His hands are trembling notably. This is, after all, a very special moment, even for one of the most experienced sommeliers and wine connoisseurs when it comes to old wines. And even if an old wine, to most people, would be anything from before the turn of the latest century, Mr Olsson ends his count at 1961. After that, too much changed in the Bordeaux wine industry and the wines never became quite the same. Although some decent wines were made in 1966, and I sometimes in our frequent arguments on the matter faintly try to defend the 1970 vintage.
How many hundreds, or rather thousands, of bottles of wines from 1961 and earlier Mr Olsson actually has tasted in his vinous life no one has accounted for. On most of these bottles he has pulled the cork himself, and a set of tools including an extra-long cork screw accompany him on the wine dinners he repeatedly has hosted for the last ten years or so.
The same cork screw inches its way slowly through the cork. Even though the cork itself is only from the 1980’s, the bottle is about 250 years older, and fragile.
“Damn…!” he whispers through clenched teeth. “I just broke a piece of the bottle neck… the bottle in itself is valued to several hundred euros!” he adds with a wry smile. We, the breathless audience, waiting to taste the oldest wine we ever been close to trying, are laughing nervously.
When the first whiff of bottled air ascends from the opening of the onion shaped bottle, Mr Olsson is quickly there with his nose and inhales. It is at that moment evident to everyone that he would never become a good poker player. His face wrinkles in confusion and repulsion.
A few hours earlier, it is an anticipating small group that gathers at Stockholm’s only truly luxurious hotel: Grand Hotel, beautifully situated by the water. We are all invited to overview the opening of the bottles for this nights very special dinner, and it is quite a line-up parading on the sideboard in the reception room. The oddly shaped bottle with its rounded body and long neck, partially covered with sea residue of different and unknown sorts, stands first in line, but is left untouched at this stage.
After meticulously opening the bottles, finding a defect rioja (a 1929 Marquis de Riscal Reserva; suspected to be in bad condition even before opening – an exchange bottle is kept ready and the faulty wine is immediately replaced) and decanting the first wines, we are served a first glass of champagne (a very good 2006 José Michel Special Club!) and asked to take a seat. Then we conversate about wine in general and old wine in particular and are told some of the fantastic stories regarding the bottles on the table. And of course, about the Vliegend Hert.
The Dutch ship that sank outside the coast of Holland in 1735 carried a cargo of “wood, building materials, iron, gunpowder and wine, as well as several chests with gold and silver coins”, according to wikipedia. A lot of the shipment was salvaged already the years just after the ship went down, but when it was rediscovered in 1981 a few undamaged bottles of wines were found. The ones with best appearance were recorked and auctioned out. And it is one of those, extremely rare bottles, that finally has found it’s way to a table in Stockholm. And instead of being drunk in the East Indies by a Dutch merchant wearing a wig it will be opened by a group of wine enthusiasts, all longing for the most extraordinary wine experience to be found.
But it’s not only this wine that brings us all together. Mr Olsson has in close co-operation with the highly skilled team at Grand Hotel, led by Chef Gabriel Ask and Head Sommelier Fredrik Lindfors, prepared an exquisite evening, with food and wine pairings that are impeccable . How well the courses will meet and complete the wines is particularly difficult to predict with wines many decades or even centuries old, as they sometimes behave in unexpected ways. Bearing that in mind, chef Ask performs small miracles this night.
We break up from conversation and find our places around the table. White linen and silver chandeliers complete the scene, and we are immediately served two different champagnes, ten years apart.
Dom Perignon 1985 (****) has a dark golden colour and a mature nose; the mouthfeel is also mature with red apples, nuts, coffee notes and really good length. Excellent wine, although the 1983 I had a couple of years ago (yet again at a Mr Olsson-dinner...!) still stands out as the best Dom P I’ve had!
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1995 (****(*)) has a more pale, golden hue and a lovely nose packed with toast, nuts and white flowers. In the mouth it has both toasted and more fresh tones with green apples being obvious. Lovely wine!
To this we are served two lovely cones of caviar; both oscietre and roe. Simple but delicate!
After this prelude it is time for the first crescendo of the evening… The Vliegend Hert bottle! The only bottle being decanted in front of the seated guests. Or… not seated for so long when we all bring our attention and our cameras closer to the decanting table. After the first sniff Mr Olsson clears the bottle neck of any cork remains and assisted by Mr Lindfors the wine is decanted through a linen cloth. I can’t help but putting my nose closer to the process and my nostrils catch a whiff of the wine… It is quite unlike anything I ever scented before!
If you’d put rotten eggs in a mortar, grinding them together with pieces of sulphur, adding a touch of seaweed in various stages of ill-smelling decomposition, you’d might get a hint. A fouler smell was never to be found in a wine tasting room, putting it short!
Even though we pray to Dionysos that some time in a carafe might let the wine breathe and resuscitate, we know in our hearts that this is a wine that’s has walked down a road from which there is no turning back. It is as dead as can be. Either some sea water has penetrated the cork, or some bacterial infection has caused the havoc, or both… we guess around for a while; because … what else to do with our disappointment?
