Snows of Yesteryear: Four Great French Wines

Around the holidays, and especially if friends are joining us for dinner, Diane sometimes elaborates our usually delicious, mostly Italianate dinners by undertaking a few complex French dishes, and I try to select wines to play up to them. This year – this past year, I must now remember to say – consciousness of the passing of time pushed me to open a battery of French beauties, the youngest a 14-year-old Burgundy and the most venerable a 52-year-old Bordeaux.

They were gorgeous, every one of them, and coordinated beautifully with the food. They were also a nostalgia trip, reminders of the kinds of flavors that got us hooked on wines in the first place, way back when newly minted assistant professors could afford serious Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Where are the snows of yesteryear indeed? Those days are gone forever, and so I fear are the kind of refined, restrained wines that were then the French norm. That incredibly elegant 1966 red Bordeaux was still live and lithe, though it had just 12 degrees of alcohol. We shall not see its like again.

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Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004
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For our Christmas Eve dinner à deux, I opened this Drouhin Chambolle Musigny. Drouhin is my favorite Burgundy négociant, a house of the highest standards and impeccable reputation, for some years now committed to biodynamic production. Musigny for me is the quintessence of Burgundy, the small, sweet spot where all the magic of the Côte d’Or concentrates. If I could begin to afford it, I would drink its wines often; as my finances stand, they are rare special occasion wines. This one did not let me down.

This wine originates in several tiny parcels of Premier Cru vineyards that Drouhin owns, harvests, and vinifies together. (Tiny parcels, often only a few rows of vines, are quite common in Burgundy, where a hillside site may be divided among many owners.) After fermentation, the wine spent between 14 and 18 months in barrels. Of those, only 20% were new oak, so the Musigny Pinot noir’s rich cherry and earth flavors, and its scents of game and truffle, all showed through unmasked by any woodiness. The wine’s velvetiness results from the interplay of the grapes and wood, and shows all the customary elegance of the Drouhin style.

In the Côte d’Or, 2004 is remembered as the vintage of the marvelous September, whose sunshine and warmth transformed what had been shaping up as an iffy harvest into a splendid one. This wine showed just how splendid: its poise and grace and vitality promised years of life yet to come. A simply wonderful wine.
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Then came Christmas day, with good friends Charles and Michele joining us for dinner. To accompany a salade de confit de geziers, a roast duck, and a cheese platter, we progressed through three red Bordeaux: Les Ormes de Pez 2000, Pichon Baron de Longueville 1978, and Gruaud Larose 1966. They all seemed to make each other better, each solo helping to form a lovely concert.
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Château Les Ormes de Pez 2000
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Les Ormes de Pez is an old family favorite, one of the first Medoc wines that Diane and I ever drank together, and one we’ve loved ever since. A humble Cru Bourgeois St. Estèphe, it has always seemed to us superior to its ranking, with a distinctive taste of its commune’s gravelly soil and dark fruit, paradoxically light on the palate.

2000 was a brilliant vintage for all the Bordeaux appellations, and this bottle was a fine example of it, supple and live and graceful. These days, when so many of the grands crus have grown big, heavy, and powerful, I think more and more that the so-called “lesser wines” are now the champions of what was once the universal Bordeaux style.
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Château Pichon Baron de Longueville  1978
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Our second red had nothing humble about: Pichon Baron was ranked a second growth in the original 1855 classification, and it has maintained that place in quality and esteem. It’s a big estate, with over 70 hectares in vines, of which Cabernet sauvignon is about two-thirds, Merlot most of the balance, with tiny amounts of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot – the classic Bordeaux blend. It’s a Pauillac and so now usually counted among Bordeaux’s heavy hitters, though – perhaps because it lies so close to the vineyards of St. Julien – I’ve always found it inclining more toward elegance and restraint than toward big fruit and power.

Certainly this 1978 fit that description, its mature fruit showing beautifully in a wonderful balance of acid and alcohol and soft tannins. Some vintage charts I’ve looked at would have it that the ’78 Bordeaux are over the hill, but my – admittedly limited – experience of them shows rather that like this wine they are just now really coming into stride, with years before them yet.
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Château Gruaud Larose 1966
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Our third wine, a Gruaud Larose, really brought back past times for Diane and me. The wine is one that has figured importantly over the years at wonderful dinners with some of our oldest friends, and this specimen is – was – my oldest bottle of it. In addition, 1966 was a wonderful vintage, genuinely one of the vintages of the century, before Bordeaux learned the retail value of declaring them so every two or three years.

Classified a second growth St. Julien in 1855, Gruaud Larose has passed through many owners since then but still occupies almost the identical territory it had in 1855. A large estate of almost 85 hectares in vines, it’s planted roughly 60% in Cabernet sauvignon, 30% in Merlot, and the remaining 10% divided among Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec. Oddly, to my mind, Gruaud Larose has a reputation for inconsistency. That has not been my experience of it: I’ve never had a less than fine bottle, and some, like this lovely 1966, have been just plain wonderful.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but this ’66 had all the elegance that St. Julien is noted for, and all the charm and warmth and life that that great vintage showed right from the start. It was probably at its peak, but it showed no sign of faltering, unless you count a substantial layer of sediment as a sign of impending doom. (I don’t.) A great wine, and it sealed a great meal with old friends – which is exactly where a great old wine belongs.

 

8 Responses to “Snows of Yesteryear: Four Great French Wines”

  1. cgomezmoreno Says:

    Good reading, Tom!
    As always with aged bottles, I’d be interested to know if you had them since release and how they were stored.
    I have a 1975 Pichon Baron which is my birth year and may be considering opening it for my 45, or maybe save for big 5.
    Cheers!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      No, I didn’t have any of these since release. They were all bought at various ages, at retail, from reliable shops who gave good accounts of their storage to that point. From then on – for an average of between 8 and 15 years — they were in my very minimal storage, despite which they were all going strong when we opened them.

  2. Jonathan Levine Says:

    WOW

  3. Tablewine Says:

    What a great post, Tom. Remembering Bordeaux before it became tainted by Parker. Your tasting notes brought back such fond memories of bottles past. Thanks.

  4. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Very happy I was there when you opened the Bordeaux

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