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From the Annals of Tasting: Grand Crus de Bordeaux

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Last Friday’s Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting was a big deal. The crème de la crème of San Francisco’s wino high society turned out, and even in a city where “Friday casual” tends to be seven days a week, there was enough Armani to gag a Milan runway.

It’s a fun tasting, although the most famous Growths (Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone) never seem to come. I guess they don’t have to market their wares. But everybody else does, apparently.

I don’t even attempt to taste everything. It’s simply not possible, unless you power-taste your way through (which some people do, although it’s a pointless exercise, IMHO). Instead, I selectively taste. How to decide what to selectively taste? Ask others who know more than you do! I spotted the immortal Fred Dame, who immediately steered me to a pair of Right Banks, La Conseillante (Pomerol) and Figeac (Saint-Emilion). The former was amazing: fat, soft, unctuous, while the latter showed its composition of one-third Cabernet Sauvignon with hard tannins.

By the way, the French hate it when we American reporters ask them what the blend is. They expect the question, they know it’s coming, and they’ll rattle off the answer, but you can see their inner eyebrows rising to the tops of their têtes in exasperation, as if to say: What is wrong with these people? One is supposed to look for terroir, not burden oneself with such trivial pursuits as the percentage of this or that variety. Sometimes, I ask the pourers anyway, but I don’t like to—they make me feel guilty and provincial. (Or do I do that to myself?)

Then I ran into an old acquaintance, Jean-Noel de Formeaux du Sartel, the proprietor of Chateau Potelle, who reminded me that my story on him, back around 1990, had been the first I ever wrote for the Wine Spectator, when I worked there. Jean-Noel—“Johnny Christmas”—has had a lot of adventures lately, with some health issues and a trek through India to rediscover the wellsprings of his being. He insisted on my tasting Leoville-Poyferré, the Saint-Julien, which I found a little rustic, and Brainaire-Ducru, another Saint-Julien, whose rôti fruit, cocoa and meat flavors were so good, I wrote, “I would buy this.” I tasted also the Pomerol Clinet (“shows the power of the Merlot”), Haut-Bailly, filled with Pessac-Leognan stones and tannins, and a four or five others. Then I headed over to the Pauillac table to compare the two Pichons, Longueville and Lalande.

There I met another old friend, Gary Cowan, sales manager at Fine Wines International and also at Vineyard 7 & 8, who was doing the same thing. I think we agreed that the Lalande was more beautiful and approachable now—more feminine?–than the Longueville, whose tannins were like a Denver Boot on the mouth.

Wine chit-chat at these events is inevitable, but can be tiresome. A guy who knew who I was (I never did get his name) wanted to talk about precisely when a particular wine’s tannins kicked in. Was it mid-palate, 60%, or what? I don’t like to be rude to anyone, but that’s a situation I had to extricate myself from quickly, so I made some lame excuse and crawled away. That’s when a cool-looking dude with spiky hair introduced himself to me.

“Hi, I’m Josiah,” he said. That would be the exquisitely-named Josiah Baldivino, head sommelier at Michael Mina San Francisco, whom I’d spoken with on the phone earlier that day. He was with his lovely wife, Stevie. We talked about the evolving role of the somm, a subject of endless fascination for all three of us, so much so that we agreed to take it up again in the near future.

The 2010 Bordeaux vintage has generated a lot of buzz. I’m not a Bordeaux critic, so I’m not making any grand, informed statements, but I’d love to have a cellarful of any of the wines I tasted. Where we can only surmise at the ageworthiness of a great Napa Cab, these 2010 Bordeaux are stone cold guarantees. I don’t think that makes them better, just different. Young Napa is flamboyance, flash and instant bedazzlement. Young Bordeaux lets you know it won’t show you anything anytime soon.

 

Josiah and Stevie

 

 

 

 

  1. Yo Steve.

    I attended this event in a certain country they went to. To me the best and most telling experience were the white wines. I tasted 3 or 4 that were close to perfection. Great white bordeauxs are massively overlooked by the populace in general. Unforgettable day.

    The red ones? Just very good as they are supposed to be.

  2. Carlos, yes some of those white Bordeaux rock!

  3. There is an argument afoot that Bordeaux has produced two excellent vintages in a row. To me, it is comes down to stylistic difference. The 2009s, the objects of Parker love, were the more opulent. The 2010s I tasted with Steve (well, not with Steve, because I did not see him there) were more structured as a group and will need time to show themselves fully.

    It will be interesting to see who lines up on which side of the issue. Maybe Parker and Robinson can get into another handbag hurling snit.

  4. I had plans to be at the tasting, but, not being immortal like Fred Dame, I caught the flu. However, I am certain that I would have awarded nineteen perfect scores and tasted every damn wine.

  5. Charlie, you don’t want to end up on the wrong end of Robert Parker’s handbag!

  6. Get well soon, Hosemaster!

  7. Ron–

    I am guessing that you could write a perfectly good set of notes for most wines without even being there. Kind of like your book reviews.

  8. doug wilder says:

    Steve,

    The picture with the stuffed monkey seems to have little to do with the article, and besides is a little creepy.

  9. Doug, that’s Josiah and Stevie Baldivino, whom I referenced in the article.

  10. Steve,

    I went to the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting at Vinexpo in Bordeaux in early June 2011. First Growths weren’t at this tasting either, even though they’re like 23 km away, but as you said, it’s because they don’t have to be there. Except for Mouton and d’Yquem, they don’t even belong to this trade group.

    I walked into this event with some trepidation and had already heard the hype about the 2010 vintage. My concern was that there would be approximately 125 wines there to taste from barrel, which is a lot for anyone to manage. I was not sure how my palate would fare but I got through most of them and came away very enlightened. I walked out thinking it was not hype at all – in fact it was under-hyped after the 2009 vintage, almost as if Bordeaux was embarrassed to proclaim yet again that another vintage is spectacular.

    Each wine I tasted was distinctively different from the last with many of them truly excellent. Château Lynch Bages was remarkable and should be bought by the case. Also Château Pichon Longueville Baron was a standout but there were many others too, along with a lot of Right Banks from Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. I found wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan to be more structured and less approachable at this young age. Still, all of it was stupid good wine, even from barrel and it becomes clear what advantages a great vintage can provide. One of the things that really struck me was the purity of fruit in almost every wine I tasted – so well defined with characteristic varietal profiles! I have tasted none of them since because they of course are not yet released so it would be interesting to see how they are developing. However, at this point in time it would not be uncommon for some of them to close down for a few years or so and that could have been the case with your experience, 1 1/2 years after my tasting.

    Anyhow, I’m glad you got to taste these because it gets you outside of your world, if only for a moment, and hopefully provides perspective.

    Best regards,

    David Boyer
    classof1855.com

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