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Wine Weekend at Gidleigh Park

A few alternative message-headers could be appropriate:

"The Wine Experience of My Life"
"Decadence at its Ultimate Best"
"How the Other One Thousandth Live"

Tucked away in the middle of nowhere, some 30 miles west of Exeter in Devon, England, one will find the extremely fine establishment of Gidleigh Park, owned by Paul and Kay Henderson. Amidst green wooded hills and valleys, lovely streams and misty views lies this perfectly run and beautifully furnished 15-room country hotel & restaurant. The combination of super friendly yet ultimately professional service, an extremely talented Chef that outdoes himself every meal, the spacious and beautifully appointed rooms and public areas - all that would surely be enough for us to enjoy our stay there.
But... We came all the way to England in order to participate in a special intimate wine weekend, 'starring' Huge Johnson. I believe Mr. Johnson hardly needs an introduction. To me (and to many others I believe) Hugh Johnson is one of the very finest wine writers today. Unlike some other 'experts' Mr. Johnson does not engage himself in waging warfare among wines (where battles are won by half a point...). For almost thirty years the man writes about wine, with love, knowledge, wit and compassion that have introduced and converted many (myself included) into the joys of wine.
Now combine the Gidleigh Park setup, Paul Henderson's generosity and 'largesse' in supplying the wines, Huge Johnson's relaxed non-snobbish nature, the great food and wines, the nice, friendly other 10 participants, and you'll end up with an unparalleled experience.
Here goes:

Dinner, Friday 8 March 1996

Aperitif: Vouvray, Demi-sec Le Haut Lieu 1962, G. Huet
Fricassee of wild mushrooms
Puligny Montrachet, Les Referts 1992, J-M Boillot
Puligny Montrachet, Les Pucelles 1981, Dom. Leflaive

John Dory and galette of vegetables, lemon-thyme sauce
Ch. Laville Haut Brion 1966, (white)
Ch. Laville Haut Brion 1964, ( " )

Roast pigeon, potato galette, foie gras in Madeira sauce
Les Forts de Latour 1975
Les Forts de Latour 1971

Ch. Latour 1962
Hot pistachio souffle with pistachio ice cream
Tokaji Royal Birsalmas 1990

The food:
Superb. The mushrooms fricassee and the pistachio souffle where extraordinary!
The wines:
The Vouvray had a mild and pleasant aroma, a short lived touch of honey (16/20).
Of the white Bourgogne, I was pleasantly surprised by the '92 Boillot 'Les Referts'. At first I thought the younger Boillot is just superficially flashier than the deeper old Leflaive, but prejudice and big names aside, the young Boillot was simply the better wine (at probably third the price) (18/20).
The '81 Leflaive 'Les Pucelles' had a deep nose, ripe and complex taste, but lacked acidity and freshness (17/20).
The white Graves - Sorry, neither were my cup of wine...
The 'Les Fort de Latour' 1975 is an excellent wine (17/20), but it was totally overshadowed by the divine 'Les Forts de Latour' 1971! This wine was a real revelation. Complex and enticing aroma, deep, rich and smooth on the palate, mature yet fleshy and fruity. By far the best wine of the evening, and certainly among the three-four best of the whole weekend which was flooded with great wines (19/20).
I am not an experienced Bordeaux drinker, but I think there are not too many cases where a superb Ch. Latour is just that bit less impressive than its second wine. The '62 Grand Vin, good and charming as it was, had to bow to the '71 Les Forts... (18/20).
The young Tokaji was a very interesting dessert wine with some cross qualities between port and madeira though it is not a fortified wine at all (16/20).

Tasting, Saturday 9 March - Hermitage 'La Chapelle' vs. Penfolds Grange Hermitage

At the uncivilized hour of 11 am Saturday morning we all gathered at the tasting room for the 'real' thing.
This is as good time as any to mention the utter professionalism with which everything is done at Gidleigh. Steve, the young and encyclopedic sommelier, conducted the well orchestrated decanting, glassware management, pouring and serving to 12 people as if he had done nothing else his whole life.
These were the wines we tasted:
Hermitage 'La Chapelle', P. Jaboulet: 1980, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 89, 90
Grange Hermitage, Pennon: 1980, 81, 82, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90

We tasted the wines in four vintage groups. 80-82, 83-85, 86-88, 89-90. The last group was tasted blind.
I will not offer detailed TNs, just a few observations:
First, _ALL_ the wines were outstandingly good (with the exception perhaps of 'La Chapelle' 80 and 84 and the Grange 80). In general the Grange were more robust and consistent than 'La Chapelle'.
The best 'La Chapelle' were the '83, '85 and '90.
The best Grange were '81, '82, '86, '89 and '90.
The most charming and open wines were the '82 Grange and the '83 'La Chapelle'. The '81 Grange is great now but will certainly improve. The '89 and especially the '90 Grange were probably the best of the lot, but will take at least another decade to show off all they have.
Within each flight we all had some 5-10 minutes to sniff, taste and write down our impressions with no exchanges taking place. Then Hugh would summarize his own impressions and a lively discussion would develop.
A unique, educative, pleasurable and tasty experience! (Sorry folks, I do not spit such wines... I have not finished every glass in front of me, but I have not spited a drop of wine the whole weekend < g >.)

