My head is spinning and it’s not from alcohol. Today completed the final of three events exploring the wines of Jean-François Coche who, since 1972, has run the domaine of Coche-Dury. Many consider his wines in the same league as DRC Montrachet, Ramonet, and Leflaive. Though common on the lists of Michelin-starred restaurants, most avid collectors have “onesies” or “twosies” of just a few of these wines, as retail store allocations are tiny and parceled out only to a few good customers. A quick search on wine-searcher will show some prodigious prices for wines such as Coche-Dury Meursault Perrières and Corton Charlemagne that cost ten or twenty times what other producers of the same vineyards charge. Those two wines are the top wines in the Coche stable, though he makes wines of lesser appellations and even Bourgogne. Coche produces red wines as well as the more famous whites and, during this three meal megatasting, we would explore 10 of the reds (Auxey Duresses, Monthelie, and Volnay) and 63 of the whites (Bourgogne, AC Meursault, Meursault Caillerets, Meursault Narvaux, Meursault Chevalieres, Meursault Charmes, Meursault Perrières, and Corton Charlemagne). There were 14 vintages of the Corton Charlemagne and 19 of the Perrières. Vintages ranged between 1976 and 2000.
This was a Bipin Desai tasting. For those who don’t know him, he’s a UC Riverside theoretical physicist who has become one of the world’s great collectors and, more importantly, drinker of fine wine. He has organized tastings in the U.S. and Europe on massive scales, bringing together collectors from several continents to drink rare and interesting wines paired with outstanding cuisine. He orchestrates the events with military precision, spending hours educating the chefs about the wines and the types of food he wishes to serve, drilling the sommeliers and waitstaff on how the event should unfold, and obtaining these wines with the best provenance he can. While the prices for admission are high, they are certainly a value in the sense that these tastings can’t and won’t be duplicated anywhere else. They are truly once in a lifetime events showcasing fine wine and cuisine. One has the option of a shared pour, a situation where two people share one set of wines but both enjoy the full multi-course meal. That’s the scenario I usually choose since it’s more cost-effective and there’s more wine than I (or anyone else) should drink with a full pour. I contributed 11 of the bottles to the event and that more than covered my admission, something that greatly pleased the wife, I might add!
The first night was dinner at Valentino’s, a well-known and well-rated Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. The Desai tasting meals are always prix fixe, but reasonable requests are always accommodated on the spot. The shared pour cost $500 and the wines were 00 Bourgogne Blanc, 99 and 00 Meursault, Caillerets from 96, 99, and 00, Chevalieres from 95, 96, 99, and 00, Narvaux from 95, 96, 99, and 00. Reds were Auxey Duresses from 98, 99, and 00, Monthelie from 95, 96, and 99, and Volnay from 95, 96 and 99. After a variety of appetizers, the courses at Valentino were Maine Diver scallops with faro, wild mushrooms and lobster coral sauce, then Agnolotti al plin stuffed with rabbit and veal, then Napa Valley squab with braised cabbage and crescenza risotto, then polenta with fonduta Parmigiano and Ricotta flan, and ended with fresh fruit tartlet with raspberry sorbet. Due to the volume and number of wines, some of my notes are necessarily sketchy.
The 00 Bourgogne was corked, the 95 Narvaux open and accessible, minerally with nuances of smoke and hazelnut. The 96 was tighter with nervosité, a brooding wine with lemon and crème brulee. The 99 was fatter, but had lovely ripe fruit, was a very pretty wine with excellent length. The 00 was more reticent, had a sweet nose, high-toned fruit and acids, lemon flavors and some leanness. The second flight included the Caillerets and Chevalieres. The 95 Chevalieres had some slight caramel and botrytis on nose and palate, was a fairly powerful wine that was quite accessible. The 96 was stunning but unevolved, had bracing acidity and aristocratic fruit. The 99 was a thick wine with lemon meringue and exploded on the palate. The 00 was clean, young, tight like a coiled spring, with classy fruit, almost painful to drink in its intensity. All of these Caillerets showed hints of lovely minerality. The three Caillerets had common threads in their flavor profile, all showing fine ripe but restrained fruit, minerality and great length. The 99 was more accessible than the 96 and the 00 was a bit disjointed. The red wines were enjoyable but weren’t mindbending or even wines that one would run out and buy. The Volnays were best though young, the Auxey Duresses a bit lean for my liking with the 99 corked, the Monthelie nice but not memorable.
