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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The scorcher of '03
Well I ponied up and trekked out to New Jersey for the 2003 Bordeaux Bonanza on display at the Madison Hotel. At times it was difficult to sneak past the hordes of thirsty minions disguised in business casual attire, but I found my way to each table to fetch my pours of Bordeaux's latest releases. I don't think any critic would disagree with my statement that the vintage can't be characterized as a success from top to bottom. With such erratic and extreme weather, you can expect atypical results from even the most typical of chateau. Although it's difficult to really hone in and judge such young Bordeaux clarets, I definitely got a solid sense of these baby's qualities and structures. I am not going to delve into each sampling, but I'd like to sketch a couple of highlights. From a regional standpoint, the Margaux appellation was extremely approachable already. Granted they are not fully mature, but several chateaus can be quite enjoyable in the glass right now. Chateau Kirwan, Prieure Lichine and Rauzan Segla are already incredibly tempting to pop the cork, with their beautiful sense of elegance and ripe fruit. Even though the most endowed Margaux, Chateau Margaux itself, was a typical big-ticket item at the event, I was much more surprised w/ the Pavillon Rouge de Margaux. Second wines are always more approachable and open than their counterparts, but this one was seductive as hell. The wine was laden with such a sexy spice from nose to finish and characterized by an uncanny finesse of mocha kissed wild raspberries. The texture oozed such supple qualities that I can't help but advise any avid Bordeaux aficionado to throw patience to the wind and drink up! Despite the wine's potential to hold up well for at least a decade, it can't be resisted as is (and it’s a relative steal at the price). Solid 93+ points. This was not the only second wine that had an impressive showing. While not quite as concentrated, or as long on the finish, the Carruades de Lafite was full of sweet properties. I loved the wilted rose petal, incense and mixed berry aroma seeping from the glass. I felt such a textbook sense of Lafite's paradoxical 'elegant intensity,' with the volume dial turned down to a level keeping the wine too damn pretty to be considered 'big.' The Carruades texture was, again, too plush to wait for. 92 points.
It seems that atypical years can really make a Chateau's selection not only difficult, but excruciatingly small. Thankfully there was plenty of great fruit that snuck into these two second labels. In my humble opinion, second wines should offer the consumer a glimpse into the essence of the property, characterized by a more openly knit expression of terroir (generally from younger vines in the vineyard, w/ a shade less depth), at a sliver of the price. In great years, like '03, some first growths can give the shallower pocketed consumer a cheaper taste at the good life. Having said that, far too many of my second wines experiences have tasted like sloppy seconds, leaving me to feel that I was duped into purchasing an over-priced brand name. Caveats like Pavillon Rouge and Carruades are always a nice surprise. As far as the powerhouses of St. Julien are concerned, a lot of their once jammy fruit has begun to close down. The estates of Branaire-Ducru, Leoville Barton, and Ducru Beaucaillou are all behemoths of extract, intensity and length (and they are impenetrably backward, meaning that they need more time). There were such layers upon layers in these wines that built into a crescendo of a giant surging finish in the mouth. The Barton seemed to be the most endowed w/ lush fruit, while both of the Ducru's had cascades of diverse mineral and complex earth elements surrounding their plump, juicy tannic backbones. Please tuck them away into a cool, dark corner so they can quietly hibernate into the next decade for consumption. Definitely classic 95+ point wines. Although the tasting was massively Left Bank-centric, I had the good fortune of trying a dynamite St. Emilion from the property of Monbousquet. WOW! A silky satin sheath of cherry cordial and raspberry liqueur swished and swirled in my mouth for what seemed to be an eternity (I wish Listerine tasted like this). I defy any taster to spit out this sexy drink of liquid decadence! As I tasted the Monbousquet, I couldn't help but think of my first introduction to phenomenal pinot noir (which started my love affair w/ wine). Granted the components of Monbousquet (60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) are entirely different, the sensual seduction of gorgeous fruit married w/ oak seemed to give me the same, tingly sensation that my first great pinot did. For the sheer joy the wine offers, it deserves to be placed in the same class as their monumental 2000 offering at 94 points plus. Unfortunately I was completely unimpressed w/ the 2nd wine offering from the famed Chateau Petrus. The structure of La Fleur Petrus walked a fine line between elegance and fragility. Although there were some sweet strawberry, ripe cherry and vanillin notes, the wine's backbone was almost too delicate. I am certain, if it were available at the tasting, that the grand vin of Petrus would have made me completely forget that La Fleur existed. Unfortunately some of us aren't THAT lucky; my first taste of Petrus still eludes me.......86 points at best. Now to wrap up w/ the big names that those in wine circles love to throw around to impress. Out of the two Pichon properties, I pick the Baron. Both Lalande and Baron were full of the gravel and stone minerality, but the spicy pepper laced stately fruit of Pichon Baron had a much smoother set of ripe tannins and a suave finish (as well as a cheaper price tag). 93 points, w/ a lot of potential.
