A Dinner at Karel 5* With Very Old Wines

This was a very special wine dinner at Restaurant Karel 5 in Utrecht, organized by Fred Nijhuis. Fred is a wine writer who specializes in Italy and was the guide for the wine trips to Lombardia and Piemonte. For this wine dinner he selected 23 bottles of old and very old vintages, ranging from 1995 to as far back as 1957! (And a Marsala from a solera system that started in 1840 and thus is a mix from all vintages from 1840.) There were 12 of us, so we could each try half a glass of each bottle. Fred calls these dinners Ouwe meuk of oude meesters, which can be translated to something like “Old pieces of shit, or old masterpieces”. This is because many of those bottles may be way past their prime (and thus an old piece of shit), but some may turn out to be a masterpiece that still stands after all those years. The photo shows that it is not always easy to remove the cork from such old bottles in one piece.

Karel 5 by chef Chef Leon Mazairac recently got a Michelin star, and for food we had the regular five course tasting menu of the restaurant, with one additional dish from the à la carte menu to pair with one of the flights of wines. So the food you see in this blog is what you will also get if you go to the restaurant (until the menu changes, obviously), but the wines are ‘bring your own’.

Fred had organized the wines into 8 flights of 3 wines, but we started with a Lessini Durello DOC metodo classico, a sparkling wine made with a second fermentation in the bottle from Veneto in Italy from the local grape variety Durella, aged for over 5 years on the lees. This was not an old wine. You can trust Fred to come up with something interesting, and this certainly fit the bill as I had never tasted this variety before. The wine was quite fresh with a strong minerality.

This was served with puff pastry filled with herbed butter, followed by a series of amuses bouches.

Foie gras with mint and chermoula, delicious.

Cold smoked sirloin tartare with jerky and pasilla.

Green peas, veal tongue, and trout roe.

Next was “Bouquet Leon Mazairac”, the signature dish of the chef, which consists of a salad of 18 different vegetables, each cooked separately to perfect doneness, and served on a cauliflower mousse. Very nice.

The first flight of wines consisted of two Rieslings from the Rheingau in Germany by Kloster Eberbach. A 1988 Rauenthaler Gehrn, and a 1991 Hattenheimer Manberg. There was also supposed to be a third wine, but due to a mistake there were two bottles of the same wine. The 1991 was herbaceous, but alive and balanced. The 1988 was a bit more subdued.

The first course of the tasting menu was veal tartare with homemade seabass bottarga, lemon, asparagus, and kimchi.

The second course was a langoustine (scampi) in an herb sauce. This worked very nicely with the 1988 Riesling, that improved significantly with this dish. The 1991 Riesling did not work as well, because the acidity of the dish and the wine reinforced each other a bit too much.

The next flight of wines was:

  • 1991 white Chateau Musar from Lebanon, 66% Obaideh (suspected to be a local clone of Chardonnay) and 33% Merwah (suspected to be a local clone Sémillon), aged 9 months in French oak
  • 1995 Vin Jaune d’Arbois by Jacques Tissot
  • 1995 Vin Jaune C?tes du Jura by Bruno Robelin

The Musar was complex with mineral notes and still had quite a lot of body and marked acidity. The Tissot was a typical Vin Jaune and did not seem aged at all, very powerful. (I am personally not a big fan of Vin Jaune because it reminds me too much of denatured alcohol/methylated spirits.) The Robelin was softer. Vin Jaune is made in the Jura and France from Savagnin grapes and is made in a fashion similar to Fino sherry. Vin Jaune can age very well.

To pair with these wines a dish from the à la carte menu was served: poached sole with shrimp, mashed potatoes, and a vin jaune sauce. The dish had a very elegant flavor and the Musar and Tissot overpowered it (the pairing improved by sprinkling some salt on the dish). The Robelin opened up with the dish and became a nice pairing.

The next flight of wines was served without food:

  • 1995 Yngram by Hofstatter, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah from Alto Adige
  • 1994 Sella Bramaterra by Villa del Bosco, a Bramaterra DOC from Piemonte that is a blend of 70% Nebbiolo, 20% Croatina, and 10% Vespolina, aged 28 months in Slavonian oak
  • 1991 Castello dei Rampolla by Sammarco, a ‘Super Tuscan’ from 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Sangiovese

The Yngram was over the hill with a brown color, vegetal aromas, acid and no tannins left. The Bramaterra still had quite some tannins and a sweetish aroma. The Rampolla was like an aged Bordeaux (which makes sense from the grape varieties used) with still notable but softened tannins.

