Do you fancy dinner in Dalian? – how tempting does 83 Margaux, 86 Lafite, 89 Haut Brion, 82 Mouton, 82 Latour and 97 Yquem sound? ……I booked my ticket!
I had never heard of Dalian before, let alone contemplated a visit. Considered a third tier city (since Senyang is the capital of Liaoning province) it is located on a peninsula in the North East of China on a similar latitude to North Korea. It is the southernmost city of North East China, and since it’s temperature in winter only drops to around minus 20, has become a desirable city for many of the north eastern population who somehow manage to cope with winter freezes of minus 40.
I arrived late in the evening and my first impression of Dalian was the cold! I’ve grown used to warmer climes and find Hong Kong’s winter bad. Last week’s 9 degrees saw the snug Ugg boots come out of the shoe cupboard, and a heated blanket plugged into the USB port of the office computer. Thank God I brought thermals and that puffa coat that seems to inflate so much I have to pump my arms up and down not to feel like a Michelin man!!
It was instantly apparent that like so many other cities, Dalian is embracing and benefitting from China’s rapid economic growth. The city’s fortune comes from its port, its petrochemical industry and from agriculture. Tower blocks sprout from the frozen ground connected by wide new roads and highways. Indeed, some roads must be very new – on our way from the airport we narrowly avoided meeting head on a brand new Range Rover which had ingeniously managed to be travelling down a slip road from a dual carriageway where other cars were going in the opposite direction! I have absolutely no idea how on earth they had managed it!
The line up
Everywhere we were met with warm smiles; this is a welcoming city with a relaxed feeling. Just near our hotel was what I thought was a large ice skating rink. In other cities I am sure it would be strictly regulated to just ice skating with everyone having to skate in one direction and hoards of health and safety signs which seem desined to remove any pleasure from such activities – but here the rink was open for anyone to have fun and who fancied a skid on ice – there was even a small obstacle course and ramp for skate borders without wheels!
Our dinner was to be at the Howard Johnson Parkland Hotel – a relatively new hotel with a modern, clean design. I was amazed at the professionalism of the staff who had meticulously laid the table. Such was the precision, I’m sure they must have used a theodolite to line everything up. Nothing was out of place, perfect symmetry with staff wearing gloves so as not to leave a single finger mark. It was a very important night.
The evening kicked off with 02 Dom Perignon. This vintage has only recently been released from LVMH and has to be the best vintage of Dom since the gorgeous 96. 02 is still very very young but the wine pocesses such a freshness. The clean acidity, fine mousse and complex flavours are sure to make this wine something vey special when it is fully mature.
Our opening red, 1983 Margaux, was then served with Iberico Ham. With the first sniff - yes this is indeed going to be a special night. 1983 vintage was a fantastic vintage for wines from the Margaux commune and maybe one of the best kept secrets for wine lovers. Often overlooked because of the fame of the 82 vintage, these wines are hard to find now, but if you see them they are drinking wonderfully and, compared to prices of recent vintages, a bargain. This Margaux had such a beautiful, elegant and chic nose with black fruits, vanilla and spice and was amazingly complex. On the palate it was like opening a spice box with violets, minerals and cassis. The tannins were still there and quite firm, but it blended and merged seamlessly with the elegant, slightly raisined, vanilla dressed fruit.
Next up, 1986 Lafite – the most reknowned red wine in China. Lafite is the biggest selling wine for Farr Vintners, yet it is the one wine we never get to taste these days – every bottle we get is snapped up and sold. Will this be the last time I get to taste a lafite? Let alone 86? 1986 is a tough vintage, the tannin levels in the wines are very high and many have questioned whether the fruit will totally integrate and the wines mature. Those who have a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and waited to harvest the grapes later made the best wines. The Lafite’s colour is showing age. On the nose dark ripe, slightly stewed fruits, caramel, toffee and coffee. The palate is rich, with those tell tale firm tannins, sweet fruit, cedar wood, coffee, linctus, dates and prunes wrapped up with a mineral finish – the mushroom linguine pasta dish paired well. For me 86 Lafite is at it’s peak – so if you still have some in your cellar I would suggest you drink up or cash out.
The five first growths
Our dishes were swiftly swept away and replaced with a delicious western-style roasted duck with perfect crispy skin accompanied by 1989 Haut Brion. Haut Brion is one of the least popular first growths in china. This begs the question "why"? Is it the name? Is it the shape of the bottle or simply that because it is one of the smaller producing first growths stocks are smaller? Being one of the most consistent first growths it really makes no logical sense that prices of some vintages lag behind other chateaux (but then again, maybe we should keep this quiet…..). Having a quick sniff and taste when decanting this wine earlier I was eager to see what the reaction would be around the room, so anxiously looked at the faces around the table. It really rocked the room and maybeeven rocked a part of north east China too! What a nose! Prunes, dark, ripe fruits, spice, fine soy sauce (or as my friend next to me suggested duck sauce), spice, slightly smokey, so complex. In the mouth it was big and powerful, the flavours more forward than on the nose, oaky, smokey, spice, chocolate, ripe, dark fruits, Chinese roasted pork, minerals – the length was amazing! This is a legendary wine!
Again plates were whisked away and replaced with roasted lamb chops served with 1982 Mouton and 1982 Latour. Comparing different chateaux to see their individual characters is always interesting, but to have two from the same year, from the same region, with age and maturity really does show just how each chateau has it’s own, unique character and why “terroir” is so important. The Mouton oozed roasted meats, minted toffees. Age has softened the tannins which compliment the red fruits, nuts, oak, some raisins. The finish is refined and long. This wine is drinking superbly now.
Meanwhile the Latour’s nose showed cedar, tobacco, and dark fruits. The feeling you get is that this wine is like a race horse in peak physical condition desparate to gallop but being held at the starting gate. On the palate it is still tight (even with 2 hour's decanting) with dark, blackcurrant fruit combined with a refined and pure minerality. Beautiful spice and pepper laced with fresh vanilla pods. This wine may well be 18 years old but this has another 20 to go at least – in 20 years will there be any bottles left?
The Howard Johnson Dalian Table Setting
Discussions around the table were lively – so many different flavours, so many different characters, all just so good in different ways…..
The evening was then rounded off with 1997 Yquem served with a rich tiramisu. The vibrant amber golden colour was amazing. We decanted the half bottles around 1.5 hours before serving – the nose showed candied peel, honey, citrus, lots of fresh vanilla and a touch of cream. On the palate it was so rich and unctuous with limes and green apples laced with honey, slightly smokey and lots of apricots refreshed by that cleansing crisp acidity. Very much still an infant.
All in all this was an incredible evening. With this line up of wines it was always going to be special, but the company, ambience and service made it magical. Dalian will be a very special memory – my thanks to everyone who made this night possible.