Chateau Gruaud Larose has served as a benchmark wine for me for decades, ever since I first tasted bécasse (woodcock) in Paris in the mid-1970s.
Pat and Fernand, then recent friends and now bonded to us with hoops of steel, had put us up for a week in their spacious apartment on the Rue Ranelagh. They dealt with two small children, two jobs, and two guests with amazing aplomb, and to show some gratitude for their hospitality Diane and I commandeered their kitchen to make for them what we hoped would be a classic meal. Diane sallied out to Les Halles and returned with the first woodcock of the season, and I came back from the neighborhood Nicolas with a 1955 Calon Segur and a wine that overshadowed it at table, a 1953 Chateau Gruaud Larose.
Much mincing, chopping, and sauteeing later, we four sat to our first taste of bécasses, which most French sources regarded as the epitome of game birds. To say their flavor was intense is to grossly understate: Our first bite tasted to all of us like slightly high beef liver. Four nervous glances and inquiring eyebrows were relaxed by Diane’s firmly stated, “Well, the little f***ers cost 48 francs apiece, so we’d better eat them.” And eat them we did, as – aided in no small part by that elegant Gruaud Larose – the woodcock reshaped our palates and introduced us to the pleasures of true gaminess. At the end, with four dinner plates now a funereal pile of small bones, Fernand announced contentedly, “I could eat another.” Pat explained, “He means now.”
All of this came flooding back to me just a few days ago at a Wine Media Guild lunch featuring many, many vintages of Gruaud Larose. No woodcock, alas, and nothing as old as 1953, but some impressive vintages nevertheless, and plenty of them. First we tasted through a pre-lunch vertical of “younger” wines (when you get to end of the list you will see why I put that in quotation marks): Gruaud Larose 2008, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, Sagret de Gruaud Larose (the house’s second label) 2001, Gruaud Larose 2001, 2000, 1999, and 1998. Then with lunch, we drank the 1986, 1982, 1975, and 1970.
Anyone familiar with Bordeaux will readily see that there is a healthy handful of “vintages of the century” in that selection (centuries pass with alarming speed in Bordeaux). To its credit, Gruaud Larose has never played a very prominent part in that kind of hype. Classified a second-growth St. Julien in 1855, the estate today continues to work exactly the same fields it had at that time, as its general manager David Launay explained to us. That makes it one of the very few estates that still conforms to what it was when that legendary classification was formulated, a consistency that is reflected in the wine. I’ve found Gruaud Larose to be one of the most reliable of the great chateaux: always soundly made to a very exacting standard, balanced, with restrained Cabernet fruit moderated by Merlot and Petit Verdot, and above all always elegant, aging with great grace into a subtle, complex nectar.
At this tasting, the stand-out wine for me was the oldest, the 1970. Its fruit had largely – but not entirely – metamorphosed into nuttier, more mineral and earthy secondary flavors, and its balance was just perfect – soft tannins supported by the absolutely right amount of acidity to deliver all its complexity without masking any part of it. The finish was long and velvety, keeping the wine alive on the palate and in the memory after the glass emptied. Right behind the 1970 was the 1990, a wine very similar in style but showing its youth still: This Gruaud will be with us for decades yet, I think. Third in my affections was the 1998, which was surprisingly developed for all its comparative youth: It was drinking beautifully, I thought, and I would judge that it will continue to do so for ten years yet, though maybe not beyond that.
Many of my colleagues really loved the 1982. You may remember 1982 as Bordeaux’s “California vintage,” the first very warm growing season in modern memory. (Also, for those who follow such things, it was the vintage that made Robert Parker’s reputation: He liked its massive fruit, while many more traditional critics thought it unbalanced. Parker was right: There was ample tannin and acid under that big, almost over-ripe fruit to sustain the wines). It was an enjoyable wine, I thought, though comparatively coarse, especially for a wine like Gruaud Larose, whose hallmark is elegance. I could taste the heat in it, and some telltale over-ripeness, which pushed what should have been an elegant claret in the direction of the Rhone. That’s OK in its place, but not what I’m looking for in a St. Julien.
Probably what was most remarkable about this battery of vintages was their consistency: Year in and year out, very good to excellent examples of their commune and class, all marked by the same polish and balance, by an almost Audrey-Hepburnish elegance and spirit – well-mannered yet lively, lean but well structured, with no waste flesh but none lacking either. As I said at the start, benchmark wines.