The Great Wall of China, Black Tie Dinner
This dinner, sponsored by China’s top wine importer, ASC, was one of the greatest events of my life. Remarkably, no one had ever before done a gala dinner or wine tasting on the Great Wall. There are many different venues for visiting the Great Wall (this was my first time), but this black tie dinner was catered by Shangri-La’s well-known Blu Lobster restaurant, and held at the section of the Great Wall known as Ju Yong Guan. This is one of the three great passes used for crossing under the wall. Built by the Ming dynasty, it is an especially gorgeous area with the towering walls rising up incredibly steep mountains on each side of the fortress that guards the valley. Everything about this event was perfect, from the incredible service, to the beautiful harp music in the background, lovely weather after the winds died down and the temperature dropped from the upper nineties to the low sixties, and of course, brilliant wine and cuisine. The Great Wall was illuminated in both directions, and we could probably see 20-25 miles given the clarity that evening. It was a sight I shall never forget. Perhaps that ambiance as well as the historic nature of the event contributed to what some might consider generous scores, but these wines were absolutely out of control. After talking to many of the guests, I do not think my comments are exaggerated - it was just a perfect night - historic, and never to be forgotten.
The evening began with an exquisite 1990 Bollinger RD, a Champagne that remains super-fresh even at age 18. For me, it is even greater than the 1988 tasted several days earlier in Shanghai. This is a full-bodied, powerful Champagne offering wonderful caramelized white currant, brioche, crème brûlée, and biscuit-like notes. Surprisingly powerful and vigorously zesty, this stunning wine worked beautifully with the assortment of hors d’oeurvres, which included my first ever foie gras hot dog. Who would have thought that I would ever encounter this culinary creation on the Great Wall of China!
Despite all the issues with prematurely oxidized white Burgundies, there was no such problem with the 2002 Jadot Corton Charlemagne. It remains a young, powerful, concentrated white wine displaying notes of lemon butter, honeysuckle, crushed rocks, and acacia flowers. It drank beautifully with the lobster risotto. With the brilliant suckling pig dish, we enjoyed the 1999 Guigal Côte Rôtie La Turque, which once again showed what an extraordinary vintage this is for Côte Rôtie. Still a youthful purple color, it exhibits incredible notes of incense, blackberries, cedar, pepper, roasted meat juices, and exotic flowers. The wine was very full-bodied, but possessed great acidity and purity as well as a finish that lasted over a minute. It is an amazing wine. Most surprising for me, my wife, who generally does not like the big Australian Shiraz, thought the wine of the night was the 2003 Torbreck Run Rig. I know this wine very well, and this may have been the finest bottle of this cuvée I have yet tasted. Perhaps it was the Great Wall ambiance or the extraordinary rendition of rabbit presented several different ways, but this wine hit on all cylinders. It didn’t lose a beat coming after the perfect Côte Rôtie. The Run Rig includes 3% Viognier co-fermented with the Shiraz, and it was beautifully balanced, elegant, and powerful.
One of the great modern-day Cabernet Sauvignons is consistently Shafer’s Hillside Select, and the 2002, a vintage that produced many classic Cabernets, was sensational. Inky blue/purple-colored, it offered up notes of pain grillé, crème de cassis, licorice, and smoke. Full-bodied and beautifully pure with seamlessly integrated acidity, tannin, wood, and lofty alcohol, this superb Cabernet Sauvignon should drink graciously for another 15+ years. One of the French guests said to me that he had drunk several cases of 1989 Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, but had never had such an exquisite bottle as that served on the Great Wall. Perhaps the magic of this night and the extraordinary, historic setting contributed to that feeling. For whatever reason, the wine represented the quintessential Haut-Brion. Charcoal, burning embers, red and black fruits, spice, and earth characteristics were offered in a full-bodied, opulent style with not a hard edge to be found. It was a wine to die for. Served with a gorgeously intense, end of season lamb, it was the perfect wine for the occasion.
I noticed the Chinese love to have both a sweet wine and a vintage port at the end of a meal, which is pretty much over-kill for me. However, I was blown away by the 2003 Taylors vintage port. I had enough left in me to appreciate the brilliant Kracher No. 7 Chardonnay from the 1999 vintage, which was stunning with the coconut sorbet with toffee sauce and lemongrass bubbles. Yet drinking it was touched with sadness as I thought of the recent and premature death of its 49-year old maker, Alois (Luis) Kracher.
Once again, I can’t thank the owners of ASC Fine Wine Imports, Don St. Pierre, Sr. (pictured above with Bob and Pat Parker) and his son, Don St. Pierre, Jr., as well as their extraordinary staff enough for making Saturday, May 24, 2008 one of the most remarkable days of my life. Certainly no Emperor from any Chinese dynasty could have drunk or eaten so well as we did on this exceptional evening.
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