The (Humbling, Generous, and Unexpected) Wines of Bordeaux
One of the challenges of working in the wine industry, or collecting in general, is that I’m often chasing some wine experience that always seems slightly out of my reach. For all of these brilliant wines that I get to discuss on a daily basis, or experience second-hand through tasting notes and blogs, it is still seldom that I find myself sitting in front of these bottles that we cherish and revere. So it is with no hesitation that I say I have been deeply humbled by the wines that we’ve experienced this week as part of being around the En Primeur campaign. It feels like I’ve tasted about five years worth of incredible wines in the past eight days. Fueled by the generosity of Clyde Beffa and those in Bordeaux that cherish his visits, the wines opened in the past week have perhaps matched some of the finest wines of my career (a few times over).
Sometimes you never know where it is going to happen next. During our trip to the Graves region we visited Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte where we tasted one of the more brilliant 2017s we tried that day. In the company of owners Florence and Daniel Cathiard, we were treated to a typical Bordelais lunch of three courses (a “light lunch”, noted Florence). Paired with the meal we enjoyed the luxurious 2000 Smith Haut-Lafitte, poured from a double magnum. In the larger format, from such a strong vintage, the wine has many years ahead of it yet, but on that day it was singing. I didn’t mind not having to wait.
Thursday evening found us in the company of the inimitable Frédéric Engerer of Chateau Latour. Over a dinner of classic bistro fare, he presented six red wines to us, tasted blind. The only information we were given was that they were all from the same vintage. Blind tasting with Frédéric is akin to sitting the French Baccalauréat, the English A Levels, or the US SAT exams. While we struggled to reach a consensus on the vintage, there was absolute agreement on the best wine of the flight. That wine turned out to be the 1999 Chateau Margaux. Its competition? Every other first growth from the vintage, along with the second label from Latour. In an extremely gracious and thoughtful gesture, Frédéric attributed the winning quality of the ‘99 Margaux to the brilliance of the late Paul Pontallier, who oversaw production at the chateau for over three decades. It is probably one of the few times he’ll concede second place for Chateau Latour. Like 2017, 1999 was a vintage complicated by late rains during harvest. Engerer was not merely being extremely generous in pouring a flight of first growths for us. He wanted to make the point that brilliant wines of great quality could be made in such a vintage. Point well taken.
Another fun blind wine was the 1996 Chateau Léoville-Las Cases — largely considered one of St-Julien’s all time greats. When we were served it on Wednesday night, it took a long while to circle our way to the vintage and producer. You might think that’d make it easier when the same wine was served blind two nights later, but we were still at a loss. Perhaps it was the 2000 Pichon Lalande before it that threw us off track. We did get the vintage on the 1982 Haut Brion, but it took a bit to identify the producer there.
That said, we weren’t always put to the test. A marathon tasting on Friday was complemented by 2009 Pape Clement at lunch. 2009 Pontet Canet and 1989 Leoville Las Cases made a showing on Saturday night. Dinner on Tuesday was graciously paired with 2000 and 1990 Pichon Baron. Pavie 1989, 1998, and 2010 made appearances on another memorable evening still, all brilliant bottlings for their own distinct reasons.
One of the most striking and memorable moments was foreshadowed by a visit to Pavie Macquin. While tasting the 2017s, our host mentioned briefly that the Thienpont family owned Troplong Mondot for a short time in the late 1920s. With pride they showed us a cherished bottle they had of the 1928, their last vintage prior to selling the chateau. Clyde was stunned, not for the fact that he was shown a ninety year-old piece of history, but more for the fact that he had brought the same wine with him! And it showed as one of the best wines of the trip - amazingly young and fresh, and a simply tremendous wine even if you can somehow forget the ancient vintage.
I’m still reeling from all of this. It is a wonderful gift to be able to participate in something that is so educating and at the same time an astounding luxury. For me, it helped highlight a few things — even those with a wonderful depth of knowledge might still be scratching the surface of this expansive and historical region, that perspective on a vintage comes from more than just barrel samples, and that the community in Bordeaux is truly unique. For someone like myself who is always trying to find the next great bottle, every single one of these wines will leave an indelible mark. Not only are they humbling and inspiring, but exemplify why many of us continue to pursue and collect wine with such a passion — to find these bottles and moments when we can, and be thankful when we do.
- Ryan Moses