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Archive for the ‘Bordeaux’ Category

June is a special month for us, containing Diane’s birthday and our anniversary, separated only by D-Day. (Make of that what you will.) And Gruaud Larose is a special wine for us, holding long associations with celebrations past and friends we shared them with.

Just one example: Eons ago, our friends Pat and Fernand had us to stay with them for a week at their apartment in Paris, and to repay their hospitality Diane and I took over their kitchen and made a dinner featuring the first bécasse (woodcock) any of us had ever cooked or eaten. The wine we drank with this brave endeavor was a 1953 Gruaud Larose, one of many memorable tastes during that altogether memorable evening.

You can see why it was easy to choose the June wine from among my special cellar selections for 2021. After more than a year of having our spirits depressed by Covid, I wanted a wine that would remind us of joyful times and help us start renewing them. So Gruaud Larose it had to be.

Those are the sentiments that lay behind my choice. Behind them lies a very estimable wine, a second growth Saint Julien, a property that, although it has had many different owners over the years, still occupies almost exactly the same fields it did when it was classified in 1855. It’s a substantial property, even by Bordeaux standards: 87 hectares in vines. That’s well over 200 acres, divided into roughly 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, about 8% Cabernet Franc, plus a small amount of Petit Verdot and a smidgeon of Malbec. Those vines yield a formidable wine, which some critics describe as rough and even rustic in its youth, but capable of fine aging and development.

My previous experience of older Gruaud Larose vintages gave me great hopes for this 1975 bottle. So too did the eminent Clive Coates’s assessment of the vintage, in his classic book The Wines of Bordeaux: Vintages and Tasting Notes 1952-2003.

Very good color. Rich, full, fat and ample on the nose. This is very promising. Fullish body. Vigorous. Very good tannins and grip. No astringency. A meaty, quite solid wine. Long, rich and satisfactory. Plenty of life ahead. Very good indeed.

At that time, Coates rated the ’75 Gruaud 17 out of 20 and suggested its drinking window ranged from “now” to “2008+.”  Diane’s birthday dinner would test just how much beyond 2008 that plus sign would allow.

For the meal itself, we recapitulated one of the best dinner main courses we’d ever made for ourselves: fabulously lush Tournedos Rossini. Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise, another big, rich dish, so we matched it with a big, rich Champagne, Pierre Brigandat’s brut NV. This grower’s blanc de noirs loved the intensity of the scallops, enveloping them in a complex web of dry, dark berry-and-mineral flavors – a delicious match of food and wine.

The stage was thus set for the Gruaud Larose to strut its stuff – and strut it did. Coates was very right about the wine’s having “plenty of life ahead.”  The color was dark and even, and the first whiff of the aroma gave a generous rush of ripe, dark, mature berry, followed by mushroom and leather. The flavor followed suit: not quite meaty, but mouth-filling and multi-layered. Lovely in itself as the wine was, each bite of food – whether the beef, the foie gras, or the Madeira-reduction sauce – called out another element in it. And for all its complex, mature flavors, this 1975 Gruaud Larose still felt fresh and live. It showed no sign of tiredness or of approaching the end of its life – which is always an excellent thing for a wine at a birthday celebration.

We don’t have many bottles of Gruaud Larose left – certainly no more ‘75s – but you can be sure that what we have will be reserved for very special occasions, moments when Diane and I need to be reminded that, as Gilbert and Sullivan so wryly put it, “there is beauty in extreme old age.”

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I’ve always been partial to underdogs. When I was a kid, I was the lone Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn) Dodger fan in a very large family of Yankee fans – and even the misery that that entailed couldn’t cure me of my fondness for long-suffering hind runners.

It was almost inevitable, then, that when I started getting seriously interested in wine (which back then always meant French wine), I found myself drawn to the seemingly least estimable of the famous Bordeaux wines. Of the five great Médoc appellations – Graves (as it then was), Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estèphe – only Saint Estèphe doesn’t have a Premier Cru estate. In fact, despite being the second largest of the crus, it has only five classified growths: one fifth growth, one fourth, one third, and two seconds. That’s a paltry showing compared to neighboring Pauillac’s three firsts, two seconds, and large handful of lesser growths.

