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Croquet and Black Rubber

Sand gives way to limestone in the soils to the north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The length of Pall Mall is festooned with smart clubs, all offering the chance to step out of the hurly-burly of the street outside (more or less of a hurly burly, one wonders, than when the area was frequented by those playing that eponymous game, a forerunner to modern croquet (in itself a savage game of violent emotional swings and roundabouts)), an opportunity to sit and think and talk and, oft-times, consume something in the way of both F and B.

I assisted in the hosting of a second wine tasting in the street the other evening. The first had been a rehash of the so-called Judgement of Paris, in which we compared top wines from Bordeaux and California of the same vintage: 1990. This time the requested theme was an investigation of the Syrah-Shiraz grape and the wines made there from and the event was preceded by a degree of email banter about suitable wines to be included. It was also to be held one door down from the previous event, giving rise to the hope that this process might turn out to be ongoing: an extremely grand and drawn-out equivalent to the pub crawls of our youth.

We convened in a private room at the club and palates were immediately and thoroughly cleansed by the application of cold champagne. I had arrived several hours earlier and had set up tasting mats, glasses (I had brought my own, as I thought the club's stemware not quite up to the grandeur of the liquids we were to be pouring), tasting sheets, drop-stops, pencils etc. and had then repaired to my hotel, a short taxi ride distant.

Quickly showered and clothes changed, I returned to the club perhaps an hour-and-a-half before the tasters were due and got on with the business of double decanting the wines (a process by which one carefully tips the wine into a decanter or (in this case) a clean glass jug and off any lees that it may be hiding. One then washes out the bottle with clean water and returns the decanted wine into its original container, thereby ensuring that a) one keeps track of which wine is which, b) one is serving clean wine and c) the liquid has had an adequate opportunity to breathe).

I had decided that the wines should be tasted in two flights, New World followed by Old World, and that within each flight wines should (as is common practice) be sampled yougest to oldest.

We began! First out was the 2006 Columella from Sadie Family Vineyards in Swartland, South Africa. Is this the best wine of that country? I'd be quite happy to believe it. Something of a cheat in this company, as it contains a 15% dollop of Mourvèdre, it is nevertheless cool, concentrated, very elegant and pure and, in style, really sitting somewhere between worlds Old and New.

Next up, a bottle that had been hand-carried to the tasting by one of those present: 2004 Dead Arm Shiraz from D'Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, South Australia. This is the figurehead wine of that winery, a producer that markets a string of wines red and white, none of which will disappoint. It has also become something of an Australian icon, helped, no doubt, by lofty scores from Robert Parker.

Perhaps the '04 is going through an introverted phase, or maybe it was resentful of its journey across town, but delicious as it was, I thought it a bit shy. It was, nevertheless, spicy, dark and a touch earthy, with rewarding, piquant tannin.

Next was a wine entirely new to me and one of those Cali wines that one can only obtain by being on the mailing list of the winery (and then only in tiny quantities). We had arranged for it to be delivered to the New York hotel room of the evening's generous host and he had carried it back to the UK in his check-in luggage: 2001 Seymour's Vineyard Syrah from Alban Vineyards in the Central Coast.

Why it took the Californians so long to plant Rhône varieties (as opposed to those of Bordeaux and Burgundy) in their Mediterranean climate, I know not. Yet this wine was proof that this change of focus is a Good Thing. Weighing in at 15.8%abv, with breathing the heat diminished, leaving aromas of smoke and menthol, tomato purée, spearmint and leather. The palate showed lovely purity and mineral touches to the creamy fruit.

Back to Australia for the final New World pair and a fascinating comparison betwen the two longest-established icons of the country: Hill of Grace and Grange. We sampled the 1999 and 1982 vintages respectively and I thought it very interesting to see such polar opposites side-by-side, the one - Grange - the model of Australian wine making (inter-regionally blended and a wine essentially constructed in the winery after harvest), the other the product of a single block of vines and made with as "hands off" an MO as possible. My sympathy, perhaps unsurprisingly, lay with the Henschke and it was that wine that I found most appealing, all dark spices, meat and mint, with its cool red-and-black fruited palate. The 1999 Hill of Grace is, perhaps, only recently come into its window of maturity. There is certainly a great future ahead for this wine.

The 1982 Grange is, of course, fully mature. I wondered whether the bottle was a fake, since Penfolds changed the name of this wine in 1990 from Grange Hermitage to, simply, Grange and this '82 bore the one word "Grange" on the label. I have subsequently discovered, however, that European labels of the 1980s were labelled this way, so am happy to believe that the wine was bone fide. It certainly came across as contemporary with its stated vintage, aged-looking as it was in the glass, offering aromas of singed hair, smoke, cold tea and smoked meat, a hint of caramel overlying. The palate still consistent, a hint of mint, of good grip and structure. Good wine.

In order the Old World bottles were: 1999 Cornas, Clape; 1990 Hermitage, Chave; 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle, Jaboulet, and 1990 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne, Guigal. And I must say that, impressive as the New World wines had been, it is difficult to come up with epithets suitable for application to these luminary fluids. I will copy below my tasting notes, taken on the night in question in order to make an attempt. Do please bear in mind that I was talking whilst scribbling, thus these notes are not the product of absolute concentration!

1999 Cornas
A savoury nose, a touch briary, giving a hint of tomato and ink. Ripe red and black fruits. The palate is really quite meaty. Mineral, with rich and quite serious tannins. Fresh and lively.

1990 Hermitage, Chave
Very rich nose and a very complex one. Mature. Note of singed hair and walnut. Mellow spice. Vegetal notes representing both decay and growth. And piercing, piquant red fruit. Cool and medium weight palate. Walnuts appear again. This is highly mineral, straight and fresh; really appetising. Dry leaf litter. Juicy, medium plus acidity. Presistent and almost metallic at the end. So fresh. Looks really mature in the glass. Highly complex and utterly lovely.

1990 Hermitage La Chapelle, Paul Jaboulet Aïné et Fils
Deep hued and still really quite red in colour. Tertiary aroams of offal, black rubber, meat and tomato purée; pepper and toasty gingerbread. The palate reveals cold tea flavours, as well as cooked beef. Richly, grippily tannic. Long, spicy and juicy-fresh. Mineral, rich and structured. This is one big and lovely wine!

1990 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne, Guigal
Very rich nose; very smoky. Black rubber and leather. Herbal notes and gingery spice. Tar. The palate is cool and medium weight. Very elegant mouthful; straight and bristling with minerality. Meaty; sweet spice. So complex. Richly structured. Fine grip and minerality. Busy wine and a very, very long one.

In my opinion, we left the best until last. All-in-all, an evening that I will remember for a very long time to come!
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