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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Bordeaux Diary: Settling In

With about 700 wines to taste and two weeks to taste them, I hit the ground running in Bordeaux
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 5, 2012 3:30pm ET

I arrived as scheduled in Bordeaux—just on time for lunch. I like to plan things like that.

The real task, though, is to sift through several hundred samples of 2010 Bordeaux. When I met her for lunch, senior tasting coordinator Alison Napjus gleefully told me we had 1,268 samples, just so she could watch my face turn ashen, before letting me know that many were doubles (so in reality, about 700 wines). So, with two weeks to taste, it's manageable. Still, a good steady pace is required, as well as a lot of focus.

My annual in-bottle Bordeaux tasting is easily the biggest and longest single tasting I do. When in my New York office, I taste every day, but perhaps only 20 or 30 wines a day. When I travel in the Rhône, I may taste dozens of barrel samples in a day, but I'm not writing formal notes or reviewing those wines, since they are unfinished, sometimes just lots of pre-blends, and not tasted blind. That makes the Bordeaux tasting unique.

When working through a large set of wines over a long period of time as I am now, there has to be a plan of attack. I look at it like a large meal, as a Thanksgiving-style meal really. It's long, drawn out and ultimately spread over a few days. You want to enjoy yourself, but also not lose focus or get worn down. It takes some experience and patience to navigate it. Slow and steady wins the race. Learning to stop for the day before palate fatigue sets in, rather than when it's too late, is key. Heading out for a good jog here and there helps.

I start with the lighter-bodied wines, such as the generic Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur. With generally easier tannin structures and lower alcohols, they provide a good entry point. From there I move through fresher-styled wines such as those from Blaye or the various Côtes de Bordeaux areas, before formally moving into the Right Bank. Fronsac, Lalande-de-Pomerol and Pomerol are the next progression, before shifting to St.-Emilion satellites, Castillon and then St.-Emilion itself. From there I taste my way up the Left Bank—Pessac, Graves, Margaux and into the other appellations of the Médoc, typically finishing with Pauillac and St.-Julien, where the tannins are often the most substantial.

Because of the nature of the 2010 vintage—tannic and structured—we are decanting all the wines prior to tasting (or I should say, Alison is decanting all the wines).

At some point, I'll work in a day of whites. I actually enjoy tasting whites after reds as their freshness and acidity is pleasantly bracing and helps to hold my focus.

The ultimate carrot for finishing everything is a flight of Sauternes. Alison knows Sauternes are among my favorite wines and seeing them waiting there for me as each days passes helps to keep my energy level up.

After the first two and a half days of tasting, the wines are generally showing very, very well. Despite persistent gray skies and dull, chilling rain, the wines are expressive, bright and vivacious (dull weather can often dampen how wines show). The structure of the vintage is evident but racy. The fruit is delineated and, at their best, the top wines rival or surpass 2009. The Pomerol appellation was the first real highlight of the tasting, with several stunning wines.

There have been hiccups though. A flight of St.-Emilion satellites one morning was maddeningly uninspired, with slightly jammy fruit and austere tannins that overwhelmed some of the wines. So, 2010 won't be a vintage to buy with abandon. But, we'll sort that all out in good time. There are many more days of tasting still to go …

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Canada —  December 5, 2012 11:00pm ET
Tasting aside sir, which is great news on the 2010 front, you are looking trim! Good on ya!
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  December 6, 2012 11:36am ET
Do you ever change in the middle of a day of tasting? As you mention, the whites are typically refreshing, so why not recalibrate mid day with a flight of whites to refresh the palate?
James Molesworth
New York —  December 6, 2012 11:52am ET
David: Good question. The short answer is no, because my tasting coordinator hates when I changes things up on them midstream.

But basically, I wouldn't, because I would plan ahead. I'd have a flight of whites in the afternoon on a day when I had perhaps two flights of bigger reds in the morning. I wouldn't do just a few whites midstream to break any monotony - al the wines need to be judged seriously and I prefer solid peer groups of 20 or so, whether they be white Graves, Bordeaux Sups or Pauillacs...
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  December 6, 2012 9:46pm ET
Thank you for your diligence and focus James. In light of the record 2010 en primeur pricing, your initial comments may make many of us happy we loaded up on 2009.

Your note is curious in the absence of discussing the 2010 acidity. I seem to recall that many reviews and commentators were suggesting the 2010 acidity made the wines purchases for the grandchildren. As your tasting progresses, can you share some insights into the acidity?

Additionally, I can't help but wonder how the 2010 Bordeaux will compare with the Rhone. I know the grapes, tannins, and acidity are very different, but "structure" and "ageability" can be used to describe both regions.

You can help those of us trying to allocate our purchase dollars between terroirs, particularly in light of that 2010 en primeur pricing.
James Molesworth
New York —  December 7, 2012 3:47am ET
Kelly: Good question.

By structure I include acidity, though I could have mentioned it distinctly to clarify. The '10s are tannic and dense, but they have racy acidity too. The vintage is very similar to '10 in the Rhône, in that it is packed with dark fruit, has slightly higher alcohol, but the tannic spine and fresh acidity to balance it all. It is a special year.

The rush to praise '09 Bordeaux was merited, but often driven by the wines' easy-to-taste style. The '10s on the other hand are not flattering now, though they are vivacious and invigorating. When I tasted them en primeur many people voiced concern at how difficult they would be to taste when young, but instead I found them energetic, exciting wines. Since then, they have put on muscle and filled in even more. Make no mistake - they are wines for cellaring.

Yes, prices are high, but if you want serious wines that display terroir-driven, fruit-loaded personalities that will take a while to display their full selves, then '10 is the vintage for you. And while there are plenty of high-priced wines, there will be values too...trust me - I'll find some for you.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  December 7, 2012 5:47pm ET
Thank you for the great follow up. Structure may mean different things to different people, so your clarification is helpful. It ties together the buy for the grandchildren comments.

Great feedback as always.

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