Archive for the ‘Bordeaux’ Category

Gloria in Excelsis

September 8, 2014

Château Gloria and I go back a long way together. It was one of the first serious Bordeaux I tasted when I was just learning wine, somewhere back in the early Cretaceous, and it is still a favorite of mine and Diane’s.

The way I went about learning wine was by going to a knowledgeable, friendly wine shop and asking the owner to put together a case of wines that would show me the kinds of wines that were available. The Cretaceous-era giveaway is that when he asked how much I wanted to pay, he didn’t bat an eye when I said my ceiling was a hundred dollars for the whole case. No problem: He just selected a dozen wines– almost all French, because that’s what wine was back then – that included, from Burgundy, a Corton Charlemagne and a Nuits St. Georges (Les Boudots, from Henri Gouges: I can still taste that amazing elixir), and from Bordeaux a Château Brane Cantenac and a Château Gloria.

Once hooked on Gloria (which was from the first sip), we drank a lot of it – most of it too young, but I was still learning. In those days, the great 1966 vintage of Gloria was available for $3 a bottle in Macy’s excellent wine shop (yes, Macy’s had a wine shop back then, and a butcher shop too, and both were fine) with a 10% case discount, which made it affordable even on a meager academic salary. How I wish now I still had some of those ‘66s, or could get a young Gloria at those prices!  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Chateau Gloria

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A few nights ago, to match some succulent braised short ribs that Diane had made, I pulled our last bottle of Château Gloria out of my wine closet – which is what started this nostalgic riff. It was the last bottle not because we’ve lost our taste for it – far from it – but because it no longer costs $3 a bottle, or even 10 times that amount. More like 20 times, and Gloria has never been a price leader in Bordeaux. Our incomes, like most people’s, have not increased anything near 20 times since our youth, so Château Gloria along with the rest of Bordeaux has just sailed out of sight for us. Which is sad, since there are still some lovely wines there, even though I don’t like a lot of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux over the years. But that’s a subject for another post, another time.

What I want to do here is not lament but celebrate, and particularly I want to celebrate the persistence and consistency of Gloria’s identity and character. When we first made its acquaintance, Château Gloria was a new kid on the block in Bordeaux, an estate only a little more than 20 years old, an unclassified growth of St. Julien that had been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of other estates (including some illustrious ones – Gruaud Larose, the Leovilles, Ducru-Beaucaillou). All those were classified growths, but that didn’t help Gloria’s status, and without the luster of history or high ranking, all it could rely on was its quality.

Fortunately it had that in abundance. Its creator, Henri Martin, the long-time mayor of St. Julien, wanted to make a wine that could stand with the Médoc’s greatest. He fought all his life to have the 1855 classification redone, and everyone in the wine world agreed that if it were redone his Gloria would be at very least a Fourth Growth, if not a Third – but of course that never happened, and Gloria continued to bump along, much beloved by many, but selling always at prices, compared to other Médoc wines, well below its standing. Which, of course, was fine for impecunious me, if not for M. Martin.

Which brings me to that final bottle, a 1990. Gloria has always been for me a classic St. Julien, elegant rather than big, suave and persistent rather than powerful. When I pulled the cork – carefully, because at 24 years old it was a little fragile – and poured our first glasses, many years (a few decades, to be honest) just evaporated. The aroma was exactly the same as those long-gone but fondly remembered ‘66s, and so was the taste and the mouth feel, the latter satiny and the former a rush of cedar and cassis edged with tobacco. It stayed that way through the whole meal, from a starter of cream of celery soup, through the unctuous braised short ribs, to the end of three very different cheeses (a nutty Brebis, a fine Wisconsin blue, and an assertive Grayson). Finished alone, even the last of the wine remained true to itself – poised, vital, elegant.

A lot of British wine wankers, including several who should know better, claim that Gloria isn’t the wine it used to be; that the house style changed in the 70s to a lighter, sweeter wine that wouldn’t age as well as the wines of the 50s and 60s. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years is often given as its life span. Well, my lovely final bottle, kept for years in my less-than-optimum storage conditions, just flat out gave the lie to that. Gloria remains what it always was – glorious.

“The Boar’s Head, as I Understand, Is the Rarest Dish in all the Land”

December 30, 2013

Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.

Remember Claret?

September 16, 2013

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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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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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.

Wine Age, Our Age, Dotage

February 6, 2013

A pair of provocative articles, published recently by a pair of old pros whose work I respect and admire, Alfonso Cevola and Matt Kramer, questioned the value of cellaring wines nowadays. As one who dotes on the taste and complexity of mature wines, I was naturally intrigued by their consideration of the pros and cons – largely cons, it seems – of aging wines.

