Don't tell anyone, but there is a new and exciting region of France where some enterprising young winemakers are turning former asparagus fields and cabbage patches into a place that may someday produce wine that could without exaggeration be called "World Class"!
This diamond in the rough is the Bordeaux region of France, located to the west of Paris and the east of Spain, an area that takes its name from the Old French words for "water" and "adjacent to." Until recently this quaint rural region has been known across the world mainly for the impressively modern Aéroport de Bordeaux-Mérignac, an international crossroads and a vital link in the 'New Silk Road' that stretches from Dublin to Sardinia and back again, but I feel that someday soon the moment will come when the word "Bordeaux" will inspire thoughts of "wine" equally as much as "airport."
So it is that an eager group of adventurous New York wine lovers gathers at Greenwich Village's historic Café Loup on a chilly December evening to explore the cabernet sauvignon, cabernet grenouille and merlot based wines of this up-and-coming region. Those of us who have seen the prices of Chinon, Bourgueil and Cru Beaujolais creeping into the stratosphere are especially anxious to see if the young turks of this Bordeaux area can provide an alternative that might give our pocketbooks some much-needed relief while not sacrificing too much in the way of quality.
Immediately upon entering the woody confines of Café Loup Lisa and I are greeted at the door by the eminent John Tomasso, who is alerted by the mellifluous hues of my native floral garb, and soon we're swallowed up by a squalling crowd of wacky and semi-wacky internet wine personalities. Christian the ITB Newbie is here, as are the collectively lovely Sue Ng, Elyse Fradkin and Greg dal Piaz. The abbreviated Joe Cz waves shyly from across the table, and what internet wine gathering would be complete without the combative Cohens, Jayson and Laura? Off in the corner are Jeff Grossman and Jim Whose Last Name I Forgot, and in the central keystone position in Greenwich Village standard-issue black are Scott Kraft and better half Kitty, who brings to mind Lisa's oft-mentioned plan to name any girl children we may one day have Tabitha and Katherine, so that we may call them "Tabby" and "Kitty." At least, it brings it to my mind, I suspect no one else really makes the mental leap that is required to have that brought to their mind.
We have two tabby kitties, you see. They're very cute, and we dote on them to an unhealthy extent.
But I digress.
The ever-jovial Bob Ross is acting as the informal Master of Ceremonies, so I grab a seat near him and pop open an old favorite, a Domaine des Petits Quarts Bonnezeaux 1979, which smells simply luscious, layers of honeyed baked-lemon and tea hints in a quincey base suffused with a light almond nuttiness. The wine isn't quite as complex in the piehole as it is in the nosal passages, but there's still a pleasant layering of flavors along with a firm thrust of acidity. Lovely rather than profound, it's roughly demisec-plus in terms of sweetness, but not desserty-sweet. I had thought it a good choice for an apertif, but the irrepressible Brad Kane, who has just wandered in from the cold, takes a hit and immediately complains that I've served the Bonnezeaux too early in the evening. Bite me, I explain.
Here's a Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Clos Windsbuhl 1994, smelling sweetly of white plumeria, vinyl and baked yellow apples. There is a good upfront wash of flowery yellow fruit, the midpalate turns a little blowsy and spreads out without focus, but the finish narrows and flows towards a tangy stoniness. A large but not hulking wine without enough cut, though pleasant enough to drink.
A Christoffel Riesling Urzinger Würzgarten Kabinett 2000 makes the rounds, smelling lightly of minerals and white flowers. Nice at first, but the usual zip isn't there, the central acidity has gone missing. There is something vague and lazy going on in this wine halfway through, but just as I am about to accuse it of sloth it rallies with a tangy white-coral finish. I'm a little miffed nonetheless, as I suspect this is a slacker at heart.
Elyse raises a quizzical hand to protest all the non-Bordeaux white wines that are in evidence; we are forced into an official reading of the rules, which clearly allow for 'Starter Whites,' the dry white wines of the Bordeaux region being generally thought unfit for export. All misunderstandings cleared up, we proceed.
A La Spinetta Bricco Quaglia Moscato d'Asti 2000 meanders by, lightly sweet, juicy-fruity, fizzy and fun. "A great breakfast wine" someone cries, which sums it up nicely. It does lose a modicum of charm when it starts to warm up though, turning a bit fat and limpid, so be sure to drink it well chilled.