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Saint Estèphe’s wines were often condescendingly referred to as slightly rustic and inelegant, and usually compared, to their disadvantage, to the wines of Pauillac. One could come across even esthetic sniffing about the “false orientalism” of Cos d’Estournel’s pagoda towers. I always thought there was a sort of double standard at work here. It is probably true that the wines from many of Saint Estèphe’s small estates have a less polished, more artisanal character – which I regard as an attraction – than those from the great Premier Crus, which are pretty great in size as well as reputation and price. But no one ever said a word about the scale of winemaking at Château Margaux or Château Lafite, whose respective 81 hectares and 103 hectares bring their winemaking close to industrial-scale production.

But that’s really beside the point. Even those who belittle Saint Estèphe as an appellation usually make an honorable exception for Cos d’Estournel and for Montrose, both quite evidently superb wines. I love them, of course, but I am also very fond of many lesser names from the commune: Calon Ségur, Cos Labory, Lafon-Rochet (this now becoming very fashionable), Meyney, Phélan Ségur, and especially Châteaux de Pez and Les Ormes de Pez. The last two are among my favorite wines, and I’ve written about my enjoyment of them before (here and here). But they are classified only as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, below even Fifth Growth – a lowly enough designation to keep the wines’ prices well below their true worth. Tough luck for them, fine for me. Sometimes supporting the underdog pays off.

 

Saint Estèphe is the northernmost of the five great appellations, and its soils are supposedly more varied than those of the other zones – though anyone visiting the peninsula on which they all (except Graves) lie will be hard put to see any very significant variation in soils or altitudes or exposures. We are far from the mountains here. The major variations from estate to estate are due to the field mix – just what quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted and fermented – and to the winemaker’s aims and skills.

Decades of being dismissed as negligible wines kept the prices of almost all Saint Estèphes very low and discouraged any serious investment of time, effort, or cash in the vineyards and cellars – all of which, of course, contributed to the perpetuation of their low reputation. The wine boom of the past 40 or 50 years has changed all that, and more and more good wine is being produced everywhere. That is emphatically true in Saint Estèphe, where I find the quality of the wine being turned out by many formerly neglected properties is steadily rising. This underdog may not yet be ready to take Best in Show, but it is clearly showing better and better all the time.

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This is my first post of the new year, and it’s really not so much a post as a preview of posts to come. Late in 2020 (a year that will live in infamy), Diane asked a provocative question: “If you could only ever drink a dozen of all the wines we have in storage, which would you choose?” She followed with an even more provocative statement: “After all, we’re not kids any more; it could come to that.”

Needless to say, in the middle of a Covid pandemic and in the face of the approaching new year – hell, new decade, which it is extremely unlikely that I’ll see the end of – this set me to thinking about which of my wines I would absolutely want to be sure of tasting. It also got me brooding about how long it would take, with regular consumption, to drink my cellar dry, but that is an entirely separate problem for me and my liver to work out. The immediate question was which 12 would I choose – and, of course, why those?

Let me cut to the chase. Here are the dozen bottles I selected. They are in no particular order, because there was none to their choosing.

2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja
2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)
1981 Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico DOC, Giuseppe Quintarelli
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach
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Eight Italian wines, four French, one of each nation white, the rest all red. I wonder what that says about me? Or does it say anything at all? I’ll leave that for you to answer as you will: Just keep in mind what your answer will say about you.

Well after the fact, I realized that the principle of selection behind these 12 wines was simple, even obvious. There was an aspect of each one that I wanted to check on: the vintage, or the grape(s), or the maker, or some unusual viticultural element, or simply how well the wine was aging. Maybe a little personal projection and concern behind that last bit of curiosity, but nevertheless a subject of genuine interest. I’ve got a lot of ’01 Barolo and Barbaresco squirreled away, and it’s now almost 20 years since that vintage was harvested — though, truth to tell, I keep thinking of it as still a young, recent vintage, so all the more reason for a reality check.