Matt KramerI’ve long thought Matt’s pieces almost the only thing in The Wine Spectator worth reading, and as long as I’ve known Matt I’ve known him to relish as much as I do the glories that mature wine can offer, so when I hear him saying that it’s hardly worth cellaring wine anymore, I pay attention. Here’s the core of his argument, in his own words:

In recent years it’s become obvious that an ever greater number of wines that once absolutely required extended aging no longer do.

Simply put, most of today’s fine wines—not all, mind you—will reach a point of diminishing returns on aging after as few as five years of additional cellaring after release. Stretch that to a full 10 years of additional aging and I daresay you will have embraced fully 99 percent of all the world’s wines, never mind how renowned or expensive.

He is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean today’s wines are better or worse, just different. He credits the difference to, or blames it on, the now-universal practice of green harvest (and also climate change, I would think), which assures (?!) a concentrated crop of perfectly ripe grapes nearly every harvest. That means that today’s wines are accessible sooner (by and large, I agree) and that they mature sooner, reaching their peak, beyond which they won’t improve, in five or ten years at most (here’s where I disagree). Again, I’ll let Matt speak for himself:

My hard-won experience with aging wines has now answered to my satisfaction the question about the absolute need for long aging; namely, that the great majority of wines today, in the great majority of vintages, don’t really reward that “expensive” extra five or ten years beyond the five or ten years of aging you’ve already bestowed.

I am now convinced that today’s wine lover is well advised to buy fine wines, cellar them in a cool space for five years—ten years, tops—and then drink them in secure confidence that the great majority of their full-dimensional goodness is available to you.

After that, it’s all just fantasy—and the very real likelihood of an increasingly diminishing return on your already delayed gratification.

CevolaTo this argument, Alfonso adds a stress on the subjective side: We too have changed. Our palates have changed – we want younger, fresher wines now – and we want to drink different wines than the kinds we stored away years ago.

I go into my little walk-in closet and look at all the things I thought would be important to drink in 10-20-30 years and I often find myself walking out and going to another rack of newer wines; fresher, lighter, unencumbered by the dust of time. Oops.

In looking over my little tribe of wines that huddle together in the closet, there are all kinds of strange bedfellows. What are all those sweet wines doing in there? Will it ever get cold enough to drink all the Port that has been gathered? Are those Super Tuscans really prettier when they age, or were they at their best when they were young and willing and tight and bright?

A lot of this is incontrovertible. Our palates and our desires do change over time. Not all wines, even under the best cellar conditions, cooperate by aging and maturing in an interesting manner. And winemaking most certainly has changed, and very dramatically, in ways that must have an effect on the age-ability of wines.

For instance: I recently tasted a very large number of classified growths of Bordeaux, vintage 2010, and found myself vastly underwhelmed. This is a vintage that Parker and others have hailed as great: I believe the Bordelais consider it the third “vintage of the century” so far in this young century. It is already remarkably accessible, compared to the initially tough but long-aging Bordeaux vintages of half a century ago, on which I learned my vinous ABCs.

Parker and others think 2010 will be very long-lived, because it has big tannins, lots of acidity, and pretty high alcohol (at least compared to vintages such 1955 and ’59, ’61 and ’62, ’64 and ’66 – my vinous elementary and high school). Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn whether 2010 Bordeaux ages well or not: I found most of the wines I tasted unbalanced and unintegrated (leading me to think that in fact they won’t age well) and – most damning for Bordeaux – inelegant, bordering on vulgar. These wines certainly show the effects of the green harvest that Matt talked about, and in a thoroughly deleterious fashion: not wines I’d want to keep around at all.

Maybe for many wines ripeness isn’t all? Maybe – for Cabernet sauvignon especially – ripeness can easily be overdone, and a little under-ripeness, with consequently initially tougher tannins and higher acidity and a lot less forward fruit, can be better? Vinous heresy for sure, and be careful who you say it to, lest you be declared pariah and driven out of your tasting club.

I’d certainly agree that there are many occasions on which I actively desire a younger, fresher wine. But that hardly means that there aren’t times when only a mature wine will do what has to be done: charm, seduce, overwhelm, overflow our sensory apparatus and our store of synonyms for great.

I’ve been putting wines away as long as Matt has. Many are from the ‘90s and before, but also with a healthy selection from the first decade of this century (especially from Burgundy and the Piedmont, the Veneto and Campania). Yes, over the years, a few bottles have disappointed, but many have been glorious – and the ones I cellared in the 1990s are doing just fine, thank you. I have equally high hopes for my wines from the first decade of this century: I just hope I’m still around to enjoy them.

