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A California critic tastes Saint-Emilion

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My first thought after going to the big Grands Crus Classés Saint-Emilion tasting yesterday in San Francisco was: Wow, someone secretly put California wines into bottles with St.-Emilion labels.

No one had, of course. But many of the wines were so ripe and fruity, so extracted and oaky, and so high in alcohol, they might have come from Paso Robles, Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley.

Nothing wrong with such wines, of course. I give them good scores all the time. But I was hoping for something different and distinctly non-Californian. I didn’t find it, for the most part.

I know that St.-Emilion traditionally makes two kinds of wines. Michael Broadbent decades ago described these as a “Côtes” style of “deepish but quick-maturing wines, loose-knit, sweeter on the bouquet and palate,” and a “Graves” style “with hint[s] of iron/earth.” Almost everything I tasted seemed more like that Côtes style.

The Merlot is king in St.-Emilion, which accounts perhaps for the wines’ approachability. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, in their new The World Atlas Of Wine, praise “the solid tastiness of St.-Emilion,” wines that “grow almost sweet as they mature.”

Still, the wines were much more Californian than I had thought they’d be. And I wasn’t the only one with that impression. All the friends I talked to–other critics, merchants, marketers–felt the same way. I heard the word “approachable” over and over; also, a more troubling term: “almost overripe.” The vintage I tasted was 2009, which has an outstanding reputation; my Wine Enthusiast colleague in Bordeaux, Roger Voss, rated it 96 points. But I have to say I was, not exactly disappointed, but surprised.

How to account for this ultra-ripe style? Three factors: (1) the Parker influence, with his penchant for ripe, big wines, (2) global warming, which seems to be impacting Bordeaux more than California, and (3) the influence of a cadre of flying consultants, who are bringing about an international style all over the world. An example of this is the 2009 Chateau Fleur Cardinale, whose alcohol level is 15%. “Californian,” I immediately wrote in my notes. “Rich, lush and forward.” It might have been from Rutherford.

Don’t get me wrong, these California-style St.-Emilions still are very good wines. I gave most of them scores in the 88-91 range. But, like I said, I found their internationalism troubling.

Here, however, were my top-scoring wines. They seemed to have been made in a more old-fashioned way. (All are 2009s.) Chateau La Commanderie struck me for its fine, distinguished mouthfeel and dryness. It is a significant wine that needs many years. So does the Chateau Fonroque, so fleshy and meaty and dry. Chateau Jean Faure was based on Cabernet Franc rather than Merlot, and its small percentage of Malbec gave it a firm structure. The two wines of the tasting for me were Chateau La Dominique, firm, dry and tannic yet packed with fruit, and a gorgeous La Tour Figeac. I wish I had a case of each for my cellar.

Incidentally, I walked to the tasting, which was on Harrison Street, all the way down First Street from Market, and have never seen so much construction going on in San Francisco in the 35 years I’ve lived here. The city is in the boom of its life, and everybody seems to be a 28-year old tech worker. I’ve seen San Francisco go through several iterations over the years. This has to be the most interesting yet, but it’s coming at a price: S.F. now is the most expensive city in America in which to rent an apartment. I think all those young techies are living four to the room.

  1. Very interesting. I very rarely drink Bordeaux (or California wine for that matter), but I recently opened a simple AOC Bordeaux that someone had given me, and my reaction was the same. It was 15% alcohol, which I found amazing for Bordeaux, and tasted very “Californian.” It wasn’t bad; in fact I liked it a fair bit, and one of our guests raved about it. But it wasn’t what I expected from a Bordeaux at all.

  2. Paul Wagner says:

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for attending the tasting. (disclaimer–we organized it!)

    Your comments are understandable, but if you were really interested in tasting wines that we less like California, why on Earth did you only taste the 2009s? It was a very warm and ripe vintage, and the wines are, as you noted, quite approachable and ripe.

    The 2010 vintage was a much more classic vintage, and yet you didn’t taste it? how sad. Those wines are more structured, and I think you would have found more of what you were looking for!

    PW

  3. Jason Ledbetter says:

    Steve,
    Great to see you yesterday at this tasting. As I have plenty of commentary on the 2009 and 2010 Vintage from St Emilion, I want to throw in my two cents on the landscape of SF. This is a very interesting time and demographic in SF and as someone who frequents The Great American Music Hall, The Independent and the Fillmore, I must say the deomographic of those moving to SF over the last couple years has changed. Just as Manhattan has its Brooklyn it seems that SF has its Oakland.

  4. Jason, yes, Oakland is SF’s Brooklyn!

  5. Randy Caparoso says:

    Spot-on, Steve… sad thing that Bordeaux, like so many other French wine regions, has been Parkerized… for quite some time now…

  6. Tone Kelly says:

    Having been to a number of Union of Grand Crus tastings in NY City, I have found that the St. Emilion wines in general are more “Californian” than either Pomerol or the Left Bank. This trend started with the garagista movement in the mid 1990s. It seemed to have peaked in the 2003-2005 time period. As a result St. Emilion seems to be the hotbed of this “Make it like a New World” style. If one prefers a more traditional style wine, stick to Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux, Graves, Pessac Leognan. There are of course some exception as some producers from these regions try to be more new world, but in general the left bank never went for the garagista style like St. Emilion.

  7. Dear Tone Kelly, thank you for your comment!

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