Lunch at Oregon Grille

An extraordinary luncheon with some notable connoisseurs, one of whom is also a great Burgundy collector, began with two Chardonnays. The 1999 Marcassin Three Sisters Vineyardcontinues to demonstrate what a glorious site this is on the Sonoma coastline. Intense honeyed citrus notes intermixed with hints of white currants, spring flowers, and subtle oak are followed by a full-bodied, fruity white with great definition and minerality. This spectacular, still youthful Chardonnay is capable of lasting another 4-5 years. Backward, but wonderfully elegant is the lemon blossom, cold steel, and ripe apple-scented and flavored 2002 Domaine Leflavie Bienvenue Bâtard Montrachet. Tight, with crisp acids but superb concentration, it will benefit from another 1-2 years of cellaring, and should easily last 15 or more years.

We moved to a decidedly mixed group of red Burgundies, all of which had been perfectly stored for decades. The 1955 DRC Romanée Conti exhibited a light amber color as well as aromas reminiscent of Chinese black tea, old mushrooms, and decaying vegetation. In the mouth, it was surprisingly soft with hints of oxidation and death. Considerable acidity and tannin in the finish are sure signs of a wine that lost its fruit long ago. Nevertheless, there was enough aromatic complexity to merit a score of 87 points. The 1957 DRC Romanée Conti (bottle #5) revealed a similar color, but one whiff revealed that more was going on in the bottle. Hints of Allspice, clove, orange peel, sweet tea, forest floor, currants, and figs emerge from the glass. In the mouth, it was a deeper, fuller, intact wine with vibrant acidity, and soft, round, concentrated flavors that lingered on the palate. It has obviously been fully mature for many years, but even with extended aeration, it gave no indication of falling apart. This beauty is the kind of wine that great Burgundy is all about.

We then had two disappointing 1976s. The 1976 DRC Richebourg displayed a medium garnet color with plenty of amber at the edge, scents of watermelon and unripe citrus, some background wood, currant, and forest floor notes, and hard, narrowly constructed, austere flavors that completely fell off on the palate. This is a shell of a wine on death's doorstop ... all tannin and structure with no charm. The 1976 Noellat Richebourg (this estate is now Domaine Leroy) was even more undrinkable, with a hard, graceless, desiccated personality, no fruit, dusty, earthy, stale mushroom-like characteristics, and a harshly tannic finish. It has both feet in the grave and the casket door is nearly closed.

We next turned to a transitional wine before we moved on to some legendary Burgundies. The DRC 2002 Echézeaux possessed a medium ruby color, spice box, citrus, and under-ripe currant aromas, hard, angular flavors, and a dried out finish. There is some sweet fruit, but the wine is superficial, lacks depth, and appears to be the product of a too early harvest. The tannins are green and the acidity high. Based on my limited experience with the sensational 2002 red Burgundies, this is a major disappointment. Later that evening I opened a 2002 Grand Echézeaux I had purchased for my cellar. While it was slightly better, with a bit more body, it revealed the same drying tannin, unripe red fruit character, a tart, lean personality, and vegetal tannins. As Pierre Rovani reported, the 2002 DRCs were not great successes and, in his opinion, were not as good as the 2001s.

The DRC also did remarkably well in 1959. These legendary offerings are as profound as any wines I have ever tasted. We began with the 1959 Richebourg (bottle # 20). Its dark garnet color is accompanied by an extraordinary, powerful, fruit-driven nose of black raspberries, forest floor, smoke, and spring flowers. It is incredibly powerful (the alcohol must approach 15%), with unbelievable body, glycerin, concentration, and intensity. It was followed by the greatest mature red Burgundy I have ever tasted, the 1959 La Tâche. This elixir was bottle # 43, which suggests it was the first barrel bottled at the DRC. Filled with heavenly delights, it offers an explosive bouquet of smoke, forest floor, flowers, sweet black currants, plums, figs, raspberries, and meat. The color remains a deep, dark garnet with only a touch of lightening at the rim. An amazingly pristine bottle (as were all these 1959s), the wine, still at its plateau of maturity, possesses a fabulously full-bodied, voluptuous texture, massive concentration, and at least 15% natural alcohol. I have never had a Burgundy with such an explosive perfume, amazing concentration and power, yet at the same time such elegance and a degree of youthfulness, despite the fact it is 46 years old! We ended with the 1959 DRC Romanée Conti, which revealed the most evolved amber edge to its moderate garnet color. Although never this estate's most dramatic wine, it revealed an exotic, spice driven-bouquet of seaweed, Allspice, sweet cherries, strawberry jam, dried herbs, and forest floor. This medium to full-bodied effort does not have the power or concentration of the Richebourg or La Tâche, but it may eclipse them aromatically. From a textural standpoint, it has none of the power, expansiveness, or monumental depth of its two siblings, but from an aromatic perspective, it is as amazing as a dry red wine can be. It was also in great shape and continued to hold beautifully in the glass.

Several other wines that I should mention include the 1983 Domaine Roumier Ruchotte Chambertin, which was full, powerful, and alcoholic, but was marred by too much volatile acidity. A wine of great stature, richness, full body, power, and intensity, the virtually perfect 1990 Ponsot Clos de la Roche Vieilles Vignes may one day equal these 1959s from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti.

As for the food, the Oregon Grille is unquestionably the finest restaurant outside the city of Baltimore. No one makes better Maryland softshell crabs (which, in season, come in live every morning), and they have long been known for having the finest dry-aged beef in the region. If you like your beef aged, their strip steaks are spectacular.

All in all, it was an extraordinary drinking and eating experience with some of the legends of the last century as well as some colossal failures – welcome to the Burgundy minefield!

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