MasiA few weeks ago, Diane and I shared a celebratory meal with old friends Betty and Livio at Danny Meyer’s Roman-style restaurant Maialino. To mark the occasion – two of us were turning 75 – I brought a 1986 Masi Amarone Campolongo di Torbe, which we decanted as soon as we were seated and drank about an hour later. I’m not even going to try to describe it, because its complexity was so great and so steadily evolving through the meal. It was, simply, a one-bottle proof of the wisdom of cellaring wine. I only wish I had more of it, and that I might live long enough to experience it at its peak. People do change, and wines do change – and many times, both are for the better.

There are still many kinds of wine that respond very well indeed to aging. Whether the 2010 bottles of Bordeaux will last 20 or 30 years, I doubt, and I’m not going to be around to find out – but I’m willing to bet that a large number of recent vintage Châteauneuf du Papes will, and an equally high percentage of Barolo and Barbaresco (Conterno and Mascarello are shoo-ins), Amarone and Aglianicos and even a few Sangioveses (Biondi-Santi! and Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina Riserva Bucerchiale). I’m probably not going to cellar any of them myself, but that’s a decision based on the actuarial tables, not the quality of the wine.

Postscript, February 11:

selciaiaYesterday I opened a bottle that I had lost track of, 2001 Selciaia, a simple Rosso di Montepulciano from Fassati. I never meant to keep it so long, and I didn’t know what I’d find when I pulled the cork. I more than half expected it to be dead. Well, it wasn’t. In fact it was fine: mature and claret-like, very drinkable and enjoyable. Just goes to show: Some high-end wines can’t cut the mustard, while some simple ones age beautifully. It depends more on the combination of grape, vintage, and maker than any simple formula.

The Dilemma of Bordeaux

January 31, 2012

The Wine Media Guild’s January lunch featured a vertical tasting of two Bordeaux chateaux, d’Issan and Rauzan Ségla, troisième and deuxième cru Margaux respectively. This event quite unintentionally highlighted the present dilemma of Bordeaux.

The chateaux were represented by their general manager/winemakers, John Kolasa for Chateau Rauzan-Sègla and owner Emmanuel Cruse for Chateau d’Issan. Both men spoke with sincerity and apparent passion of their and other Bordeaux producers’ devotion to the idea and ideal of Bordeaux wines, “the benchmark,” as they both agreed, “by which all other wines are measured.”

Left, John Kolasa. Right, Emmanuel Cruse

Except, as WMG members were quick to point out, they aren’t. At least not any more, they’re not, and not for most younger wine drinkers.

It is certainly true that for wine drinkers, especially wine professionals, of my generation, Bordeaux furnishes the benchmark. That’s so for the simple reason that it is the wine most of us cut our teeth on. It was the wine par excellence for cellaring and aging, the wine to choose – suitably aged, of course – to grace your most important dinners and most solemn occasions, back when wine was French – period. Germany was sweet, Italy was inchoate, and California was yet unborn. Australia and New Zealand, Oregon and Washington, South Africa, Argentina and Chile weren’t even yet gleams in the eyes of their soon-to-be producers.

So France set the standards, and the most consistent segment of French wine production, the most coherent and understandable French wine area, the region with the longest continuous history (not unimportant, a history intimately tied to the London market) was Bordeaux. Ergo, Bordeaux became for us of a particular age the benchmark wine, the all-but-official measure of what wine ought to be.

It is still largely (but no longer exclusively) so in Great Britain, but not in the US. Most younger wine lovers here – I suspect also many younger wine professionals – are simply not very familiar with Bordeaux wines. They count as one option among many that confront wine drinkers, and probably not the first or even second thing they think of when they’re choosing a special wine for a special occasion. Somebody at the WMG tasting remarked that for younger drinkers, the benchmark was Stags Leap. Would that it were, I thought: It’s more likely to be Yellowtail, or even some wine in a box.

Why? Why has a wine so long revered dropped so far down in the consciousness of American wine lovers, at least? I can think of two reasons: price and the nature of the wine itself.

Most young Americans have long been priced out of the Bordeaux market, except for the very lowest rungs of its quality ladder. Consequently, most have never had an opportunity to drink a first growth, and especially not a properly aged one, so they haven’t the faintest idea of what all the fuss is about.

When I was first seriously learning wine, as a spanking-new assistant professor earning a staggering $6,000 a year, Bordeaux wines were affordable. Even on that budget, I could buy a bottle of Chateau Margaux or Chateau Lafite once or twice a year, and lesser crus far more frequently than that. In the late 60s, when my salary had doubled, I remember buying Chateaux Gloria and Brane Cantenac for $3 a bottle – less with a case discount. First growths cost about $6 or $7 a bottle.

I’m not terribly numerate, but I think that would make a bottle of Lafite about one two-thousandth of my then annual pay. How much would I have to earn now to keep Lafite in that same proportion? I’ve seen 2005 Lafite listed for over $2,000 a bottle: I think that means I would have to earn about $4 million a year to keep it the same fraction of my income. Medical costs may be climbing faster than inflation, and higher education may be too, but neither is a patch on the way the cost of classified-growth Bordeaux has outstripped every other economic category. And the Bordelais wonder why their sales are falling? Because no one on a salary can afford to even begin exploring their wines.

