The Park B. Smith 2003 Châteauneuf du Pape Invitational

  • Robert M. Parker, Jr.

  • 01 Apr 2007 | Events

Park B. Smith, the renowned wine collector and proprietor of Veritas (his real job is actually in textiles, where he is a highly respected magnate), has been a wine lover for over fifty years. During that time, he has been one of the few people to acquire and taste just about every great wine ever made. His remarkable wine cellar, which has been profiled in the New York Times, is a treasure-trove of the finest wines of Bordeaux, California, northern Italy, and the Rhône Valley with a sprinkling of Burgundies. He stopped purchasing wines from the latter region because of, as Smith says,

“shabby quality.”

Over the last few years, he has concluded that his favorite wine in the world is Châteauneuf du Pape. Whether one agrees with that or not is up to one’s personal taste, but it can not be denied that this is a man who has had a half century of experience drinking the world’s finest wines, and he has settled on these sun-drenched Provençal beauties because of their remarkable complexity as well as savory richness. Moreover, they can be appreciated young or enjoyed for decades. For every top vintage of Châteauneuf du Pape, Park holds a tasting in New York City for some of his favorite wines. Although 2003 is a somewhat bizarre, less consistent vintage than 2001, 2000, and 1998, those producers who excelled made prodigious Châteauneufs that will be legendary. However, there are not many of them, and what follows represents a “who’s who” of 2003 Châteauneuf du Papes. All the wines were served in magnums save for the Vieille Julienne Réserve and Pierre Usseglio Réserve des Deux Frères.

With the brilliant Chef Scott Bryan preparing the cuisine and the team of terrific sommeliers led by Wine Director Tim Kopec backed up by Yoshi Takemura and Patrick Cappiello, it was an idyllic four hour lunch of bacchanalian dimensions. The food consisted of one spectacular course after another, and Scott Bryan’s ability to offer intensely flavored dishes with intelligent wine match ups is extraordinary. The peekytoe crab salad, seared snapper, and crisp pork belly were fabulous, but no one does a better seared foie gras than Chef Bryan, and his braised short ribs were an homage to the great French chef, Daniel Boulud.

The first flight of wines was dominated by the magnificent 2003 Clos des Papes. Revealing more cinnamon, pepper, and spice box characteristics than previous bottles I have tasted, this full-bodied, opulent, rich Châteauneuf is a dead-ringer for a younger clone of the estate’s prodigious 1990. Fleshy, dense, and powerful, it should age beautifully for another 12-15 years without ever closing down. I may have overrated the 2003 Chapoutier Barbe Rac as it is not performing as well from bottle as I expected (which I have had 4-5 times over recent months). This cuvée often needs time to shed its tannins, but the 2003 exhibits a lighter color than I remember along with good sweetness, but excruciatingly dry, hard tannins. I’m not giving up on it since previous vintages have eventually performed up to expectations, but it is a perplexing wine to taste at present, and appears to be disjointed.

In the second flight, both wines were about as spectacular as Châteauneuf du Pape, or any old vine cuvée from a splendid terroir can be. The brilliant 2003 Les Cailloux Cuvée Centenaireboasted flamboyant kirsch liqueur aromas that nearly filled the restaurant’s air space. A dark ruby color, expansive, full-bodied, opulent flavors, and firm tannins are found in this structured effort. This was the best performance by this stunning cuvée since it was bottled. It may merit a three digit score with another 3-5 years of bottle age. The 2003 Marcoux Vieilles Vignesrevealed a dark blue/purple color along with an extraordinary perfume of incense, blueberries, blackberries, cassis, garrigue, and spring flowers. While not quite as exuberant as Les Cailloux, it is stunningly pure as well as fabulously concentrated, long, deep, and bursting with potential. This monumental Châteauneuf du Pape should be at its apogee in 3-4 years, and drink well through 2020+.

Crisp pork belly is currently one of the most popular dishes at some cutting edge restaurants, and when served with fava beans, it offered wonderful texture to match the brilliant wines of Domaine Pierre Usseglio. A wine that can be virtually perfect is the 2003 Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée de Mon Aïeul. Aged in cement tanks, it offers notes of blueberries, roasted Provençal herbs, and ground black pepper along with lavish quantities of fruit, glycerin, and richness. This extraordinary offering provides a memorable tasting experience. While still young, it is impossible to resist. It outperformed its more expensive and rarer sibling, the 2003 Réserve des Deux Frères, which was backward and tannic, revealing notes of vanillin (somewhat curious since the wine is aged in older barrels). This dense purple-hued 2003 was closed, backward, and not singing on this day. The same could be said for the 2003 Janasse Chaupin. I love this cuvée as it represents a textbook lesson in old vine Grenache, but the 2003, while outstanding, underperformed based on previous tastings. Tannin, herb, pepper, and spice characteristics were discernible, but the wine seemed disjointed and angular. Perhaps that was because it was served next to the 2003 Janasse Vieilles Vignes, which was sensational. Inky/ruby/purple-colored with a fabulous nose of cassis, black currants, figs, plums, and spring flowers, the full-bodied, powerful, rich Vieilles Vignes is still backward. It should be at its finest between 2011-2025

The braised short ribs were the perfect match for the complexity and richness of the breakthrough vintage for Clos Saint Jean. 2003 is the first vintage where the brilliant oenologist, Philippe Cambie, worked with this estate, and the results are two monumental Châteauneuf du Pape cuvées. The more Mourvèdre-dominated offering, the 2003 Combe des Fous, exhibited beautiful flowery, blueberry, raspberry, and cherry notes intermixed with notions of spice, road tar, and earth. Medium to full-bodied, beautifully structured, and pure, it is the more restrained and Burgundian of these two cuvées. The 2003 Deus Ex Machina, a blend of old vine Grenache and Syrah, is an amazing wine that has gone from strength to strength since bottling. Every time I taste it, it flirts with perfection. It is a remarkably full-bodied powerhouse that is like a highly muscled ballerina rather than something offish and over the top. A dense ruby/purple hue is accompanied by gorgeous, smoky garrigue notes intermixed with licorice, black cherry liqueur, plums, and a darker, more primordial meatiness. It is a stunning, more modern day version of Pégaü’s famed Cuvée da Capo.

We finished with three amazing wines, all of which were either perfect or nearly perfect. As I have written so many times before, there is not much difference between the 2003 Pégaü Cuvée Réservée and 2003 Pégaü Cuvée da Capo, at least in terms of quality, complexity, and potential. The Capo possesses more kirsch, garrigue, and incense characteristics, whereas the Cuvée Réservée is slightly darker, meatier, smokier, and earthier. Both are extraordinary wines, and for the difference in price, there is no doubt the money is on the Cuvée Réservée, but the Capo is an extraordinary drinking experience. More backward, but incredibly promising is the 2003 Vieille Julienne Châteauneuf du Pape Réserve, another superb example of 100+ year old Grenache vines grown in pure sand. It boasts a deep ruby/purple color along with sweet notes of crème de cassis, raspberries, cherries, and earth. This stunning Châteauneuf still needs 5-6 years of cellaring. It will keep for 2-3 decades.

Thanks to Park B. Smith for his extraordinary generosity in hosting one of the finest afternoons of fine wine and cuisine money, friendship, or good fortune can enjoy.

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