SEEING IT FRESH
It’s nice to have company when I travel. When I visit a place – such as Bordeaux – that I visit often, it’s particularly nice to have someone with me who’s never been there before. On this trip, I’m traveling with three Spec’s wine guys – Richard Malphrus, Robert Boyd, and James Barlow – who are all well-traveled and experienced and have good-book-and-tasting-knowledge of Bordeaux but have never been here before. Why is that good? Other than the fact that they are good company and are getting invaluable boots-on-the-ground experience, having them along helps me see it fresh through their eyes. And that keeps me from taking what I am seeing-doing-and-tasting for granted. I pay attention not just to the places and people and wines but to how these three accomplished wine professionals react and respond to those same things.
Much of this trip is about evaluating the 2015s and some is about finding fine mature wines to sell. Both of those parts are what everyone imagines and wishes they could be part of. And trust me, in that regard, the guys I’m traveling with are living the dream. But some of it is about basic Bordeaux business and some of that is about as glamorous as watching sausage making. It has to be done and the results are worth the effort but much of the time the people engaged would rather be doing something else. While there’s probably not a lot of wine geek consumer interest in reading about a good (but not great) sub-$10 Bordeaux rouge (such as Ch. La Maroutine) or Entre Deux Mers (such as Ch. Nicot Blanc), those wines still have to be tasted and evaluated and prices have to be negotiated. It helps to have a lot of experience but it also helps to have those fresh eyes mentioned above.
I’d like to be posting every day while I am here in Bordeaux but the fact is we leave the hotel early and get back late. For the last two nights, getting some sleep was more important than a blog post. Nevertheless, Thursday, Friday and today (Saturday) saw us tasting some fabulous wines at price points ranging from $12 to potentially over $500. Still this not a sprint so much as an ironman; there’s another week to go and sleep is essential. So I’ll post when I can and sleep when I have to.
I take notes on almost all the wines we taste on a trip like this. An acquaintance in Bordeaux (who is a bit of a dirty old man) once told me that “Tasting wine is like kissing girls. You remember the best and you remember the worst and for the rest you need a diary.” He went on to allow that most girls kiss differently each time you kiss ‘em.
He had two points and both, however expressed, are valid. 1) Without detailed tasting notes, even great wines can begin to run together … but there are wines that – for reasons both good and bad – transcend the need for a note. On the plus side, first sips of both 1996 Ch. Margaux and 1999 Ch. Latour come readily to mind. And 2) Tasting notes are only an instantaneous snap shot of a wine right in the moment when you’re tasting it. You freezing that moment in a note – like shooting a photograph – does not lock the living, evolving wine into that moment. The wine will change so some of the sensory perception information in a tasting note is going out of date the moment the note is completed.
Whenever possible, I taste wines multiple times to get a more complete impression. But even on wines that I only taste once on a given trip, I have – over an-almost-forty-year-career tasting Bordeaux and twenty years of coming to Bordeaux to taste – a frame of reference of tasting wines from the same property(s) in other vintages or at the least tasting lots of similar wines.
For me, tasting notes are most valuable when there is some technical data included and are best used as an indicator of overall quality (that’s where the score comes in) rather than as a passport photo for strict identification purposes (Is that really you?).
2015: A VERY INTITIAL GENERAL IMPRESSION
Out of over the 300 wines I have tasted so far on this trip, the seventy-seven 2015s have given me enough of a sample size to begin to form some impressions.
Which is a bold statement because there are over 8,000 chateaux producing wine in Bordeaux. These wines range from the cheapest (say 4 euros-a-bottle in a French super-market) to the most expensive (including some that may sell for thousands of dollars per bottle). Of those 8,000 chateaux, fewer than 1,000 have much chance of doing any meaningful business in the US. If you gave me enough time (and an incentive to do it), I might could name as many as 700 chateaux and a good number of those would be properties I regularly drive past but gave up on tasting years ago. At this point when I taste a new vintage, I’m actually looking at a selection of no more than 400 wines (some tasted two or three times) out of the 8,000 or so possibles – and some of that is for informational purposes only. Ultimately, Spec’s will likely buy somewhere around 200 different Bordeaux wines from the 2015 vintage with maybe 100 to 125 wines being glamorous names and the others being fine serviceable value wines that actually make up most of the unit sales volume of the Bordeaux category. But I digress. Actually, I digress rather a lot but … there I go again.