And why have the prices gotten so high? You get one guess. Here’s a hint: Listening to the Bordelais discussing the possibility (remote) of cutting the price of even a middling vintage is a little like hearing Mitt Romney tell us he’s unemployed.

The nature of the wine works against its continuing popularity as well. Both Cruse and Kolasa spoke with real feeling about the glory of Bordeaux, its ageability – meaning not simply its capacity for surviving in bottle and cellar, but its amazing steady improvement over the decades until it emerges as the elegant, deeply complex and moving wine that justifies all the hype. They spoke of the pleasures of drinking 40- and 50-year old bottles – but who except chateau owners and fabulously wealthy collectors (a term and category I abominate) will ever do so? Even putting aside the cost, the world has become a different place. People no longer live in the same house for generations: they change jobs and cities, even countries – and they can’t haul a cellar along with them.

And they can’t drink the wines young. The fact is, young Bordeaux of classified-growth caliber is not very pleasant to drink. It tends to be tannic, its fruit is hidden – and these days that’s almost a kiss of death in itself. It takes years to come round. Only after a decade is a good-quality Bordeaux in a decent vintage starting to be drinkable, and its best still lies years in the future. In a world of instant gratification, of Me Now, that kind of wine is only ever going to be the preserve of the few with patience and motivation – and means – to keep it. That’s sad, and I mourn it, but it may well be that we are watching the passing of a whole great category of wine. From benchmark to niche luxury market: sic transit gloria mundi.

The Feast of St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna

January 1, 2012

St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna is the patron of naps, endings, the last days, and ruins, of which I am rapidly becoming one – the latter not merely a function of age and slow time but also the direct result of far too much holiday eating and drinking. Like a volunteer Strasbourg goose, I have been reporting regularly for some first-rate gavage – so here is a roundup of the best of that: my Twelve Wines of Christmas.

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As a preliminary, much bubbly found its way into my glass and thence into my gullet this season. I’ve already given my account of the Wine Media Guild’s Champagne luncheon. The New York Wine Press’s fête at the Brasserie was only slightly less spectacular. It featured rosé Champagnes – eleven of them, so they don’t count in my Christmas dozen – around a nicely balanced luncheon that concluded with a positively sinful dose of triform chocolate.

Rosé is the hottest category of Champagne these days – why, no one is quite sure, though Ed McCarthy opines that rosé makes an ideal dinner Champagne, because of its slightly fuller body and slightly greater complexity. Pinot noir always seems to make a difference, and its greater presence in rosé Champagnes could be the factor behind their current popularity.

All the wines tasted that day would rank as excellent on any scale, but my favorites all bunched up in the middle luncheon flight: two prestige Champagnes, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (approximately $300) and 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $250), plus 2006 Louis Roederer, the youngest and least expensive wine of the flight ($75), and finally my favorite, 2002 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve ($100), a great wine from a great Champagne vintage.

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The Twelve Wines of Christmas all came from my own so-called cellar, over multiple dinners for Diane and myself and family and friends. Inevitably, these included some more bubbles: my old reliable Pol Roger NV Brut, a consistently pleasing, medium-bodied, mineral-driven Champagne, and Roederer Estate, vinified by the French Grande Marque in California’s Anderson Valley, and for my palate the best and most persuasively Champagne-tasting of California sparkling wines. Pommery Brut NV made a fine aperitif, working equally well with some duck rillettes and with Diane’s version of Torino aperitivi.

For my palate, the red wines formed the pièce de résistance. Despite that piece of French, they were a varied lot: some French, many Italians, and even some Californians. The latter included my last (sob!) bottle of Ridge’s 1993 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, as lovely – and as European-styled – a wine as California produces. It gorgeously accompanied a rack of lamb and garlicky rissolé potatoes, as well as a subsequent cheese course, where it fell in love with a ripe pont l’éveque only to jilt it in favor of a creamy gorgonzola dolce. As you can see, this was a wine of many faces and facets, and I’m only sorry I don’t have any more. I said this very loudly several times, but Santa did not take the hint. Another win for St. Apoconarcoleptis.

One of the most enjoyable Italian reds was an almost archetypal Chianti Classico, 1997 La Selvanella Riserva from Melini. This is a very traditionally made wine from a fine vineyard near Panzano, in the Classico zone’s prized Conca d’Oro. It also has special resonances for me, in that I participated, way back in 1998, in the process of choosing the blend for this wine. This occurred at the estate, in a session led by the very able winemaker, Nunzio Capurso, and attended by Italian and North American wine journalists. Aside from the astounding quality of each component wine that we tasted, my major memory of the session is of an idiot from Rome loudly and persistently declaiming that the wine wouldn’t be any good unless it was aged in barriques. He couldn’t have been more wrong, then or now.

