Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hysterical Blindness

Bordeaux makes me sick. Wines of Bordeaux, that is. That are. Argh! Not from flavor (still reliably incredible), C2H6O content (still relatively low), or price tag (still frequently absurd), but rather the vertigo I suffer teetering cruciform on the edge of a Riedel top-heavy with Girondin ambrosia.

It's not the wine itself, but the notion of Bordeaux that sandbags the drinking experience with an obligation to make it count, to make it definitive. The thought that all wine strives for Bordeaux's brand recognition and--generally speaking--sensory impact spins the head. The pressure is felt in all four corners of the tongue, and discipline in tasting is uprooted. Eventually the inner ear stops making promises. Sick!

A function of inexperience, bien sur. The last time Emile Peynaud had any such problem he was probably wearing culottes. I cling to a dopey confidence that enough drinking will obliterate all such "notions" and each palate-glazing of Bordeaux (and Burgundy, Rioja, Carneros Pinot, etc.) will one day be nothing more than what it is.

This understood, I was happy to confront six veiled bottles of BDX on a hazy t-shirt Sunday near the end of the summer. Blind tasting. I've described my aspirations and frustrations spinning the wheel in this spooky art, but doing it with Bordeaux has a distinctly game-seven feel. What would prove mastery of craft better than arranging each piece of La Conseillante 2000's sensory 411 into the checkmate of identification?

I brought a Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte 2003, motivated by Decanter's piece on the Cathiards' run of accomplished vintages this decade. After wrapping the bottle in shimmering polyethylene, I sliced the capsule to reveal a cork luxuriant with pale blue mold. God damn it. No equivocating about a corked bottle's educational benefits could cast this as anything other than a heartbreaking waste. The first glasses of a deep purple sludge were already circulating, so I muttered a warning that there was a dud in the chamber and started nosing.

1. Anderson's Conn Valley Vineyards "Right Bank" (Napa), 2005

"Pomerol... I'd have to say it's a Pomerol." I pierced the swollen silence, intent on drawing first blood. At that moment I felt confident in my assertion. The wine was sweet, silky, low acid, and lacking the operatic thunder of Cabernet Sauvignon. I have tasted maybe ten Pomerols in my life, but am well-versed in reviews and stereotypes. It had not occurred to me that there are wineries in California that make a declared effort to replicate Bordeaux cuvees. A noble whiff.

2. Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac), 1998

Curranty, medium-bodied, cheese-loving acidity pinned the wine's origin to the east bank of the great estuary. Tilting the glass revealed a brick crayon dissolving into a mist. "This has to be at least four years old," I offered. "It's not rich enough to be an '03, so I've gotta go with '04". Wines from the .com boom were outside my thinking-box at that moment. No magic number exists for when a claret emerges from sour adolescence, but I would have assumed that after ten years an above-average Grand-Puy-Lacoste would be ready for a command performance. This one sulked in the corner. To get it right I would have needed to taste a mellow depth that the 1998 probably needs three more years in bottle to show. I've since had an "Aha!" moment with a Phelan-Segur 1993 that I think will head off this sort of mistake in the future.

3. Chateau Gloria (G-L-O-R-I-A, err... St. Julien), 2005

My notes from this are sparse, but I remember this struck me as too soft and fruity to peg as either St. Julien or 2005. Somewhere in my ensuing litany about St.-Emilion and supplelicious tannin was a kernel of accuracy about the wine being an overperforming fifth-growth or unclassified gem--it was quite excellent. Having had more oh-fives since this evening, and marveling each time at their accessibility, I get it now.

4. Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte (Pessac-Leognan) 2003

In the pourer's hand I saw the foully familiar blue capsule poking out from the bag and prepared to dance with the wet dog. But on the nose, something was amiss, namely the vile mildew odor of the cork. It smelled like...great red Bordeaux. It tasted like... sweet, generous, vanilla-saturated fruit that lacquers the midpalate and lights up the back. It was a non-disaster on par with Y2K. I'm especially grateful for this lesson that a dirty cork is meaningless, since without it I may have dumped out an unforgettable 1999 Maison Leroy Bourgogne Rouge that had the same superficial grossness.

5. Clos de L'Oratoire (St.-Emilion), 2001

No lie, we was a little drunk by now. I still marvel at pro tasters plowing through hundreds of wines in a session, even without intentional swallowing. Beyond the slurred blackberry/licorice flavors I perceived some feisty tannin, leading me to believe this '01 was three years younger--the same pothole I fell into with the Lacoste. These suckers are built to last!

6. Miles Mossop Wines "Max" (South Africa), 2004

At this point you could have given me Wild Irish Rose and told me it was Gerard Perse's latest 97-pointer. If I remember correctly, the blind-taster consensus was either "I don't know" or "blahghaghaghah". Perhaps the end of the line was the best time to encounter a spy from Stellenbosch, a Cabernet-dominated wine rounded out by 22% each Merlot and Petit Verdot (that's a lot of Petit Verdot!) After much gnashing of teeth, I suggested that it did not smell or taste like a Bordeaux. The aroma was particularly floral (the PV, methinks), and the cab giveaways in the flavor profile were underscored by gamey and chocolatey things that made Max stick out like modesty in a Jay McInerney essay.

Sorry to arrive at such a tired old saw, but a Bordeaux blend from another hemisphere is going to taste worlds different from the stuff that got President Jefferson drunk. Mr. Mossop, is, of course, aiming to make his own unique wine, and succeeding admirably. But Max and all other wines that blend Cabernets, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, etc. will always ferment under the long shadow of "Bordeaux"--an increasingly meaningful and meaningless word that may refer to a port city, a vine-infested suburb, a blending recipe, or an unrealistic ideal. Which one, I reckon, depends on how blind you are.

Recent notables:
  • A. Clape Cornas 2001 - Purple color, with a very floral and blackberry-scented nose. Indisputably delicious, but is holding something back right now. Wish I could afford to lay some down.
  • M. Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone "Belleruche" 2006 - Full-bodied and exploding with fruit, this is a boffo value for under $10. Firm tannins guarantee success with any hearty meat or vegetable preparations.
  • Yalumba Viognier 2007 - Well, I don't expect much throwing the dice on budget viognier. Chateau-Grillet it ain't, but if you like simple, less-oaked whites made from inherently rich grapes, give it a go. Smells kind of like the inside of an apple pie before it's cooked, and has substantial acid. I'd probably prefer similarly-priced Chardonnay.
  • Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling 2007 - Eh. I struggle with the idea of "everyday" Riesling. This is nicely off-dry with the required acidity, but the lime/apple fruit makes its point too quickly, and there are no indications that this has the potential to develop petroleum-flavored perfection over time.

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