I probably offended some of the old world loyalists w/ my commentary on Chateaux Montrose's '03 offering when I compared it to the premium label of Concha y Toro's Don Melchor. As I sipped the Montrose I was brought back to a distinct memory of the '01 Melchor, endowed w/ such a juicy tannic mouthful of ripe tobacco, juicy cocoa laced deep currant, ripe plum and sweet fire-kissed loam undercutting the fruit. Who knows how many Bordeaux loyalists may take Chilean offense, but hey, if Mouton Rothschild can construct a Paulliac-esque blockbuster like Almaviva in Puente Alto, I think that officially puts the French traditionalists' defensive standpoint w/ terroir on more shaky grounds. That aside, both are fantastic wines, but Melchor is 45 bucks and the Montrose is approaching 200....take your pick. Both 95 points, with a slight edge to Montrose in longevity and evolutionary potential.
I felt that the Leoville Las Cases and Pavie were too closed to genuinely appreciate or disseminate. One comment in regards to the Pavie, it's laden w/ brutal extraction. Seems as if it were a volcanic mountain, slowly steaming its way towards a massive eruption. It had a mid-palette, body and set of California tannins that were decidedly New World. With the '03 1st growths, the Mouton and Haut Brion were firmly on the wild berry and red fruit end of the spectrum. Haut Brion's unique composition and gravelly soil profile always distinguish it from the other 1st growths (it is the only chateau that was a classified first growth outside of the Medoc). The wine was defined by sweetness, class and elegance. As for the Mouton, while impressive, I found less intrinsic character to it than the other first growths. I think there has been a bit of corporate dilution w/ their technically opulent, but structurally monolithic personality.
I had the good fortune of tasting two Chateau Margaux's that evening, one of which being the 1986 (the mystery first growth of the night). While the Margaux w/ 2 decades under its belt has a gorgeously sumptuous bouquet of roasted herb, damp earth and tree bark, the mid-palette begs for a bit more depth and intensity. Wouldn't send it back to the sommelier though, 93+ points. The '03 Margaux is a giant chasm of deep, impenetrably tight construction. For any Margaux wine to have such muscular power, while maintaining a set of finesse and floral nuance is certainly impressive. Don't touch for at least 8 years! 96+ points.
A perennial first growth star, Lafite Rothschild, produced a phenomenal bottle in '03. The winemakers in California must shake their heads in total disbelief to note how Lafite can cram such uncanny richness, depth and complex power into such a minutely alcoholic wine (under 13%). When I think back to my west coast trip to Santa Barbara county last month, in particular the Fess Parker winery, I recall a series of insanely hot wines. Out of the reds, I don't know if I saw any label with LESS THAN 16.1% alcohol! To top it off, we are talking about pinot noir and syrah?! Hang time, late harvested, full flavor development....or is it straight up sherry? Any sense of nuance or subtlety is totally burned off, as is your tongue for that matter. Any ice for my beverage Fess? Take a trip out to Paulliac and see how Lafite Rothschild can craft a gorgeously fat claret in a 100+ degree summer, at under 13% alcohol. 99-100 points, a truly blessed wine (I can still taste the dazzlingly subtle echo of fresh mint from the finish, perhaps I should never brush my teeth again).
Before I move onto the most stately of estates, Chateau Latour, I must reference my California trip once more. A blatant observation any tourist must make on their trips out to Napa is that of sheer size. Let me explain through an American cultural metaphor: giant homes, sky-scrapers, over-bloated bank rolls, massive flat screen televisions, mammoth breast augmentations and.....Cabernet Sauvignon. Don't read into this correctly as I adore California and I had some life altering wines on my trip, but some were just plain huge! If only the Titanic had docked in the San Francisco Bay, we'd rename it the Oracle (a Miner Cabernet based blend). It seemed like the tannin and fruit were in a heavy weight boxing match, which one was bigger, louder and stronger? Either way, I was knocked out. As for Latour, yes it was a monster as well, but an entirely different animal. In fact, it was huge, a scowling beast that had nearly 5 different roars at 5 different levels. The grip from the indulgently sweet tannin was perfectly integrated into layers upon layers of gorgeously fleshy fruit. I felt like I was going to be clobbered over the head when I remarked that I would almost recommend drinking it now. Wines like this make you feel that life is truly too short to sit on immensely impressive gems. Instead of waiting for the special occasion, open the bottle! The bottle is the special occasion. That's really what great wine is about; pleasure, temptation, seduction, pontification and straight hedonistic bliss. It blows my mind to know bottles like these WILL get better, I almost can't imagine how though. I chose not to stain this bottle w/ a numerical score as it is completely unnecessary. Win the lottery and buy a bottle for every year you plan on living! Speaking of which, look forward to reading about value bottles in the upcoming posts. I'm out.


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