We enjoyed another fine wine of this type – i.e., primarily Sangiovese blended with other native grapes – Lungarotti’s 2001 Rubesco. Although from Umbria, this wine is a kissing cousin of Chianti Classico and fully matches the very best of them in suavity and depth: a lovely wine, from an equally lovely vintage.

Of course I could not long stay away from the wonderful wines of the Piedmont, so I took the opportunity to test a few Barolos of the 2003 vintage, a hot, forward year that, frankly, I feared might already be over the hill – some bottles I’d tasted over the past year were. Well, in these two cases, no worries: Both Conterno-Fantino’s Barolo Sorì Ginestra and Einaudi’s Barolo Costa Grimaldi were live and, in the most complimentary sense of the word, typical. The Sorì Ginestra showed the merest trace of the vintage’s too-ripe fruit and green tannins, the Costa Grimaldi none at all – a nice tribute to careful grape selection and restraint in the cellar.

Equally lovely, by the way, and much less expensive, was an in-theory lesser wine, a simple Nebbiolo, but from a fine maker in an excellent vintage. Poderi Colla’s 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba was fully ready to drink, with excellent Nebbiolo character (black fruit, leather, tobacco, miles of depth) and no sign that it might not last another five years. All “simple” Nebbiolo should be so good.

Our French selections played up very gamely as well. For me, Musigny is the red-wine sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Its wines have a velvetiness and an elegance of fruit and mineral that for my palate define red Burgundy. Drouhin’s 2002 Chambolle Musigny didn’t let me down: it was a soft, luxurious wine whose flavor persisted long in the mouth. More forceful and in a leaner style – mineral to the fore, fruit after – Moillard’s 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves matched quite beautifully with our Pintadeau Jean Cocteau. The wine we drank with the cheese course that evening was in a very different style, being a Bordeaux. 1989 Chateau Brane Cantenac showed the wonderful elegance of Margaux combined with the kind of structure and heft I more often associate with Pauillac: It worked beautifully with a challenging set of cheeses.

* * *

Those are my top twelve, but I’ve also got a few Honorable Mentions. Amidst this red tide, we did manage to fit in a few lighter meals that leant themselves better to white wines. Pieropan’s 2005 Soave La Rocca shone with some shrimp. This single-vineyard wine has always been in the forefront of this too-long-abused appellation, and it remains a standard-bearer even now that the Soave Classico denomination is undergoing a tremendous resurgence. In a totally different style, but equally fine, Umani Ronchi’s 2002 Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi Classico Superiore offered a mouthful of wine almost as big as its name. Still at nine years old showing a light touch of barriques, its biggish body and rich fruit very nicely accompanied a creamy veal and mushroom stew. Both these wines showed very dramatically, for those who may still be skeptical, that well-made Italian whites can age very well indeed.

Finally, lest anyone think that my holidays were just one triumphant sip after another, honesty compels me to record my great disappointment. I had reserved a place for one potentially excellent white wine to serve alongside the oeufs en cocotte and Alsace onion tarts that were part of our Christmas dinner. I was really looking forward to Labouré-Roi’s 2003 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, so you can imagine the depth of my chagrin when my only bottle turned out to be totally oxidized – just plain dead.

There has been a great deal of buzz in wine circles about the problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies. Apparently the vintages between 1996 and 2006 are involved, and the blight strikes randomly, at every quality level. Some bottles pour brown and dead, while others even from the same case remain sound. No one knows what causes it, and the producers are loath to talk about it – not only because it’s embarrassing to them, but also because (I strongly suspect) they don’t have a clue. So since St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna looks after ruins as well as endings, I’ll conclude on this note: There is nothing like white Burgundy at its best – but be warned: that bottle you’re so keenly anticipating might be pinin’ for the fjords, and might already have joined the Norwegian Blue in the choir invisible.

From that comic note to a serious one: May your 2012 be happy, and both your New Year and your old wines healthy and enjoyable!

Do Try This at Home

April 18, 2011

Recently, Diane and I had some friends over for dinner. This isn’t an unusual event for us: We both like to cook, and we like to share our best wines with people who’ll enjoy and appreciate them.

Also, truth to tell, we don’t enjoy restaurant dining very much anymore. That’s for a number of reasons. The chief one is noise: The number of restaurants where it’s impossible to have a civilized conversation over dinner increases every year, and conversation is one of the pleasures of a good meal. Diane and I have simply stopped going to several places whose food we like very much, because we had to lean across the table and shout in each other’s face to be heard.

