Well, first, I ask, is anyone going to welcome me back? Paul?
My first post on returning is probably my longest ever!
Trip Notes Part 1: Bordeaux 2005 with Jean-Marc Quarin
I thought some of you might be interested in the details of my trip to Bordeaux this season to taste the new vintage. This serves a dual purpose for me, as I am treating this as my journal of sorts. It’s hard for me to tell these stories and not sound like I’m name-dropping, bragging, or otherwise showing off how lucky I am to have been invited by Jean-Marc to live out this once-in-a-lifetime dream. For those more deeply rooted in the wine trade and for others not nearly as fascinated by the wines of Bordeaux as I am, these stories may seem quite dull. For me, it was anything but – and I hope some of you find at least parts of this interesting.
For obvious reasons – not the least of which is my comparative inexperience tasting Bordeaux from barrel – I will not be providing any detailed tasting notes in this trip commentary. You’ll glean what I personally liked and didn’t like – but, I suggest you look to others with more experience than me for detailed accounts. Once all of the information is released, I do have detailed notes and I look forward to entering the invariable debates with my admittedly limited capabilities. Until that point, I hope you find this a useful supplement to the reviews offered by Jean-Marc.
Some of you may be wondering how Jim Dove was invited in the first place. Jean-Marc and I have traded emails for some time now – since the 2002 campaign – so in some respects, we knew each other via the web. And, I think he came to respect some of the notes I’ve posted over the years on Mark’s board and elsewhere. Additionally, Jean-Marc is very interested in sharing his knowledge about Bordeaux with others – especially with those of us in America – and, I think in the future he is going to be more aggressively looking for opportunities to come here and share his experience. This seemed to be an opportunity for a two-way exchange of information about what I know and what he knows… so, we both benefited.
On Saturday, March 25th I checked into the Marojailla (formerly the chateau for Dufort-Vivens) as it’s only guest – without my luggage – thank you KLM. While the chateau was being renovated, Jean-Marc arranged for me to stay in one of the suites, looking out on one of Rausan-Segla’s plots of seemingly ancient vines. The hotel is affiliated, at least for the moment, with the very-charming and ideally located Pavillon de Margaux some 200 meters away. The room was huge (probably about 15 meters square), with a large and newly renovated bath, 42” flat-panel TV, and internet service that refused to work – perhaps the only negative of the whole trip. I mention the details here simply to recommend both Marojailla and Pavillon de Margaux to anyone planning a trip to the area. Very nice people and exceptionally comfortable and reasonably priced accommodations.
First lessons: Forget what you think you know – it’s all about the tannins
On Sunday, Jean-Marc and I tasted together for the first time. Before us were about fifty different Mèdoc and Haut Mèdoc crus. All tastings were conducted non-blind – and, generally the wines were organized from the lesser estates to the more highly regarded ones. Often, wines were arranged by winemaker or proprietor within a given geography. As we began to taste, Jean-Marc would ask me lots of questions – ‘which do you like and why?’ seemed a common line of questioning. He wanted to see what he had gotten himself into, I think. Fortunately, I think I passed these early tests and we got along terrifically. He found someone who was eager to learn and as crazy about Bordeaux and as he is.
As we tasted, it quickly became apparent to Jean-Marc that I had a bias toward aromatic wines, and that I was easily seduced by the ‘pulpy’ entry and rich mid-palates so many of the wines possessed – even the lesser Mèdocs from 2005. He noted that I often failed to pay adequate attention to the finish – an observation that in retrospect seems completely accurate and, something that I think I improved greatly on over the course of my tastings with him. Jean-Marc was hyper-focused on the impression tannins made on the palate. Were they coarse? Where did you feel them in your mouth? Were they well integrated? Did they serve to provide energy to the finish – or were they so intense that they closed the wine off? Were they green – or ripe and refreshing? Admittedly, I was a bit confused and even skeptical of all of this focus on tannins at first. But, as time passed, and as superior wines were introduced into the mix over the course of the next several days – the importance of tannins in these young wines became very clear to me.
