Read an Excerpt
1: USING THIS BOOK
There can be no question that the romance, if not downright mysticism, of opening a bottle of Bordeaux from a famous château has a grip and allure that are hard to resist. For years writers have written glowing accounts of Bordeaux wines, sometimes giving them more respect and exalted status than they have deserved. How often has that fine bottle of Bordeaux from what was allegedly an excellent vintage turned out to be diluted, barely palatable, or even repugnant? How often has a wine from a famous Château let you and your friends down when tasted? On the other hand, how often has a vintage written off by the critics provided some of your most enjoyable bottles of Bordeaux? And how often have you tasted a great Bordeaux wine, only to learn that the name of the Château is uncelebrated?
This book is about just such matters. It is a wine consumer's guide to Bordeaux. Who is making Bordeaux's best and worst wines? What has a specific chateau's track record been over the last 20-30 years? Which châteaux are overrated and overpriced, and, of course, which are underrated and underpriced? These issues are discussed in detail.
The evaluations that are contained in this work are the result of extensive tastings conducted in Bordeaux and in America. I have been visiting Bordeaux every year since 1970, and since 1978 I have gone to Bordeaux as a professional at least twice a year to conduct barrel tastings of the young wines, as well as to do comparative tastings of different wines and vintages that have been bottled and released for sale. Since 1970 I have tasted most of the wines in the top years ahalf dozen or more times.
It is patently unfair to an estate to issue a final judgment about a wine after tasting it only once. Consequently, when I do tastings of young Bordeaux, I try to taste them as many times as possible to get a clear, concise picture of the wine's quality and potential. I have often equated the tasting of an infant, unbottled wine with that of taking a photograph of a long-distance runner at the beginning of a race. One look or tasting of such a wine is only a split-second glimpse of an object that is constantly changing and moving. To effectively evaluate the performance and quality in a given vintage, one must look at the wine time after time during its 16-24-month prebottling evolution and then evaluate it numerous times after bottling to see if the quality or expected potential is still present.
Obviously, some wines as well as general vintages are much easier to assess than others. For certain, tasting young wine requires total concentration and an extreme dedication to tasting the wine as many times as possible in its youth, both at the individual Château and in comparative tastings against its peers. This is the only valid method by which to obtain an accurate look at the quality and potential of the wine. For this reason, I travel to Bordeaux at least twice a year, spending over a month in the region each year visiting all the major châteaux in all of the principal appellations of the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes, St.-Emilion, and Pomerol.
The châteaux visits and interviews with the winemakers are extremely important in accumulating the critical data about the growing season, harvest dates, and vinification of the chateau's wines. Most of the winemakers at the Bordeaux châteaux are remarkably straightforward and honest in their answers, whereas owners will go to great lengths to glorify the wine they have produced.
In addition to doing extensive visits to the specific Bordeaux châteaux in all appellations of Bordeaux in good, poor, and great vintages, I insist on comparative tastings of cask samples of these new vintages. For these tastings I call many of Bordeaux's leading négociants to set up what most consumers would call massive comparative day-long tastings of 60-100 wines. In groups of 10-15 wines at a time, an entire vintage, from major classified growths to minor Crus Bourgeois, can be reviewed several times over a course of 2 weeks of extensive tastings. Such tastings corroborate or refute the quality I have found to exist when I have visited the specific Château. Because I do these types of broad, all-inclusive tastings at least three times before the young Bordeaux wine is bottled, I am able to obtain numerous looks at the infant wine at 6, 9, and 18 months of age, which usually give a very clear picture of the wines' quality.
Despite the fact that young Bordeaux wines are constantly changing during their evolution and aging process in the barrel, the great wines of a given vintage are usually apparent. It has also been my experience that some wines that ultimately turn out to be good or very good may be unimpressive or just dumb when tasted in their youth from the cask. But the true superstars of a great vintage are sensational, whether they are 6 months or 20 months old.
When I taste young Bordeaux from the cask, I prefer to judge the wine after the final blend or assemblage has been completed. At this stage, the new wine has had only negligible aging in oak casks. For me, it is essential to look at a wine at this infant stage (normally in late March and early April following the vintage) because most wines can be judged without the influence of oak, which can mask fruit and impart additional tannin and aromas to the wine. What one sees at this stage is a naked wine that can be evaluated on the basis of its richness and ripeness of fruit, depth, concentration, body, acidity, and natural tannin content, unobscured by evidence of oak aging.
The most important component I look for in a young Bordeaux is fruit. Great vintages, characterized by ample amounts of sunshine and warmth, result in grapes that are fully mature and produce rich, ripe, deeply fruity wines. If the fruit is missing, or unripe and green, the wine can never be great. In contrast, grapes that are allowed to stay on the vine too long in hot, humid weather become over-ripe and taste pruny and sometimes raisiny and are also deficient in acidity. They too have little future. Recent vintages that, in their youth, throughout all appellations of Bordeaux, have been marked by the greatest ripeness, richness, and purity of fruit are 1982, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1995, and 1996, all high-quality vintages for Bordeaux. Vintages that exhibited the least fruit and an annoying vegetal character have been 1974, 1977, and 1984, poor to mediocre vintages.
In early summer or fall following the vintage, I return to Bordeaux to get another extensive look at the wines. At this time the wines have settled down completely but are also marked by the scent of new oak barrels. The intense grapy character of their youth has begun to peel away, as the wines have now had at least 3-4 months of cask aging. If extensive tastings in March or April give a clear overall view of the vintage's level of quality, comprehensive tastings in June and again the second March following the vintage are almost always conclusive evidence of where the vintage stands in relation to other Bordeaux vintages and how specific wines relate in quality to each other.
With regard to vintages of Bordeaux in the bottle, I prefer to taste these wines in what is called a "blind tasting." A blind tasting can be either "single blind" or "double blind." This does not mean one is actually blindfolded and served the wines, but rather that in a single-blind tasting, the taster knows the wines are from Bordeaux but does not know the identities of the châteaux or the vintages. In a double-blind tasting, the taster knows nothing other than that several wines from anywhere in the world, in any order, from any vintage, are about to be served.
For bottled Bordeaux, I usually conduct all my Bordeaux tastings under single-blind conditions