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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Favorite Pichon, a Vertical from the Baron

Why is Pichon Baron the lesser Pichon? My palate tends to favor the Baron, save for the ’95 & ’96 vintages, and my wallet is all the denser for it. Is my palate wrong? Maybe Pichon Lalande is a nicer Chateau? Maybe the ‘Lalandes’ are a richer family, with more dapper white collars than the ‘Barons?’ In the commercial markets I have to believe that our perception is highly influenced by branding and product positioning, yet I always attempt to unearth the reason why we consumers see things the way we do. Did it all start w/ the rockstar ’82 vintage from Pichon Lalande? A wine that good can certainly forge a reputation of its own, but one vintage can’t make a Chateau. Or can it? Perhaps I am looking in the wrong places. Maybe it’s the whole ‘Super Second’ phenomenon that has kept the Baron down. That damn Leoville Las Cases has stolen the Baron’s thunder. I mean come on; the first growths dominate Pauillac conversations while St. Julien can exist on an island, owning the phrase ‘Grand Cru Quality.’
Well, consider my verbal sparring with…myself, put on hold to actually talk about what the stuff tastes like. Phew! The best thing about perception is that it all goes out the window when you throw the label out and actually drink it. Let me tell you, the wines from Pichon Baron are pretty damn good, red-headed step child or not. I don’t like them simply because I champion the underdog; I like them because they taste fantastic.
Bubbly beginnings:
A Margaine Brut Rose Champagne NV
This presents w/ an almost surly nose, smelling of leesy elements like sour dough bread, chalk dust and mossy earth. Intriguing enough to sip, the palate envelopes the taster w/ a strawberry and cherry inflicted profile, cloaked in a mineral bath of mouthwatering, stony-textured acidity that beads along a long, zippy finish. The length and acidity of this sparkler is exquisite and its character is pretty noteworthy, 89+ points.
Stumbling out of the gates:
I initially thought this wine was the ’04 as it was a wee bit closed and ungenerous. Time in the glass brought out the funky mildew like taint that stained our glasses. I had wagered part of my male anatomy on the incorrect vintage. Do I get a mulligan from the TCA police?
This was the most disappointing showing of the evening. The nose came off as a bit blowzy, revealing grapey, berry jam like scents that cloaked the more interesting asphalt & spicy toast-like notes. While the attack came on like a desperate man using sleezy pick-up lines at the bar, the superficial fruit firmed up on the hollow, coarsely textured midpalate that was plagued by rugged, bitter tannins that left a profoundly drying sensation in the mouth. Don’t let anyone fool you about the faux-approachability of the ‘04s, this one needs time. I think it will round into outstanding form, but the best I can do quantitatively is an 86+?