The battle of aromas and palate impact
Another early discussion I remember was around the ‘battle’ Jean-Marc described on one hand between freshness and aromatics – often accompanied in the extreme by unripe, raspy tannins that overwhelm the mouth and the completeness that comes on the palate with the very-ripe wines. Ripeness, I soon learned, was often achieved at the expense of freshness and aromatic interest – and similarly, the less ripe wines often displayed more interesting aromas but at the expense of completeness in the mouth and maturity of tannins. Jean-Marc is a fan of ripe tannins above all else – but, he looks for a level of ripeness that still supports aromatic interest, freshness and energy on the palate. Interestingly, the ripeness of the 2005s, along with the fresh levels of acidity were very much to both of our preferences in this vintage here in the Mèdoc.
I found the decisions winemakers made along this paradigm of ripeness in 2005 to be of great interest. As a rule, it seemed that most made decisions that supported a balance between freshness and ripeness. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the weather conditions were such that complete ripeness generally came in the Mèdoc without compromising acidity or the feeling of freshness in the wines.
I also found it interesting to see the very general correlation between what seemed to be surmaturité and the use of high-toast barrels. This is a purely unscientific finding and a point I would not argue with any confidence today – but, I wonder if there is not some degree of correlation here. The two seem to feed off each other, with the toast further serving to steal away the crunchiness that comes from less adulterated fruit. At the same time, the intense ripeness and oak lend an undeniable sexiness to these wines – so, in the end, this becomes a matter of preference. I would think wine-buyers would want to understand the stylistic differences that result from these choices so that they can either find or avoid such wines – according to their taste. Interestingly – and a surprise for me – was that the super-ripe ‘n toasty style seems to be the exception to the rule. There will be no complaints from me on this point.
Monday, March 27th – An introduction to some great growths
Jean-Marc picked me up early this morning for our 9 a.m. meeting at Chateau Palmer – an appointment I would later regret was our first of the week. We were met by Technical Director Philippe Delfaut and Bernard de Laage, Director of Development. I was stiff and a little uncomfortable as we exchanged greetings but once the wine started to flow – I began to feel like I was in my element. The language for these tastings was always wine, which made me less conscious of my less-than-conversational tourist French.
Here, the wines were served cool – arguably to mute the affects of the higher-than-usual alcohol levels to the taster. Both Alter Ego – a lush, sexy wine and the more floral and powerful Palmer were poured. While neither were especially complex – both had great palate presence.
At the end of each of these tastings, Jean-Marc would have several questions to ask – usually focused on alcohol levels, pH, harvest dates, selection, and the wines’ component pieces. This was almost invariably followed by an often-lengthy philosophical discussion addressing some issue that resulted from the questioning (often the questioning really amounted to an interrogation, Anthony Barton might argue). At Palmer, it was a rather esoteric conversation around the high percent of Merlot in the blend and whether, with a higher percent of Cabernet Sauvignon, Palmer might be improved in a vintage like 2005. Usually, the winemakers and directors were stimulated by the ideas – engaging in protracted and often very exhaustive consideration of all possibilities. Other times, they were simply annoyed by Jean-Marc’s sometimes blunt and occasionally untraditional thinking. At Palmer, I sensed a bit of both. But the respect for Jean-Marc was always palpable.
After Palmer, we left to visit Chateau Margaux, just up the street. An energized and thoroughly charming Paul Pontellier greeted us in front of the iron gates. He was happy to give me the history of the construction of the property as we walked over to the tasting room. He poured us the Pavillon Rouge, followed by the grand vin Margaux, then the Anjou pear-like Pavillon Blanc, which, not surprisingly is always served last. The Pavillon Rouge was a big, sexy beast of a wine. My notes indicate that the wine was broader across the palate than either the Alter Ego or Palmer – perhaps in part due to serving temperature, but also due to the high alcohol that was evident on the nose.
