Wine Word: Patricio de la Fuente Saez on 1831 Y’Quem, 1917 shipwreck Champagne, and more

By Jim Boyce

On Monday, I posted the first part of an interview with Patricio de la Fuente Saez, managing director of Links Concept, about the company’s business strategy, the wine sector’s prospects for 2009, and more. Much more fun is this second part of the interview, which covers the best tastings he has attended – including several that featured nineteenth century wines – and how he became interested in wine.

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When I met you last month, you mentioned some of the rare wines you have tried in Hong Kong. What tastings are most special to you?

There are a lot of big wine collectors in Hong Kong and they drink their fine wine daily – great! I have been lucky to try some fantastic wines. Here are the four most memorable tastings:

1. I organized a small private dinner for Frederic Engerer and Mme Pinault from Chateau Latour. We opened a bottle of 1900 Chateau Margaux for them. The wine was amazing. Typical Margaux: not big and full bodied but smooth, gentle and clean with lots of fruit and good mineral flavours. Incredibly, the wine still tasted young. The bottle had not been re-corked. When we opened it the cork disintegrated and we were worried, but the wine showed spectacularly.

2. Three years ago during Vinexpo in Hong Kong I hosted a lunch for Alexander van Beek of Chateau Giscours and Veronique Sanders–van Beek of Chateau Haut Bailly. I can’t remember the white wine we opened but the red wine was a 1970 Chateau Giscours – one of the best kept secrets of Bordeaux. The year 1970 was one of the best vintages ever produced by Giscours and probably one of the best wines produced on the Left Bank. Bottles are very hard to find as this vintage was not rated highly by many people. Alexander was very happy to try this as they only had six bottles at the chateau. Again the wine showed like a true Margaux, with elegant, soft mineral flavours, rounded fruits, and a great mature nose.

For dessert we served something even more spectacular, a bottle of 1831 Chateau d’Yquem. Pre-1900 bottles were hand-blown so the bottle had an unusual shape. The colour of the wine was incredible, a dark yellow gold. I have tried Yquem from the early 1900s and some of them were brown, but this bottle showed beautifully. The nose was full of fruit, with soft grapefruit, mango, and tropical fruits – an unbelievable wine.

At 3 PM I received a call from a friend that knew we were drinking a special Yquem and he asked if he could come over with Alexander Lur Saluces, the president of Chateau d’Yquem, who wanted to see (and taste!) it. When he arrived we gave a glass of the wine to him and asked him what it was. He took the glass, swirled the wine, smelled, and said, “Well, this is obviously Yquem.” We said, “OK, but what vintage?” He continued to smell and said, with a straight face, “This is from before 1950.” We said, “OK, but what vintage?” He continued to smell and still had not tasted the wine when he said, with a small smile on his face, “This is before 1900!” We said, “OK, but we are not there yet.” He then took his first sip, smelled, tasted again, and, after a few minutes, with a big smile on his face, said, “I don’t know what vintage this is, but it is from before 1850, and I have never had it before.” We showed him the bottle. He was obviously very happy and had indeed never tried it. Definitely one of the best lunches I have ever been at.

3. Last year when we took over the distribution of Dow’s Port, we said to Paul Symington that we should organize the biggest Port tasting ever held in Asia. This would be a great way to start our working relationship and would generate good press. Paul agreed and we organized two tastings.

The first was for the trade and we tasted every Dow’s Vintage Port from 1945 to 2003, an incredible event attended by 50 of our top customers. The 1945 Dow was the highlight of the evening.

On the second day we organized a tasting for the 10 biggest wine collectors in Hong Kong. We flew over Serena Sutcliffe (MW) to guide the tasting of the best vintages of Symington Ports from 1882 to 2003. The ports included were Dow’s 1882, 1924, 1945, 1966, 1980 and 2003, Warre’s 1935, 1955, and 1985, Graham’s 1948, 1963, 1970, and 2000, and Quinta do Vesuvio 1994. The 1882 was the first Dow’s Port ever produced. It was amazing – dark brown in colour with chocolate and raisin flavours, and very syrupy and sweet. It came straight from the barrel where it has been kept ever since it was produced. All the ports were drinking very well and one of my favourites was the 1994 Quinta do Vesuvio, a great vintage.

4. Finally, when we took over the distribution of Paul Jaboulet Aine from the Rhone valley, Nicolas Jaboulet came to town and we organized a small dinner with friends. We opened the legendary 1961 Hermitage la Chapelle from Jaboulet, a truly amazing wine with great length, soft acidity, ripe flavours, a good body and structure, and a very long aftertaste. Prior to that we drank 1989 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (one of my favourite vintages), 1982 Cheval Blanc, and 1983 Lafleur (1983 is better than 1982 in my opinion), and finished the dinner with a bottle of 1907 Champagne Heidsieck Monopole Gout Americane. This was a bottle salvaged from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea, from a shipment of Champagne for the Russian Tsar. The wreck was discovered in the early 1980s and the salvagers found a few thousand bottles of Champagne. The 1907 was amazing, soft yellow in colour, with tiny bubbles, still lots of fruit, a mature nose like that of a top white burgundy, and a long aftertaste. Apparently, this was the Champagne served on the Titanic.

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How did you get involved in the wine sector and what wines are your favorites?

I grew up in Hong Kong and prior to getting into the wine business I was working for Hyatt Hotels. I always loved drinking wine and that’s why I took the job at DCH. After that I fell in love with the business and quickly decided that I wanted to start my own company. The wine business has three elements that make it the best for me. First, our suppliers – they love their vineyards and love drinking a good glass of wine. Second, our, our customers – they love drinking a lot of wine and that always ends with good conversations. And last, our staff – they love drinking our wines and spirits and have a passion for the business, and passion is the most important thing in any business.

It’s difficult to say what my favourite wines are because there are so many. From our portfolio, I love drinking Champagne Billecart Salmon, Dow’s 1994 vintage port, and Chablis from Laroche, as I think Chablis is the best food wine. My father is Chilean and I grew up on Chilean wine – Casa la Joya Merlot Gran Reserva and Don Melchor – which we distribute in Hong Kong only. A new wine from Spain I love is the Pazo Senorans Albarinho, a beautiful wine. And of course Torbreck from Barossa Valley (again, which we only distribute in Hong Kong) and Hermitage la Petite Chapelle from Jaboulet.

In terms of regions, I love Barossa Valley, the Rhone Valley, Burgundy and Casablanca Valley in Chile. In terms of grape varieties, Syrah and Carmenere for the reds and Albarinho and Chardonnay for the whites. White Burgundy I go crazy for.

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