The Bassmen, Mike and Kim, arrive to general applause. They are of course the exhausted new parents of twins; between them and the Olegs' triplets there is a rising general suspicion in New York geek circles that there is an unplumbed link between winegeekery and fecundity.
Here's another bubbly, a Guy Larmandier Champagne Brut Premier Cru Vertus NV. Smells biscuitty, toast with a hint of lemon-ginger. Quite toasty-tart tasting as well, full flavored, lightly chalky and crisp. Quite decent, although the dryness makes it seem severe after the sweet Moscato.
Senior WIWP Bob Ross begins the red Bordeaux experience with an experiment that happily does not involve magnetization: we are challenged to discern the difference that a naked label makes to the taste of a red Bordeaux.
First off it's the Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac Naked Label 1993. A sniff, then another, here's a smooth smoky-stony nose, a stack of toast on graphite with hints of oregano, light herbiness. A sip, and tightly focused lean reddish-black fruit limned with gravel and tarriness knifes into my startled soft palate. The wine is lean and hard, along the lines of a young Taluau without the finesse. Indeed, it's a fairly uncaring mouthful, galloping roughshod through a tight midpalate and finishing with warring bursts of toast and tannins. I feel a bit used after letting it into my mouth.
Next it's the prudish American version, the Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac Non-Naked Label 1993: Here's a smooth smoky-stony nose, a stack of toast on graphite with hints of orega--hey now, it smells and tastes exactly the same as the first glass! No wait, it seems a bit toastier... no, that's just my imagination. Or is it maybe slightly more aromatic...? No, no, not really. Same wine. It seems label nudity has less to do with what's in the glass than is commonly thought.
Now the floodgates open and the wave of redness is upon me before I can do more than utter a slightly strangled "mrf." Bottles cascade across the table in quick succession...
Zip, it's a Château Léoville Las-Cases St. Julien 1983: Quiet, stony-red nose, smells very friendly, softly ripe and velvety, if slightly muted and not terribly complex. The mouthfeel is warm and fleshy, the wine is smooth and pleasant, well balanced. Doesn't strive for much in terms of oomph and aargh, but is a warm decent mouthful, a simple friend who means well and has good manners.
Pow, it's a Château Gruaud-Larose St. Julien 1985: Good dose of earthy funkiness on the nose, sweaty-saddle and truffles over round muted red cassis fruit, traces of dark pipe tobacco emerge with swirling, beat back the funk. Halfway into the midpalate it turns rounded and slightly soft, becoming a smooth easy wine that seems quite mature. Very pleasant and easygoing, but with a sly feral streak.
Whiz, here's a Château L'Arrosée St. Emilion 1985, and it smells good, O Best Beloved, very good indeed, sweetly raspberried with flecks of coffee and cedar. First sippage brings a silky thrust of meaty medium-dark red berry fruit, layered and rich, turning slightly rough as the midpalate flows into a chewy-smoky finish. The wine is nicely developed with good layering but is also somewhat less cohesive (especially towards the finish) than the past few bottles I've tried. Still, that's a quibble, as it's a fine wine in the peak of life and I jump off the bottle circuit briefly to savor it. Drink 'em up, kiddies.
While I'm savoring the L'Arrosée, Scott Kraft manages to use the word "Borgesian" in a sentence with a completely straight face, something I've only ever seen Jeff Connell do once, and that after a day of drinking Huet. While I'm goggling at him like a poleaxed steer his wife, ever the enterprising literary agent, leaps into the breach and before I know what has hit me I've been signed me to a six-figure deal with a three-city tour in exchange for exclusive radio and print rights to my tasting notes through the year 2004.
We consummate the new contract with a toast of Château Margaux 1984. Medium ruby color, slight browning at the rim. Dark hint of shoyu in the nose. Good balance, elegant and yet with enough concentration to keep the rhythm going. Darkly spicy nose, violets, old worn cedar and new-cut sawdust, quiet dark red fruit very restrained yet present. Seems like it's quite ready to drink to me, a middleweight wine without oomph or sustain, but a certain slightly worn Simone Signoret charm, a rakish elegance.
