This is the first of two (maybe three) proper posts (my ‘live blogging’ attempt failed) dealing with this past weekend’s Big Bottle Festival. I am only just starting to recover – have aches pains and bruises in strange places – and my mental faculties are now in such a condition which allow me to type. It was a weekend that became some sort of hedonistic feat of endurance, from sipping rare blanc de blancs on Friday afternoon to finding myself doing handstands on the lawns of the Cellars-Hohenort on Sunday afternoon. A weekend of big bottles, bigger bruises, blondes, brunettes and bubbles for breakfast.
This was the Big Bottle Festival convened by Fine Wine Events, South Africa’s undisputed champion of wine parties.
Fresh and clean I arrived at Cellars-Hohenort for the first event of the weekend, a rare Blanc de Blanc tasting. I was frothing to get to this tasting. I love champagne, but, sadly, do not get to drink it all that often. This was a chance to taste wines from some smaller growers and houses.
The crowd was cool, smart and informed. And obviously wealthy. The sorts that, when you ask what do you do, there is sometimes a raised eyebrow that seems to say, “I don’t do, I own.” But nevertheless a friendly bunch, and I was chatting merrily with those around me soon enough.
There were 10 wines at the tasting. The first flight had two excellent non-vintage Champagnes; the Larmandier, and the Ruinart. Larmandier, a grower champagne – the champagne is made by those that own the vineyards – farms biodynamically, use wild yeasts, and work with low dosage. I found the blanc de blanc to be pure, with a stony line running through the core and some white fruit. Tight with lots of life ahead of it, I really liked its pointy, fresh, and precise character. Especially compared to the Ruinart which I thought to be slightly more blunt, although it’s slight burnt orange character on the nose was rather attractive.
What really made me smile were the four or so oysters I happily let slip down my throat with these wines. If I thought the wines were good on their own, they positively exploded with the shellfish. This combination is a culinary time machine, taking you back to the 16th century when French gentlemen would gorge themselves on the stuff.
Then came one of those ‘aha’ moments. I can almost still taste it now. A wine that was not the most complex and obviously interesting, but so staggeringly elegant, so carefully weighted that I was entirely mesmerized by it. The De Sousa Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Reserve poured from Magnum. Grand Cru vineyards in Champagne make up only 5% of the total vine plantings, and come from 17 vineyards. This Champagne, sourced from Grand Cru Vineyards and disgorged in 2005, showed a delicate floral nose – like a pressed flower from an old book – the mousse was fine, and the palate really taught and mineral, like licking wet slate which has just had lime chopped on it. This was followed by some gentle toasty notes with a touch of beeswax.
But good lord it wasn’t just its taste that wowed me, but its elegance. Jorg Pfutzner – organizer of the event – said about blanc de blancs that they are “quintessentially elegant” and while not all of these wines were, after the De Sousa I feel I am on pretty firm footing when it comes to claiming a bubbly’s level of elegance. In SA we have a way to go in this department. How do you describe elegance? With difficulty. (I wrote a column on it here – may not be out yet) But in this wine it was its seamless nature that did it. Long, fresh, clean but with weight. There were no snags, everything was in its right place; giving the impression that to add or take away would be to its detriment. A goldilocks wine, a wine of presence without having to shout, a wine of balance. A wine that had me on my knees.
I have gone on a bit, but that wine deserved it. We then moved on to the vintage stuff. The 2004 Le Mesnil out of Magnum was tight and lean, and a bit reserved, touch of lingering sweetness. If the Mensil felt a bit coy, the 1999 Duval-Leroy underscored this. Big, bolshy and dense. It had loads of toasty honey and demanded something rich to eat. There were tertiary flavours – nuts, and a little bit of ground coffee – but still fresh and bright. The biggest wine for me. Heavy, intense, serious.
The 1995 Launois blanc de blanc served from jeroboam unfortunately was sans bubbles. Although I found if I treated it like a mouthwash I could resurrect a few. You could imagine the former glory though. It was kind of like white Burgundy, and I still thought it quite delicious. Somebody made a joke of how the English would like it. Things were getting a tad louder as the bubbles went to work.
The wines were also getting more serious with complexity rising. The spicy 2004 Diebolt-Vallois Fleur de Passion had a sweet/sour aspect and a chalky texture. Amongst some bready notes curry spices floated up. The 1998 Ruinart Dom Ruinart Brut was a cracker – my notes at this point were already getting a little fruity; I was thirsty, and couldn’t bare to spit – the nose was gentle, fresh oats and honey, and a soft but vibrant mousse. It danced on the palate, like a hipster with big hair and skinny jeans, tight but floppy. For some reason the notes suggest that “the oldies were over it.” Silly oldies.
Finally came the craziest wine of the flight. The 1997 Salon Le Mesnil poured out of Magnum. The latest vintage released is the 1999, and from the first commercial vintage in 1921, to the latest release (the ’99) only 33 vintages have been produced by Salon. Which is pretty damn crazy in itself, and a business model like no other. This was all golden honey and mushrooms, with a mousse more delicate than Audrey Hepburn’s bum fluff and fine like a mosquito doing ballet on your tongue. The acidity was razor sharp and drove the toasty, nutty, white fruit flavours through the palate for an age. The flavours came like waves chasing each other up the shore and slowly sinking into the sand. The finish was savoury with mushroom umami flavours. A superb wine. I am privileged to have tasted it. Johan Malan from Simonsig said, “these kind of wines you remember when you have tasted him.” Damn straight.
I will leave it there, Part two will feature dinner which sees a retardedly good Riesling, a Chateauneuf du Pape – which became my Chateauneuf du Breakfast – and the walk around tasting which saw more big bottles than I could shake my fist (clutching a glass) at, a big spill, an auction, lost tobacco, Gas Lamp, and a rather disheveled appearance at breakfast. Till then, adieu.