Does Bordeaux Deserve its Reputation?

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Picture: Gateway to La Cases. Credit: Le Figaro

How does one begin to write about drinking the 1975, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1990 and 1996 vintages of Gran Vin de Chateau Leoville du Marquis de Las Casas with the Chateau’s managing director, a small group of serious collectors and industry professionals? Apparently by stating he really isn’t sure, and that’s probably because he’s never been as impressed by Bordeaux as its reputation suggests he ought to be, especially when factoring in price, and so he doesn’t have a wealth of experience in which to contextualize the experience.

That’s actually not bad to start, but let’s tweak it just a bit and go with the following question as an introduction of sorts to how I approached my analysis of the experience: are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?

Two items of background before we start evaluating whether I’ve erred in marginalizing Bordeaux in my wine adventures thus far. First, Las Cases has a reputation for needing at least ten, if not twenty, years of age to begin revealing its best side, which means that these great vintages are well-suited for the experiment at hand. And second, Las Cases is made with the attention to detail and from similarly qualified terroir as first growths, so we’re dealing with sufficient quality in our test subject.

Let’s also establish a benchmark wine with which to compare the Las Cases. The week before the Leoville tasting I enjoyed a bottle of Baer Winery’s Actos cabernet sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux-style blend from Washington State. The vintage, 2010, was relatively unheralded but one of my favorites. Known for cooler temperatures and a little more rain than most desire, the vintage provided the raw ingredients for talented winemakers to produce a more refined style than Washington’s general reputation. When properly aged, like this particular bottle was, 2010 can offer quite a bit. While it may be an underdog, I rated the wine 94 points and because it retails for under $50 gave it a value rating of “A.” Here’s what I wrote about the Baer:

“Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place.”

While Washington doesn’t carry the same pedigree and panache as Bordeaux, I do think it’s reasonably accurate to say that Baer has a status in Washington comparable to what Las Cases has in Bordeaux. Not many would thrust Baer into the category of the state’s “first growth” wineries but many a Washington winemaker has called Baer a winemaker’s wine: deft winemaking that results in a product offerings many of the best elements a winemaker would want to detect. No frills and everything in balance, the wine speaks for itself and its terroir.

This further refines the central question: did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Las Cases?

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Credit: JW Wines

The evolution good Bordeaux like Las Cases goes through is described by its admirers as though it is a mystical creature itself, surrendering itself over the years to the simple confines of acid, tannin and alcohol to obtain total unity as it achieves a state of being that cannot be appreciated in its entirety by the vulgar human consciousness. I’ve heard people describe Bordeaux in effectively these terms, and I always smiled and wondered what, exactly, they were experiencing that made them describe it that way. To be fair no one at the Las Cases tasting promised such an experience nor talked their way through it in those words. But I went into the tasting, if I’m honest, hoping for some similarly-transcendental experience.

Such a moment was probably too much to expect, let alone hope for. The reality was something less than rendering my words unworthy of their subject, but something more than the simple dismissal that I’d rather have three Baer than one Las Cases every time. It was clear from first sip that there aren’t many places in the world where terroir could produce something as complex as these wines. Winemaking is an art and a science, but the central component – the grape – is agriculture. Winemakers, even if they don’t manage their vineyards, are farmers (and also soil nerds, amateur meteorologists, janitors, and a wealth of other profession quasi-professionals). You can do things to the ground to shift something in one direction or the other, but the base starting point is what nature gives you and if you want to retain character in your wine you cannot overwhelm it. The combinations of flavors in the Las Cases, as well as its ability to retain acidity and tannin over twenty, or even thirty, years, suggest that Bordeaux has earned its reputation for complex wines on the back of its soil. As much as I loved the Baer, and as special as its profile is, it simply does not offer as much diversity or depth of flavor, and I have a hard time believing it would dominate the test of such a long period of time as the Las Cases has. This in itself was the biggest takeaway for me.

That said, I’m not entirely sold. The tasting notes of the wines are below so you can read for yourself. Several of the wines were among the most complex and intriguing I’ve had, but none captured my imagination. None transported me to a forth dimension. It’s interesting that my generation has not latched on to Bordeaux the way previous generations have because it comes at a time where a number of other regions from the around the world are, or already have, caught up to Bordeaux’s general level of quality without demanding the same prices. I wonder if the rise of the rest that my youth has allowed me experience has had an impact on my openness to other regions and wines, and so the cost of Bordeaux has tainted my view of it despite its reputation.

Generational-Differences

Credit: Initiative One

At the same time, those who have been captured by Bordeaux and pay for and age wines like Las Cases seem to shun or discount many of these upstart regions. Washington State and our benchmark wine from Baer is a good example. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations with those around me at the Las Cases dinner, and my old soul tends to identify with the perspective, more or less found at this dinner, that it takes more than a few generations for a winemaking region to earn its stripes. Washington State is again a good example of this, as many of its wineries subsist on the naiveté and simplicity of their clients. But I found myself wondering during the dinner, if I snuck the Baer in as a blind ringer, how would those around the table react to it? Objectively different than the Las Cases it would have stuck out, but it’s more than just hope that leads me to believe it would have been treated as a wine worthy of enjoying. And that’s what still gets me about Bordeaux: pedigree aside, is it necessary to prefer Bordeaux in order to be a real wine aficionado? If anything, this experience taught me that appreciation, rather than preference, is sufficient.

