Sunday, February 4, 2007

Dinner with 2003 Bordeaux

One of the fun things about wine is that it's never boring and it never ceases to surprise. Such is the case with the wines from the 2003 Bordeaux vintage. Famous for its record heatwave and the drought that prevailed during most of the growing season, the vintage resulted in crops with very high ripeness levels. Bordeaux has never experienced such a vintage, at least not in a while, and so there has been widespread wonder among producers and consumers alike as to how the wines would turn out.

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The 2003 Bordeaux wines have been released for several months now and it is indeed a very fascinating vintage. We hosted a wine dinner last night at a private restaurant in San Mateo, CA, that featured several of the top wines of the vintage. One would think that matching food with these very young, fruit-heavy wines could be problematic. But, as the dinner demonstrated, there was no need for such concern; the wines never overpowered the food and the food pairing was delicious. Why? The simple answer is relatively modest alcohol and good adequate acidity.

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The setup team

Many have described the 2003 Bordeaux vintage as a "California" vintage for the kind of ripeness that the vintage achieved. In a sense this is true, as the Bordeaux wines show dense fruit with sweet flavors and soft tannins, or tannins masked by gobs of fruit. But the similarity pretty much stops there. Whereas California Cabernet Sauvignons routinely register 14.5% to 16% alcohol (oftentimes with water already added in), these 2003 Bordeaux wines for the most part have an alcohol range of 13%-13.5%! The other surprising difference of these 2003 Bordeaux wines is that given such a high ripeness level they still maintained adequate acidity so the flavors remained bright and fresh amidst the saturation. From my tastings of the wines and from last night's dinner, I can tell you that 2003 Bordeaux is not really a "California" vintage, or an "Aussie" vintage for that matter. It is a unique vintage; a vintage all to its own.

We started with a white Graves from Carbonnieux, a full, minerally white, with attractive floral aromas and ripe. pomelo grapefruit flavors. The pairing with a delicate fish consommé was brilliant, as the dish brought out the lovely sweetness in the wine.

The second course of grilled quail with quinoa grain in a persimmon sauce was also a delicate dish, yet it was not overpowered by the four big reds that accompanied it. The Clos Manou, a little-known cru bourgeois from the Medoc, held its own against the classed growths it was served with. This overachieving 2003 showed impressive concentration and grip, coating the palate with its powerful and lush blackbbery flavors. A striking contrast to the Smith Haut Lafitte next to it, which showed bright black cherry and red berry flavors, with a distinctive note of coffee and iodine. Truly a seductive wine. Then next to this was the much-praised and talked about Pontet-Canet, a Michel Rolland wine. I've had this wine a few times before and while I regard it as an attractive wine I remain not as overwhelmed by it as other folks. It is dark and muscular and almost jammy at the end. Its main trait is its enormous power and extract, which to me seem forced. The final wine in this flight is the Pichon-Lalande, of which I am a big fan. It is the most atypical and most powerful young Pichon-Lalande that I've ever had. Its trademark floral, sweet, spicy perfume is not evident; instead, it exudes earthy, chocolatey, blackberry jam scents. Dense and fleshy and filled to the brim with extract. Yet, in contrast to the Pontet-Canet, it is relaxed and layered; never really forceful and gradually unfolding. This will be a very long-lived Pichon-Lalande. A Super-Second performance, if not First Growth quality.

The next flight represents the tour de force of the vintage. Leading off are the two superstars of St. Estephe, the commune said to have performed superbly in this vintage: Cos d'Estournel and Montrose. The Cos, even with its dense, concentrated blackberry flavors and long finish, tasted suave and polished. I would have preferred more firmness as it's quite forward in style. The Montrose is equally big and ripe, but it shows more depth and firmness on the mid-palate. Solid concentration. It is beautifully put together and it exhibits the poise and balance of a First Growth.

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Finally to the three First Growths. Mouton-Rothschild is truly seductive in this vintage. Tight on the nose, but really sweet and filled with spicy blackberry and raspberry jam flavors. Very good grip as the flavors hang on the palate, yet it doesn't quite have the depth and the expressiveness to put it over the top. Almost the same thing can be said of the Margaux, but it is more solid, really powerful, with great concentration and depth. But it lacks expressiveness and the finish is rough. I feel the extraction went a bit over and resulted in a less than perfect balance. The Lafite-Rothschild exhibits little of these faults. The style is very relaxed and the wine is well-proportioned--it fits like a glove in this unique, challenging vintage. Its complex nose changes from cassis and herbal extracts to toffee, sweet caramel, and butterscotch, then back to more cassis. It is big and powerful, but never forceful. It is spherical in character, with no rough edges. Its finish is long, but not loud, showing the class and elegance of a Frist Growth.

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The dessert ending featured what was perhaps the killer food and wine pairing of the evening. Chef Patrick Farjas served his signature vanilla ice cream flavored with candied spicy ginger. The almost cloying, syrupy richness of the young La Tour Blanche pretty much melted with the ice cream resulting in a seamless balance of flavors. The Sauternes' super ripeness tamed by the spicy ginger, brought out the wine's hidden elegance.

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Candied Spicy Young Ginger & Tahitian Vanilla Seed Ice Cream


Bordeaux 2003's successful wines are not only attractive for their high ripeness levels, but also for their easy drinkability, especially for drinkers with a more California wine palate. But unlike California Cabernets, these 2003 Bordeaux have more modest alcohol levels and good acidity, which altogether make them very good food wines indeed.

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French Master Chef Patrick Farjas and his competent staff


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Deliberating the wines at the end of the dinner

P.S. Thank you to all the generous folks who brought wines to share from their cellars. The '95 Margaux is still reverberating on my palate. Thank you, Steve. Ron, you make Michael Broadbent proud with the '85 Figeac. Great call. Andrew, what can I say, '97 Monbousquet! Dennis, what a treat on the 2000 Reignac; it ran with the class growths. And Lenny, I didn't see a drop of the '03 Almaviva by the time the bottle got to me, it must have been Mouton-esque.

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