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Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

The Last of Summer

Written by Giles MacDonogh

The Last of Summer

Posted: 3rd October 2016

We left a chilly England at eight on the first day of autumn, and two and a quarter hours later, we emerged from a dark tunnel into a brilliantly sunny, hot Paris. The train was on time, but the long and fateful summer had delayed its departure for a few days.

We stopped at a friend’s flat on the way for a glass or two of Chermette Fleurie then joined the Irish party in the usual bar opposite the Gare de Lyon. The rest of the journey passed in a pleasant haze, until we tried to pick up the rental car at Avignon Station: why is renting a car so complicated? Why do you need to do any more than show a driver’s licence and pick up a set of keys? The process is positively Byzantine.

We arrived at the Domaine des Anges in Mormoiron to surprise Padrone dissecting chickens and mixing salads. The last glimmers of the day were disappearing behind Mont Ventoux as the lights went on like strings of pearls scattered on the Ventoux Valley floor. I found ‘Boris’ the boar a frozen lump. It was only once he had thawed out that I realised we had the ribcage, and plunged it into a cocktail of Ventoux wine, cider vinegar and crushed black peppercorns.

The next day it was hard not to drift into a lazy, holiday mood – there was not a cloud to seen. The green grapes were fermenting in their vats but everywhere there were perfect purple clusters of Grenache and Syrah. After shopping in Carpentras, some sardines were grilled and the rest of the chicken was mixed with mayonnaise and sprinkled with thyme from the garden. There were salads and cheese out on the terrace by the Cabernet vines. The wasps seemed particularly keen on the chicken, but they were the only unwelcome presence. It was our curry night, but while saucepans clashed and clattered in the kitchen we had a tasting of the Domaine des Anges’ top cuvée Archange, a wine that is made chiefly of Syrah (with ten percent Grenache) and which sees a small amount of new oak. There is a white version as well, which is 100% Roussanne. Archange is made only in the best years. The 2015 had not been bottled, so we began with the 2014, which is potentially a great year and I am sure it will not disappoint. The 2013, on the other hand was a very difficult vintage everywhere, and the wine showed signs that the fruit had not been fully ripe. It was a classy performance for all that, but probably destined for earlier drinking. I am mad about the ordinary Ventoux wine in 2012, so it came as no surprise that its thoroughbred stable mate should be so good with its cigar box aromas and classic Syrah fruit. It was possibly my favourite wine of the flight.

The 2011 seemed to be built for the long haul, but it was marred by a whiff of nail varnish (acetate) on the nose. You could wait for the 2010 as well, but it is quite porty. Then, there was a long jump to the 2003, which was what we expected: a bit hot on the nose, tarry on the palate, sweet and porty, and a bit tired out all round. It was a very hot year, and a great challenge to wine makers all over Europe. The 2000 was sadly corked; the 1999 showing its age now, but still good to drink. The 1998, on the other hand, was less so – a shadow of itself.

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We generally have a tasting at the house of a friend in the village who possesses a deep cellar and provides both the wine and a sensational al fresco lunch. This time, however, our two doctors – Mahen Varma and to a slightly lesser extent Finnian Lynch – had agreed to put on a tasting of top Bordeauxs from the 2003 vintage in the friend’s house, and he had invited Jerôme the pharmacist to come along too. Jerôme is not only an important local dignitary, he collects top Meursault. We had seen what that ferocious summer had done to the wines from Domaine des Anges the night before. Now we were going to experience what had happened in Bordeaux: repeated days above 40 degrees are not good for vines, which tend to shut down operations under stress. Grapes get overripe and produce too much sugar while the pips stay green, the result is excessive alcohol, low acidity and a lot of dry tannin. Good vintages are not necessarily the result of blazing hot years, but a balance of warm days, cool nights and the occasional light sprinkling of water.

