Sad Times for St. Emilion

The Wine Media Guild, the organization of mostly New York-based print and media journalists to which I’ve belonged for time immemorial, kicked off its 2009-10 wine season with a tasting of 22 St. Emilions, almost all from the 2005 and 2006 vintages. Across the Gironde, in the Medoc, 2005 has been hailed as the second or third vintage of the century (and we’re only in its first decade, folks). Praise has been more muted in St. Emilion and Pomerol, where Merlot rather than Cabernet sauvignon is the dominant grape. Nevertheless, expectations – including my own – were high for what should have been a very impressive line-up of wines, one that seemed quite up to the very high standards of recent WMG meetings.

Alas, many’s the heart that was aching, after the ball.

“Underwhelming” was my own assessment, and that seemed to be a pretty widely shared opinion. Granted, all the wines were very young – but the WMG is a group of professionals with lots of experience tasting young wines. It isn’t always enjoyable, but we all know that, and we all know what we’re looking for. The problem for me at this tasting was that it wasn’t enjoyable and I couldn’t find what I was looking for, which was soft and relatively abundant fruit, with at least a discernible if not a dominant Merlot character, all contained in a fairly balanced, fairly restrained package. St. Emilion shouldn’t be a wine for world domination but one for an affable dinner with friends.

For me, that character just wasn’t there: In both the 2005 and 2006 vintages, the fruit was largely masked by green tannins and too much wood. That’s not going to change as the wine develops. Green tannins don’t ripen in the bottle, though it’s possible that some of the wood flavors may subside over time. (I wouldn’t bet on it, however.) The strongest impression these wines made on me was that St. Emilion has abandoned its historic character. The wines of the right bank of the Gironde were never pale copies of their mostly-more-famous, Cabernet-driven brethren of the left. They had a distinctive style of their own, determined largely by the Merlot grape and their peculiar terrain (especially the vineyards on the higher ground). Now, the wines all seem to have been – for lack of a better word – cabernetized. They’ve moved in the direction of the Medoc without quite getting there, lost their own authentic character without acquiring a better one.

That’s a real pity, and not just because I used to love these wines. This comes on top of all the troubles that St. Emilion has had about the classification of its most prestigious wines, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé and Premier Grand Cru Classé. Unlike the left bank, where the famous 1855 classification (with one significant modification) still holds sway, St. Emilion’s system is a modern one, put into operation in 1955 and subject to revision every 10 years. The revisions are based on actual tastings of the past decade’s wines from individual estates. It sounds like a great idea, but who watches the watchers? The 2005 revisions promoted some wineries and demoted others, and the demoteds challenged the system in court, alleging bias and conflicts of interest in the tasting panel. The court threw the whole system out, initiating a long series of suits and countersuits. Recently, the revision has been reinstated, with all the newly promoted wineries promoted and all the newly demoted wineries still holding their previous rank. Not exactly a Solomonic judgment, and one that leaves an adequate system yet to be worked out.

So what do St. Emilion’s label terms mean? If a label simply says Grand Cru, it essentially means nothing. There are hundreds of them, and the requirements for using the term are minimal – largely alcohol level. Grand Cru Classé should be another matter: this much more restricted group of wines comprises the ones that are supposed to be elected by the tasting panel. It should – emphasize that should – be safe to say that any wine named in this class, whether its present rank is secure or disputed, is a wine superior to the vast mass of St. Emilions – though exactly in what terms superior, and how much in dollars that difference means to the consumer, are precisely what inspired all the recent legal flapdoodle.

By the way: St. Emilion has one further nicety for you. Above Grand Cru Classé stands Premier Grand Cru Classé, which in turn is divided into two parts: A, which designates Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc, near-legendary wines not likely to be demoted in our lifetimes; and B, some 9 or 10 wines which do change, in theory according to achievement. Again, of course, the question becomes who measures the measurers? And what are they measuring in the first place? Ranking wines by any criterion other than personal preference isn’t easy.

Here’s a list of a few wines that I found more pleasing and truer to my idea of their type than others we tasted:

Chateau Fonplegade GC 2006 (about $50)
Chateau Cormeil Figeac GC 2005 (about $39)
Chateau Corbin GCC (about $25): excellent value
Chateau Laforge GC 2006 (about $45)
Chateau La Bonnelle GC 2005 (about $30): fine value
Le Prieuré GCC 2006 (about $45): good value

Two other wines were also enjoyable but – in my opinion – not worth their lofty prices:

Chateau La Chapelle d’Ausone GC 2006 (about $140)
Le Petit Cheval GC 2006 (about $150)

But then there are very, very few wines that I think justify such prices. Much as I love wine, it’s only wine, and we have to keep some perspective.

One Response to “Sad Times for St. Emilion”

  1. Wine Media Guild of New York » St. Emilion writeup; Bastianich wines next month Says:

    […] Tom Maresca, a WMG member since “time immemorial” (by his own account), has a posting on his brand new blog about the St. Emilion lunch meeting. Check out his take on the event. […]

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