November 24, 2016

Altaya at 15

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Not having grown up here, I'll admit that I haven't known my friend Paulo for as long as many others in town.  I met him in early 2001, at the very beginning of the formation of what would soon come to be known amongst our friends as the Monday Night Supper Club.  Coincidentally, it was also around the time when he was starting up a little wine business that he would come to call Altaya Wines.

I remember our first meeting vividly.  Along with quaffing down bottles of Bordeaux such as 1982 Figeac while getting our fingers greasy with roast pigeon, Paulo casually showed us his first wine list.  Three pages of computer print-out.  Forget the 1982 First Growth Bordeaux... at the top of the first page were wines like 1900 Margaux, 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1947 Petrus, and lots more.  These were wines that James Suckling had called "Wines of the Century" in his piece written for the Wine Spectator, and here was a 24-year-old who had all of them in his inventory.  And he also knew exactly who to sell them to.


Well, it's 15 years later, and Paulo had very kindly invited me to a dinner celebrating the 15th anniversary of his little company.  From its relatively humble beginnings, Altaya has grown to become a major player, and not just in Hong Kong.  The last time Decanter published their Power List in 2013, Paulo was ranked No. 42 out of the 50 most-influential people in wine.  Incidentally, this was 3 places above Stephen Browett, the Chairman of Farr Vintners, whose company Paulo had tried to buy before starting Altaya Wines.  At least that was the story that Frédéric Engerer, CEO of Artémis Domaines, told the crowd tonight.

There were lots of people in attendance tonight - dignitaries, clients, friends, winemakers and representatives from Bordeaux.  The entire first floor of the Hong Kong Club was filled with people.  As I stepped off the elevator, I went to the seating chart to find my table.  The Ox and I had been placed in "Central Otago", while a few others of MNSC were placed in "Burgundy".  I guess that means the Taiwanese contingent had been banished to Siberia...

There were a couple of speeches tonight, but the entertainment was provided by the duo of James Suckling and Frédéric Engerer - who recounted their respective early memories of Paulo.  These two have gotten to know Paulo very well over the years, and certainly had enough stories to draw a few laughs from us.

We started the evening with some bubbly, of course...

2004 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill - ripe on the palate, drinking beautifully.

Venison pâté, figs, beetroots, Cumberland sauce - pâté en croûte is always a good idea, especially in game season.  And this was a pretty good one.  Just not the beetroot...

2001 Les Forts de Latour, en magnum - classic Pauillac, with smoky, pencil lead, earthy, wonderful ripe fruit, fragrant cedar notes.  Beautiful.

2001 Pontet-Canet - smoky, minty, ripe fruit, a little more concentrated than Les Forts.  Riper and sweeter, but acidity also higher on the palate.  Later on also showed cedar notes.

Wood pigeon and winter black truffle agnolotti, ricotta, pigeon jus - the wrapper for the agnolotti was thicker and more chewy than expected, but the pigeon stuffing inside was very smooth, and very delicious.

2001 Haut Bailly - fragrant nose with cedar and smoke.

2001 Smith Haut Lafitte, en magnum - lovely and fragrant nose, with more on the body.  Really nice.

Beef two ways: en croûte tenderloin and braised cheek, 12 hour carrots, parsnip - interesting presentation...

As one of my fellow diners - who is well-respected in the local food and wine circles - remarked, the tenderloin was flavorless.  It was very tender, and interesting to have it served en croûte, but ultimately it failed the flavor test.

The cheek, however, was nice and tender.  Perfect with the parsnip purée.

2001 Pichon Baron, en double-magnum - soooo ripe and sweet on the nose, with a little coffee.  Very fragrant and lovely.

2001 Léoville Las Cases - a bit more green on the nose, with exotic spices and dried herbs.  Nose seemed more open with cedar and earthy notes.

Brillat Savarin, Époisses, Bleu de Brebis, assorted marmalades, toasted walnut bread - how interesting to find the three different types of cheese paired with different marmalades, and even more interesting to find the chocolate and sorbet to be made with the cheese that they were being paired with.  Imagine my surprise when the filling inside the chocolate bonbon turned out to be savory!

2001 Mouton-Rothschild, en magnum - lovely nose with lots of coffee, sweet, smoky, and a little lighter on the palate.

Petits fours - I think I inhaled 3 or 4 of the canelés...

Lots of glasses laid out in front of me at the end of the evening...

And what a wonderful evening this was!  The MNSC crew gathered to celebrate the success of our friend, and we got the opportunity to meet make a few new friends over some very lovely wines.  As for my favorite of the evening?  I think I would have to hand it to Mouton, which barely edged out Pichon Baron this time...

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