On the Trail

Morning at Lynch Bages

David Driscoll

While tasting expensive wine all day long sounds like a lot of fun (and it is), there's a limit to what your tongue can physically withstand in a twenty-four hour period. Take palate fatigue into account, couple that with the general exhaustion from international travel, then add in the incredible flux in Bordeaux's weather conditions and you've got three huge variables that can affect one's perception. I didn't know this until Ralph told me today, but apparently when rainy conditions lower the barometric pressure it can also shut down the ability to effectively taste wine. A fourth factor in the difficulty of accurately assessing the wines during the en primeur is the youthful nature of the wines themselves. Many of the cuvées are still tightly wound and won't show their best side for years to come. How does one learn to cut through all that baby fat and predict the future, especially in the face of these other challenges? I'll tell you based on what I've learned so far: you simply try to do your best and stay as focused as you can. You're going to make mistakes and you're going to miss a few evaluations; that's just part of the process. Look at the 2012 vintage as an example where many critics were forced to go back and re-score some of their original impressions. However, with practice and concentration you start to get the hang of it—you notice patterns and that recognition begins to form into a larger picture. You start to see correlations between certain regions and eventually the vintage begins to take shape in your mind. There's an evolution that happens, slowly but surely.

We awoke early once again for a breakfast appointment, this time in the village de Bage with the legendary Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of the famed Pauillac producer Château Lynch Bages. After a quick croissant and coffee at the Hotel Golf du Mèdoc we found our friend having breakfast in the town center at Cafe L'Avenal. We were joined by his son Jean-Charles for espresso and fresh-squeezed orange juice, while we talked about the evolution of the Bordeaux trade. The topic of negociants is a controversial one these days in the business, especially since one of the most famous châteaux in the world (Latour) recently decided to stop working with the en primeur system entirely. There are some similarities in the Bordeaux system to the original foundations of the Scotch world and the way in which that industry has evolved as well. As recently as a few decades ago few distilleries actually sold their whiskies as single malts; they sold to blenders and bottlers who would then handle both the formulation of the whisky and the marketing of the particular brand they would create (i.e. Johnnie Walker). Today, however, most single malt distilleries are creating their own labels, choosing to sell their own self-branded whiskies to the public rather than supply a middle man. The idea of breaking free from the system seems liberating to some.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Jean-Charles thinks getting rid of negociants entirely is short-sighted. "We are too small of a company to handle the complexities of the various world markets ourselves," he said as we discussed the topic further. Negociants not only provide instant business for the Bordalais producers, they also have sales representatives working all around world, developing relationships in niche markets where they have a keen understanding of what customers there want. If the top châteaux in Bordeaux want to start doing their own distribution, they're going to have to be willing to invest in that type of infrastructure to remain successful. However, with many producers selling everything they produce annually and then some, you can understand why they're self-confident. They also want more control over deciding who gets to buy their wines, so there are interesting arguments on both sides. As someone who eats, breathes, and sleeps the booze business, I was enthralled with the conversation. After an enlightening and educational discussion, we finally headed into the Lynch Bages cellars for our tasting appointment. Located just off the town square, the building dates back to the late 16th century and the old stone walls create both a historic and romantic atmosphere for wine appreciation.

Tasting with Jean-Michel is true pleasure, not just because he's a clever guy with a great sense of humor, but also because he's a true ambassador for Bordeaux and its wines. I was editing a few photos on my laptop while waiting for the boys to finish writing their notes when Jean-Michel, looking over my shoulder, saw an image of Pichon-Baron's property I had taken yesterday. "I built that," he said to me with a grin. I thought he was kidding, but then he added, "I was one of the directors at AXA Millesime for many years," referencing the company that owns the estate. He's a veritable marathon man of wine, not only having helped to make the wine and manage the estate at Lynch Bages, but also having traveled the world to help champion Bordeaux in developing markets. His efforts in China eventually established Lynch Bages as one of the most popular in Asia. He was named "Man of the Year" by Decanter in 2003 before eventually stepping down as director of Lynch Bages in 2006 and handing that title over to his son. As we sampled the 2015 expressions, I couldn't help think about all this man had accomplished over his career; how interested he still was in helping newcomers to the en primeur like me better understand the region and its wines. It definitely endeared me to the cuvées as I tasted. The 2015 grand vin was opaque in my glass, brooding with concentrated fruit aromas and a deep purple color. It was silky on the palate before the power of the cabernet tannins kicked in and enveloped the finish. Another impressive feat for the château. The 2015 Lynch Bages blanc, however, was an absolute revelation. I went back multiple times to taste the bright and clean acidity balanced by a nutty richness that never overwhelmed the wine's refreshing character. "Wow," I said to Jean-Michel, "that's just top-notch wine, plain and simple."

"Don't tell him that." Clyde said with a smile. "He hasn't released the prices yet." 

-David Driscoll