Today I had a one-on-one lunch and wine tasting with Chateau St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren (ok, it was a one-on-two -- the winery's wonderful publicist, Jennifer Scott, joined us as well). Over sushi, swordfish and steak at NoMi at the Park Hyatt Chicago we tasted the three most recent vintages of Cinq Cépages, the winery's crown jewel. Cinq Cépages, which means the Five Varieties, comprises the five grapes that make up the base of this Bordeaux-like Cabernet blend: Cabernet (75%), Merlot (10%-11%), Malbec (7%-8%), Cabernet Franc (3%-4%) and Petit Verdot (2%). Margo has been with Chateau St. Jean for 26 years and has been head winemaker since 2003 -- and she definitely knows what she's talking about.
After explaining how each grape affects the wine in its own way ("the Cab defines the vintage" "Merlot softens the blend" "Cab Franc adds a subtle elegance" "Malbec is always a friend to a wine maker" "Petit Verdot adds just the right amount of dustiness") we decided it was time to put it all to the test.
The '01 was just right. You definitely got the jamminess from it but it was layered with the perfect amount of tannins that it left just the slightest hint of dryness in your mouth. But more than that, a few minutes after taking a sip, you realize a familiar flavor lingering on your tongue and then it hit me: clove and nutmeg. How apropos for a blistery late autumn day in Chicago while sipping wine staring out a window seven stories above Michigan Avenue and looking out onto the lake?
The '03 is just coming into its own. It's still a young wine, but Margo said that these wines can reach their climax after 10 years and cited both the 1990 and '93 holding up well, but that "not all vintages are created equal."
After lunch, Margo lead a wine seminar for about 50 people in hotel's Grand Salon. I popped down with Jennifer for a few minutes and tasted the winery's 2004 Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay, which was surprisingly not very oakey or buttery for a Sonoma Chard but offered up some really nice citrus and tropical fruit. But the real treat was getting to taste the 1996 and 1999 Cinq Cépages vintages. The '99 was a little big and tannic for me -- it made me want to have a large cooked steak to soak up the wine, but the '96 was perfection in a glass. After gushing about the wine, Jennifer told me that Wine Spectator rated it the No. 1 wine in the world when it was released in 1999. It was big, lush and jammy and left just the slightest dryness on the tongue. The cherry-filled bouquet opened up to some beautiful bright dark berries.
Unfortunately I had to take off, but not before realizing that it's days like this reaffirm why I love what I do.
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