Mark's Duck House, Seven Corners, VA

This thrilling day of tasting and eating was an unofficial celebration of my birthday held at one of my favorite restaurants, especially when they do scallop, lobster, and shrimp dumplings in addition to their incredible pot stickers. The white wines were a vindication of Coche-Dury'sbrilliant talent. Their 1986 Meursault (a village wine) remains extraordinarily fresh, young, vibrant, and oh, so complex. His genius is reflected in this wine, which at age 17 is still an adolescent. I brought from my cellar a bottle from my birth year, which I had sitting around for some time, the 1947 Thevenin Montrachet. It was suspiciously deep in color, even regarding it through the looking glass, so to speak. Once poured, it was DOA.

We quickly moved into an extraordinary flight of the great Châteauneuf du Pape Rayas. The 1998 may not be one of the vintage's most compelling wines, but I have always liked it better than most of my friends. It lacks the density of the 19951990, and 1989, but its gorgeously sweet bouquet of kirsch liqueur and essence of strawberries intermixed with earth, licorice, and herb notes is spectacular. While clearly a top wine, it loses ground when the 1995, 1990, and 1989 are tasted next to it. Perhaps that is always why context is so important. On its own, this is a sumptuous, great wine. Compared to the 1995, 1990, and 1989, it is a very good Rayas. The last three vintages are spectacular. The 1995 will be longer lived than the 1990, and one of the all-time great wines as well as a legacy to the great Jacques Reynaud. Deeply colored by Rayas' standards, with an extraordinary nose of black truffles, licorice, black fruits, and tell-tale kirsch. Full-bodied, with super purity and intensity, this still youthful wine, which has another 10-15 years of upside ahead of it, is riveting. The 1990 to me is, as the French say, à point. Fully mature, it walks a fine line between being a perfect expression of its terroir and varietal, but stops just short of being over the top and flabby. It's an enormous wine by Rayas' standards (the alcohol must be pushing 16% regardless of what the label says), and it has always had an extraordinary, exotic opulence, almost as if it's the distilled essence of Rayas. It appears to be on a relatively fast evolutionary track. That's why I am exhausting what stocks I have left in my cellar. I consistently rate it 98-100, so I am not going to take the risk that in five years it may not hit 90 points if it goes into serious decline. In any event, it is a magnificent wine, as I have reiterated time and time again. The 1989 is catching up to the 1990, and will be a lot longer lived. It remains an adolescent, not yet fully mature, and probably won't be for another 4-5 years. Nevertheless, it has great length and concentration, and appears capable of rivaling the 1995, and ultimately meriting a perfect score. It was fabulous to taste. I shouldn't forget the 1996, again a wine that on its own merits, served by itself with leg of lamb or a Provençal dish, could be a beautiful Rayas. It's much lighter in color than the other wines (even the 1998), but has beautiful berry fruit with a hint of strawberry liqueur, spice box, and dried herbs. Velvety textured, lush, and delicious, it was simply overwhelmed by the legends that followed it.

The other Châteauneuf du Papes were generally exceptional wines, with several 100-point performances ... no surprise to me. The 1998 Sabon Secret des Sabon is an extraordinary concoction of primarily old vine Grenache ... one of the most thrilling wines I have tasted in the last 4-5 years. The famed 1989 Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin, a still young wine that is a testament to how great a Mourvèdre-based wine can be from Châteauneuf du Pape. Both of those wines had some competition from the extraordinary 1989 Chapoutier Châteauneuf du Pape Barbe Rac. This was one of the best showings for that wine, which is just now hitting its peak of maturity. Another strong effort, and a wine to have on its own merits is the 1989 Pignan, Rayas's second wine. While it is a very impressive offering, it is not quite up to the level of the terrific 1990 Pignan (I have drunk through my stock), but it is vigorous and rich. Lastly, the 1988 Beaucastel did not have the goods to stand up to the other wines, but, again, context is important. If I had had this wine by itself at a restaurant, I would have been more than satisfied.

We then moved to a flight that included a very young, vibrant, powerful 1998 La Boussière Font de Tonin Gigondas, a young, exuberant, rich, very high quality 1998 Usseglio Cuvée Mon Aïeul Châteauneuf du Pape, and a wine I've been drinking a lot of lately, the 1990 Pégaü Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée Réservée, a spectacular effort that represents one of the great traditional Châteauneuf du Papes made over the last few decades.

We ended with three legendary Bordeaux, the 1990 Petrus, which was corked (what a shame), and a 1985 Le Pin, which did not perform well at this tasting. Perhaps coming after so many wines where there was virtually no oak, this wine, with its big, sweet, vanillin/espresso nose, seemed disjointed and out of place with the seafood dumplings. Lastly, the fully mature 1985 Cheval Blanc was brilliant. Gorgeously perfumed and lush, it needs to be consumed over the next 5-8 years.

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