And a steal for €600 a bottle
When I was a young man growing up in London, my friends used to squirm in trepidation when I had my hands on the wine list in a restaurant. Their fears were justified: to paraphrase George Best, I spent most of my earnings as a 25 year-old computer salesman on fine wine, football and a fast car – the rest I wasted.
Those happy, yuppy days are gone but some things – and men, I suppose – don’t change. So it was a real joy to be back in the toy shop yesterday when I was presented with the greatest wine list I have ever seen. And this wasn’t in Bordeaux, or Paris, or even in London, but in Girona, 100kms north of Barcelona in northern Spain and a short drive from the French border. (I drove the 500 kms from Bordeaux in our Toyota Previa, so something’s had to give.)
I was lucky enough to be invited to this celebration dinner at El Celler de Can Roca by a group of old friends from England, Belgium and Holland, and even more fortunate that (a) I wasn’t paying and (b) was given instructions to order only the best. The same group, minus me unfortunately, had eaten at El Bulli the night before and had ordered only Spanish wines, so their preference this time was for reds from Bordeaux.
The restaurant has two Michelin stars, and on arrival we asked for a bottle of cava and the wine list. I should have said ‘lists’ – plural, because the selection is so vast that it’s in two huge parts. I found it difficult to get past the Bordeaux section, let alone France: far too many outstanding wines to choose from, at unbelievably low prices. There’s no shortage of interesting stuff in the cheap seats (the cava was lovely for €25) but my brief was to stick to the royal circle. And what a pleasure to find mature First Growths at well below current market prices, and way cheaper than any top restaurant that I have come across before.
In fact, I didn’t go for the most expensive – there’s a decent choice of Pétrus – but I couldn’t keep my eyes off Le Pin 2001 for €600 a bottle. Now I know it’s obscene to pay this sort of money for a single bottle in some people’s eyes, but this price for one of the greatest and rarest Pomerols of the decade is, absurd as it may seem, a bargain. This same wine sells for £1500 or more plus VAT from London wine merchants – if you can find it since only 500 cases were made – and here we are in a two Michelin star restaurant. Le Pin proprietor Jacques Thienpont sells his wine now for more than this en primeur, so we had to go for a bottle. In fact, for ten people, two bottles.
We decided to stick to rarer wines within the same area, partly as my Belgian friends are especially enamoured with Pomerol. Château Clinet 1989, La Conseillante 1998 (all Pomerols so far) and from literally just over the road in the graves of St-Emilion, Cheval Blanc 1998. While I was mulling over this lot in the bar area, and then in the superb, cool cellar with one of the sommeliers, I ordered up two different whites to get us started. A dry riesling from the wonderfully named Jesuitengarten, a 2001 from Dr Burklin Wolf, and then to match the middle courses on the tasting menu we had chosen, Leflaive Batard Montrachet 2001, which was outrageously cheap for a Grand Cru from Leflaive. The sommelier and I had scoured the cellar for the 99 that was on the list without success.
It was a sensational line-up of wines, and for me the Le Pin 2001 was the real star, closely followed by the first Batard Montrachet. Here’s a quick sketch, in order, with the menu below:
Burklin Wolf Jesuitengarten Riesling 2001 91 pts
Delicious, fresh, fragrant riesling. Fine rose petals on the nose. Crisp and medium dry with taught mineral, wet stones character running through it. Served in beautiful – and expensive – Riedel Sommelier Series Riesling glasses, setting the wine off magnificently.
Leflaive Batard Montrachet 2001 97 (first bottle) and 93 (second bottle)
The first bottle, served in magnificent Burgundy stemware from Spieglau, was truly wonderful. My Belgian friend next to me hit the nail on the head when he said that if one doesn’t like this, one doesn’t like white Burgundy. And that was just the aroma. Wonderful, beguiling nose, round and soft on the palate with lovely acidity and great complexity, plus a long finish. Perfect now. The second bottle was less invigorating, less intense and slightly less aromatic. I didn’t detect any hint of TCA or corkiness, so I would just put it down to bottle variation. It happens.