Anyhow, there they are. It’s my intention to taste and write up one of them a month as a sort of continuing thread through whatever else 2021 may bring. I hope it will sustain your interest as much as it already piques mine.

And – lest I forget – Happy (I hope truly happy, prosperous, and healthy) New Year to you all!

 

 

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“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Château Les Ormes de Pez (you pronounce the z, so it unfortunately sounds like a tiny candy) is a long-time favorite of Diane’s and mine: It’s one of the wines we learned on, so to speak. This 2001 is from a half case that I squirreled away years ago and have managed to keep my hands off until now. And boy, am I happy I did!

The estate is an ancient one, now owned (since WW II) by the Cazes family, proprietors of the far more prestigious Lynch Bages. Les Ormes de Pez is classified as a cru bourgeois, and still occupies pretty much the same land it did when the famous 1855 classification relegated it to that lowly rank. As a consequence, it has never had the cachet – or the price – of the collector’s darling premiers crus Bordeaux. So much the better for us simple drinkers: de Pez has consistently produced fine wines, completely characteristic of the St. Estèphe appellation.

Especially in the hands of the Cazes family, the wine routinely achieves a quality level that, in my opinion, deserves a much higher ranking. (If de Pez got it, that would probably drive its price up, so let it continue to under-rank and overachieve, I say.) Its name no longer suits it either: The glorious grove of elm trees – les ormes — that identified it has long since gone the way of the buffalo – or, more accurately, the way of all European (and a good many American) elm trees, wiped out by a blight.

The wine endures the passage of time better than the estate’s rank and name. My bottle of 2001, after suffering in my far-less-than-ideal storage conditions, was nevertheless just lovely. A very deep garnet color; an earthy, black currant nose; deep, evolved flavors of underbrush, mushrooms, and black fruits; soft but still perceptible tannins; big and round (surprisingly big: I had not expected so substantial a mouthful); long, long finishing: To my palate this was classic St. Estèphe, mature and elegant and still very much alive, a wine of great equipoise and balance. That’s what I go to the great Bordeaux for, and that’s what Les Ormes de Pez of 15-25 years of age always gives me.

Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (known as the Bible of Bordeaux: my edition is the 13th) says that the winemaking at Les Ormes de Pez is handled by the team that oversees Lynch-Bages with “the same attentive care which helps produce wines with bouquet, mellow and rich in flavor, consistent with the traditional quality of great Saint-Estèphes.”  Amen.

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We’re back from France and readjusted to reality. While our hoped-for sunny journey down the Rhône and ancillary vineyard visits didn’t work out as we wished – the weather was cold and grey, and the hours at anchor just didn’t permit the kind of excursions we wanted – we nevertheless had an enjoyable time. There was plenty of quite drinkable wine on board, though none of what a visit to Chapoutier or Jaboulet or Chave might have yielded, and the MS Camargue’s kitchen provided meals of a quite decent French hotel standard, so our sufferings were all of the imaginative, what-might-have-been sort.

I’m not really a cruise person, especially not on one of those floating apartment buildings I see lumbering up and down the Hudson, so the 104-passenger Camargue was quite big enough for me.

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I thought its beverage policy enlightened: The cost of all basic wines and spirits, available all day long, were covered by the basic trip fee. A slightly better selection was offered at modest extra charge, and that seemed more than ample for the week of our cruise.
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Indeed, as the choices of our tablemates, a charming and well-travelled New Zealand couple, showed, it was more than enough for everybody except us winos. Living as Diane and I do among wine-and-food fanatics, we tend to forget that not everyone judges the quality of their day by the caliber of their dinner wine. A sobering reminder it was.

That’s enough scene setting: Here’s what we drank. (For what we ate, see this post on Diane’s blog.)