On several occasions during the night we’ve already touched upon the philosophical questions on whether we were entitled to drink this wine or not. Why we…? Once we open it, it will be gone from mankind… A fair question, but my answer was simple: “Well… it will most likely not benefit from further cellaring.”
I was right.
The carafe containing what once was a wine is carried out of the room, not to interfere with any other of the wines ready to be served. A lovely Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Pinot Gris VT 1989 (***(*)), with cloudberries, yellow fruits and sweetness; good length and acidity, is being served as the replacement wine together with the foie gras with cloudberries. A very good pairing, quite obviously!
Moving on, it is time for the fish course. A perfectly cooked piece of monkfish is so exquisite that I totally forget to catch it on camera. Dish of the night, my book says, without even noting what it was served with…! Somewhat unexpected the fish is accompanied by a couple of red wines. The meaty fish will however show that it is a perfect match with mature burgundies.
Mr Olsson has high expectations on the 1947 Latricieres Chambertin (***(*)) from negociant Pierre Ponnelle. It has quite a dark colour for its age and heritage and shows to be quite a mouthful, with a lot of mature fruits an almost chewy, tannic mouthfeel. I detect a somewhat burnt note in the aftertaste, which reduces my enthusiasm a bit. Still a good wine, but not quite the heights we are hoping for.
It turns out, however, that the 1921 Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, Dr Barolet (*****), steals the flight! This 97-year old wine shows no signs of tiring. It is clear, transparent, light ruby red in colour, has a lovely, pure, balanced nose and in the mouth presents a light fruitiness of fresh raspberries and sunkissed strawberries. The taste is very long and just extremely pleasing. A grand vin that never weakens in the glass throughout the night!
Some, however, disagree with me on this being the top wine of the flight – and for a moment I hesitate. A third wine, not on the menu, is suddenly produced at the table. 1945 Clos Fourtet (starts at (*****(*)), ends at (****)) makes a huge impression when served in the third glass; youthful (in a mature way, mind you!), vibrant, fruity, velvety, dense… but somehow it lacks some stamina. It loses its immediate freshness over time and turns a bit dull after less than an hour in the glass, whereas the Barolet seems to live an eternal life. So, to me it adds up as an outstanding wine turning great. A truly great experience, however, and one or two actually heralds the Clos Fourtet as the wine of the night!
Italia! We move our focus briefly from France to the other red wine producing country boasting wines fit for a dinner like this. Yes, we can go on about the odd exceptions here and there (Opus One 1986…) but adding it all up it is Italy that has the centuries of wine-making experience and tradition to offer wines of enough interest, availability and maturity to come close to their French counterparts. And most often it is mature Nebbiolo in the glass on these occasions.
Our chef goes Italian as well and has the integrity to keeping it simple when no fuss is needed. A creamy truffle risotto with generous amounts of truffle shavings at the table put us all in the mood for the two Italian stallions in front of us.
1959 Gaja Barbaresco (****) – from the legendary producer, before turning modern – has a clear, transparent, orange-red colour. The nose is quite mature and has a light mouthfeel with raspberry sweets as a dominant note. Burgundian in style, but not fully convincing in the tough competition.
I have tried 1947 Barolo Riserva Giacomo Borgogno (*****) at least once before. At a Borgogno vertical, also conducted by Mr Olsson, the 1947 was in my opinion barely beaten by the 1943, whereas more talented tasters like my friend the wine-writer and Madeira-aficionado from Järvsö, preferred the 1947. Tonight, this wine shines! In my notebook a “wow!” is stated, amongst other superlatives. It is an exceptional wine that grows and grows, with classic barolo notes of rusty iron nails, to mention an example.
Like a carefully conducted firework display, there are several crescendos during the dinner. And at this stage we’re approaching the one I maybe, actually, have been looking forward to the most. The Vliegend Hert was of course the wine with the most “interesting”-potential, but I never expected it to be an exceptional wine. Simply because it most likely wasn’t already when put in a bottle in late 1734 (probably). But the next wine has all the potential of being great. Or rather stunning. Show-stopping. Life-turning. It has every possibility of being a disappointment, really.
With an, again, well chosen and prepared dish, this time of quail with truffles, comes 1995 DRC, Romanee Conti (******!). Yes, the one. The consistently most expensive wine there is, small quantities, enormous reputation, extremely strict allocation… and one of the most falsified wines. This is no falsification, however. The provenance is impeccable, since it has spent its life in the cellars of Grand Hotel since purchase from the Swedish importer in the nineties. If I ever thought I’d come across this wine, I never expected it to be an example with some maturity. At 22 years old this is a wine that has started to come around but has eternity ahead of it.
The colour is beautifully pomegranate kernels, and the nose… gigantic. It shoots out from the glass like a volcanic eruption of fruity perfume and spiced scents. Everlasting. Focused. Sandalwood, spices, perfume, flowers… And the taste follows; it is bizarre in its intensity while still balanced. The length seems endless. Trying to identify different flavours seems pointless; like examining the brush strokes on Mona Lisa. Why dissect perfection? The complex spicy aromas are simply impossible to separate…!