Prices, of course, are another factor: The number of restaurants where the cost of dinner for two represents a respectable fraction of one’s weekly income has also increased dramatically – especially if one likes wine, since restaurants continue their unenlightened policy of rack-rent mark-ups on wines.

The third major reason is the food itself: In many places, you can’t get a dish that tastes of a recognizable ingredient because there are so many of them, subjected to so much chef’s-fantasy tweaking. More and more, we find ourselves appreciating the classic French cuisine bourgeoise (which you can hardly find anywhere) and the Italian ideal of excellent prima materia treated respectfully and allowed to taste of itself. So we shop carefully and cook simply – and often, since eating is a pleasure we like to indulge on a regular basis. I read somewhere that it’s good for you.

Which loops me back to my starting point, with this further note: Another reason we like to dine at home is the added fun of matching our wines to our food – and the other way around too.  So we asked some friends to a simple dinner that would accompany a few enjoyable wines. Here’s the menu we devised:

Gougères, mixed olives
Pommery Brut nv

Salad of Celery, Dates, Almonds and Pecorino
Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino 2007

Cannelloni alla Napoletana
Marisa Cuomo Costa Amalfitana Furore 2004

Casserole-roasted Stuffed Leg of Lamb; Green Beans and Mushrooms
Chateau Talbot 1998, in magnum

Cheeses:  Brebis; Robiola; Gorgonzola cremificata

Almost flour-less Chocolate Cake, Arte del Gelato Vaniglia di Madagascar
Ceretto San Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv

Espresso; grappa

 

Almost all the dishes could be prepared before guests arrived and only needed to be warmed, leaving us both free to enjoy our company. As it turned out, we didn’t use the Mastro Fiano: Everyone was content to continue with the Champagne through the light, palate-refreshing antipasto salad. The marriage of the cannelloni (recipe from our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana) and the Furore was truly made in heaven; since both the dish and the wine originate in seaside Campania, they can be said to have been childhood sweethearts who grew up together. The Marisa Cuomo estate deserves to be much better known: the quality of its wines is always excellent, and the Furore – a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso – is particularly fine.

The main course lamb Diane has described on her own blog, so I’ll content myself with saying that it was rich and succulent. The pairing of almost any lamb dish with almost any Cabernet-based wine is a no-brainer, and the Talbot – that rarity in Bordeaux, a still-moderately-priced classified growth – performed admirably both with the meat and the subsequent cheese course. It also followed very nicely on the elegance and understated power of the Furore. Neither of these was an in-your-face wine: they were chosen for restraint and complexity and a willingness to play well with others. In my opinion, nothing destroys the harmony of a meal more thoroughly than a sandbox bully of a wine, a big fruit bomb that won’t let you taste anything but itself. No danger of that with either Furore or Talbot.

From that complexity we came down lightly, with a not-very-sweet but richly chocolaty cake and a dab of ice cream, accompanied by the gentlest of dessert wines, a Moscato d’Asti from Ceretto, a Piedmont master – a kiss-on-the-cheek of a wine, the perfect finish for a comfortable dinner.

Next morning, finishing the clean-up (it was a two-dishwasher-load dinner), we amused ourselves by trying to calculate what such a meal would have cost us in a restaurant, (if we could get it), but gave up in despair of the convolute math calculations involved. Suffice it to say that the whole evening was why we cook in the first place, and why we buy young wines and store them, even if our “cellar” is far from ideal. If you love the sensations provided by mature wines, it’s the only sensible course of action. Unless of course you have unlimited wealth – in which case you don’t need a cellar, or even a kitchen: you can buy your meal, and maybe even the quiet to enjoy it in.

Memories Are Made of This

September 23, 2010

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.

Becasse on the hoof

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.”

David Launay, general manager of Chateau Gruaud Larose

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.

1970 Gruaud Larose in its classic old bottle

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.

Out of the Cellar . . .

February 23, 2010

In the 50 or so years that I’ve been drinking and paying attention to wine, the culture of wine has fundamentally changed. In those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the Lone Ranger radio program used to intone, wine was primarily French, and, except for Beaujolais, most wines were thought to be the better if they were aged for a decade or so. A well-stocked cellar was the ideal most wine neophytes aspired to, and the superiority of old Bordeaux and Burgundy to any young wine from anywhere was an unquestioned and unquestionable truth. 

EVERYONE'S DREAM WINE CELLAR? (Photo by Petr Novak, Wikipedia)

Now, young wine rules. Fruit is king. Big, fresh, forward fruit flavors – berries and plums if red, pears and apples and tropical fruits if white – guarantee a wine big scores, big sales, and maybe a cult following. Serious producers lament that their wines are being drunk far too young, but every year more of them restyle their wines to push that fruit up front. Terroir gets lip service, but fruit balances the books.