With lunch, we drank one or another of the ship’s basic offerings. These were a nice white blend from Alsace, the sort of wine they used to call Gentil (in this case a Saveur d’Alsace from Maison Pettermann); a Pays d’Oc Chardonnay from St. Anian; a Syrah rosé from Pays d’Oc called La Jasse Neuve; a red St. Anian (a Carignane-Merlot blend); and a 2018 Côtes du Rhône Domaine de Lascamp – the latter especially pleasing.
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As you can see, nothing startling, but good basic wines from a variety of interesting regions.

At dinners, we tended to choose our wine from the boat’s larger and more interesting supplemental (quite reasonable) fee list. This was organized loosely by broad regions, and we chose wines from areas we were sailing through or near enough to consider local. So: We especially enjoyed a very fine Beaujolais Morgon, Les Vieux Cèdres, at six years old full of fresh, round, black-hued fruit; a 2016 Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche from Chapoutier; and a quite intense, deeply aromatic 2012 Cahors, Chateau Eugénie Tradition.
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For after dinner, the bar offered a nice battery of digestifs – Hennessy Cognac, an eau-de-vie Poire, a sound marc, as well as, for those so inclined, Port. On more than one evening we would have wished to take a marc or cognac up to the open top deck of the boat to enjoy the evening breezes. Alas, they were whistling down at about 25 miles an hour from the north: The Mistral was making the outdoors very uncomfortable, so it was seats at the bar most nights, just as in my misspent youth. What a tough trip.

More next post about our extra days in Lyon and wines ashore.

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If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.
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I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.
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Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.

 

Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.

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Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.

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Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.

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I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

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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.

 

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Technically, Pontet Canet is a “mere” cinquième cru, a chateau placed in the lowly fifth rank of the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines – but you’d never know that from the way the wines taste. From the powerhouse Pauillac commune, Pontet Canet fully delivers the appellation’s characteristic force, combined with great elegance and a fine ability to age gracefully and long.

A Muhammad Ali listed among lightweights, this is an estate that indeed punches above its supposed class. A few weeks ago, Diane and I belatedly celebrated her birthday with a dinner bottle of Pontet Canet 1997, a 21-year-old from what is usually regarded as at best a middling year in Bordeaux.

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Well, there was nothing middling about this bottle: big wafts of wood smoke, prunes, and dried flowers in the aroma; velvety and balanced in the mouth, redolent of dried red fruits and underbrush, with a long, smooth finish, almost a slow glide into silence. Our cheese course brought up in it waves of fresh fruit sweetness, black, plummy fruit sweetness. It was simply lovely, and as we experienced it, we couldn’t imagine any way it could have been better without being a different wine entirely. That, I think, is all you can ask of any wine.

Pontet Canet stands apart from most other Médoc châteaux in two non-trivial respects. In its long history, it has had only three owners, and its cellars are underground. The latter is a true rarity in Bordeaux, and I do think it makes – or maybe more accurately in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning, it made – a difference in the wine.
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The estate was founded in 1725 by Jean-Francois de Pontet, an important figure in Bordeaux. In 1852 Pontet Canet was sold to the Cruse family, major Bordeaux négociants, who owned it until 1975 when it was bought by the Tesseron family, who have spent many years and francs and euros steadily improving the property and its wines. As Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (the unofficial bible of Bordeaux) puts it, “At present, better than its classification…. In the 1855 classification, it was listed top of the fifth growths, but today the wine sells like a top second growth.”

Pontet Canet is a large estate, even by Médoc standards. It has 80 hectares in vines: that’s about 200 acres. They are planted 60% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% to Merlot, 5% to Cabernet franc, and a token 1% to Petit Verdot. Except for the tiny amount of Petit Verdot, that’s pretty much a standard Bordeaux blend.

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I have very pleasant memories of a visit to Pontet Canet not very many years after its acquisition by the Tesserons. After a dusty, warm tour of the vineyards and a tasting of recent vintages, we adjourned to the comfortably cool cellar where genial Alfred Tesseron presided over a very enjoyable dinner accompanied by several older vintages of Pontet Canet, each showing a different stage of the maturation of classic Pauillac, and each demonstrating the elegance he prized so highly in the wine.

