Bordeaux certainly remains the dominant paradigm for wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, and its model has been pretty much adapted in the New World where often enough a little Merlot is blended in, but I found myself wondering about the potential of less conventional regions when I was faced with trying to find an older wine on the list at the restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York. At this Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Daniel Humm has introduced a positively Spartan style of printed menu, with options for each course described in single words – artichoke, potato, tuna, langoustine, for example – requiring a good deal of amplification in order to decide on food let alone matching it with wine. This gives him quite a bit of freedom to introduce daily changes, inspired by the market in Union Square- just four blocks away – which he told me the chefs visit almost every day.
The wine list is lengthy and in some respects quite old fashioned – by which I means lots of half bottles, something you don’t see much any more – and very strong on Burgundy and also Bordeaux. My problem with restaurant lists is that I find current vintages can be a little too powerful for the food, especially when it has the subtlety of a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park, but older vintages can be rare and rather expensive. We decided that a single bottle of red wine would be the thing to accompany our chosen menu – tuna, lobster, chicken to follow Danny Humm’s sparse descriptions (the killer course was the lobster, which was described as a lasagne but turned out to be more of an open ravioli) – but I was struggling a bit with the relatively recent vintages of Burgundy and Bordeaux when I came across a vertical selection of Mas de Daumas Gassac, with vintages back to 1982. Having enjoyed the relatively recent vintages of 2008 and 2006 at restaurants in London and Bruges this summer, I thought a really older vintage would be very interesting.
Mas de Daumas Gassac, of course, was established by Aimé Guibert in the Languedoc, where, advised by the famous enologist Emile Peynaud, he found suitably protected climate and terroir at Aniane to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. As Cabernet Sauvignon is banned in the local AOCs, the wine is bottled under the lowly designation of Vin de Pays d’Herault, and Aimé marched to the beat of his own drum, blending the dominant Cabernet (on average around 80% of the wine) with an unusual mix of ten other varieties, including both Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Malbec), Languedoc varieties (Syrah, Grenache), and others (Pinot Noir). The vineyards are as distinctive as the wine. Last time I visited, Samuel Guibert took us on a bumpy ride in a Land Rover through a series of vineyards, each located in its own terroir, surrounded by the garrigue (local scrub and forest). There’s a great emphasis here on the natural environment, which was part of the background to l’Affaire Mondavi, when Aimé led the fight against the establishment of a large scale winery in the vicinity.
Anyway, I haven’t had any vintage preceding the 1990s recently, so I asked the sommelier at Eleven Madison for advice about the older vintages. She thought the 1982 might be drying out just a little, but recommended the 1983 as still lively with a slightly perfumed quality. This turned out to be fair advice and a good description. The wine was a deep color with an intriguing nose showing more the perfume than the herbal quality of the garrigue surrounding the vineyards, and it showed little signs of tiring. The structure of Cabernet Sauvignon is in the background, but the general impression is quite a bit softer than Bordeaux. I was surprised by the lack of much tertiary development on this bottle, and there were certainly none of the slightly herbaceous overtones you might expect to have developed in a Bordeaux, but the wine has matured to a beautiful balance with the fruits showing nicely complex layers of flavor. It turned out to be a perfect accompaniment to the menu.
The interest of this bottle led me to wonder about aging potential in general and how the effect of vintage manifest themselves in the Languedoc compared with the extremes of Bordeaux. I’m planning to look for bottles for a vertical tasting, back to the first vintage of 1978 if possible. Incidentally, since the vineyards were first planted in 1974, the 1983 vintage is all the more impressive in coming from relatively young vines. In the meantime, I may just have to go back to Eleven Madison Park and try some of their other old vintages while they last on the list.
Recent Tastings of Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge
2008 This is an elegant wine with Cabernet Sauvignon represented in a lighter style. Fresh on the nose and palate with a slight spiciness and some aromatic complexity. The Cabernet is identified by notes of cedar, with lively fruits on the palate showing a faint savory touch of the garrigue. For the south this is a restrained style. Good variety of flavors across the palate are supported by an unobtrusive structure with tannins well in the background. 88 Drink now-2018.
2006 Nose shows fresh red fruits and a touch of nuts with intimations of complexity. Elegant fruits on the palate, following the red spectrum of the nose. There’s a touch of savory influence from the garrigue. Opening up in the glass, the wine shows its delicacy, yet with the fine structure and tannic support of Cabernet. It brings back memories of some of the more delicate older vintages of Bordeaux. 90 Drink now-2017.
1983 Still a fairly dark color. An intriguing slightly floral note on the nose, almost a whiff of violets à la Margaux, conveying a vague sense of garrigue but one that is more floral than herbal. The ripeness of the fruits is evident on the palate, giving a kick of sweetness to the finish. Black fruits on the palate show more as blackberries than blackcurrants, but with a fleshiness on the mid palate, presumably from the Merlot and Syrah. Still youthfully vibrant, and I’m struck by the warm tones of the palate with chocolaty hints on the finish. Age has brought a definite softness rather than the savory development that’s common in Bordeaux. 92 Drink now-2016.