The next day was lunch at Chinois-on-Main, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant that is a real L.A. jewel. The restaurant was closed except for the 20+ of us tasting, and Puck himself was cooking and drinking for us and with us. Appetizers were stellar and the meal was one of the best I’ve eaten anywhere, Europe included. Santa Barbara shrimp and kabayaki roll was followed by seared turbot with pad thai noodles and green tea, lobster tail René (an amazing dish named after a chef at Chinois), crispy breast of poussin with pineapple potstickers and 7 spices, and ended with a Sherry Yard (2002 James Beard dessert chef of the year) dessert that was fabulous. I had a shared pour for $1500 and my friend (who was to accompany me) left a phone message the night before saying he was sick and couldn’t make it. Unable to find a replacement on such short notice, I was stuck—I had to eat two lunches and drink all the wines. I’m almost glad my friend didn’t show! It was two of the best lunches I’ve ever had—describing the food can’t do it justice. The cuisine almost outshone the wines.
The first flight included Perrières from 76, 81, 88, 91, 94, 97, and 98. When people consider what white premier cru vineyards deserve promotion to grand cru status, Perrières is always mentioned in the first breath. It’s a fabulous vineyard known for very refined minerally stony fruit. We weren’t disappointed. For the first 30 to 40 minutes, the 76 shone brightly, a golden nutty and honeyed wine, almost profound. At about an hour, the wine was becoming a bit alcoholic and oxidized. This was one of my bottles, purchased for about $150 many years ago; just a couple days ago I saw an offer from Europe that included this wine—priced at 1195 Euros per bottle! The 81 was leaner, slightly oxidized and not a great wine. The 88 was at first reticent, but opened up to show lovely flavors, great length, honey and minerals. The 91 was surprisingly good, steely turning later to honey, firm, young, becoming creamy as it developed. The 94 had little nose, was a good but not great wine, a touch hollow, with some minerality. The 97 wasn’t super either, a bit dilute, some almond flavors and minerals, a little honey. The 98 was excellent, lean and a bit disjointed at first, but full of lemon zest with lots of fruit behind the structure. All of these Perrières showed similar elements and all changed quite a bit in the glass and when paired with food.
The next flight was 78 Charmes (somewhat oxidized with notes of tea and honey), the 85 and 86 Casses Tetes, and Perrières from 78, 85, 86, 92, and 93. The two Casses Tetes are from a vineyard no longer produced by Coche and, as such, were interesting in themselves. The 85 was youngish with less volume than I expected, good fruit and some minerality but wasn’t a great bottle. The 86 was much better, almost Chablis-like with its acidity and finesse, citrusy and long. The 78 Perrières was a bit oxidized and caramelized, had some refinement to its fruit and was honeyed, but a bit tired. The 85 and 86 Perrières provided a nice contrast of two of my favorite white Burgundy vintages. The 85 had hints of almonds, minerality, was very harmonious and aristocratic with great balance and finesse. The 86 had great weight and balance, lemon and citrus zest, more power and a little less finesse. The 92, from a vintage not known for its longevity, was a very profound wine that belied its age, was nutty, fatter than the other wines, young and beautiful, many years from its peak. The 93 was tight, restrained, very stony with elegance and length, very enjoyable. This flight was a real winner and enjoyed greatly.
The final flight included 7 more vintages of Perrières, the 82, 89, 90, 95, 96, 99 and 00. The 82 was described as one participant as “ethereal,” but I found it good but not great, ready to drink and not likely to improve. The 89 had wonderful acids, minerally and round, aristocratic fruit that was difficult to spit. In fact, I abandoned spitting during this flight and drank the wines; they were wonderful. The 90 had a big nose with some botrytis, was ripe and sweet, a bit Californian. The 95 was smoky, more evolved, harmonious and a pointe. It will hold, but I doubt it will improve. The 99 was gorgeous and refined, dense and balanced, with great length. It was wonderful. The 00 was very approachable, with lemon zest and smoke, some minerality, very fine.
All of these wines had great texture and refined fruit; they weren’t tropical or overripe. There was a lot of citrus and some green apple, but the fruit was very elegant, superb expressions of the vineyard—with flawless winemaking.
Six vintages of Rougeots followed—89, 90, 95, 96, 99, and 00. By this time, my notes became a bit sketchy and somewhat less legible or intelligible. The 89 was smoky, the 90 opulent and a bit alcoholic with advanced color, the 95 was ripe but not overripe, deep and brooding with smoke and minerals, the 96 was reticent and floral with lots of well-integrated acidity but a bit backward and young, the 99 was floral and had a lovely nose, while the 00 was big and young, not totally together yet, but held a promising future.