So my so-far-so-good impression of the 2015 Bordeaux vintage (based on a sample size of 77 wines out of a likely to be tasted 400 or so wines) is this:
2015 as a vintage offers charming, easy-to-like wines of balance and some elegance with forward fruit and plenty of freshness. The fruit character (on both sides of the river) tends to red and dark red and darker red fruit with – at least so far – almost no black fruit. Place (terroir) seems to be part of the equation here maybe more than it has been in some recent great vintages (such as 2009 and 2010). So is 2015 a great vintage? My trusted friends in Bordeaux say so and my still limited sample has shown me nothing as yet to make me think otherwise. Some are saying the vintage is a bit better on the right bank than the left but, at least in the wines I’ve tasted so far, I haven’t seen that. For me, the quality is pretty even across both the Merlot-dominant and Cabernet-dominant wines. I have heard Bordeaux professionals describe the vintage as a cross of 2009 and 2010 with the charm of the former and some of the structure of the latter – but I am not yet ready to argue for or against that assessment. Of course, it can be argued that, at whatever price point, the wines I’m tasting are the best of the best – and I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.
SO WHAT’S THE BEST 2015 I’VE TASTED SO FAR?
That’s easy. The 2015 Ch. Lafite Rothschild is not only the best 2015 I’ve tasted so far, it is also the best young Ch. Lafite I have ever tasted.
Ch. LAFITE ROTHSCHILD, Pauillac, 2015
A blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Merlot fermented using pumpovers and aged in 100% new French oak barrels. Red-purple colored with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. The tobacco leaf is there and so is the beginnings of the pencil shavings along with a note of black tea leaf. Dark and darker red fruit with spice and some black pepper. Dusty gravel. Elegance personified and quite ethereal. Has the expected Lafite weightlessness. BearScore: 98-100.
Other 2015s That Have Made Big Impressions*:
Ch. Latour, Pauillac
Les Forts de Latour, Pauillac
Ch. Rieussec, Sauternes
Ch. Canon La Gaffeliere, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé
Ch. Grand Corbin Despagne, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé
Ch. la Croix St. Georges, Pomerol
Ch. La Pointe, Pomerol
Ch. Gruaud Larose, St. Julien
Ch. Beychevelle, St. Julien
Ch. Leoville Barton, St. Julien
Ch. d’Issan, Margaux
Ch. d’Aiguilhe, Castillon – Cotes de Bordeaux
Ch. Clos Marsalette, Pessac Leognan Blanc
*These are not necessarily the highest scores but they did make the biggest impressions.
Best 2015 Values Tasted So Far
Ch. Laplagnotte Bellevue, St. Emilion Grand Cru
Ch. Vieux Clos St. Emilion, St. Emilion
Vieux Ch. Saint Andre, Montagne St. Emilion
Les Brullieres de Beychevelle, Haut Medoc
Ch. Tour Salvet, Haut Medoc
Ch. Truquet, St. Emilion
BIGGEST 2015 SURPRISE
I wasn’t expecting to taste any Rosé on this trip (drink maybe but not taste) so that was surprise number one. Surprise number two is that, while I liked the 2014 iteration of this wine, I didn’t love it. I do love this 2015 Bordeaux Rosé.
PINS de DUNES, Bordeaux Rosé, 2015
Formerly called “Pins de Pyla,” this is a blend of 1/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1/3 Merlot, and 1/3 Cabernet Franc made using direct pressing (no saignee) and aged only in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. Pale-pink-rose in color with good legs; dry, light-bodied with fresh, refreshing acidity and scant phenolics. Bubble-gum-dust and Jolly Rancher melon, strawberry, and citrus. Although all that fruit leaves a sweet impression, the vivid acidity and beam of mineral keep it dry, clean, and super refreshing. Delicious. BearScore: 92+.
So, just out of curiosity: when was the last time you read a blog post that mentioned both Ch. Lafite Rothschild and a simple Bordeaux Rosé? Maybe not in the same breath but at least in the same post.