So, to the central question of did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Leoville? The answer is no, though I’m more open to it than I was before.

One final note. All of the wines we tried – the six Las Cases plus a bottle each from Domaines Delon’s other four estates and a “vin surprise” – came before the year that Pierre Graffeuille, Las Cases’ managing director, said climate change clearly began affecting the estate: 2009. Since then, the estate has seen a noticeable and impactful warming in the vineyards. As temperature has such a profound impact on the grapes, it would be a very interesting experiment in another twenty or thirty years to taste the before and after of appropriately aged Las Cases.

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Credit: Domaines Delon

I did not score the wines. My scribbles that evening included a range of plus signs, from one to five, with five being the best, to track how each compared to the others. I’ve carried that “scoring” over here. Many thanks to Panos Kakaviatos and Pierre Graffeuille for this phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime experience…hopefully we’ll do it again!

2009 Petit Lion du Marquis de las Cases: God that’s a gorgeous nose. Big, dark fruit (blueberries, blackberries), cassis, black current. Smoke and sweet tobacco. Cedar. The palate is full and rigid. Flavors of sweet tobacco, black pepper. Cherries and pomegranate seeds. Celery seed. Subtle, nice acidity. It’s a firm and fleshy wine with some structure left to release. ++

2005 Clos du Marquis: Modest aromatics of black currant, orange zest, mushrooms and raspberries. The body is medium in structure with juicy acidity and perfectly integrated thin grained tannin. Flavors of cranberry, raspberry, and huckleberry. Also undergrowth, oak vanillin and green vegetables. A nice and complete wine. +++

2003 Chateau Pontesac: A nose reminiscent of Red Mountain with graphite, iodine, dark cherries and Herbs de Provence. A huge hit of red fruit punch. Full bodied with bright acidity and unfocused, fleshy tannin. Dark smoke, graphite, juicy raspberry and blood orange provide the foundation with licorice dominating the mid-palate. Complete and well balanced, it becomes lost in the mid-palate. I wanted to like this more. ++

2001 Chateau Nenin: A sharp nose of black and blue fruit, very nice pluminess to go with a delicate amount of game and smoked red meat. It is full bodied and quite juicy with red fruit and green vegetables. It’s extraordinarily clean, actually so much so that it has very little personality. I wrote down “clearly well-made but…?” It is demonstrably better with food. +

1996 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose is still quite reticent and eventually produces some rubber. The body is medium in stature with the dominant element of structure being the acidity. The tannins are in good balance and provide a solid frame. The palate is quite herbal and vegetal with crisp red berries. It’s very elegant but still tight. The entire package is let down by the nose at this point. When the nose does bloom and the palate releases this will be a true gem. +++/+

1990 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: A very woodsy nose with a lot of cedar. Smells like a musty log cabin. The palate is full, big and thick but kept light by a hit of acid. Cherries, cedar and a nice menthol kick to go with smoke and saline. Voluptuous in shape, it takes over the dance floor with big moves and doesn’t give space. I prefer more a little more finesse. +++

1989 Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose has tertiary aromas all over the place along with tobacco, saline and big cherry. The body is full. I wrote down “magical.” It is still tannic but spreads and coats the mouth. Rich, sweet raspberries, huckleberries and salmon berries. (Incidentally, these are three berries we had in copious amounts on the property where I grew up, so this was memory lane of an afternoon of berry picking). White and black pepper. Smooth, bright acidity. Tobacco and cocoa. An elegant and masculine wine, it still has plenty of life ahead of it. ++++/+

1986 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Perfumed flowers on the nose along with spiced tobacco, cassis, cedar and peppermint. It’s a nuanced and special bouquet. The palate is extraordinarily pretty with rose water, lavender, cherry, white pepper, orange ride, sweet tobacco, smoked meat and cedar. All of this is integrated seamlessly in a dynamic profile. Wine of the night. +++++

1986 “Vin Surprise” Las Cases 100% petit verdot: Not yet released for public sale. Thirty years old but still hasn’t fully released its profile. A burley wine one diner aptly described as the “unshaved wrestler in the room.” Lot of pepper and game, not much else. An excellent demonstration of why petit verdot is an important, but small, component in the Gran Vin blend. +/+

1982 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose captures one’s attention. Dark fruit, rhubarb, cured red meat and minty tobacco. It leaves a ruby impression. The palate still appears young but is very complete. Frankly, too many adjectives come to mind to write down. This is an old soul’s wine. Close second to the 1986 for wine of the night. +++++

1975 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Aromas of freshly tanned tobacco leave, mint and chili pepper spice. Damp cardboard and just a bit of acetone. The palate has crisp acidity from which blackberries, strawberries and Acai spawn. The tannins are still present but in the background. It’s slightly minty as well. It’s quite round, but has a sturdy body and real depth. ++++

 

 

 

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