Remember Claret?

A few nights ago, to accompany a classic rack of lamb, I dug out a classic bottle of claret. Claret has become a very old-fashioned word for what, I am afraid, is increasingly perceived as an old-fashioned wine: good, restrained, elegant, estate-bottled Bordeaux of a classified growth. Now, I will be quick to complain about many aspects of Bordeaux wines these days, but I also freely acknowledge that Bordeaux does several things incomparably well – and perhaps the foremost among them is to accompany lamb. To paraphrase something I wrote a few thousand years ago in The Right Wine, until lambs mutate into lobsters, Cabernet sauvignon is going to be a wonderful partner for their meat – and Bordeaux can still do Cabernet as well as anybody.

Talbot 86The bottle I chose for that succulent little rack was a 27-year-old St. Julien, Chateau Talbot 1986 – a mature wine but not an ancient one, and one from a conservative estate, where the post-Parker craze for big fruit and high alcohol has even now not taken hold. This was a wine made in the classic way on a large, traditional property (256 acres) of gravelly limestone soil in the commune of St. Julien. Vinified from 70% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and a mere 5% of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot, the wine was fermented in glass before aging long months in wood, with numerous rackings and finings. It then rested many years in what passes for my cellar, from which it finally emerged – “gloriously” would be too strong, and utterly inappropriate to Talbot’s style, so let’s say “finely” – with great polish and an almost British understatement.

Or maybe I think that because of the wine’s name and the estate’s history. I love a wine with a story, and this wine has a doozy. Talbot is obviously an English name (everyone of my generation will immediately think of hapless Lon Chaney Jr. as Lyle Talbot, the reluctant wolfman) and an old one at that. As most wine people know, the British involvement with Bordeaux – both its politics and its wine trade – dates back many centuries, and for a lot of those centuries Chateau Talbot was there. Certainly not the present buildings, but the property has been in situ since the 15th century. Talbot, along with Gruaud Larose (another favorite of mine and, not coincidentally, one owned by the Cordier family that also owns Talbot), stands among the few Bordeaux estates that still produce wine from the same vineyards that were classified in 1855. That’s what you call stability.

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estate

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The estate purportedly derives its name from the man whom tradition calls its first proprietor (though there is no absolute proof of this): John Talbot, First Earl of Shrewsbury and Constable of France. This Talbot was a famous English warrior in the Hundred Years’ War – companion of Edward the Black Prince, and of Henry V and Henry VI, opponent of Joan of Arc, scourge of several French armies. He died in battle in France in 1453. By all accounts, he was a violent, aggressive man of little polish but headstrong courage – in many ways, the stylistic opposite of the elegant French wine that carries his name into the 21st century. As Shakespeare says, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

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John Talbot

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Chateau Talbot tends, I think, to be consistently underestimated as a wine. Its elegance and restraint seem to work against it in an age when boisterous assertion is prized (John Talbot, however, could easily be a hero for our time). Clive Coates is restrained in his praise. That the estate makes wines “of considerable flair” is the most he will say, while Robert Parker is surprisingly more enthusiastic: “consistently fine, robust, fruity, full-bodied wines” that “in certain vintages” can surpass the more prestigious wines of its sibling, Gruaud Larose. Back in 1990, Parker tasted the vintage I recently drank, Talbot 1986, and had this to say: “It’s my gut feeling that the 1986 is simply the finest Talbot made at this vast 250-acre estate since the legendary 1945.” He expected it to live until 2020.

Well, I can vouch for the fact that the ’86 was alive and entirely enjoyable just a few nights ago, though I must say I don’t find myself agreeing with much else about Parker’s description of the wine (see his Bordeaux, page 311, for the details of that). My bottle was soft and understated, with all its fruit mutated into ripe, dark flavors of earth and leather, tobacco and dried plum. Very structured still, and long-finishing to be sure, with a little lingering thrill of pure vinosity at the end. Not a “today” wine, though: no big fruit or forceful alcohol, but instead balance and polish. Chateau Talbot is a serenely self-possessed wine.

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box 2

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It was my very last bottle, alas! Every time I enjoy a rack of lamb now I will remember it and miss it. I could wish wines like this were as replaceable as lamb racks – but then, I suppose, they would lose the very qualities that make them special and memorable. I suppose that too is an old-fashioned sort of idea. If so – as the French would once have said – tant pis.

7 Responses to “Remember Claret?”

  1. Joe Calandrino Says:

    I do remember, Claret, Tom, I do. More importantly I remember having both the Chateau Talbot and Gruaud-Larose of the 1986 vintage side-by-side with lamb racks (how else would one have them?) in 2011. The racks were roasted with a glaze of thyme, rosemary and honey (not too much honey) to a doneness of ‘rare’. Fingerling potatoes sauteed (yep, I sliced them, seasoned them lightly with salt, pepper and crushed rosemary and garlic), and steamed French string-beans, grace the plate.

    The Gruaud-Larose was dense, powerful (in a Bordeaux sort of way) with hopeful notes of black fruits, cedar on the nose and palate but ridiculously backward and 10 years from its glory. It was drinkable, of course, but the Talbot—the Talbot—was Burgundian by comparison, softer and more generous in every way. Great structure combined with softness, ripeness, and faded tannins and complemented the lamb with wonder and (dare I say it about such a gentile wine?) panache.

    Alas, I will never pass that way again. But the good news is that the 2000 Talbot is already drinking extremely well, and, were I you, I would not delay gratification should a lamb rack find its way onto your table.

    Best regards always,
    Joe C.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You’ve got me salivating, Joe. I’ve avoided most of the 2000 vintage out of an aversion to hyper-hype, but you have me re-thinking my aversion, at least in regard to Talbot.

  2. Richard Bevan Says:

    I bought ’62 Talbot at auction in London in the mid-70s (three pounds a bottle, perhaps!) – and have one left. It will certainly be past its best, probably long past, but it will equally certainly still be ‘elegant and understated’ just as was your ’86. In its heyday – the 90s or early 00s, it was superb, described by an expert friend as ‘perfect claret’. I very rarely buy Bordeaux now, but have a few old bottles still saved from the days of auction bargains, and those from the better years still drink beautifully at 30 or more years of age. I’m optimistic that some of the excellent Washington State ‘Bordeaux blends’ will develop some of the same elegance, complexity, and depth; though I’m not sure that I can wait long enough.

  3. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Does your dwelling have room for a 200 bottle cave? That would solve your storage needs.

  4. Ole Udsen Says:

    Lovely post. I remember the ’85 Talbot as quite lovely. My ’86 Bordeaux’s (i.a. Margaux, Rausan-Segla) are still quite immature and need more time, so slightly surprised that Talbot would be so mature as you describe it.

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