 

We had a dozen wines. The first one, the Clos St Martin in Saint Emilion, was new to me. It had a nice prune-like nose, but a rasping aspirin-like taste on the palate – an indication of added acidity – and hardly a surprise, but it marred what was otherwise a nice little wine. The popular Château Caronne-St Gemme was decent enough, if a little meaty. The first really famous wine was the Pauillac Château Grand Puy Ducasse with a good Cabernet nose and some ripe, plumy fruit, but on the palate there were some leathery notes that were a sure fire indication of heat. I was keener on its neighbour Château Batailley with its black cherry nose. It was very gummed up at first behind its big chewy tannins but something more distinguished was trickling out by the time the tasting finished and we went down to lunch.

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The Paulliac classed growth Château Pontet Canet was one of my favourites. It scored for freshness (in an overcooked year) and an attractive, balanced palate that showed little sign of heat wave; more, the finish was cooling, almost minty – a sign of how well it had been constructed – against all odds. I suspect I was unfair to the Château Duhart Milon. It seemed to be wearing a gold chain, and sporting too much ‘bling’; a handsome tanned man with a hairy chest and a shirt slit to the waist; but there was no denying it was well made, with its nose reeking of expensive oak; a slickly creamy palate (oak again), but in its defence it had a very long finish and was both cool and cooling. Our Irish contingent jumped up at the next two wines: St Juliens from the Irish-owned estate of Château Langoa-Barton. I have a lot of time for Anthony Barton and his wines as well, but these were not my favourites: the Château Langoa-Barton I found dry and leathery and although there was much I admired in the Château Léoville-Barton, I was put off by a slight bitterness on the finish.

Many voices cried out for the Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, but I could not get a decent perch on the nose even if I noted the wine was very long. I suspect we needed to come back to it that evening, by which time it would certainly have been drunk up. I found the Château Lascombes much more accessible. It was one of the best wines in the tasting for me. I remember the days when it was an undistinguished outpost of the Bass-Charrington brewing empire and run by a fruity English MW. The wines were pretty so-so then but this was both spicy and cooling and had a brilliant development on the palate. I could not say that much for that other classed growth Margaux, Palmer, which came up next. This is a seriously grand and shatteringly expensive wine, and yet the nose was so oxidised I suspected it had fallen apart. The wine was better on the palate, though quite sweet, and not as bad on the nose had suggested, but it was hopelessly rustic for a Palmer! The last wine of all was La Mission Haut Brion from the Graves, and the only first growth. Again it was hard to assess: there wasn’t a vast amount of fruit, but it was probably the one wine on the table that could have been comfortably left for a few years more. The message from the others was ‘drink me’, and fast!

Before we proceeded to some fine Châteauneuf, there was 2004 Château Sénéjac with lunch. It reminded me of far off days when the wine was made by Jenny Bailey and she lived in the courtyard at the back of the château. We used to drop in and see her when we were in the Médoc and she was always more than hospitable. She married Charles Dobson, I recall, but I have no idea what has happened since.

After double helpings of Isabelle’s delicious gazpacho and her alouettes (not larks – but beef olives) there was little appetite for food that night and I made a Bauernomelette. Boris was cooked for lunch the next day, stewed in his corrected marinade and served with mashed potatoes and leaks à la mode de Mayo. He proved wonderfully tender and a lot more palatable than his namesake. While I was putting the boar on the table the heavens broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm that went on for most of the evening.  We sat inside the Café Le Siècle in Mazan, listening to a jazz concert, but the good weather appeared to be returning when we left some time after dawn the next day. It was cold and raining, however, by the time we reached Paris: for we hyperboreans the summer was over. It had all reminded me a bit too much of Rilke’s Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Autumn Day

Lord it’s high time to end summer’s glories.
On the sundial’s surface let your shadow fall
And through the meadows let loose the furies.

Command the last fruits to be ripe, luscious and fine;
Give them two more days to roast in the southern sun
Push them to finish that process, long since begun:
Drive the last sweet juice in the heavy wine.

He who’s alone, so will he end his days.
Will remain alone in all that matters
Will wake, read and write long-winded letters
And up and down the alleyways
Will wander unquiet while the foliage scatters.)

About the author

Giles MacDonogh

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