Thu 29 Jan 2009
We had fun with wine and learned a lot during the third and fourth weeks of February 1984.
(For readers who have not encountered my posts of “100 Wines: A Chronicle,” it’s a record of the 100 wines I learned the most from — not necessarily the best — beginning from when I first started reading about wine, tasting more wine and taking notes in 1983.)
We had been in New Orleans, visiting a former teaching colleague, and took the opportunity to go to Martin Wine Cellar, one of the great retail stores in the country. I bought bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages 1979 and Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1979, and our friend gave me a bottle of Chateau Gruaud Larose 1979. Pretty heady stuff for the neophyte! Notice the prices: “Lunch Bags” (as the witty British fondly say) was $12.63; Cos was $14.35. I didn’t inquire about Gruaud, but it must have been right in there with the others.
Back home, in Senatobia, Miss., where we taught at a junior college, we tried Lynch Bages on Feb. 14-15, Cos d’Estournal Feb. 15-17, and Gruaud Larose Feb. 24-26.
The Left Bank communes of Bordeaux are the mother lode of cabernet sauvignon wines that serve as models for the rest of the world. These are all blends; while cabernet will dominate the wine of each chateau (to greater or lesser degree, depending on the chateau style and philosophy), merlot, cabernet franc and sometimes petit verdot find their places in the mix. The most prominent communes, north of the city of Bordeaux, are Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe; down near and south of the city are Graves and Pessac-Leognan, where most estates also make white wine.
When we were at Martin Wine Cellars I deliberately chose examples from two communes, Pauillac and St.-Estèphe; that my friend gave us a bottle from St.-Julien was serendipitous. (The communes are indicated in red on the accompanying map). These are areas, and the chateaux I picked, that had been the reading material and the fodder of my imagination for two years. It was thrilling, then, to hold these bottles in my hand, to examine the labels familiar only in pictures, and to anticipate what the experience would be of sniffing and tasting them. This is the stuff upon which dreams of wine drinkers, collectors and writers are formed, legendary wines, three Classified Growths, promising sips not only of a vinous beverage but of the histories of people and places, of vineyards and pieces of earth.
The wines of the Left Bank were classified in 1855 in what was a frankly commercial endeavor designed to rank the chateaux for public attention, marketing and self-gratification. Sixty-one estates were selected and rated in First through Fifth Growths. When I first started reading about wine, and a guidebook would say that a chateau was a “Second Growth” or a “Fourth growth,” I had no idea what they were talking about; it was assumed that one knew. The 1855 Classification has remained in place except for one change; in 1973 (a terrible vintage) Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from Second to First Growth, where it joined its fellow Pauillac chateaux Lafite-Rothschild and Latour; Margaux from its eponymous commune; and Haut-Brion, the only estate from Graves admitted to the rankings.
The problem with the 1855 Classification is that much has changed in 150 years. Several properties have improved so drastically that they deserve elevation to the ranking above. Others have deteriorated and ought to be demoted or even eliminated. Some properties have radically altered in terms of vineyard and acreage ownership. Perhaps someday — since the estates of the other regions of Bordeaux have their own, more recent classifications — the Left Bank will re-evaluate the 1855 Classification, though one imagines that the owners of the chateaux that would be demoted are happy with things just as they are.
Of the wines I brought back from New Orleans, Gruaud Larose and Cos d’Estournel are Second Growths and Lynch-Bages is Fifth, though it has long deserved to be higher on the list.
Now 1979 was not a terrific year in Bordeaux. In The New Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), the English auctioneer and wine authority Michael Broadbent gives 1979 two out of five stars and comments that when the wines were released, they were “impressively deep-coloured and uncompromisingly tannic.” The majority of the wines were not keepers, though; as he says: “For many, further ageing will just leave a lean, barren, tannic shell of a wine.”
The American wine guru Robert M. Parker Jr. disagrees, somewhat. In the fourth edition of his Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines (Simon & Schuster, 2003), Parker calls 1979 “the forgotten vintage in Bordeaux” and says that “the 1979 vintage will prove superior [to the widely praised '78] — at least in terms of aging potential.” He does go on to assert, in his trademark adjectivally-obsessed fashion, that many ’79s “remain relatively skinny, malnourished, lean, compact wines.” Well, O.K.
So here are my notes, from feb. 1984:
Lynch-Bages: “Beautiful wine, still purple with faintly lighter rim; soft tannin and fruit, exceptional balance, great elegance, a little short on the finish. Probably will not improve further.” (How the hell did I know?)
Cos d’Estournal: “Will improve for 3-5 years, still tannic with some wood, fruity, berries and black currants on the nose and in the mouth, well-balanced, medium finish. Excellent.”
Gruaud Larose: “Years to go, maybe ten. Defines the phrase ‘deep purple.’ Woody and tannic, surprising fruit; complex, deep. dry and tannic, lots of wood, many levels of fruit hiding there. One of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.”
To reveal how diverse and various our wine experiences were in those days — it wasn’t all Bordeaux classified growths, I promise — we also drank these wines in February 1984: A jug of August Sebastiani Country Chardonnay 1982 ($5.95); a jug of Almaden Zinfandel 1980 ($5.75); a Jaboulet-Vercherre Chassy Côtes-du-Rhône 1981 ($4.19); a terrific Domaine de la Tour d’Elyssas Coteaux du Tricastin 1981 (100% syrah; $4.99); and an excellent Acacia Chardonnay 1982, Napa Valley ($12.99).