He ended the meal with a little bit of Bordeaux theatre: An unidentified wine was served from decanter, and it really capped the evening. Headily fragrant and deeply flavorful, it was different from Pontet Canet yet similar to it in style, intriguing all of us. It turned out to be a 1945 Lafon Rochet, the fourth growth St. Estèphe estate the Tesserons had acquired at the same time as Pontet Canet. Alfred Tesseron’s point was to show us that the rankings really, finally meant very little: Almost every patch of the Médoc, he thought, was capable of greatness when it was treated properly. He made his point very well, and the lesson has stayed with me all these years.

Good as Pontet Canet already was in those years, it has been growing steadily better, and has now embarked on the whole biodynamic enterprise, one of the few major Bordeaux estates to undertake what some growers consider a very risky gamble. On the basis of too few tastings of recent Pontet Canet vintages, my palate says it’s working. The wines I’ve tasted have been pleasing and accessible, but still seem to have the structure to age as well as the vintages of the past. Given the care with which the Tesserons have managed Pontet Canet, I would expect no less.

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It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Bordeaux tasting as thoroughly as I did this season’s final Wine Media Guild lunch. For more than a few years now, I’ve been unhappy with a lot of the biggest names in Bordeaux because the wines have been tasting – how to put this? – more and more industrial to me, as if they were the end-result of a large-scale commercial production. Whatever the truth of that, there were no such problems with the WMG’s tasting of Château Latour Martillac (Pessac Leognan), Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien), Château Kirwan (Margaux), and Château Guiraud (Sauternes).

All were classic examples of what their appellations ought to be – or what my memory tells me their appellations used to be before The Sacred Quest for Parker Scores homogenized Bordeaux. If these wines are bellwethers of a wave of post-Parkerism . . . well, let’s just say it’s about time.

What I was impressed by in these four estates was their balance, elegance, restraint, fidelity to variety and terroir, and vitality – all qualities likely to escape the notice of the wine newbie or wannabe interested only in bold fruit, but ultimately the characteristics that separate fine wine from fermented grape juice.

  • The Latour Martillac reds all showed the lovely cedary-ness and sinewy-ness, the whites the roundness and vigor of the Graves.
  • The Beychevelles had all the balance and appeal, the cushioned Cabernet flavors, that one hopes for in Saint Julien.
  • The Kirwan wines were simply classic Margaux, enticing in the nose and opulent in the mouth.
  • And the Guiraud wines presented a symphony of botrytis and mineral flavors, amazing sweetnesses counterbalanced by vivid acidity, that amount to almost a definition of Sauternes.

These were Bordeaux wines as I haven’t experienced them in a long, long time, and I loved every minute of it.

Any of these wines, even the oldest, could mature further. The ’98 Guiraud, for instance, still needs ten years to reach its peak, and none of 2000 reds showed any sign of fading. The 2000 Kirwan, in fact, was one of the top two wines of the day for me. The younger wines all seemed to be developing quite nicely, with the 2005 Beychevelle in particular (my other top-two wine) already tasting splendid and promising years of further development. Were I several decades younger than I am, I would be cellaring these wines and trying to keep my hands off them for at least a few years more.

Here are the wines presented at the luncheon:

Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2011, 2013, 2015
Château Latour Martillac Rouge 2000, 2010, 2015

Châateau Beychevelle 2000, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015
Château Beychevelle Amiral de Beychevelle 2015

Château Kirwan 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
Charmes de Kirwan 2010

Château Guiraud Sec 2015
Château Guiraud 1998, 2009, 2010, 2015
Petit Guiraud 2015

That last wine is a rather charming demi-sec. The two second-labels presented, Amiral de Beychevelle and Charmes de Kirwan, both showed as smaller but still elegant versions of the primary wines. One last noteworthy quality of all the wines shown was the consistency of style each house demonstrated over several quite different vintages, which is no small accomplishment. It would be a wonderful thing if a great Bordeaux revival was a-borning.

