I’M BACK: Where I’ve Been and Some Thoughts on Bottle Variation

After not posting a blog entry during three weeks of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and then two weeks spent traveling and tasting in Bordeaux, I’m back. Back both from the Rodeo (aka “the Show”) and Bordeaux and also back to BearOnWine.com. And it’s not like I didn’t drink anything worth reporting on in all that time. I had a lot of Champagne and other sparkling wines (Champagne Friday Update to follow) and so much Bordeaux I have literally lost count (likely several posts to follow on both the 2011 Bordeaux Vintage and Bordeaux in general). I even drank some excellent Italian wine (with pizza at Peppone in Bordeaux). However, there are only so many hours in a day and posting a blog entry is further down my priority list than, for instance, sleeping at least five hours a night.

Red Ransom getting a cookie while meeting a special cowboy named Tynan.

The RODEO WEEKS
In addition to trying to keep my head above water at Spec’s (you know, that “day job” that makes all the fun stuff possible), I rode Red Ransom (my new “Quarter-Walker”) in 17 of the Show’s 20 grand entries, got to meet a special young cowboy named Tynan, worked the Champion Wine Auction, taught 8 wine seminars in the Champion Wine Garden (four on Champagne, two on French wine and and two on Pinot Noir), and hosted several winemakers and winery owners as well as Spec’s owner Lindy Rydman and her daughter Lisa Key at the Rodeo. And I know I drank a dent into the supply of Laetitia Brut Rose while frequenting the Champion Wine Garden.

BOTTLE VARIATION
While helping with the Show’s Champion Wine Auction Dinner, I tasted every bottle of Antinori Guado Al Tasso 2007 and every bottle of the Costers del Ros L’Obila Priorat 2004 (The Grand and Reserve Grand Champion Best of Show winners from the 2012 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition) that were served at said dinner. Why? Because the dinner’s organizers wanted to be sure that none of the bottles served to the guests were corked or otherwise flawed. How many is “every”? About 90 bottles of each. While I found only two technically flawed bottles (one of each wine, both suffering from TCA or “cork taint”), the exercise proved to be very interesting. In both wines, there was a LOT of bottle variation. The bottles ranged form sublime to, well, frankly earthy and a bit disappointing. While I wasn’t keeping formal score, I’d say that in both cases somewhat more than third of the bottles were lovely (which is to say better than expected), about a third were perfectly acceptable (about as expected but not so good-vibrant-alive as the “lovelies”) and somewhat less than  a third were (in varying degrees) frankly earthy and even a bit funky (but not technically flawed in the sense of showing TCA, TBA, oxidation, etc.) but still drinkable and for the most part enjoyable. Some of my younger friends might say that the least desirable of these “tasted like ass”. Had I ordered either of these wines in a restaurant, I would have accepted (and likely drunk) all of them except the two corked bottles. However, if my only experience with the wines were the earthy/funky bottles (and none of the “acceptables” or “lovelies”), I might never have ordered them again. While the earthier bottles showed no obvious technical flaw, they were less good and did not justify their price.

This was really interesting as it is very rare for anyone to have the opportunity to taste so many examples of the same wine from the same vintage at the same time. Because I was tasting (and spitting) the wines at the rate of two or three or more per minute (others were opening and pouring the bottles), I had an immediate frame of reference. It was only because of that situation that the differences stood out and revealed themselves as due to bottle variation and not some other factor. I do not think this is an isolated case. While tasting at Joanne in Bordeaux last week, I occasionally bumped into a funky sample. When I asked for a different sample, the new bottle was better every time. These samples (at least in theory) were pulled and bottled at the same time and stored under the same conditions, just as (presumably) the Guado and l’Obila were. And yet there was variation.

While I don’t know of an economically feasible way to further research this (other than finding similar situations where a lot of bottles of the same wine are being poured at a big dinner or event), I think bottle variation across a large sampling is something to look into. The wines I tasted at the Champion Auction Dinner certainly opened my eyes.

The tower at Ch. Latour from the terrace at Ch. Pichon Lalande.

BORDEAUX 2011
As to my trip to Bordeaux, where do I begin? Two weeks of tasting much of the best as well as much of “the best of the rest.” Yes, I readily acknowledge that I have the best job in the world. There is a bit more to it than tasting in Bordeaux every year but that makes up for a lot of time crunching spreadsheets, drilling through databases, and tasting a lot of not so sexy (or even very good) wine. You gotta kiss a lotta frogs. But I digress … To but it bluntly, 2011 in Bordeaux is a better red wine vintage (at least fine) than you’ve probably heard or read. At least that is the case with wines from the better producers. 2011 is an excellent vintage for dry white Bordeaux, again at least from the better producers. 2011 Sauternes is a bit more spotty but there are some lovelies, especially Ch. d’Yquem which ROCKED MY WORLD. Unlike 2005 and 2009, 2011 is not a vintage to buy from just any chateau. For the reds at least, it is more like 2008 (and in my unwanted and certainly unsolicited opinion (with a few notable exceptions) should be priced like 2oo8.

At their best (and there are plenty of wines in this category), the 2011 Bordeaux reds offer more red (usually much more red) than black fruit with notes of tobacco (on the Cabernet-dominant wines), mineral-earth (Merlot-dominant) and (sometimes) graphite. The best 2011 Bordeaux whites offered ripe citrus and tropical fruit (sometimes bordering on or moving into the exotic range often swirled in with mineral) sometimes from gravel but more often from clay over limestone. Even the value picks offered ripe citrus and at least some mineral. IF the prices are right (and the rumor is that the 2011 will be comparable to the 2008 prices as futures – here’s hoping that happens), these 2011s will offer great buys in elegant, balanced, fruit forward but classically structured Bordeaux. And we all need wines like that.

3 thoughts on “I’M BACK: Where I’ve Been and Some Thoughts on Bottle Variation

  1. Bear,

    Bottle variation is an interesting subject. I recall we had some bottle variation in the 2011’s we tasted last week. I’d be curious to open 90 bottles of any chateau and see how they came out as well. And sir, you truly are a taster with a capacity for tasting a lot of wines in one sitting, witnessed by the nearly 100 wines we tasted the last day in Bordeaux.

    And yes the ’11 d’Yquem , I can still taste it – very long finish – some say the wine of the vintage…

    Thanks for the recap! Looking forward to reading more soon

  2. Bear,
    Bottle variation is an interesting subject. I recall we had some bottle variation in the 2011’s we tasted last week. I’d be curious to open 90 bottles of any chateau and see how they came out as well. And sir, you truly are a taster with a capacity for tasting a lot of wines in one sitting, witnessed by the nearly 100 wines we tasted the last day in Bordeaux .

    And yes the ’11 d’Yquem , I can still taste it – very long finish – some say the wine of the vintage…

    Thanks for the recap! Looking forward to reading more soon

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