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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.

  1. Things I don’t understand…

    2008 Lynch Bages – after a couple centuries of making wonderful wine in limited and finite amounts is now able to command $79.95 a bottle for a delicious vintage. A feat achieved by every Napa Valley vanity label created in the last decade.

    Why we don’t “dress for dinner” and wear our tuxedos more often, like with our significant other at a quiet dinner at home? Why is it always big, impersonal banquets? No wonder we hate them so much.

    Why does anyone go anywhere on a Sunday night in NY (other than a sports bar) when the Jets are playing the Steelers for the AFC championship?

  2. I’m somewhat hesitant to jump in here for fear of opening the old “sweetness” can of worms but….well you asked a question and relayed a story that I deal with all the time so I’m going for it. I cut my teeth on French wine, actually fell in love with wine because of the wines of France. I taste them everyday….many times a day and they, for the most part, are the wines that I drink at home. Now working in a wine shop I am exposed to wines from all over the world and the problem for me…and I am just talking about me and my palate, with California wine is that all that primary fruit often comes off as sweet to me. I’ve gone round and round with my beloved Sir Charles Olken about this and had countless others talk to me about RS, actual sweetness and perceived sweetness and honestly, none of it matters. Fourteen years with my mouth around French wines and the wines of California, Australia, Argentina and Chile taste sweet to me, and do I really have to say “Not all of them”? Of course not all of them but many to most. As far as flat, I don’t get that as much as something I compare more to the difference between cooked fruit and fresh fruit…a vibrancy or more likely acidity thing. Just my experience coming from the other side of the coin.

  3. Samantha, no prob opening up that can of worms! I guess it’s been said time and again, but we all have our preferences. Usually they’re based on our experiences, what we know and grew up with. That’s why I don’t care for pickled ginger but go crazy over lox.

  4. “2008 Lynch Bages – after a couple centuries of making wonderful wine in limited and finite amounts is now able to command $79.95 a bottle for a delicious vintage. A feat achieved by every Napa Valley vanity label created in the last decade.”
    Not in the same quantity; many Medoc classed growths are able to sell 10-40,000 cases a year of their top wine. This puts them in a similar class to wineries like Caymus, Silver Oak and Duckhorn. Most Napa “vanity” labels have much smaller production. With the right mailing list, you can sell almost anything in tiny quantities.

  5. Steve, if you had not left halfway through the event, you would have heard me also falling in love with Lynch Bages all over again.

    I may be unique in this perception, since no one else mentions it, but Lynch Bages, and my history with it goes back to the 1962 vintage, has always reminded me of a California wine with its concentration, its curranty fruit, its rich but not dominant oak and its willingness to be expressive. And I was reminded of that again at the UGC tasting.

    Its price is now eighty bucks, or more, but it was not always thus. Back in my early collecting days, Lynch Bages sold for prices pretty much equivalent to good, expressive Napa Cabs, and for less than Heitz Martha’s and BV Pri Res, for example. I have more LB in my cellar than any other Bordeaux.

  6. Charlie, did you ever call it lunch bags?

  7. Steve,
    Despite all the marketing efforts to convince us otherwise, 2008 was a cool, rainy vintage; with lots of rain and cloud cover in May and June and then from August to October. There were only 1,095 hours of sunshine from May to September, compared to 1,273 hours in 2009. This difference accounts for almost 15 days.
    Wait till next year for the 2009’s.
    BTW, did you have the chance to try the ‘La Mondotte’?

  8. Peter, what you say is true, 08 was cool. But so were 06, 07, 09 and of course 2010. There were some great wines made in 08.

  9. Mr. O’Connor–

    By all accounts, 2009 in Bdx was about as good as it gets. At dinner the other night, one winemaker (from Chevalier if my memory serves correctly) told my associate, Steve Eliot, “If you could not make good wine in 2009, you cannot make good wine”.

    Even accepting that there might be some overstatement here, if 2009 is a special year, why compare to 2008 to 2009. How about comparisons to 2007 and 2006?

  10. Mr. Olken,
    Speaking strictly in terms of climate and sunshine data, 2009 seems to be a very good, dry, but not too warm vintage. Both 2008 and 2007 were cool, rainy vintages with low solar radiation levels, and lower than normal late-season temps. One could say that 2007 was slightly better due to less rain after veraison and during harvest.
    2006, on the other hand, was one of the warmest seasons of the last decade, and also pretty dry. It was not as good as 2005 (IMHO, the best since 2000) due to a high temperature variability, but it could be considered a good to very good vintage, with an extremely long growing season, making it particularly favorable for Cabs on the left bank.
    Our vintage evaluator index (VEI), that assumes that the 1961-1990 normal equals 100 points, has the following results for the last six vintages: 2005 – 143,8; 2006 – 143,7; 2007 – 115,4; 2008 – 106,5; 2009 – 131,9; 2010 – 126,1.
    Please note that higher results have a positive correlation with higher temperatures and lower rainfall.

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