Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Between Trafalgar and Waterloo, superb 200-year-old Cognac

I had the oldest wine I’ve ever tasted on Tuesday – a Cognac produced between Trafalgar and Waterloo. Jack Aubrey would have known it.

The Renault Grande Fine Champagne Cognac Reserve 1810 goes on sale at Christies today with an estimate of around £2000 – a mere pinprick beside the £80k David Elswood and his boys are hoping for for the case of Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 61 (‘unquestionably one of the greatest wines made in the 20th century’ RP; ‘priceless now’ MB), or the £5000 estimate on the 1938 Macallan Glenlivet, or the £15k for the Glenfiddich 50-year-old

Looks like a magnum here...
What a wonderful 200-year-old mouthful it was, what fulgent light gold-and-chestnut colour, and what a splendid nose of cream and caramel, dense figs, honey and prunes all layered (enrobé as the French say) in dry aromatic cedar, a Victorian cigar box where pot pourri has been kept. A box where sweets compacted lie, sherry-like, reminiscent of old PX…

The palate had more dried rose petals, citrus and orange zest, and incredibly youthful honey, caramel, toffee, unctuous sweetness and spice. Impossible to believe its age – if you had this blind you would swear it was less than 50 years old. That's to do with the alcohol - at least 40% the experts round the table said - there was a pronounced heft of alcohol on the end palate - not a burn, but a very definite presence, amazing for something so old.

The wine is part of the extraordinary second Tour d’Argent sale at Christie’s (the first from the ultra-famous Paris restaurant, in 2009, raised over £1.5m), and I went along to taste over a convivial supper in the boardroom upstairs at Christie's King Street HQ.

The Dutch Cognac collector Bay van der Bunt was there, whose Old Liquors collection is one of the biggest in the world and numbers bottles that travelled with Napoleon’s army, on the back of creaking wagons. He said the North Koreans are enthusiastic customers, a fact which I find rather depressing, given the horror stories that are coming out of that benighted country.

Anyway, back to King Street. I’ve never been to a dinner where Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 09, Palmer 05, Duhart Milon 00, Margaux 88 and the inimitable Pichon Lalande 82, followed by Yquem 04, were hors d’oeuvres to the main event.

Pichon’s long been one of my favourites and the 82 was delectable, knocked the Marguax into a cocked hat (as did all the rest actually – it’s on its last legs, so much more evolved, losing its length). The Palmer was a deep beast, hefty, granitic, slowly emerging. It will be beginning to wake up in 7 years and wondrous for the next 30. The Leflaive was also very young but with a lovely restrained honeyish nose and appley palate with very good acidity. Another stayer. The Yquem was delicious, marmalade and white flowers and that beautiful salty/umami base.

Tour d’Argent’s 3rd generation owner Andre Terrail was there. Many of the pre-1850 bottles in the sale come from the Café Anglais (his great grandfather married the heiress to the legendary eaterie – I forget her name), and when the Café went in 1913, and the cellars merged with Tour d'Argent, all the bottles (along with the cutlery and decanters and tablecloths) went to Tour d’Argent.
Now Terrail and David Ridgway (the veteran head sommelier at the Tour) are clearing out a few odds and sods, such as our 1810, the prized, pre-Revolutionary, Vieux Cognac Grande Champagne Fine ‘Clos de Griffier’ Café Anglais 1788, with an estimate of £3,000-£4,000. Other venerable lots include two jeroboams (2.5L) Grande Fine Champagne Cognac ‘La Tour d’Argent’ 1805, bottled on site more than 200 years ago. Estimates of between £10,000 and £15,000.

I asked Chris Munro, who's running the sale, why they were having it in London instead of Hong Kong, which for the last few years has been de rigueur for this kind of auction. He said it didn't make any difference where you hold it nowadays - they're doing a simulcast in Hong Kong with their man Simon Tam taking bids and passing them over to London. All the biggest lots will probably go to Asian collectors and restaurateurs.

The Christie's ecatalogue