The supreme aesthetic experience is something that is sadly meaningless to a large proportion of the population. Sad it is because the visceral, emotional, intellectual thrills that can penetrate your psyche and infuse your whole body, taking it to a different plane of existence, are so profound they improve and enhance our lives, our view of the world and the things in it for long after the experience has passed. Those of us who appreciate these experiences will often go to extraordinary lengths to have them. But it is important to remember we are social creatures and the extremes of aesthetics are best experienced in the company of those who also understand. So it was last Friday.
The Editor and I had arranged a little luncheon with our chum Richard Brooks. Richard is perhaps the living embodiment of charm, it is almost impossible not to like him. But more relevant to this discussion, he, as do The Editor and I, understands. We recognise those experiences beyond the rim. We had three such experiences at lunch and, by arse, did we revel in them. They were so pyrotechnically preternatural we were often completely lost for words (which is going to make writing this article hard) and resorted to sounds and gestures to attempt to articulate the magnitude of transcendence we were experiencing. If there is a god, which there is not, its powers are nothing compared to those who made the three wines that united us in radical rapture.
A sniff – POW! You are thrust into its world of intense, penetrating aromas. And you want to stay in that world because it is being penetrated in a good way – through the nose and soon the mouth.
Look up! Everyone at the table is transported by the electric thrills, but they catch your eye and you know they think the Coeur de Cuvee 1996 is as good and as engorged with excitement as you do. It is fresh as a daisy too, with no hints of oxidation even though it has obviously had quite a lot of contact with new oak.
The nose is like having the ripest, most fragrant slice of lemon you’ve ever encountered shoved up your nostrils with a solid gold barge pole. Considering this wine is 80% Chardonnay the bargepole is studded with an awful lot of red fruits: ripe, juicy strawberries with a hint of raspberry there too.
Sniffing this is enthralling, you all know it. You look around and grin, hardly able to take your nose away from the forceful, surprisingly youthful and remarkably oak-dominated set of aromas that bubble from the top of your glass. Yet you all know what you have to do. Who will be first?
GO! A liquefied lemon tree thunders into your mouth, vigorously exploring every corner – a sensation that leaves you reeling. It is taut, linear and direct as it envelops your mouth with dazzlingly complex flavours of sharp fruit, wood and a suggestion of stone.
It has the lightest, freshest of mousses, but this is a firm wine that gives all your teeth another spanking before diving headlong for your stomach leaving incredibly involute flavours caressing every corner of your mouth. You slowly look around.
De Montille is one of the sweet, sweet homes of classically-styled, beautiful Burgundy. You can tell that from the very first sniff. Bright, fresh red fruits remind you of why you first loved Burgundy. There is a brilliant purity of expression to that fruit – it is not interfered with by any silliness with new oak, over-ripeness or alcoholic heat.
This sculpted little entity does have more than a hint of stone about the nose, but really it is the sheer loveliness of the fruit that transports you. It is like you are having dinner on the balcony at Domaine Dujac after all traces of the Côte de boeuf have been cleared away. You are left alone to think for a moment, sniffing your 2001 Clos-Saint-Denis, when your reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a large bowl of freshly picked premier cru raspberries, straight from the garden and a little serving of powerfully fragrant raspberry sorbet, made from those same raspberries. You could not be in a happier place either there or just sniffing this wine.
The nose, then, is an enchantment that transports you to some happy, happy place, surrounded by friends and eating the freshest, best food you could ask for.
The palate deftly lifts you and your fellow drinkers even further from the, admittedly lovely, world of Winchester. You are standing next to those raspberry bushes and stoop to pick one. It is deliciously perfect. Not over-ripe but still fresh with pronounced acidity.
You cannot help but dwell on the kaleidoscopic array of flavours that the privileged earth has allowed this bush to fructify. There is an incredibly intricate detail to them, they seem to illuminate your palate.
You know that there is quite a lot of tannin in the skins of the fruit, in this wine that you are drinking, but it is the sophistication of those sweeter, more sapidly beautiful, flavours that capture you imagination with every mouthful.
And as you swallow, those flavours last and last, keeping you in your dream world of beautiful Burgundy. But now your mouth is free, you can share a broad smile with your fellow drinkers and attempt to characterise all that you have experienced, “Lovely… Quite, quite lovely!”.
To many of those whose love of wine developed contemporaneously with mine, Philippe Engel was a super-human. Through him the earth spoke and, by god, we could afford it! Contemporary encounters with his wines are a backward look at our youth, a downward look at the soils he articulated so eloquently and a glance upward at the towering figure his skills have made him become in our memories.
This is a wine of the earth. Rich and complex, but subtle and supernal earth. This wine, even in its fading maturity, shouts of the fine location from whence it came and brings back floods of memories of the first time you tasted a wine from this land.
There is fruit there too, but it is definitely on the soft and mature end of the spectrum and, true to the vintage, there is more of a hint of dirtiness than one might expect from an Engel wine. Rot was a real bugger in the Clos-Vougeot in 1998; I know, I was there.
And I am there again now with the clods of rain-soaked soil sticking to everything and powerful, ripe grape aromas filling my nose; yes, sadly tainted by the hint of dirt that rot brings. It may be almost two decades away, but this nose brings that vintage right to my glass.
The palate has the power and sophistication that a Grand Cru should have, although it is beginning to fade from this vintage. The earthiness is still powerful and complex, as is the fruit, though. The tannins are soft and mellow as one would hope for in a mature, ripe wine.
I did not know Dani or Richard when I did this vintage, but as we revel in the class of this wine I feel I have shared the best parts of it with them. Not the aches, pains and filth, but the satisfaction at loading diligently selected grapes into a fermenter and the glory of smelling ripe Pinot that no one will smell quite like that again.