"Light" Lunch, Saturday March 9

L'Eremo 1990, Isole e Olena (Italian Syrah)
La Courtade 1990, Porquerolles

Leg of rabbit, stuffed with a fricassee of wild mushrooms with buttered potatoes and lettuce
Qupe Syrah 1990, Central Coast, CA
Qupe Syrah "Bien Nacido" 1990, Central Coast, CA
Ch. Routas Cyrano (Syrah) 1994, Coteaux Varois

Cote du Rhone 1992, Guigal

The food:
This 'light' lunch followed the 'heavy' morning tasting. The stuffed leg of rabbit was (to everyone's mind) the most heavenly single dish we had during the weekend that was full with great dishes...
The wines:
The Italian Syrah was full of simple yet tasty fruit (16+/20).
The Courtade had a pleasant moss and undergrowth aroma. Open and ready on the palate (17/20).
The 'regular' Qupe Syrah. Big wine, big fruit, too much oak (17/20).
The "Bien Nacido" was not planned to be served. When we tasted the Qupe, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to visit the winery and was duly impressed by the Bien Nacido vineyard, which I remembered to be better than the present Qupe. It didn't take more than that for Paul Henderson to immediately send for a bottle so we could all compare the two... The Bien Nacido _was_ better, but not by much. It was deeper, more complex, and didn't have all that much wood (17++/20).
As for the Ch. Routas Cyrano, we were privileged to have the charming young Devon-born Amanda Bieler - the better-half of Philippe Bieler, owners of Ch. Routas - as one of the 12 people gathered for the wine weekend. She told us a lot about this up and rising domaine and we all enjoyed both her company and her wines. The very young Cyrano was a superb wine, full of pepper and other spices. IMO it was the best match to the delicious rabbit leg (18/20).
The Guigal '92 Cote du Rhone was pleasant and easy (16/20).

Dinner, Saturday March 9

Aperitif: Ch. Grillet 1991
Terrine of duck foie gras with Madeira sauce
Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc 1992, Languedoc
Cold lobster in its own jelly
Qupe (Viognier/Chardonnay) Los Olivos 1994, Central Coast CA
Ch. Routas Coquelicot (Viognier/Chardonnay) 1995, Coteaux Varois

Veal Fillet an a ragout of broad beans and veal sweetbreads
Rothbury Estate Hermitage 1981 (Australia)
Rothbury Estate Hermitage 1983 (Australia)

Cote Rotie, Les Jumelles 1962, P. Jaboulet
Chocolate and Orange confit mousse
Tokaji Royal Nyula'szo 1991

The food:
Extraordinary as usual. The 'piece de resistance' was the Chocolate and Orange confit.
The wines:
The Ch. Grillet I found pretty boring (15/20). The Mas de Daumas had a full body and was extremely interesting (17/20).
The Qupe Viognier/Chardonnay was full bodied and woody as usual (17/20).
The 1995 Ch. Routas Coquelicot was just bottled. The bottle did not have a printed label yet... Extremely young and fresh. Not an ounce of wood, very fruity but a bit simple (16+/20).
The Rothbury Hermitage 1981 was one of those things worth waiting for in life. Great color, seductive clean nose, full of fruit with layers and layers of flavors revealing themselves on the palate (19/20)!!!
The similar wine from 1983 seemed like a corked example of its little older brother. Corked it wasn't though it was a bit smelly and less good in every respect (16/20).
The Jaboulet 1962 Cote Rotie was exceptional! Clean, smooth, harmonious, full of fruit and character (18+/20).
The Tokaji this night was a younger wine but from a supposedly better vineyard. I can't say I could tell the difference (16/20).

Well, with that the official wine weekend ended. We decided to stay another day and enjoy Gidleigh on its own, without the tasting duties < g >. The sun was shining the whole day and we were able to stroll around.
We only had two wines that day, half a bottle of a fantastic Riesling 'Clos St. Hune' 1986 (17+/20), and an unbelievably extraordinary Ruchottes Chambertin 1978 by A. Rousseau (19/20).
A grand finale to a grand weekend.

The best wines of the weekend? There were so many, but the four giants were:
Les Forts de Latour 1971
Grange Hermitage 1990
Rothbury Estate Hermitage 1981
Ruchottes Chambertin 1978

Chapeau to Paul and his staff, to Huge Johnson and his lovely wife Judy, and to ourselves for deciding to go for it.

Reach Me? yak@yakshaya.com

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Jacob "Yak" Shaya.