I was at one of those rare-wine tastings at a friend’s house in Portola Valley--sniffing and swirling, sipping and spitting--when a woman at the table asked me, "How far is Château Latour from Château Lafite?" (We were doing a comparison of those two first-growths from 1865 to the present). Everything came to a standstill: I couldn’t answer that question.
Not only was I embarrassed that I did not know, but I had to admit that I had never been to Bordeaux. In that fact is a certain irony, as my list of my top 10 wines of all time includes a sizable contingent of Bordeaux: 1870 Lafite, 1945 Mouton, 1947 Cheval-Blanc, 1947 Lafleur, 1921 Pétrus and 1847 Yquem. The woman was shocked when I told her, and to top that, I had no good answer when she asked, "Why have you never been?"
I typically only take one trip to France every year and that is always to Burgundy, with occasional side ventures to the Rhône or Champagne. I don’t really know anyone well in Bordeaux and had never received a sincere, warm, personal invitation to the region. My interactions with the Bordelais have been more like business deals and less personal than with winemakers in some other regions. Furthermore, the stories I had heard from friends who go there never got me excited to visit. But after this embarrassing moment, I decided to make a trip to see it for myself.
A lot of people offered to set up appointments at the top châteaus, but I declined. I was more interested in seeing the vineyards than tasting the wines (which I am fortunate to taste as part of my job). This approach, I heard, is rare, as most châteaus focus on tasting the wines when you visit and don’t talk much about the vineyards. In my estimation, vineyards are the key to understanding the wines. Of course, there are many factors, but being able to read the landscape adds another dimension of comprehension when tasting the final product.
I arranged to meet with Thomas Duroux, the director of Château Palmer, one person with whom I had developed a good relationship. He's young, friendly and extremely talented and had spent a fair bit of time in San Francisco over the past few years.
After a warm welcome from Duroux upon arriving at the château, we proceeded to the vineyards. I always had an impression that the vineyards in the Médoc were flat, but I was wrong. All the top vineyards were on mounds, and that is where they planted Cabernet Sauvignon, the best grape variety in the Médoc. I also got a good sense of how close the best vineyards are to the Gironde River.
After the vineyard tour, we tasted a few young wines. The 2004 Palmer was spicy and exotic with a velvety palate, a delicious wine with a firm backbone. A 2006 barrel sample had more berry tones and seemed fruitier; I thought it was a great wine in a somewhat difficult vintage. Then came the much-talked-about 2005. It had just been bottled a few days earlier, and we were among the first to taste it in bottle. I will never forget this wine, as not only was this my first experience in Bordeaux, but this was my first taste of 2005 Bordeaux. The wine was dense and powerful with layers of plum and cassis. The firm structure complemented the explosion of dense fruit. At 14 percent alcohol (compared to the 2004 and 2006, which were 13 percent), the wine was profound.
With lunch, Thomas served us a few older wines (blind). The 1994 and the 1975 were easier to guess because I had had them a few times, but the 1964 was a stunner. I thought it was the 1962, which is a little bit softer. This wine was very aromatic with flavors of tea, tar, cardamom and dried cassis. Even though the wine was soft, it had great complexity and length. We finished with the Nineteenth Century Blend, an experimental wine that is a blend of 85 percent Château Palmer and 15 percent Syrah from the Rhône. I personally love things that are out of the box, and this is a genius idea.
We also had quick tastings at Latour and Ausone. Both were good tastings, but not particularly compelling. After my two days, I wondered, what would bring me back to Bordeaux? Nothing, really, except my good friend Thomas Duroux. The wines of Bordeaux are great, but the visitor experience is missing something. Soul? Personality? I'm not sure. Or perhaps it is I who am missing something. Hopefully I will figure it out some day. Until then I will keep going to Burgundy. But at least I can now tell you how far Château Lafite is from Château Latour.
Frank Ostini — Buellton, CA — July 19, 2007 11:59am ET
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