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Once upon a time, the Bordeaux region produced more white wine than red. Unless you are well over 50 or of a scholarly bent, I suspect that statement comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, it’s true: It wasn’t until the 1970s that red wine production surpassed white in Bordeaux, and it hasn’t looked back since. Now white varieties account for less than 10% of the total Bordeaux vineyards – though that still amounts to over 42 million bottles of white wine a year.

Numbers like that seriously challenge our notions of winemaking as an artisanal activity, but wine has long been big business in Bordeaux. Back in the heyday of white Bordeaux, dry wines like the white Haut Brion and sweet wines like Château Yquem were the style- and price-leaders of the region. Good Sauternes have held onto a diminished market share and an undiminished reputation, and no one questions the greatness of Haut Brion blanc, but most producers of dry white Bordeaux have to scrabble hard for shelf space these days.
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Image from The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Click to enlarge.

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To cast some light on this neglected sector of the wine universe, the Wine Media Guild devoted its March meeting to exploring a broad spectrum of whites from throughout the entire Bordeaux zone: That is, from both sides of the river Gironde and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne, as well as from the northern tip of the Medoc peninsula to about 50 miles south of the city of Bordeaux. This covered a lot of ground and many different wines, all of which were thoroughly explained by the WMG member-organizer of the event, Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW.

The appellations involved included the largest, Bordeaux Blanc, representing roughly 60% of the production, and from anywhere in the zone, and the next largest, Entre-Deux-Mers. The latter is an exclusively white-wine-producing zone lying between the Garonne and Dordogne: It accounts for about 20% of the production. Also included were representatives of much smaller appellations, including several Côtes, for example, Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg: All the Côtes together account for about 3% of the white wine production. The most prestigious zones remain Graves (5%) and Pessac-Leognan (3%). The latter used to be comprehended within the Graves, and its wines have always been among the very best of all the appellations.

The Wine Media Guild tasting ran to 30 wines, none older than the 2013 vintage and the majority from 2016. The complete tasting sheets, showing each wine, its vintage, its grape mix, importer, and suggested retail price, is appended to the end of this post. A quick look at it will show that the predominant grape varieties in Bordeaux blanc are Sauvignon blanc – the heavy favorite, with even a few 100% Sauvignon blanc wines – and Semillon, with a small amount of Muscadelle and/or Sauvignon gris occasionally used.

Most suggested retail prices are very reasonable, which is appropriate, because the great majority of these wines are pleasing companions to everyday meals. That is emphatically not damning with faint praise: The world needs more well-made, simple wines like many of these, at prices that ordinary human beings can afford; and the recent up-tick in American consumption of white Bordeaux may very well reflect a growing perception of their value-for-dollar ratio.

I am not a super-fan of Sauvignon blanc, not even in its Old-World manifestations, which tend to be more subdued (less cat’s pee) and more elegant than the New World versions. But I do think that blending Sauvignon with Semillon makes a wine that is better than the sum of its parts, so most of the wines at this tasting easily passed muster, and a few really spoke to me. Enthusiasts for Sauvignon will probably rate all these wines even higher.

Château Carbonnieux has long been a favorite of mine, and the 2015 vintage in this tasting did not disappoint. It had a combination of depth and elegance and balance that seemed to indicate it would be gorgeous in two or three more years.

Right up there with it was Château Brown, an unmemorably named wine that, as a colleague remarked, usually flies under the radar. This 2014 vintage was just lovely and kept opening in the glass, showing more and more fruit and structure.

I’d give the bronze for this tasting to the 2015 Clos Floridene, a balanced and gentle wine of real charm. These three – and a few others – are more than just everyday-dinner wines – though, come to think of it, they would do just fine with a good chicken, or a turkey thigh.

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You can see the complete Wine Media Guild list here.

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