Paul seemed shocked at the level of alcohol several of the Merlot plots managed to achieve in 2005 – and he felt strongly that had they been added to the grand vin, the blend would have suffered. Margaux was, as I’m sure you have by now heard, simply stunning. It was easily among the best of the many great wines I would taste this week. After the tasting, we found ourselves running a bit ahead of schedule for our next appointment, so Paul offered a tour of the chais. He shared with us the creative solution for temperature control in the two-story cellar – air conditioning the attic. Paul says it works like a charm.
Later that morning, Jean-Marc and I drove up to St. Estephe for a tasting at Calon Segur hosted by Madame Capbern-Gasqueton herself. This offered an interesting contrast between the warm and sexy Margaux style in 2005 and the slightly cooler-version Cabernet Sauvignon profile of the St. Estephes. The Calon was chunky and very full this year. It’s quite a powerful taste. Jean-Marc sampled very quickly here – a fact that seemed to either annoy or concern our host. The questions here came with less precise answers, it seemed.
Following the visit to Calon Segur Monday, we took what I would later realize was one of the longest breaks from tastings for the entire week. I had a chance to eat one of the few formal meals of the trip at the Restaurant St. Julien. I was reminded of how easy it is to beat the best St. Louis has to offer with respect to fine French dining.
We met back at Jean-Marc’s office a few hours later for a 6:00 p.m. tasting at Chateau Haut Brion with owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg and winemaker Jean Philippe Delmas. The weather was beautiful that afternoon, which, in retrospect makes me wonder if that wasn’t a factor in the relative disappointment of some of the wines for me. We tasted the full line-up – the second wines Chapelle la Mission, Bahans Haut Brion, then La Tour Haut Brion, La Mission, and Haut Brion.
I think the most remarkable thing for me in this tasting was the complete absence of any Graves signature in all but the Bahans. This is not at all to say that these wines will not ultimately develop a classic Graves signature. I have no doubt this will come in full force in time. The lesson for me was that the expected smoke and tobacco seem to come not at birth but with some age. I enjoyed the experience and company of our gracious hosts here – and the whites were both spectacular. But somehow, with both la Mission and Haut Brion, I was left wanting a little more. Without being an apologist for the wines – I do feel my impression is borne out of inexperience and not some inadequacy in these wines. They didn’t miss anything but the beguiling complexity that I now realize only comes with some time here. I suspect I will like these more when I have an opportunity to taste them again. In the end, however, they were, given their stature, comparatively less interesting at this stage – for me.
I fumbled around in the vineyard for a moment to grab a stone from one of my favorite vineyards, then we made our way to Haut Bailly in Pessac for a tasting of the cru classé wines of Pessac Leognan. This chateau is beautifully situated – all things considered, for me it is arguably among the most aesthetically appealing of the left bank estates.
Lined up on the table were ten top Pessacs ranging from Domaine de Chevalier to Pape Clement. The ranges in style here were interesting – with the supremely fresh, refined, and sophisticated Domaine de Chevalier on one extreme and the whorish toast-goddess Smith Haut Lafitte on the other. There was appeal to be found in all of the wines and in the end you could not come away with any conclusion other than that 2005 was exceptionally generous with the wines of Graves – both red and white.
The bright and sunny weather we had earlier in the evening turned to a passing shower for the drive home to Jean-Marc’s office. I was hungry – Jean-Marc has this annoying habit of forgetting to eat. He’s consumed by the thrill of the new wines. Before having a bite, we tasted a few 2005 Barsacs blind, including an amazing Doisy-Daene l’Extravagant. After one of the most amazing days of my life -- I was off to Marojailla for some much needed rest. Tomorrow’s schedule included many of my personal favorites -- Latour, Montrose, Mouton, Lafite, Pichon Lalande, and Leoville Las Cases. It proved hard to sleep…
Thanks for reading.