Going Back to Bordeaux

March 2, 2013

Unlike the protagonist of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”—who “started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff”—the usual path these days seems to be for people to start out drinking wine from California. Some stick with it, while others tire of the usual formula of jam + wood and sooner or later find themselves migrating to the Old World. My own biography, however, is none of the above. I got my start on Bordeaux.

I was in a summer program in France before my junior year of college, attempting to learn the French or at least get a credit that would finish out the foreign-language requirement. I failed miserably at the former while succeeding in somewhat dubious fashion at the latter (learning an interesting lesson in American-style grade inflation along the way, when my 13/20 mark for the semester—”Assez bien,” literally: “Good enough”!—translated into an A- on my college transcript). The school was in Annecy, an idyllic postcard-snapshot of a town in the Savoie. The area was and is much more famous for its cheese than its wine, but I enjoyed many afternoons of cheap, gulpable local whites out of pichets or in kirs, and plenty more over dinner. The family I was lucky enough to be boarded with seemed to host students more out of a desire to have mouths to cook for than any financial necessity, and there was a bottomless supply of cheap mondeuse on the table. (We speculated jokingly that it was the same bottle refilled every day from a gas-station-style pump in the yard.) I quickly got curious enough to start exploring the wares at the wine shops in town and asked my host one day what the best wines in France were. “Bordeaux,” he responded, and then said again a few more times, “Bordeaux,” refusing all entreaties to elaborate and using the tone of voice I imagine Ring Lardner captured in his classic line, “Shut up, he explained.”

I had only two criteria to guide my Bordeaux purchasing. The first was the label. Any bottle with an etching of a stately château and a fancy cursive script got preference. The second was age. The shelves were mostly stocked with newly released 1994s, but there were some older bottles here and there. I had somehow picked up on the fact that 1989 was supposed to be a pretty special vintage and bought those when I saw them.

Obviously, I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know whether Haut-Médoc was a place or a grape. I had certainly never read a wine magazine and had no idea I was supposed to be judging what I was drinking based on whether it approximated red currants, lead pencils, or anything else. Nor had I ever heard used, or ever thought to use, the word “complexity” to describe the desirable attributes of a wine. Rather, if you had asked me to identify what distinguished the ones I liked from the ones I didn’t like so much, I would have used the word “smooth,” a term which is today practically a shibboleth of complete ignorance about the standard vocabulary. But “smooth” was the key for me. Some wines felt coarse and dry going down the gullet, like the cheap table mondeuse. But others went down as easy as water, the gastronomic equivalent of slipping into your most comfortable pair of shoes. A 1989 cru bourgeois guzzled on a picnic blanket with a girl from California while watching Bastille Day fireworks fit into that category and remains my Platonic ideal of what “claret” should be for reasons—believe it or not—having nothing to do with the girl. One of the reasons it would never have occurred to me to describe it as tasting like red currants or any other kind of fruit is that it didn’t taste like fruit at all. It tasted like wine.

When I got back home I made it a project to learn about Bordeaux. I read about the 1855 classification and remember the rush of excitement finding a Grand Cru Classé with “Rothschild” on the label within my budget, even if it was only Chateau d’Armailhac (lovely, regardless). Since the point was education rather than alcohol consumption I became an avid consumer of half-bottles and managed to cover a broad swath of the 1855 classification and several decades’ worth of vintages on a student’s budget. Even first growths were not completely out of the question. You could get lucky with a find like ’70 Mouton in half bottle—the one with the Chagall label—out of the cold room of a local shop for $50. You could get a few friends together, each put in twenty bucks, and drink Lafite.

I spent my first professional paycheck on 2000 Bordeaux futures, six cases’ worth. They weren’t cheap—but they would have been a hell of a lot more expensive if I’d bought them even a day later. In a stroke of good luck, I’d just happened to be browsing Sherry-Lehmann’s web site when they came online and benefited from first tranche prices. I think my most expensive purchase was Pichon-Lalande at around $75 a bottle, and I had a fine time patting myself on the back over the next day as I watched the web listings absorb multiple price hikes in a real-time display not totally dissimilar from a scene on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Then something odd happened. With each successive campaign, even as I had more disposable income to spend, the level of Bordeaux I could afford to buy kept shifting downward. I could no longer afford to drink as well as I did when I was a penniless student! When the 2005s came out to even greater fanfare and frenzy than the 2000s, I didn’t buy six cases. I bought six bottles. In the years since, the number has been zero.