The final meal was Sunday lunch at Spago. A shared pour cost $2100 and included 7 vintages of Enseigneres and 14 of Corton Charlemagne. The courses, after various appetizers (most studded with black truffles), were duo of scallop (seared scallop with fennel and pear puree with Thai spice and scallop and Uni carpaccio with Yuzu Ponzo), then celery root and green apple agnolotti with black truffles, then duo of rabbit (stuffed rabbit loin with prosciutto, chanterelles and sage and braised rabbit shoulder with ricotta gnocchi), and finished with another Sherry Land dessert inspiration. (I later chatted with this marvelous chef and bought her excellent and beautiful dessert book that I found available at the front foyer of Spago.) The 95 Enseigneres was smoky with a crème brulee note, had minerals and honey, clean and long with good acidity. It drank very well. (I had enjoyed a bottle of this earlier in the week, getting psyched for the big tasting and it showed beautifully then as well.) The 96 was corked. The 97 was floral, a bit acidic, a nice mouthful of wine. The 98 was young, dense and lovely, lemony and had a very good nose. The 99 was a powerful wine, with increased volume over the prior vintages, had layers of rich fruit, lots of minerality. The 00 was floral, dense and lifted, light in the mouth, very lovely to drink at this young age. The 01 was a bit disjointed, young and promising but not together yet.
The Corton Charlemagne wines were drunk in two flights, the latter being the more highly reputed vintages. Happily, none were corked. We started with 88, 91, 92, 93, 94, 97, and 98. For drinking today or in the next year, give me the 88! It was beautiful. Honeyed, with almonds and fine fruit, it was dense and long and wonderful. The 91 was close to the 88, multi-nuanced and excellent, but needs a few more years. The 92 exploded out of the glass, had great length and finesse. The oak showed a bit, but the citrus flavors and minerality and austerity were wonderful. The 93 was stony and minerally with oyster shell, very Chablis, very enjoyable and quite youthful. The 94 was more delicate, a bit hot, had nice acidity, citrus flavors with a nose better than its palate. The 97 was more floral with less weight than some of its predecessors, was nice but not special. The 98 had good density, lemons and honey on nose and palate, got better over the course of an hour and was very enjoyable but not profound.
The final 7 wines were the 86 (2 glasses from 2 bottles), the 89 (2 glasses from 2 bottles), the 90, 95, 96, 99 and 00. This was the main event, the main attraction: these are some of the most heralded, highly priced white wines in the world. The two bottles of 86 were quite different (damn the cork industry to hell) with one slightly oxidized and honeyed, the other fresher and finer—more expressive with its refined fruit, steeliness and layers of flavor and complexity. It has years of life left. The two 89s were different as well, one more evolved than the other but both excellent. There was great refinement, fruit that was a bit fatter, minerality and complexity. The 90 took a long time to open, was a big wine less nuanced and subtle than its siblings, but lovely to drink, though young. The 95 was honey and smoke, fairly evolved, a very fine wine with a great nose. The 96 was way too young to be drinking, but was tight and vibrant, with aristocratic high-toned fruit. (This wine was held back for years by Coche and only just released, as he evidently didn’t like that people popped corks on his Corton Charlemagne too early. Similarly the 01 has been held back.) The 99 was similar to the 96, restrained at first, then opening to show apples, minerality, refinement. The 00 was sweet and lifted, riper and with good acidity, had a big lovely nose but the palate hadn’t yet caught up.
All of these wines showed similar traits—that of refined and aristocratic fruit, very nervy wines with great finesse, steely and lean, almost austere (in a very good way). These Coche wines need decades to improve and drinking them young misses much of what they will and can become. Similarly, they need time in the glass—they develop, change, and improve. These are not big fat wines, they are wines of elegance and subtlety, wines that speak firmly but don’t shout. They are not beginner wines, but connoisseur wines. Are they worth the $1000 or $2000 per bottle that they command? That isn’t for me to decide. I was happy, even thrilled, to be able to taste these wines. Certainly I would prefer a full bottle of each over the course of many evenings rather than a taste of 30 wines in one night, but there’s a lot to be said for this kind of format, this kind of event–as an in-depth education in a producer and his vineyards. No, I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but once in a lifetime thrills such as this Coche-Dury megatasting are fun and memorable. I certainly will remember this series of tastings.