Clinet 1989 93 points
Given the reputation of this wine, with 100 points from Robert Parker, it was a tad disappointing. But we only had one bottle so you can never be sure that this bottle was showing the potential of this wine at its best. Nothing wrong with it at all, it just maybe lacked real joie-de-vivre. A delicious Pomerol for sure – but you should never whisper ‘100 points from Parker’ to others if you want an open assessment. I drank the 2001 Clinet at home recently, and preferred it.
Le Pin 2001 98 points
I have drunk Le Pin 2001 before, sitting next to wine writer Stephen Brook during lunch at Vieux Château Certan during Vinexpo week in June last year. It was a far better place to be than with the crowds in the Exhibition centre. Before lunch, Jacques Thienpont had served his 1999 and 2001 during an outstanding tasting of wines from family-owned domaines from Alsace to Languedoc, and casually deposited a double magnum of the 01 on a side table nearby for guests to help themselves. It was one of the most remarkable wines I have tasted, and it just got better and better in the glass. So on this occasion I was eager to see if there was any difference between a standard bottle and the larger format. (The wine in different sized bottles matures at a different pace – with the bigger bottles often ending up as the better ones.) It did not disappoint.
Decanted just an hour or so beforehand, it opens up to reveal gorgeous aromas of violets, sweet tobacco leaf and almost overripe, plummy fruit. On the palate it has enormous presence, with wonderful complexity, and yet it is so graceful. The array of flavours is astounding – all rich red fruits married to savoury, almost meaty notes and pain-grillé nuances. It’s exotic and enticing, a suave, sexy wine, although I’d be quite happy on a desert island with this. Goes on and on. Lovely. Plenty of backbone still – this enormously pleasurable merlot will last a decade or more. Quite simply, a stunning wine.
Cheval Blanc 1998 93 points
One of the group preferred this to Le Pin, but then he is a big fan of Cheval Blanc. I am too, but in the context of a great estate and a great vintage like 1998 – on the Right Bank, that is – it was a mild let-down. However, I feel that it’s not ready to drink and I would recommend leaving it another five years at least, preferably ten. (That’s little consolation to fellow diners with a bottle decanted in front of them but the sommelier had enthused about the current state of the wine beforehand). The cabernet franc appears to dominate the merlot, with harder tannins that need time to soften. There’s lovely black cherry fruit there, good length and a firm structure, and plenty of hedonistic charm. Drink 2011 – 2022.
La Conseillante 1998 91 points
Lovely, quite opulent and rich, easy quaffing Pomerol. This wine was ordered as we ran out of Le Pin and Cheval Blanc, so it was a tough act to follow, but it ‘performed’ admirably.
Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Auslese 2003 91 points
Crisp, racy, and sweet. Beautifully balanced and very refreshing – surprisingly so for a 2003. I expected something more fat and, well, cloying. Thankfully not.
The whole table had the same tasting menu:
Various appetisers, including peas with mint, baby zucchini, pigeon bombon, carrots with orange
Foie gras ‘turron’ with truffle salad
Asparagus with mandarine
Morels in sheep’s milk
Green olives parmentier
Aubergine soufflé with sardines
Amontillado steamed gambas
Cod with bread soup, beans and chilli oil
Lightly smoked sea bass
Kid belly fillet
Pigeon with red fruits
An aromatic pea dish
‘Tresor’ – a perfumed dessert
Endive with coffee
It was an outstanding evening, and special thanks to David, Filip, Ignace and Guust. The food is certainly up to two star Michelin standard. For me, the wine list is worthy of three stars in its own right, and I can see why two of the Belgian guests occasionally fly direct on Ryanair to Girona for a night, have dinner and fly home again the following day. All the wines were served in beautiful glasses too, mostly from Riedel and Speiglau. I’ll certainly be back. We merrily gave our congratulations to chef Joan Roca, and to his brother Josep, who runs the amazing cellar.
This small group gather every two years to celebrate the life of our late friend, Christopher Smail, who died of cancer at the ridiculously young age of 42 in 2004. Christopher used to fly a group of friends and business colleagues out to Bordeaux for a weekend of golf, food and wine. He never held back on the wine or food, instructing me to order only the best. It’s fair to say that we did him proud, although I’m quite certain that he would have preferred to have been with us. Or perhaps he was.