Thoughts on tasting Bordeaux
One doesn’t look for California-style ripeness in Bordeaux wine, and one doesn’t expect to do serious tasting at an elbow-to-elbow trade event, which are the top two reasons why a California guy like me shouldn’t be drawing many conclusions from the Union des Grands Crus tasting I went to on Friday, at the splendiferous Palace Hotel, in downtown San Francisco, whose ballroom (Paul Wagner told me) used to be a smoking and drinking parlor for the men of the Edwardian Age, while an open balcony above was reserved for their wives, who could loosen their corsets and keep a wary eye on their husbands, superior to them not just physically but, one suspects, in moral rectitude.
This being the enlightened 21st century, they now allow women to mingle with men, which is a good thing, since otherwise I wouldn’t have run into the always lovely, ethereal Karen MacNeil, who was particularly fond of an ‘08 Clinet, and I could see why: its 85% Merlot dominance made it so rich in cherries it might have been described as “Californian.”
The Union des Grands Crus is a marketing and promotional association to which many Bordeaux chateaux belong, although the First Growths (5 or 8, depending on how you define them) never seem to pour, nor do some of the of Super-Seconds (the Leovilles being conspicuous by their absence). I personally was not impressed with the tasting, which was of 2008s. There I go, drawing conclusions just moments after I said I wouldn’t, but I just can’t help myself. My colleague at Wine Enthusiast, the great Roger Voss, rated the 2008 red Bordeaux vintage quite highly, although not as highly as the ‘05s; but then, he lives and breathes and profoundly understands Bordeaux, and perhaps I don’t. I found many of the wines a curious mixture of rustic and extracted, not to mention with hard tannins and high acidity. But then, I am open to charges that my California palate biases me. Of those wines I admired, Domaine de Chevalier was a winner, royal and ultra-refined, and it was nice to find out, later, that Charlie Olken also declared it a great success. I liked Pape-Clement. La Conseillante was fleshy and meaty, which seems properly Pomerolesque, while Gruaud-Larose (which I used to drink in the Eighties, when it wasn’t so expensive) was very fine and ageworthy. But I thought Talbot, so nearby in Saint-Julien, lacked breed. In Pauillac, the Pichons, Longueville and Lalande, were dense and tannic, with the latter getting my nod, and I wish I had a case of Lynch-Bages in the cellar. I did not, though, formally review these wines, or give them scores. I’ll leave that to Roger.
As an interesting sidenote, after the tasting I went home and reviewed a bunch of California Cabernets and Merlots. Many of them seemed curiously flat and sweet. Was this a residual effect of my having tasted Bordeaux, or did the luck of the draw simply give me a flight of flat, sweet wines? I ask this question in all candor. A good many other wine critics would never admit to something like this — that their palates could be thusly impacted — because they pretend they’re fonts of godlike wisdom. Well, nobody is.
Half the reason for going to these affairs, for me, is to meet new people and renew old acquaintances. It was fun to see John Skupny, with his handsome son, hitting Sauternes before tackling the reds. (Hello, Climens!) I saw Jorge Mendez, whom I’d met a couple years ago. He brings Bordeaux into the States through his Bordeaux, etc. company. Raul Gallyot, the radio show host from KWMR out on the far coast, was debonair, with that delightful gleam in his eyes (memo to Raul: when are you going to have a website, or is that so non-Marin?), and it was great as always to see Amy Cleary, who works with us inky wretches at University of California Press. There was only one less than pleasurable encounter for me, and I won’t mention his name, except that the letters M.W. pompously, inevitably follow it.
I am in New York as you read this, miserably arctic New York, where the temperature is in the single digits. Tonight is Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards gala event, at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. I will happily introduce our Winemaker of the Year, Genevieve Janssens, of Robert Mondavi Winery, and I will be wearing a tuxedo, if you can believe it. It is the one and only time of the year I don a monkey suit, reluctantly.