Dinner with Jean-Louis Chave at La Balena, Carmel

Jean-Louis Chave was in town for the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival, and a group of friends convened to celebrate the occasion with some great food and bottles. Since I wasn’t far away reviewing wines in the Central Coast, I didn’t hesitate to drive to Carmel for the evening—a place that holds fond associations for me as one of the places where my wife and I honeymooned after our wedding in 2014. 


The venue for dinner was La Balena, one of this picturesque oceanside town’s best restaurants, where Emanuele Bartolini (whose impressive CV includes a five-year stint as manager of New York City’s Del Posto) presides over a superbly executed menu inspired by the cuisine of Tuscany. We shared plates, beginning with appetizers including tender grilled octopus with radicchio, fried cauliflower with pine nuts and breadcrumbs, and polpette in tomato sauce. Several pasta dishes followed, among them ragù Bolognese (a dish that I love rendered in the old school recipe that includes chicken livers and milk; La Balena’s interpretation was a somewhat fresher, more contemporary style) and cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and wild Big Sur chanterelles. Then came a magisterial lightly-seared tuna belly that was extraordinarily fresh and textural, tasting of the essence of the sea—probably the highlight of a consistently excellent menu. Finally, we attacked a bistecca and osso buco. The steak was tender, bloody and flavorful, but I never really sampled the osso buco, as I had lunched on osso buco already that day by an unhappy coincidence. I hadn’t been to La Belena in several years, so it was wonderful to see that the cooking is as great as ever. 


Despite the excellence of the food, the wines inevitably took center stage. We began with two young white Burgundies: Vincent Dauvissat’s 2012 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, and Jean-Marc Roulot’s 2012 Meursault 1er Cru Clos des Bouchères. Both started out marked by light reduction, opening in the glass while we enjoyed the appetizers. The 2012 Les Clos is a young classic, offering up notes of iodine, white flowers and citrus oil, and a powerful, full-bodied and searingly intense palate, the thick skins which characterized the vintage lending it almost brutish concentration. Over the coming years, it will be interesting to see how this ranks next to the 2010 and 2014 renditions: my sense is that the 2012 will be purer than the 2010—which is beginning to show some musky top-notes of botrytis as it finally opens up—and less elegant and precise than the practically perfect 2014 Les Clos. Its partner in this flight, Roulot’s Clos des Bouchères, was also excellent, revealing aromas of fresh pear, hazelnut cream and wet stones: it's very young, and shows no signs of the corpulence that some 2012 Côte de Beaune whites are beginning to develop in bottle. The Clos des Bouchères, which replaced Jean-Marc Roulot’s regular Bouchères in 2011 after a vine exchange with Dominique Lafon, is going from strength to strength, and now regularly challenges Les Charmes for second place after Jean-Marc’s Les Perrières—which is almost invariably the king of the cellar. While I was captivated by the Dauvissat, many preferred the Roulot. 

A duo of red Burgundies followed the two whites. First came a 1989 Bonnes Mares Grand Cru from Domaine Bertheau, which wafted from the glass with sweet notes of cassis, currant leaf, red berries and hints of tobacco. On the palate, the wine was in its prime, with meltingly supple fine-grained tannins and a succulent core of bright fruit. Destemmed and matured without much new oak, the Bertheau was a study in contrasts with the 1990 Domaine Dujac Clos Saint-Denis Grand Cru that soon accompanied it. 1990 was a fabulous vintage for Dujac and this was lovely, soaring from the glass with an almost exotic bouquet of cinnamon, potpourri and cherries. On the palate, the wine was supple and silky, more expansive and seemingly more open-knit than the Bertheau, with a sweet core of fruit that shows the ripeness of the 1990 vintage without any of the roasted flavors that often accompany it. This was my first encounter with the 1990 Clos Saint-Denis, and though I have a real partiality for the purity and perfume of this bottling, I found myself reflecting that in the 1990 vintage I have a mild preference for Dujac’s Clos de la Roche—as I do in 2015, incidentally.  

After these Burgundies, it was on to the Rhône Valley without further ado. We began with the 1995 Côte-Rôtie Grandes Places from Domaine Clusel-Roch, which revealed classic aromas of smoky red-black fruit, grilled meats, black pepper and subtle espresso roast. On the palate, the wine remains concentrated and quite tight-knit at the core, with a fine-grained chassis of tannins and a crunchy core of fruit that made me think it might be a 1998 until I saw the label. No one with bottles in their cellar needs to hurry to drink them, as the wine is evolving very slowly. 


The Clusel-Roch served as the prelude to a duo of Hermitages from Domaine J-L Chave. First came a pristine bottle of the 1982, an underrated vintage (which also produced an exceptional La Chapelle) which is still drinking well despite its seemingly open-knit structure, which offered up an immediately expressive bouquet of potpourri, wild berries, rich forest floor and savory bass notes of bay leaf and grilled ceps. On the palate, the wine’s tannins are almost entirely melted, which lends it wonderful transparency and elegance, while its fruit remains bright and vibrant, even crunchy. Now is a great time to approach it, though it’s hard to estimate how long it could hold like this in a cold cellar.