Onwards and upwards:
This is yet another explosively fragrant, ready to be gobbled up ’99 that roars from the glass w/ mocha spiced cassis, black truffles, spicy cedar and graphite notes that turn elegant and resolved in the mouth. There are zero rough edges to be found in this symmetrical, supple and nicely balanced claret, which should provide pleasure over the next 6-8 years, 89 points.
I can always pick this out blindly in a flight of Pichon Baron’s as the green qualities of the nose make the vintage obvious. Not necessarily a bad, overtly vegetal green, more like a lilac meets grass green, w/ alluring red currant paste, lead pencil shavings and freshly tilled earth notes also chiming in. Texture-wise, this is the hardest wine of the bunch, appealing to the Burgundy and Piedmont palates w/ its brightly focused fruit and palate cleansing acidity. If this were a Pinot Noir I’d pen it as a long distance runner, but as a Cabernet based wine it lacks the tannin and beef to hit the pavement running, 88 points.
This is a much rounder, more flesh filled wine than the ’95, flexing a bit of sinew into its cassis, black currant and cocoa powdered persona. In spite of its more generous, sweetly fruited personality, there is ample acidity, ripe tannin and body for this vintage to show even better w/ a few more years of cellaring, 92+ points.
-A word on the ’95 & ’96 vintages. These two wines are very disappointing, considering the pedigree, and are the weakest links in the vertical (especially when compared to Pichon Lalande’s dynamite performance in each year). Although I think this estate missed a great opportunity in these years, the flights to come revealed the true potential of this terroir in top years, culminating in their 2000, one of the finest of the vintage I’ve tasted and still the best deal in Bordeaux (boy does it pain me to say that). I own more of that wine than any other Bordeaux so I obviously believe firmly in that statement.
Bring on the studs:
The surprise of the tasting had to be this vintage, which went toe to toe w/ the terrific ‘89/’90 duo and refused to go down in the ten round flight. Perhaps the most effusive, utterly complex nose of the evening, exploding from the glass with truffle shavings, lead pencil, fresh mushroom and hearty plum sauce notes that were so damn exciting to smell I had a difficult time keeping my nose out of the glass. The wine was all about finesse in the mouth, w/ suave, fine tannins and an elegant body that wore its curves like a ‘60s starlet. I think the reason we loved this wine so much was that it is truly at its apogee and we experienced what is likely the greatest performance that this bottle will ever give. If I’m wrong, then I need to buy even more of this wine than I can afford 93 points.
The nose of this wine screamed 1990 louder than I imagined possible. Oodles of licorice infused black fruit and mint scents steamed from the glass, diving deep into the palate like a bombshell. The crème de cassis flavors are to die for, turning plush, layered and very opulent on the finish, yet in spite of its hedonistic profile, the wine has amazing clarity, class and focus. Jeff brought up that the ’00 shows the similar confluence of ripe fruit and acidity that the ’89 has, and I think he’s absolutely right. The ’89 is perhaps the most poised rich wine I’ve come across in Bordeaux, and what’s frightening is that I actually think it will only get better, 97+ points.
Here’s a case where the ’89 and ’90 absolutely dust the Pichon Lalande’s versions (giving plenty of hair-splitting opportunities a la the ’95 and ’96 Pichon Lalande vintages), yet they are distinct in style. The ’90 has an herbal tinged nose that reminds me a bit of the Southern Rhone, with lavender, sautéed mushroom, grilled beef and an array of rich, dark fruits that really struck a chord w/ me (duh!). The palate is crammed w/ glycerin, revealing a thickly textured, chewy body that is tantamount to a meal in a glass. Now it’s obvious to see why people would prefer the ’89, yet equally understandable why I dug the ’90 a bit more (ps, I think there’s some brett in this wine…not ’90 Montrose brett, but enough to make the Rhone-go-round), 98 points.
Hail to the king:
Is there such a thing as channeled opulence? Well, I think there is and I think it is the best way to describe this wine. A seething, rich beauty that crams 200 pounds of flavor into a 150 pound frame, yet does it with style and grace, pleasing palates at both ends of the spectrum. The nose has a smoky disposition, w/ spicy fig, warm ganache, crème de cassis, black currant paste, mocha and sweet tobacco notes turning huge and mouth-filling on the palate. Tiers of deep, loaded flavors saturate the palate from end to end, yet never turn ponderous or heavy as there is an energetic lift that keeps things fresh and beautifully delineated. This stunning bottle of wine is years away from perfection, yet its painfully obvious to see that it will inevitably get there, 100 points.
Poor ’05. Poor poor ’05 (a new favorite oxymoron of mine), how does one follow up a showboat like that? There was an exotic, flashy quality to the nose that fooled us into thinking it was the ’03. There’s some obvious sur maturite that almost comes off as confectionary in a raspberry cordial kind of way, but the deft balance and cut is evident structurally in this wine, taming the fruit nicely and begging for at least a decade of cellaring before another cork is popped, 92+ points.
Another pleasant surprise to most, yet I’ve always felt this was a strong year for Pichon Baron (and yes, it’s a better wine than Pichon Lalande again this year!). It has a Viader like personality, w/ great richness and opulence that is all in perfect proportion and feels quite shapely at the end of the day. The crème de cassis, milk chocolate and flashy fruit are all there, yet its muscle and construction keep things honest and compelling, 94 points.


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