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The Problem with Perfection

Friday, 29th September 2023 by Thomas Parker MW

Nine years ago I attended a dinner that shifted my perception of how good wines could be. Over a long evening at Medlar in London, we drank several wines that in isolation could have been my greatest ever, and ones that I would gladly have said were perfect - or 100 point - wines. The problem with drinking so many outstanding wines with their qualitative peers is that it immediately becomes a ranking game, and someone has to come out on top. On the night, that was easy for me; a bottle of Pétrus 1959 served blind absolutely blew me away. I had never tasted anything like it and no one in the room was close to considering it a then 55-year-old wine.

Since then, that bottle - with a few others tasted over the years - has stood on a pedestal as one of the great wines of my life. I had assumed that would be my one and only chance to drink it, but earlier this year a special dinner at the newly-opened Noble Rot Mayfair saw the second bottle of this legendary wine from the same cellar opened. Could it possibly live up to my lofty expectations?

The problem with perfection, particularly in wine, is that it represents a fleeting moment in time and a unique maturation in each bottle. If you catch an old bottle at its mature peak, and have no issues with storage or seal, the results are magical. It can go wrong - a bottle of 1940 Latour at this dinner suffered from a low fill and unsurprisingly did not show well enough to write up. But, the desire to find those peaks is what drives any collector or drinker - there is nothing like sharing that moment when you taste a wine that over-delivers despite a strong pedigree. Some wines have a remarkable ability to deliver consistently despite their maturity, Haut Brion 1989 springs to mind as a wine that achieves this. As technical winemaking, bottling and storage improves, we should see more wines like this, but perhaps at the risk of losing the minor imperfections which - paradoxically - often make the most exciting wines.

The answer to the question is, unfortunately, no. This bottle of 1959 Pétrus was still fantastic, in great condition and delicious to drink, but based on this bottle, in the last decade it has moved past its apex maturity and will now slowly decline. If anyone out there has a magnum that would, I expect, be spectacular now (and I would be happy to share it with them). Though the Pétrus 1959 didn't quite give me the dizzy joy I craved, one wine did. A gorgeous bottle of Yquem 1949 showed such beautiful balance, harmony and life that it could have been half as old. Tingling with energy and opening up with air from an already brilliant first taste, this is everything great Sauternes should be. A marvel, and testament to wine's wonderful capacity to age.

Tasting notes on the wines we drank are below. There are no scores, but I have a new memory of perfection to chase.

Pouilly Fuissé Tri des 25 Ans, Guffens-Heynen 2005

The nose has softened here, revealing orange oil, dried fruit and caramelised nuts. The palate has brilliant energy, with acid still propping up a generous, broad fruit core. This is generous and oily, with succulent fruit, roasted nuts and cream all powerful and balanced. This is at its apex now, there is no need to wait. Waves of toasted spices and roasted chestnuts linger on the finish.

Pouilly Fuissé Trente-Cinquième Vendange, Guffens-Heynen 2014

Next to the 2005 this 2014 is still a baby. The vintage has always been steely at Domaine Guffens-Heynen, and this top cuvée remains so despite the other wines in this vintage now reaching an excellent maturity. Full of potential, the nose has a struck match and fresh lime note together with passion flower and a little baking spice. The palate is tight, with an almost phenolic grip that gives it a lip-smacking freshness. Tightly coiled citrus fruit sits at the core, focused but really intense. Despite the zesty precision in this wine, there is too a real textural richness and viscosity. Very fine and deceptively concentrated, this is a magnificent, young wine that I would love to taste again at 15-20 years old.

Hommage à Jacques Perrin, Beaucastel 2000

A wild and exciting wine, one that showcases why this wine is worth aging in bottle. Expansive and enticing on the nose, offering black truffle, wood smoke, brambles and old leather. The palate is earthy and full-bodied, broad with sweet black fruit, pipe tobacco and all spice. A generous, giving wine perfectly suited to rich, autumnal food. A hedonistic bomb blending sweet and savoury beautifully. Drink it over the next decade.

Pétrus 1952

A rich garnet colour with a rich, bloody nose of iron, roasted nuts and dried strawberries. The palate is sweet and savoury, the dried fruit notes matching more smoky iron tones, layered by hints of marzipan, herbal oils and camphor. A complex and intriguing wine, at full maturity but still very much alive.

Pétrus 1959

Still such a deep colour, with a lustrous nose of fruit cake, amaro and steeped cherries. The distinct cinnamon and leather notes from nearly a decade ago are still present on the palate, which is spicy in character but cashmere smooth in texture. The hedonistic pleasure of this wine is still there in all its glory, intense and broad on the palate, but the definition and length on the finish is just, finally, starting to dwindle. Still a marvelous bottle, one that I consider myself lucky to have tried again.

Pétrus 1964

Very earthy, full or iron scents that are stronger than on the 1952. Deeply umami on the palate, with lots of muscle and grip. The fruit has somewhat fallen out of the wine at this age, instead showing full savoury character with some anchovy and wood smoke. Comfortably behind the 1959 and 1952.

Yquem 1949

A remarkable wine. Alluring reddish-gold in colour, the nose is immaculate and expansive, layering fresh marmalade, fig tart, saffron and baking spices. The palate is defined by acidity rather than sugar, a lithe, zesty mouthfeel brings waves of candied citrus peel, ginger cake and quince paste. The sweetness is a background note, just doing enough to keep everything in balance without any sense of cloying weight. Effortlessly long, the spicy, rich profile builds with air in the glass over 30 minutes or more. Outstanding.

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