The 1982 was followed by the 1978 Chave Hermitage, a wine which hailed almost exclusively from the granite lieu-dit of Les Bessards and which was fermented without any destemming. The ’78 unfurled in the glass with notes of cassis, dried currants, grilled game, rich soil and red berries, exhibiting a wilder nose than the elegant ’82. On the palate, the wine is bright, medium-bodied and very stony; a rather taut, tensile vintage for Chave, despite its melting tannins. Jean-Louis observed that there is a long tradition of destemming in Hermitage—unlike in Côte-Rôtie and Cornas—and that the role of the stems is a complicated question for him. He tends to think that whole cluster fermentation can diminish the expression of his different lieux-dits personalities, but he does employ it on a case-by-case basis: unfortunately, he added, the pace of harvest doesn’t permit much time to reflect on this delicate judgement.

After the two bottles of Chave, we drank two vintages of the great La Chapelle from Jaboulet: the 1978 and the 1969. Both were superb, and many around the table thought that this bottle of the 1978 was the best they’d encountered. The wine soared from the glass with a stunning bouquet of dark berries, espresso roast, truffle, rich soil and grilled meat. On the palate, it was extraordinarily multidimensional, concentrated and complete—slightly more open for inspection than the last bottle I encountered from a cold English cellar, but still amazingly youthful, and eloquent testimony to the fact that Hermitage can be one of the longest-lived of France’s great wines. Interestingly, this wine derived largely from the clay-limestone soils of Le Méal, in contrast to the ’78 Chave from Les Bessards. The 1978 La Chapelle’s British strip label (from The Wine Society) precipitated a discussion with Jean-Louis about the multiple bottlings produced for different merchants in this era, and he commented that the UK merchant, Robin Yapp, often encouraged the domaine to bottle earlier, such was his eagerness to bring the wine to market. Interestingly, when tasting older vintages, Yapp’s bottling of Chave is often the best. Whether that’s because of the earlier bottling or the precise blend would be hard to say. 

The 1969 La Chapelle which followed it wasn’t far from the level of the perfect 1978, and it was also incredibly youthful. In fact, upon opening the wine still showed some light reduction, which I’d surmise had kept it youthful. The 1969 also exhibited pronounced evolution in the glass, making me happy that I nursed mine throughout the evening, unfurling with notes of grilled meat, orange rind, wood smoke, cassis, aromatic bark and an exotic note of frankincense. This was one of the most aromatically complex wines of the evening, and fully mature in contrast to the shockingly youthful 1978 La Chapelle. On the palate, the wine was supple, medium-bodied and velvety, with a rich core of fruit and a long, sapid finish. Now is a great time to approach this magical Hermitage.


How to follow this fabulous duo? With two great 1990s. First came the 1990 Gentaz-Dervieux Côte-Rôtie Cuvée Reservée Côte Brune, which burst from the glass with a dramatic bouquet of camphor, plum preserve, inky black fruit, medicine cabinet, rich spices, dried violets and grilled ceps, the savory mingling with the fruity and the floral to stunning effect. On the palate, the wine was medium to full-bodied, still framed by a fine-grained chassis of tannin, and revealing amazing depth and dimension. The finish was extraordinarily long, and what really impressed me was this Côte-Rôtie’s sense of control in the sometimes extreme 1990 vintage. This was one of my favorite wines of the evening. 

The 1990 Hermitage Cuvée Cathelin from Chave which came next concluded the Rhône extravaganza, opening in the glass with a deep and ineffably complex bouquet of cassis, grilled meats, violets and brooding savory bass notes which were hard to capture in words. On the palate, the wine was full-bodied and multidimensional, with extraordinary mid-palate amplitude and richness, youthful energy and stunning length, remaining sapid, even savory, despite its deep core of fruit. Like the 1978 La Chapelle, this wine’s best days are still ahead of it, but it is already a wonderfully complete, moving wine and fully deserving of its legendary status. 

The only way to follow the 1990 Cuvée Cathelin is with something completely different. Since Olivier Krug was in attendance, we enjoyed a bottle of the Krug Rosé as a palate cleanser before moving on to the final wine of the dinner: a perfect example of the 1962 Vega Sicilia Único. Even better than a bottle I enjoyed in February, this 1962 was profound, opening up rapidly with a pristine bouquet of black currants, cassis liqueur, burning embers and an exotic framing of new oak, details of dried flowers and grilled venison emerging with a little time. On the palate, the wine was full-bodied, deep and layered, with incredible concentration and length. The 1962 ranks very high in my personal pantheon of Único vintages—above the ’70 and ‘68—by dint of its amazing complexity. While great vintages of Único are almost invariably more powerful than the great wines of the Médoc, they don’t always reveal as many dimensions or nuances, but the 1962 certainly does. The bottle was a great way to conclude a great few hours in Carmel. 

My sincere thanks to everyone who dug deep in their cellars to pull out these treasures, and to the great Jean-Louis Chave for gracing us with his presence—and providing the occasion for this truly unforgettable dinner. 

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