On January 22 at Restaurant Felidia in Manhattan, I attended a Wine Media Guild tasting lunch featuring the wines of three important Bordeaux Châteaux: Château Canon, Château La Conseillante, and Château La Fleur-Pétrus. From there, I floated on to the Union of Grands Crus de Bordeaux “Vintage 2011 US Tasting Tour” at the Waldorf Astoria, where I had to pick and choose tastes from more than 100 of Bordeaux’s most eminent properties.At table number 78 in the Waldorf ballroom, I found an old favorite: Château Beychevelle, whose wines I first encountered in 1968. I was a newlywed college student, experimenting with Julia Child’s cookbook, and wines from a shop near my fifth floor walk-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Could it be that love was in the air? Whatever held sway, with Château Beychevelle and its ilk (Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Longueville, Giscours, etc.) I began a lifelong devotion to Bordeaux wines, which led to my planting of Bordeaux grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and the whites, semillion and sauvignon blanc) on Long Island in 1973.
Bordeaux and Burgundy defined great wine in those days. They had for more than two centuries. In the late ’60s into the ’70s, I could afford them, as a treat. To put it into context, in 1969 I spent about $18 a week on groceries, while a fabulous bottle of Grand Cru Bordeaux cost me under $4.
Then, in the ’80s, the Japanese began to buy up the best of Bordeaux, sending prices into the stratosphere. Now, newly affluent China is the biggest export market for Bordeaux wines and Chinese investors have bought more than 60 wine properties there. If a bottle used to cost a quarter of my food budget in 1969, today the same Château might equal or exceed my food budget times 10.
The leading Grands Crus are still the benchmark wines of the world. Sort of. Because while the owners of Château Lafitte, Mouton Rothschild, and even Beychevelle were gloating over their dominance in the elite marketplace, wine critics began to get snarky about Bordeaux’s tough tannins and brettanomyces spoilage problems, and to reward big jammy wines from California with their top marks. No longer what it was in terms of world dominance, Bordeaux is in the process of redefining itself, like giant waking up after a long sleep, and finding that the Lilliputians have all become giants, too.
Back at the Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in the Waldorf ballroom on January 22, when I tasted the 2011 Château Beychevelle, I found myself in love again. But this time, with a different style of wine. What was, in the 1960s, characterized by ethereal high notes of cedar, violets and blackberries is, in today’s iteration, a much more solid, rich, tannin- and alcohol-driven wine.
Bordeaux’s changing style in a struggle to maintain its place in the wine world was evident at the Wine Media Guild tasting, too. As 30-plus wine journalists sipped, gulped and scribbled notes on 11 vintages of the two Pomerol and one St Emilion wines from as far back as 1978, our conversation centered on how these chateaux’s owners have adapted to the changing wine world.
La Conseillante, Château Canon, and Château La Fleur-Pétrus have spent recent years making massive renovations to their vineyards and wineries. At Château Canon (owned by luxury goods brand Chanel), an ongoing problem with TCA (“corked” aroma) in the winery was solved with an all-new facility. La Fleur-Pétrus bought laser sorting tables.
Yields are now aggressively limited and (as in California) ripening is defined completely differently, by phenolic maturity (soft tannins in the skins and seeds) rather than by potential alcohol conversion charts. With longer “hang time” while tannins mature, today’s fruit is aromatically different. Later ripening means more alcohol and a different acid profile. Quality is more consistent but costs soar.
Now the Bordelais wonder how to recoup their massive investments. Having had a disastrous vintage in 2013, beset by damaging rain, hail and disease problems, they see Chinese consumers disaffected by exorbitant prices of the First Growths. En primeur prices dropped by 33 percent. Orders for the 2011 vintage were canceled. Devoutly honest, Château Canon’s General Manager John Kolasa said, “You’ve got to hit the wall before you know you’ve got a sore nose.”
But none of us who tasted these Grands Crus on January 22 had sore noses. Red, yes; sore, no. For me, Bordeaux still defines the most elegant, complex and age-worthy wines, even if they are radically different from what they were in 1968.
As Kolasa also said, “You put your heart and love in the grapes, then share.”
Maybe I’m still in love.