Trying to fill out the Borges reference, Scott relates the story of the man who felt the need to write down everything that happened during his day, but took more than a day to do it, so he was always falling behind. "That's why I can't get started writing tasting notes," he explains. "That would play too much into my obsessive side, I'd spend every waking minute typing out notes, ha ha..."
I squirm uncomfortably in my seat and agree that would indeed be an ugly fate, something that could take a once-carefree lad and slowly twist and gnarl him into a whipped cur that even his own mother wouldn't recognize. Then I cast about desperately for another bottle or three.
Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac 1985: More hints of shoyu, dark smoky truffley-spice. More strength at the core than the Margaux, more sustain, another notch upwards in the spine department. Slight grittiness on the finish, but a good package, nice balance and good mouthgrab. An integrated whole, with the fruit and structure and dark smokiness inseparable, just a whole real wine. Very nice.
Château Léoville-Barton St. Julien 1986: Quite ripe-smelling, black cherry and dark berry-red fruit suffused with smoky cedar aromas with a light high note of mintiness. A sip brings a wash of dark rich fruit that wells up and carries through the midpalate, then is shouted down by a flurry of dry tannins on the finish. An interesting low-acid wine that I assume Kane will like, but when I lean back and halloo down the table he scowls and declares it 'fruitless,' muttering something about all '86s having too much structure. The people in the vicinity gasp with disbelief, certain he must be thinking of another wine, and insist he taste it again. Same result. He clings admirably to his vintage generalizations, that one. I marvel briefly, then go back to my lamb.
Out of the corner of my ear I hear the phrase "orthopedic bra" drifting in from the left side of the table. I stop the proceedings and demand a definition, but none is forthcoming and I am momentarily unsettled, only soothed by the introduction of tonight's first mini-vertical...
Château Meyney St. Estèphe 1985: Blackberry-blackcurrant fruit comes at you at once, but the tide turns in the midpalate, where it seems to be on the retreat. The impression is that the wine is fading, although not gone yet. There's still good life here, but I'd drink up soon.
Château Meyney St. Estèphe 1986: A bit of horsiness right at first blows off to leave a dark red berry-cassis fruit with traces of coffee, earthiness and just a hint of anise. A nice drop with a good core of fruit and fine acidity--a pleasant surprise, despite the rough smoky edges on the finish. A well structured wine whose tight wrapping has served it well in past the decade.
On the heels of that comes yet another mini-vertical. Stop the madness!
Château Faugères St. Emilion 1996: This wine smells of dark cherry-berry fruit and dark spicy oak. There's a certain hardness in the center, although the fruit is full and the wine's sinew is apparent. A tight core but a little harsh and closed now, especially on the tannic, smoked-wood finish. Upon release I thought this was the best wine they'd yet made, since then the '98 has eclipsed it and it has gone into a deep winter's nap. Leave it alone for five years, drink the 93s and 97s while you wait.
Château Faugères St. Emilion 1997: Minerally dark black cherry-berry fruit, stonier than the '96 but not as concentrated, the aromas spread evenly and lightly. A sip, and it's a friendlier, more loosely knit wine, without the density of its older sibling. The middle is a little vague, but the finish is smoother and gentler, caressing rather than going down roughly. The 1997 is the more pleasurable wine tonight, but the '96 will be dancing at its funeral.
I'm figuratively nursing my lamb, taking it slow in order to have stamina for the stretch drive. Deep breath, here goes nothing...
Château Poujeaux Moulis-en-Médoc 1997: There's a beguiling red clay note in the brambly, red-raspberry nose. Fairly weighty feel, glyceriney and silky-smooth in the piehole. A pleasant, low-acid wine that is friendly now and doesn't seem like an ager. Easy, decent, simple.
Château Léoville Porferré St. Julien 1998: Ripe and easygoing, soft-smelling and fleshy to taste. The nose is one-note red, the taste very smooth red fruit and a dark vein of earthiness, turning towards licorice on the finish. Yet another decent, friendly wine that lacks focus and grab. Have we discovered a trend?
We take a brief break to learn the meaning of the word "allonym." An oath is made to begin dropping this word into conversations after the New Year.