An intended clash of two Bordeaux titans are up next, served with a delicious dry aged sirloin steak with horseradish creme. The 1982 Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (**), a 100 RP wine, is however not at all in the mood. It is not really TCA (or is it?), but it behaves strangely. Green notes, stems, lack of fruit, some green peppers… not obviously faulty in my taste, but definitely not up to it. Should have been much, much better.
1996 Chateau Petrus (***(*)) is in better condition, thankfully, although not as mind-blowing as one could have hoped. A dense nose, packed with sweet fruits, somewhat closed; young? Hints of sandalwood. Sweet fruits and vanilla on the palate. Good, but not great. A little muffled. Could it be a phase? A tunnel of sorts…? My guess would be that this wine would have given me more pleasure 10-20 years from now, based on how glorious the 1947 Chateau Petrus was at a previous dinner by Mr Olsson.
If Comtesse Lalande was faulty or not doesn’t matter to our host. It does not deliver as expected, and a suitable replacement wine is already on its way from the Grand Hotel cellars. A 100 RP wine need to be replaced by another 100 RP wine; such is the logic at these occasions.
1999 Cote Rotie La Mouline, Guigal (*****(*)), turns up and immediately in the glass shows that it is a serious contender even at an occasion like this. A great nose with sweet fruity notes, almost yoghurt-like (think cherry-flavoured yoghurt with elevated levels of jam and fruits). In the mouth it has an excellent intensity, dense and packed with fruits but still fresh; some resin and spruce. I can be sensitive when it comes to these very high-scoring and intense wines, but this still has a very good balance and doesn’t tip over into the jam jar. Truly great wine, very impressive!
We are finally approaching the end on this nights vinous adventures, but still we have the final crescendo ahead of us. And what a finale!
First a lovely piece of Almnäs Tegel cheese, served with quince jam. The Swedish small-scale cheese producers have really bloomed the last decade or so. Almost anywhere around our long-stretched country you’ll find well crafted, tasty and exciting cheeses – a visible sign of the general rise in interest and knowledge of food culture around here.
Together with the cheese we are served an extremely dark-coloured 1937 Ch Lafaurie-Peyraguey (*****)! The wine literally has the same colour as coca-cola in the carafe - although dark already in bottle we all agree that it has turned even darker since decanting. The fears that this in any sense should have hampered the wine are soon put aside; as soon as I take a sniff I start to smile uncontrollably: the sweet smell of coconut, toffee and almonds is absolutely pure!
The taste is packed with apricot jam, coconut flakes (reminds me of my mother’s coconut flake cookies: “kokostoppar”) and toffee. It has a lovely acidity which gives the wine a backbone and the sweetness is not as overwhelming as the nose implies. Lovely wine; a real pleaser! Showing beyond any doubt that 1937 is one of the greatest sauternes vintages. Michael Broadbent has tasted it on many occasions, noting “drying a little but still superb” and handing out five stars. Who am I to disagree?
An over-indulging chocolate dessert, both beautiful and delicious, is brought to the table, to really fill out any last remaining space we might have in our stomachs.
And with that, the last wine of the night. We move again further back in time and share a bottle of 1861 Quinta de Travassos, Moscatel de Jezus (*****(*)). A wine of Portuguese origin based on the muscat grape. I normally have difficulties with muscat wines, finding them too flowery, too perfumed, too ... much. But apparently nothing that 150 + years of ageing can’t cure!
This is a splendid wine, although the grape variety is still very detectable. On the nose I pick up as various notes as flowers, liquorice, burnt sugar and pomegranate; when tasted it evolves mysteriously into a spicy, viscous fruit syrup with a lovely nuttiness. Sweet and balanced; great acidity! One of my absolute favourite wines of the night!
Finally, it all ends as every wine dinner ends: with a humble thank you to the chef and sommelier team helping us out throughout our ordeals, and with a turn around the table to cast a vote on the wine of the night. Not necessarily the best wine, but the wine that has been most rewarding for each and every one of us. And we contemplate a bit over the fact that we actually have opened wines from four centuries on one night! Four centuries of wine… that truly is something!
This night, it is unusually simple, for me as well as for the majority of the guests to pick a favourite. Although several wines in their own pride could very well have been chosen as the WOTN on any other occasion (and indeed Clos Fourtet and La Mouline got the odd vote…), when put next to 1995 DRC Romanée Conti they all must bow to nobility.
It is, however, not without a touch of sadness I admit that this is truly the greatest “modern” wine I’ve ever tasted. This is a wine that fetches ridiculous amounts of money on auctions. You could buy a new car for the equivalent of what is paid for one bottle. So, somehow the question whether it is worth it’s price has to be put. And the reason for my sadness is that I have to say yes. To me, to us, this night – it was.
I am extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to taste it and I feel a bit like a hobby mountaineer being invited to a Mount Everest-expedition. This was in fact a two summit-expedition. We didn’t make it up the first one, but had a spectacular climbing towards the second, passed some really wonderful parts along the road and from the peak saw the world with new eyes.