For the following flight we went to Spain:

  • 1994 Rioja Reserva by CVNE, 85% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, 5% Graciano, 5% Carignan, aged in oak for 18 months
  • 1985 Vi?a Tondonia Rioja Reserva by R. Lopez Heredia, Tempranillo, Grenache, Carignan, Graciano
  • 6 a?o Vi?a Tondonia Rioja Reserva by R. Lopez Heredia, vintage unknown but aged for 6 years, and it must be bottled prior to 1981 (and thus be from 1974 or before) as from 1981 it was no longer allowed to bottle Rioja without putting the vintage in the bottle.

Tortellini filled with “Blaarkop” cheese and spinach, served in a broth from caramelized vegetables with morels. The CVNE had high acidity, but came out better with the tortellini. The 1985 Tondonia became astringent with the dish and also had high acidity. The 6 a?o had more body and tannins, but also became astringent with the dish. A dish with meat would have worked better I think.

The next flight took us to the Langhe in Piemonte, Italy (all 100% Nebbiolo):

  • 1978 Pio Cesare Barbaresco
  • 1978 Pio Cesare Barolo
  • 1978 Fontanafredda Barolo

The Barbaresco did not have much aroma, but still had some body and velvety tannins. The Pio Cesare Barolohad a lot of color, aromas of chocolate, present but velvety tannins, and clear acidity. The Fontanafredda had vegetal aromas and high acidity.

We continued with Valtellina in Lombardia, Italy (all 100% Nebbiolo):

  • 1973 Valtellina Sfursat by Nino Negri: brown color but some tannins and sweetness left
  • 1969 Valtellina Sassella by Nino Negri: brick color, tannins and structure still there
  • 1964 Fracia by Nino Negri: brick color, tannins and structure still there but no aroma left

The main course consisted of two parts. The first part grilled lamb with soy, sesame seed, and Dutch wasabi.

The second part was polenta with sweetbreads and miso. I am not usually a fan of sweetbreads, but this was a very nice dish.

This was paired very well with a flight of Gattinara (100% Nebbiolo, called Spanna there) from Alto Piemonte:

  • 1961 Gattinara by Borgomanero
  • 1958 Gattinara by Borgomanero
  • 1957 Gattinara by Luigi Rizzo

It was remarkable that the oldest ‘regular’ wines of the evening were also the nicest. I suspect Fred may have done this on purpose, because he mentions often that Alto Piemonte is not getting the recognition it should. The 1961 was red with a light rim, fresh, elegant, and understated but delicious. The 1958 was a lighter color with mineral aromas, elegant, and delicious. The 1957 had some vegetal aromas but was soft, elegant, and delicious. All wines paired well with both the lamb and even the sweetbreads.

We finished the meal with some cheese.

The cheese was accompanied by Marsala, fortified wine from Sicily:

  • Pellegrino Marsala Vergine Soleras Riserva
  • Intorcia Marsala Vergine Soleras Vecchia Riserva
  • Florio, Avvertenza, Soleras 1840

All three are produced with a solera system, which means that wines from all vintages from the start of the solera system are mixed. Every year new wine is added to the system, and some of the blend of all previous vintages is taken out. The Florio started in 1840, which means there is a small percentage of every vintage from 1840 until it was bottled!

The first two were “vergine” and thus more dry than the later. They were quite acidic and the Intorcia was also a bit too alcoholic. The Florio had a great balance and was sweeter with more body. It was delicious and a great match with the cheeses.

Old wines are what you can call an acquired taste. It is a taste which I have not (yet) acquired, and I do not have a well developed vocabulary for describing the aromas and flavors. As expected there were quite some “old pieces of shit”, but there were definitely also some masterpieces. The only (half) glasses that I finished were the three Gattinaras and the Florio Marsala. It was an amazing experience to enjoy wines from 1957-1961 and thus over 60 years old! It was also very interesting to taste all the other wines. The food at Karel 5 is certainly worth the Michelin star, so altogether this was a great evening and probably not the last wine dinner organized by Fred I’ll be joining (or my last dinner at Karel 5).

2 thoughts on “A Dinner at Karel 5* With Very Old Wines

  1. May I childishly say ‘Lucky duck you’! What a fabulous experience! Shall go back and reread the wine story for edification but have really enjoyed seeing the menu courtesy of you!! The very varied Asian ingredients having been staples here for decades I am most interested but oft surprised how they are used to enrich current European cooking – oft strangely to me . . . I simply cannot ‘taste’ kimchi with veal tartare or foie gras with chermoula . . . don’t the added ingredients ‘kill’ the original taste profiles . . . oh so interesting . . . thanks for sharing!


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