At the same time, cellaring wine has transmogrified from a connoisseur’s hobby to a hard-nosed investor’s practice. Wine – at least, the top-growth Bordeaux, some grands crus Burgundies, and a handful of Italian and Californian stars – has become a commodity, bought and sold and re-sold for profit. We used to make jokes about the Japanese, who ceremonially gifted and re-gifted each other with never-to-be-drunk bottles of Margaux and Lafite. Now we nod sagely at the latest auction prices for never-to-be-drunk cases of Margaux and Lafite. I know which of the two situations I find more pointless, but I suspect not many people would agree with me.

In the old days, cellaring wine was relatively simple, even if the rules were iron-clad. A good wine cellar had to be dark, because light could cause chemical changes in wines. It had to be still and vibration-free, because even small amounts of motion or shaking could speed up the wine’s process of maturation, stir up its sediments, agitate it, and cause who knows what undesirable chemical changes. It had to be a constant 55 degrees (or 50 degrees, or 45: experts disagreed), because heat is the great enemy of wine, causing it to age much too fast and unpredictably, and also contributing to undesirable chemical changes (do you sense a theme here?). It had to have a constant 35 percent humidity, to prevent corks from drying out, which would destroy the wine by leakage, oxidation, and – you guessed it – undesirable chemical changes. In short, any change in the wine not brought about by slow, controlled aging was probably undesirable.

Now that wines have become an investment, the folks who play that sort of game follow the rules even more rigidly, and they make sure that all those conditions are certified as surely as the wine’s provenance, lest they miss a penny of profit on the transaction. That usually means third-party storage under secure, temperature-and-humidity-controlled conditions – an expensive proposition that adds a great deal to the now-stratospheric purchase price of the great growths and their kin. From my point of view, it’s a chump’s game. I couldn’t enjoy drinking a wine so expensive it made my hand shake and my mouth go dry – and if I can’t enjoy drinking a wine, what’s the point? Maybe it’s just envy of things I can’t afford, but I can’t get past this simple mantra: Wine is meant for drinking.

That indeed was the whole point of cellaring wine in the first place. Most of our beliefs about cellaring wine have their roots in the conditions prevailing in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, which is when the modern version of serious wine collecting began. (The classical version of wine collecting, under the Roman republic and empire, involved entirely different conditions – clay amphorae sealed with resin for storage of the prized wines of Campania. Bordeaux and Burgundy were still wildernesses.)

The purpose of cellaring wines was exclusively to mature them for drinking, and as connoisseurs – primarily Englishmen – gathered their prized wines, they did their best to keep them under conditions similar to those of their making. Thus, cellars for dark and cool and humidity, etc. – the whole by-now-traditional package of requirements. Think 18th-century European farm and manor houses: earth cellars, no central heating, no AC, no humidifiers, and lots of servants – a very different world from ours.

One thing has remained the same: The underlying reason to cellar wines is that you love the taste of mature wine. So if all you’re after in wine is fruit, or if those primary fruity flavors that almost all young wines display are what you most enjoy in wine, then forget about cellaring altogether. You don’t need it. It will add nothing to a wine that you won’t get within a few months of its release. In fact, cellaring may well subtract from that element of your enjoyment.

If, on the other hand, you’ve been bitten by the mature wine bug, you’re cursed and blessed – cursed with the endless pursuit of age-worthy wines, and blessed with the incomparable pleasure they will give. I was lucky enough to be able to drink some properly aged wines early in my bibulous career. Those were for me profound experiences, which left me with a life-long love of mature wines.

One long-ago Thanksgiving, for instance, my good friend Al Cirillo poured for Diane and me a 1928 Barolo – some 40 or 45 years old when we drank it. We have no idea who its producer was: Its label was so faded and tattered that only the name Barolo and the vintage were legible. Al had picked it up in a shop that had acquired it in a miscellaneous cellar collection. A good three inches of sediment lay at the bottom of the bottle. When poured, the wine was very pale garnet with that ubiquitous Nebbiolo orange edge. And what an aroma! What a huge mouthful of dark, leather and pepper, dried-berry and plum flavors. The youngish (10-year-old) Clos de Vougeot that we had drunk just before the Barolo faded into insignificance in the face of the Barolo’s profundity. We’ve never forgotten it: it has been for years a palatal reference point for us.

The modern cellar at Pontet Canet

Similarly, many years ago, when I was first beginning serious wine journalism, I and several other scribblers visited Chateau Pontet Canet, a long-neglected Fifth Growth Pauillac, acquired just a few years before by Guy Tesseron, who was then beginning the process of renovation that has brought Pontet Canet and its sister estate, the St. Estephe Lafon Rochet, to their present heights of prestige.

