Sunday, March 2, 2008

BNO Bordeaux Off-Vintages: Why Off-Vintages are the Best

There is a great quote from Christian Moueix by writer Andrew Jefford: “I’m a traditionalist, even if I’m not very old yet. Which is to say that I respect terroir. I respect the weather. I’m against those new technologies, which I think have the big danger of losing the finesse and the elegance and the subtlety which for me make Bordeaux unique. And the easiness of drinking a great Bordeaux when, as a couple, you can easily drink a bottle without becoming tired. These new technological wines are so thick that you really have trouble swallowing them. We are entering the competition of the muscles rather than the brain. So, for me, that new approach in Bordeaux is a big mistake. Which does not mean that the new school will not win. I fear that they will win. Which will be to Bordeaux’s disadvantage.”

“I respect the weather.” Indeed, this is the key quote for me, which is to say, loving the surprise and the variety of expression of each vintage. As big, ripe vintages have become the norm consumers obsessed with high scores appreciate ONLY those years, while producers pandering to this market strive to emulate such vintages each year, succeeding in producing lots of artificial-tasting wines.

Our BNO (boys’ night out) group went “off-tangent” recently and opened some delightful, eye-opening Bordeaux from vintages that wine critics find mainly useful for unloading their 80 points. We found that Bordeaux’s unsung white wines do very well in these off-vintages, while the reds are leaner and more focused. This is my kind of Bordeaux. For all the times we’ve done Bordeaux, some of us felt, I included, this was both the most eye-opening and enjoyable of all.

Lenny: “My favorite tasting of the year! Seriously, I was thinking same as Alex: What a great learning experience. Not only going in-depth on the vintage but across regions."

Kevin: “I am done being so damn pushy on White Bordeaux. You guys deserve better than to let me push a varietal agenda I happen to prefer. Who do I think I am! What nerve! I will not push the call for diversity White Bordeaux agenda any further. Nuff said.”

Eric (on the slew of personal items left behind his place after the dinner): “Any thoughts on a correlation between number of items left behind and what a good time everyone had?”

We struck gold pairing a great selection of white Bordeaux and Steve’s grilled oysters on the half-shell that were doused with his magic sauce. Bordeaux’s coast, particularly around Cap Ferret, teems with oyster farms, so the region’s wines are a natural accompaniment to these tasty bivalves. I’ve enjoyed washing down oysters with various Chablis, Sancerre, Muscadet, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, but hands down this is my ultimate white Bordeaux/oyster experience.

Steve's grilled oysters, yummy!

The 2000 Pavillon Blanc du Ch√Ęteau Margaux had an oily, almost “bacon fat” mouthfeel, with luscious flavors of almond, pear, grapefruit, and minerals. Rich, bone dry, and very exquisite. The ripeness of the vintage translates not into excess fruitiness, but in a fullness in the mouth. This is a big Pavillon Blanc that is remarkably thirst-quenching.

The wine was focused, my camera was not

I also loved the 2001 Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc. A classic Graves and a fine vintage for this wine. Lively floral, citrus blossom scents, followed by crunchy Sauvignon Blanc freshness and charming, fruity energy. Irresistible now.


Another Graves, the exalted 2002 Laville Haut-Brion, the white of La Mission Haut-Brion, came next. As can be expected, this was regal, divine, fabulously complex and structured to age for a long time. Consisting mostly of Semillon, with a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, it is unique among white Bordeaux for this reverse cepages. Intense citrus, lime oil aromas. Beautiful concentration of fruit, mineral, and even spice. Elegantly dry and impeccably balanced, with glorious length on the finish. It just gets better and better in the glass.


All the reds were served at table with the delicious warmth of Eric’s comfort dish—a hodgepodge of “left-over” prime-rib, mushrooms, and root vegetables. I must say this pairing really worked, as it matched with the earthy flavors of the Bordeaux.

Eric's "hodgepodge" comfort food

1999 Leoville-Las-Cases was terrific, displaying classic Las-Cases sinewy masculinity. Lovely cassis. Brooding, muscular, and reminds me a lot of the '88 but this could be better. Someone said “fruit is lacking”, but I disagree as this is the underlying character of Las-Cases. More “fruity” vintages like 1990 and 2000 simply need time to mature and show that underneath the fat there is this lean, powerful athlete.

As I see it, the 1999 Palmer is the consensus great success of this vintage as it’s the first wine one thinks of when you utter 1999 Bordeaux, much in the same way as ’61 Lafite, ’45 Mouton, or ’59 Margaux. Palmer is not opulent or dense, and this is why some drinkers may never get it. I’ve had the ‘99 Palmer twice before—this is the tightest I’ve experienced it, which may suggest the state of the 1999s right now. But this is definitely deeply fruited and simply refined and classy. All the Margaux goodness is there, plus a firmness that may well prove that it’s another '83 in the making.


I would say the most pleasant surprise for me was how much better than expected the 1999 Montrose is. On the surface, a surprisingly tame Montrose. Sweet, dense, and smoky fruit, but the underlying tannins showed up later in the glass. Nicely balanced. This should mature very well.


The 1999 Clinet is what you’d expect an outstanding Pomerol should be—a dense, sweet, fleshy wine. I think here we see how fitting Michel Rolland's method is when applied to his hometown of Pomerol and to the Merlot. Beautiful concentration. Packed with extracts—coffee, blueberry, blackberry, herbal tones, and clay—that offer immediate pleasure.


Though Palmer’s success is not duplicated in the 1999 Pavillon Rouge, this a sumptuous wine, forward and lush with soft, juicy blackberry, and minerally flavors. It slips down very easily. Enjoy the moment. Its overall freshness and perfume make it a fleeting beauty.


I must say that after drinking these wonderful 1999s I was not too thrilled with the 2002 Cos d’Estournel. But then again only a handful of Cos has impressed me. I usually find it a bit sweet and lacking grace. This ‘02 shows concentration, but is muddled and unrefined. It lacks the cleanness, purity and unforced, relaxed extraction of the '99s. It may be a sign of how things are changing in Bordeaux, as much of the Bordelais seem to be mimicking a vintage of the century each year.


Finally, the 1985 Quinta do Noval. Not a terribly complex or powerful vintage, but Noval’s seductive fruit is there in this forward-drinking Port. Crushed red fruits, raspberry coulis with leather, cedar, and pepper. Perfect with the cigars.