March 30, 2008

Ah, Bordeaux

Thank you faithful reader for your encouragement that I update my blog. So…

Back in my San Francisco days, I was more of a Bordeaux buyer and drinker than I am today. There are several reasons for the change.

One is simply that I don’t drink nearly as much cabernet- or merlot-based wine than I used to. If I do, it’s likely to be Loire cabernet franc, which I find to be the Burgundy of cabernet-based wines. Lighter in body, emphasizing its perfume and simply a better fit on the dinner table. My table, at least. And it’s more ageable than conventional wisdom suggests. Far more. Ignore those writers who tell absurdly you that Chinon and the others cannot age and improve with time.

Second, the Bordeaux selection here in Oregon is abysmal. Why is this? Portland’s wine selection is terrific in depth and breadth for bottlings from around the world. One very notable exception is Bordeaux, and what Bordeaux we do see is usually horribly priced. I know I could order from afar (i.e., Premier Cru), yet I don’t. See reason one above.

Third, with the 1995 vintage, Bordeaux pricing went absolutely crazy. Sure, older timers will say that 1982 changed everything. Those older still will point to the 1970 vintage, which led to such a run up in prices that a few (poor) years later the market crashed. People have predicted another Bordeaux crash ever since, without success. The latest run up indeed started with the well-hyped 1995s, then the 1996s, then the 1998s from the right bank (St. Emilion and Pomerol), then the 2000s, 2003s, and now 2005s. Will it ever end? Sure. But people have been predicting it for so long, no one should claim credit when things finally do change.

Finally, though I’m loathe to bring it up, there’s clearly been the dramatic change in grape growing and winemaking in Bordeaux wines in the past decade or two. Suffice it to say that, indeed, more wines from Bordeaux taste like California cousins than ever before. Whether that’s a good thing is debated endlessly. I prefer more traditional examples. Clearly the American press in general sees it differently. So I find myself simply bored by the whole topic of Bordeaux.

At least, until I try something like the 1994 Ch. Grand Mayne St. Emilion.

Back in the late 1990s, after prices started to rise, good but not great vintages like 1994 fell out of favor. So there were some terrific deals to be had. It didn’t hurt that I met my wife in that year, and spent a good part of that summer in France. I loaded up on ‘94s, but these were wines I knew I’d need to wait on. The press faulted the rainy harvest (after a nicely warm growing season) and its firm, tannic wines. To me, they tasted like classic young claret, provided you were patient.

More than a decade later, the ‘94s I’ve tried are still a bit tough. The ’94 Leoville Barton was still too firm for my taste at Christmas more than a year ago. But it’s early yet. Good Bordeaux can age for decades, so we’re still early on with things. And if this Grand Mayne is any indicator, good things are on the horizon.

The 1994 Grand Mayne has its own controversy. Robert Parker liked this producer in the late ‘80s but felt that the ’93 and ’94 were possibly flawed in the cellar, with repeated samples showing elements of “cork” taint that can come from bad barrels or even a mold-infected cellar. I tasted this wine young and found it promising, so I bought a few cheap on close-out after Parker readers must have passed it over. Back on Thanksgiving 2000, it tasted tight and hard, not bad, certainly not corked, just lackluster and in need of time. I didn’t open another until last week and, wow, what a difference.

Let’s be clear. This isn’t first growth quality. But after nearly 14 years, this wine shows a nicely maturing ruby color and that vague sweetness of bottle age in its perfume, like the way onions caramelize and sweeten with cooking. There are also nice red fruits in the aroma and herbs from the merlot, and that clean, rocky earthiness I love in Bordeaux. In the mouth, the texture has become more smooth, the tannins a bit softer though still clearly there, the flavors of oak, fruit, and earth coming together as a whole rather than parts. On its own, this wine would be too dry for many drinkers I know. But with food, I found this simply delicious. My wife too, and we easily finished the bottle over the evening.

The lesson here? Don’t always believe what you read, this blog included. You may hate 1994 Bordeaux, but I found advantage in the critics’ distaste for this vintage. Same, too, with reports that a producer’s entire harvest is suspect. That’s not the case here, unless I’ve been incredibly lucky. If so, I suppose I’ll just smile all the way to the cellar.

No comments: