, dense, and well-delineated. . . . There is no real fruit character, just glycerin, alcohol, and liquid stones. That's about it, but, wow, what an expression!"
My score: 94 points. If you question whether a liquefied stony concoction with no real fruit character is worth $350 or 100 points, I'm with you. In fairness to the wine, this really suffered from being paired with the explosively fruity Ermitage Cuvee de l'Oree. Had it been served by itself, or with a less rich food (the buttery, seared scallops were much kinder to the Cuvee de l'Oree), I might have rated it higher. Parker's description is thoroughly accurate. But it's difficult to see how this could make it to a perfect score in my book.
1982 Chateau Leoville Las Cases ($400): Describing the 1982 Leoville Las Cases as superior even to the fabulous efforts in 1986 and 1996 (rated at 98 points), Parker notes, "The dense ruby/purple-colored 1982 still looks and tastes as if it were 5-8 years old. The nose offers up blazingly well-delineated, pure aromas of creme de cassis, cherry jam, minerals and toasty new oak. This unctuously textured, gorgeously rich, pure, super-concentrated, low acid effort concludes with a 45+ second finish. There is still tannin to shed in this unbelievably fresh, lively, full-bodied, vibrant wine."
My score: 100 points. The vintage year of 1982 catapulted Leoville Las Cases into the top ranks of the super seconds (the elite classified growths considered on par with the official first growths of Bordeaux, Lafite, Latour, Chateau Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion) -- a position it has never relinquished. Since its glorious youth, it has closed up tightly, and it is hard to imagine how anyone tasting it now can truly appreciate its greatness. But the greatness is undoubtedly there, and this tasting is the best that the 1982 Las Cases has shown in more than 20 years. Though still hiding much of its fruit behind a wall of tannins, the finish was awe-inspiring, an indication that the wine is finally emerging.
1982 Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Lalande ($350) Uh-oh, trouble in paradise. In most of my previous encounters with this wine, it has been pretty much as Parker describes: "sumptuous, gloriously perfumed, luxuriously rich Pauillac the likes of which are rarely encountered." But not tonight, for at least half the tasters.
My score: 91-99 points. Two different versions of 1982 Pichon-Longueville-Lalande were being served on this evening, a disturbing variation that has characterized this wine since the earliest tastings from barrel. I now believe that two different cuvees of 1982 Pichon-Longueville-Lalande were released -- almost certainly unintentionally, given the integrity of the chateau's owners. After the tasting, I did a little sleuthing. In the decanting room, I found two different bottles, one with a chateau label on the back and one without. The back-labeled bottle also had shorter cork, and the wine tasted much richer, fully meriting a near-perfect, 99-point score. The wine from the other bottle, though still very good, was plainly in decline, displaying autumnal, leafy flavors and a marked amber color toward the rim. I rated it at 91 points. The shorter cork may indicate wine that had been recorked at the chateau, but there was no indication of this on the label, which is standard practice. It is also possible that the other batch had suffered heat damage somewhere in its history, which is always a danger with wines you have not stored yourself since their release.
1989 Chateau Haut-Brion ($500): Parker writes: "The prodigious 1989 Haut-Brion is one of the greatest first-growths I have ever tasted. It has always reminded me of what the 1959 must have tasted like in its youth, but it is even richer and more compelling aromatically."
My score: 99+. Here's the problem with perfect scores: An extraordinary wine like this merits 100 points, but how can I give it that if I like the legendary 1959 Haut-Brion just a bit more? (Parker rates the 1959 between 93 and 98 points, owing to significant bottle variation, which one would expect an older wine). So I'll go with 99+, to honor the 1959, among the five best wines I have ever tasted. But don't feel compelled to pour your 1989 Haut-Brion down the drain.
1990 Chateau Margaux ($500): Parker: "The 1990 Margaux continues to be the quintessential example of this chateau. . . . There have been so many great vintages of Margaux . . . that it is almost inconceivable that the 1990 could outrank the 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1995, but, in my opinion, it possesses an extra-special dimension."
My score: 100 points. Since I, too, found it inconceivable that the 1990 could outrank the 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986, which I already owned, I passed on the 1990, because I thought it was too expensive. Do you hear a thumping sound? That's me, kicking myself. This is indeed the quintessential Chateau Margaux, easily on par with a legendary 1953. Sure wish I had it in my cellar.