The most posh wine and cheese party in Bordeaux – and an embarrassing gaffe

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

Everything began so beautifully on Tuesday 24 June 2003 when I had arrived for a black tie dinner to enjoy premier grand cru classé Saint Emilion ranging from 1998 to 1953: an all-star evening dubbed “Millésimes de Collection” held at Château La Gaffelière in Saint Emilion, which had been organised by the now inactive organisation Groupement des Premiers Grands Crus Classés

It all started out so nice, with 1988 Dom Perignon from magnum bottles. Château La Gaffelière owner Count Leo de Malet-Roquefort (center).

Readers take note that 2003 was a time when the top wines of Saint Emilion got along well enough to organize tastings and special dinners like this one in a spirit of mutually beneficial camaraderie. But the 10-year reassessment of the Saint Emilion classification makes Dallas seem like Sesame Street. Instead of working together, the region is chock full of lawsuits and recriminations. Less is said about wine and more is said about product placements in films or constructing edifices more suited to Las Vegas than to Saint Emilion. But I digress.

In the not so long ago “good old days” there was the most posh cheese and wine tasting I have ever been to: borne of a massive storm.

As guests enjoyed generous opening pours from magnums of Dom Perignon 1988, French wine writer Olivier Poels told me to look up at a sky that had suddenly turned menacingly black: “Ca ne m’a l’air pas bien” he remarked.


Gorgeous settings and fine cuisine costing €110,000 soon destroyed

Sure enough, hard rain and hail wreaked their havoc: gorgeous outdoor table settings destroyed, along with most of the fine cuisine that was set to match the illustrious wine list.

Philippe Capdevielle, one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated caterers, prepared foie gras, truffles, eel medallions, lamb, vegetable millefeuille, cheeses and a dessert of strawberry and macaroons and homemade olive oil ice cream.

The château spent €110,000 for 130 guests and its staff had worked twelve consecutive days – weekend included – to set up the décor, with careful attention paid to layout, lighting and table settings.

Except for the bottles and the cheeses, all was lost.

Château La Gaffelière owner Count Leo de Malet-Roquefort and staff guided the 130 guests to the underground cellars.

While descending the staircase to the cellars, glass in hand, I could see the ever charming Juliette Becot of Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot – dressed in a gorgeous silver satin dress – helping staff mop away water in the vat room, to prevent anyone from slipping on their way to the cavernous, oak barrel-filled cellar, now lit with candles for the improvised gathering.

Some 130 wet guests, descending to the grandest wine and cheese party ever held in Bordeaux

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Steven Spurrier, waiting and soaked inside one of the château’s halls with other guests. Spurrier had written about this event as a party that “will be talked about after other Vinexpo evenings have faded from memory”

In less than one hour, the storm not only wiped out the hard work put into that dinner, but also knocked down some 6,000 hectares of vines in the entire Bordeaux region, mostly in Entre-Deux-Mers.

The next day, one of the guests, Pascal Delbeck, then director of Château Belair, said that the storm seriously harmed parts of his premier grand cru vineyard.

Improvisational ingenuity saved the evening.

Candlelit conviviality in the cellars of Château La Gaffelière

“It turned out to be a lot of fun,” said Charles Chevallier of Château Lafite Rothschild. “Before, we would have been seated at our own respective tables, but in the cellar, we were able to circulate and mingle.”

The candlelit ambiance proved convivial, especially as guests tasted through and drank the following wines.

Château Trottevieille 1953

Château Clos Fourtet 1959

Château Figeac 1961

Château  Belair 1964

Château La Gaffelière 1966

Château Canon 1970

Château Beau Sejour Bécot 1971

Château Cheval Blanc 1982

Château Magdelaine 1989

Château Angelus 1989

Château Beausejour Duffau-Lagarrosse 1990:

Château Pavie 1998:

Perhaps the only problem was that the drinking order – designed for a carefully planned dinner – was maintained for only bread and cheese, so that drinking the brilliant Château Cheval Blanc 1982 after the much older (and far less tannic) Château Trottevieille 1953 perhaps made the Cheval Blanc taste harder than it should have.

Many agreed that the Château Figeac 1961 shined brightest that evening; Joshua Greene, publisher of the American wine guide Wine and Spirits, for example, said it was “simply the best.”

Meanwhile, Olivier Poels noted that each of the bottles varied in taste, leading to nuances discovered in different bottles of each of these collectors’ vintages.

The gaffe at La Gaffelière

His remark encouraged me to try many bottles… In spite of some crachoirs, I enjoyed the wines so much that I was drinking more than I should have. A bit of a greenhorn at the time, I just kept, er, swallowing. And because we had so little food – and so many bottles of wine, some magnums – not spitting out the wine made me inebriated.

To the point where – after sampling several chateaux from the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s – I decided that the very best wine of the evening was indeed the Château Figeac 1961.

And this lead to my faux pas or the gaffe at La Gaffelière… While enthusiastically telling people my opinion about how Figeac 1961 was tout simplement le meilleur I happened upon the owner of Château La Gaffelière, who asked me: “What about La Gaffelière 1966?” And I replied: “It’s good, but not nearly as good as Figeac.”

And then I asked the Count who had introduced himself to me before the storm: “Who are you?”

It did not end there.

The Groupement had organized transport for journalists, including me. So when a Groupement representative asked me if I was “ready to go” I asserted that the chauffeur who was to drive me to Sauternes, where I was spending the night, really needed to try the Figeac 1961.

Odd looks coming my way, I took a glass of the 1961 into the car and implored the driver to try it.

He said that he could not because he was on duty… In the end, he did enjoy a small sip, but I drank the rest. By the time I arrived in Sauternes – I was staying with the Meslier Family of Château Raymond Lafon, where I had worked two years before – my head was spinning with old vintages and I had trouble getting to sleep…

Lesson learned: Use a crachoir even at a dinner setting with fantastic vintages, especially if there is not much food.

And don’t ask a driver to drink.

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