We dined in the cellar, I recall, a cool spot in a very hot Bordeaux summer, and after several vintages of Pontet we were served the pièce de résistance, a 1945 Lafon. The Fourth Growth Lafon in those days didn’t rank very high on anyone’s list of great Bordeaux chateaux. It too had not been well maintained (there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made in wine back then, and consequently not a whole lot to be invested in it). But, however humble, this was a wine that had reposed in its birth cellar for some 30 years, and until served to us probably hadn’t been moved since it was first laid down. Once decanted and poured, it was a revelation: as wonderful, as elegant, as balanced, supple, and complex, as any of the First and Second Growths I had tasted. That, I thought at the time and still believe, is what proper aging can do, and that is exactly why you bother to cellar wine.

For many of us, however, “cellaring” can only be a metaphor. Next post (to paraphrase Freud): What do wines really want?

Good Gravel!

February 2, 2010

The Wine Media Guild’s January lunch featured two Bordeaux châteaux owners who were in town for the Union des Grands Crus annual tour. Owner Olivier Bernard presented the wines of Domaine de Chevalier, and both Cellar Master Gabriel Vialard and American owner Robert Wilmers spoke for Château Haut-Bailly. The two, neighbors in the Graves, gave us a splendid side-by-side vertical tasting of about a dozen vintages that offered a clear and completely consistent palatal picture of their regional terroir.

Robert Wilmers

Graves is the old name for the region southwest of the city of Bordeaux, since divided in two: Graves – now a somewhat lesser appellation – and Pessac-Léognan, the more prestigious classification and the home of both Domaine de Chevalier and Château Haut-Bailly. I use the old name purposely, not just because it’s what I grew up in wine with, but also because it signifies something important. Graves in French refers to the gravelly soil of the region, markedly different from the originally marshy soils of the Médoc, north of the city of Bordeaux, which yield most of the famous red wines of the region.

Denigrators of Bordeaux wines like to say that the region has only one terroir, but in fact it has two, both good ones: Graves and Médoc. The best wines of the Médoc are invariably red, while the Graves produces not only top-flight reds but also Bordeaux’s best dry white wines, and that capacity for fine white wines is one measure of the differences between the two terroirs.

Sauvignon blanc

Those whites, vinified from Sauvignon blanc (and some Sémillon), show a delightful minerality (that gravel again), freshness, and persistent but understated fruit – no grass or cat’s pee, for all the forceful presence of the Sauvignon. Domaine de Chevalier presented three vintages of its white (Haut-Bailly makes only red): 2007, ’05, and ’01. For me and many other WMG members, the 2001 white was the wine of the afternoon. Beautifully composed and balanced, still youthful-looking and -tasting, simultaneously intense and restrained, it embodied the best of the region. Not a drop of it was left by the end of the lunch.

Both estates offered an impressive vertical of their red wines, ranging from 2007 back through 2000 – eight vintages of each, as candid a view of their standards and accomplishment as anyone could wish. Also served at table were bottles of 2000 Domaine de Chevalier blanc, the 1990 red from both Chevalier and Chateau Haut-Bailly, plus 1986 and ’82 Chevalier and 1979 Haut-Bailly reds, courtesy of the winemakers and several members and guests.

At the WMG lunch table

Tasting notes for all these wines would wind up being grossly repetitive, so I won’t give any – besides, regular readers of this blog know how I feel about tasting notes: soft-core porn for the palate. All the wines, even in weak vintages like 2003 and 2002, showed classic dimensions and wonderfully typical (of Graves) Cabernet fruit: cedar – what some like to call cigar-box but isn’t – accents over dry, black fruits, with everything balanced by the characteristic minerality of the Graves. You tasted the wine and the soil, not the imagination of the winemaker. Those characteristics persisted strongly into the older wines of both estates, all of which still tasted live and supple, albeit with wonderful deeper, mature flavors taking over from youthful fruit.

Olivier Bernard

What everyone remarked on as hallmarks of these wines was their elegance and balance – not too much of anything, but plenty of everything. When asked about the excessive use of new barriques by some of their colleagues and neighbors, both Bernard and Vialard shook their heads in either despair or disbelief. “Oak is what you use when you don’t have terroir,” Bernard said, and Vialard nodded agreement – as did almost everybody in the room. The proof of the assertion was right there on the table with us.

So how did the vintages stack up? The highly touted 2000s were fine, but I preferred 2001, which even though not as big and full struck me as more balanced – for my palate, a perfectly classic Bordeaux vintage. Ditto ’04 and ’05. In the media, the younger wine has overshadowed its predecessor, but – again, for my palate – 2004 is the vintage to cellar and allow to blossom. 2006 and 2007 I think are pleasant vintages, best for drinking sooner rather than later. They should drink quite nicely over the next five or so years.

A note for the future: Both Bordelais winemakers were very enthusiastic about 2009, which they regard as a great vintage. It’s still in barrel and won’t be released for a year or two yet, so we have much to look forward to.