Château Phélan-Ségur 1993: Hints of cherried fruit, but also a hint of corkiness. We've been doing much better than usual so far tonight on this front (knock wood), so we let it go and move on.
Château du Domaine de L'Eglise Pomerol 1998: A light matchsticky sulfurous streak blows off with air to leave a warm pool of red berry-cassis aromas behind, calm and satiny-smelling. Tastes vague and a little diffuse, ripe and smooth but generic and unimpressive.
Château Haut Selve Graves 1998 Not much of a nose, light oak and wan red fruit. Watery, thin and tart, then dryingly tannic. An overcropped little runt of a wine, not good in any sense that I can conjure.
By gum, we've run the course of reds. Did I mention that the Bordeaux region also produces its very own dessert wines? Well, it does. But first there's the usual white Loire, a Montgilet Coteaux de L'Aubance, a wine I wisely decline to taste for fear of ruining the sweet Bordeaux to come (sweet Bordeaux tend to be oaky and not show well vs. Loire whites).
I struggle with the intricacies of the dessert menu, trying to understand the deconstructionist descriptions of various confectionary edifices, finally just jabbing my finger at the menu and plaintively bleating that I'd like "the pear thing."
Château Roumieu-Lacoste Haut-Barsac 1996. Simple yellow lemon-pineapple fruit on the nose, no botrytis to speak of. Medium-sweet, light, decent, kind of vague and one-note youngish. Shrug.
Château Raymond-Lafon 1986: Smells quiet and elegant, light pineapple, apricot and creamy vanilla with a dusting of botrytis. A poised, silky-creamy style of Sauternes that has fine cohesion, a whole package, although it's a little sweeter than it needs to be. Still, quite nice.
As I'm prowling the tables for new wines I come across Laura eloquently stating the case for her need for a fur coat, pointing out that when she comes to restaurants and other women have nice fur coats, she feels bad without one. "What can I say," she opines, "I'm a Jewish girl from the Northeast!" All agree that this attitude is fitting and proper, but Jayson looks pained. I point out that the only proper use for fur is on a bikini, a notion that seems to momentarily cheer him.
Château Suduiraut Sauternes 1989: Orange rind, vanilla and apricot on the nose, with minerally bass notes and light but noticeable botrytis singing soprano. Young and woody, with a slight tannic roughness on the finish, more boisterous than the Raymond-Lafon, bigger and broader and more extravagant. There is some heat on the finish but in general I like it more, although some find it clumsy. It's about as sweet as the Raymond-Lafon, but the broader flavors hold the sugar more easily. Bob opines that it's competitive with the Yquem from the same vintage. Eyebrows akimbo, I ask him to define 'competitive.' He chortles and says "Well, I didn't say it would WIN." Then he pours the two half-full bottles of Mouton into the dump bucket, puts his finger aside his nose, winks, and races up the chimney into the night, confirming many of our suspicions.
The final bottle of the evening comes by, a Ferreira Porto 1985: Smells grapey and earthy, hints of brick dust . Tastes sweet and crisp with fine balance, but also simple, with purple grape-candy flavors predominating. Inoffensive.
The postprandial conversation runs something like this: "There were a lot of decent wines, but nothing terribly special." "Yes, I agree." "Me too." "The wines of the night were white." "Why is Kane always wrong?"
Sue Ng is dubious that good wine can ever be made in this region. "It's flat!" she says. "Whoever heard of great wine coming from the plains?" She gives the sweet whites some credit, but little else.
Always on the side of the underdog, I point out that many of the wines we drank tonight were made in the '80s, before the advent of modern winemaking technology. Nowadays, I say, innovations such as reverse osmosis, microbullage and genetically modified commercial yeasts enable these oenological wizards to push the winemaking envelope and squeeze every possible drop of quality out of their sometimes-challenging raw materials.
Perhaps our hopes for this burgeoning area are somewhat ahead of the reality. Still, there's a lot of good raw material here--the consensus is that the region needs a star producer to take the ball and run with it, setting the bar high and making a name for himself as well as all of Bordeaux. Once that's done, people will begin to see that good, ageable red wine doesn't necessarily have to come from Spain, the Loire, the Rhône or Burgundy/Beaujolais.
Let the Bordeaux revolution begin!