Style, of course, has been as much a factor as price. The fact that very few of the châteaux I know even remotely resemble the way they tasted just a few years prior made the decision to give up on them very easy. One can hear Michel Rolland’s Gargamel-like cackle from Mondovino in the background every time the critics praise an estate for its “rejuvenation” in quality, or laud the new vintage as the “best ever.” None of those wines will ever deliver anywhere near the satisfaction as that cru bourgeois on Bastille Day, 1997.

Which got me to thinking. The Bordeaux that do have the ability to deliver that kind of satisfaction haven’t gotten that much more expensive, because nobody cares about them, and haven’t changed their style all that much, because doing that stuff costs money and they don’t stand to gain much from it anyway. Most of those châteaux aren’t reviewed by the magazines, and even if they were, investing in high-tech manipulation, more new oak, and expensive consultants probably wouldn’t accomplish much more than taking them from an 84-point rating to an 86 (which still may as well be an F, grade inflation no longer being restricted to college transcripts). The critics simply aren’t looking for what those wines can offer.

The 2009 vintage seemed to me a fine occasion to do some exploring. It’s a ripe vintage, but unlike 2003 or even 2005, it’s a friendly one. The wines are easy to drink, but they’re not insubstantial. “Smooth” is, in fact, an apt way to describe them, even the ones that actually do have a lot of tannin. So I bought a mix of petits châteaux and crus bourgeois I had enjoyed in the past and a few that were new to me and opened one with dinner whenever I was in the mood for a simpler pleasure, hoping that one of them would conjure up a petite madeleine moment.

The wine that did it was the 2009 Château Recougne, a Bordeaux Superieur. I actually remember going through several bottles of the 1995 back in the day, which used to cost eight or nine dollars. The 2009 is widely available for eleven or twelve. I wish the rest of the region had shown the same restraint. Restraint is also an apt description for the wine in the bottle, which is seamless in the way it is put together and is one of those wines that tastes like wine and not fruit. That latter quality isn’t something all that difficult to find at this level, but there is something about the way Recougne presents it that strikes me as prettier and more satisfying than most. It has a degree of drinkability that would lend itself perfectly well to being guzzled straight out of the bottle on a picnic blanket, but most wines with that quality pull it off just by being light and easy. This is actually not that light, just very streamlined. There is an underlying density that gives you something to savor, but it’s so rounded that you can drink it with abandon. It is not profound Bordeaux and does not pretend to be, but it reminded me of what I used to love about Bordeaux.

Some of the other wines actually turned out to be somewhat more serious than I had intended for this exercise, but were no less satisfying for it. I won’t say much about the 2009 Château Lanessan because it’s already one of the most famous of the crus bourgeois with a known track record for aging well, but the 2009 is an exceptionally pretty vintage of it, more approachable than any I can remember. Here, the vintage gives it more fruit sweetness than usual, and more than the norm for classic Bordeaux, but it doesn’t color outside the lines, and its soft, open-knit personality made me think of it as an ideal comfort wine.

Perhaps more interesting, though, was the 2009 Château Haut-Vigneau, from Pessac-Léognan, a property I had never heard of before. If I have one regret in my Bordeaux buying history (aside from not buying more of the stuff that skyrocketed in price so I could have cashed in and bought a vacation home), it’s not buying more Pessac, which seems to be the one appellation in Bordeaux with a screaming personality. It has been described variously as scorched earth, campfire wood, molten tar, or just plain gravelly, but whatever you want to call it, it makes Pessac and Graves taste different from everything else and was very likely what Samuel Pepys was tasting when he wrote of “Ho Bryan” that it “hath a good and most peculiar taste that I have never met with.” Not all of the lesser Graves manage to wring this unique flavor out of the earth the way the big boys of the appellation do, but it is unmistakable in the Haut-Vigneau. And while the wine is structured enough to make me curious about aging some bottles, it is exceptionally drinkable so there is no need to wait. I bought a case. If I ever get tired of it, I also have some mondeuse.

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