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Does Old Need to Become New?

Posted: May 18, 2007 10:32am ET

Sometimes, old ideas should be left for the history books. At least that’s my idea with the few producers in France who are blending Bordeaux with the Rhône. Why bother?

Historically, Bordeaux reds were “Hermitagé,” in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to help buttress the body and richness of wines. In other words, the Bordeaux reds were so light and weak that they needed a little help from those from the south of France to make them better. That certainly isn’t the case now, especially with a big-name château like Palmer.

I tasted the Historical 19th-Century Wine L2004 from Palmer a couple weeks ago after the Grand Tour in Las Vegas, and although it was a very good wine, it was nothing very exciting. In fact, it all seemed sort of gimmicky to me.

Sure, the wine, which was a blend from 2004 Palmer and 2004 Hermitage, was rich and fruity with plenty of fruity, even black pepper character. And I liked the soft ripe tannins in the wine. But I wasn’t that impressed. I gave it in a non-blind tasting score of  89 points. In this case, one plus one didn’t equal two.

Apparently, only 15 percent pure Syrah was used in the blend, but I found that Syrah dominated the blend. It was neither 
Rhône nor Bordeaux. It was just a very good red. Sort of banal really. As the English say, it was “neither fish nor fowl.” I didn’t taste it next to the 2004 Palmer, but from what I can remember, it was not as exciting or complex or satisfying as the outstanding Margaux.

I just kept on asking myself as I drank the young blend: why?

Plus, if you order it in a restaurant, I don’t think you are going to see much change from three hundred bills. That’s $300. So it’s not a fun, inexpensive wine.

From what I understand, the Historical 19th Century Wine of Palmer will not be made in 2005, because the vintage was too high quality. I am not surprised. The 2005s are phenomenal. And each time I taste them, I am more and more impressed.

Maybe I am just being reactionary on this? And old ideas like this can become new ideas. But at the end of the day, I drink the wines of Palmer, and Bordeaux at large, for the unique character they offer.

May 18, 2007 11:25am ET
Thank you James.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  May 18, 2007 12:30pm ET
James, I totally and wholeheartedly agree. I guess it boils down to the fact that I'm a purist or traditionalist at heart. Keep the Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec with each other, and keep the Syrah, Mouvedre, etc. with each other. The uniqueness of each is what I love! Why combine them?
Stacy Johnson
Canada —  May 18, 2007 12:45pm ET
Which Hermitage was used? I wonder how the northern Rhone feels about THEIR wines being blended down by Bordeaux, even if it is Palmer. Since they've come into their own over the last 25 years, the Rhone doesn't need any help.Unless, of course, it helps to lower the $$ of Bordeaux, which at $300 doesn't appear to be the case, I would agree with you James, leave well enough alone.I wonder what Mr. Molesworth thinks?
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  May 18, 2007 12:50pm ET
Sure, Palmer does not need to blend. But couldn't many lesser quality Bordeaux wines be improved by blending? (See current article about Alexandre Sirech's blend.) I already buy French blends from lesser known regions on a regular basis. Why not Bordeaux-Rhone blends?
Gil Schwarz
Las —  May 18, 2007 1:55pm ET
Hey James,Fair comment, now that the cat is out of the bag no doubt. I will again say that I am not a big an of publicising such info on a wine which is made as an experiment with 100 cases, as you know. Ditto for the info on RP's blog and definitely not worthy of articles written here online. Anyway, we agree it is not Palmer 2004, which is superb, but fun for Sunday brunch nevertheless and 89 is not something to make fun of either...
John Leeper
Hermosa Beach, Calif —  May 18, 2007 2:55pm ET
You stated that in the late 1800's Bordeaux was referred to as Hermitage. Do you know if that was also the case in the early 1800's? I am reading a series of novels by Patrick O'Brien that often refer to a "capital Hermitage" being served with dinner, and I wondered how there could be so much of it available. Frankly I just assumed that they called the hillside along with the plateau both Hermitage.
Stephen Symchych
Boston, MA —  May 18, 2007 2:56pm ET
Exactly. I think that using high-test wines from good years in the blend defeats the purpose. But getting something a little weak or tired and jolting it with Hermitage-- that has some promise.FWIW, one of the more interesting experiments (and one of the few I've done with this) involved blending a flabby merlot from Long Island with a sharp, thin Chilean cab-- got more value out of both that way.
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  May 18, 2007 5:37pm ET
It sure is tough being French these days. If they don't experiment they get blasted for clinging to the past and relying on an outdated economic model. If they do try something new, a single swig from a critic like you provokes an 89-point kiss of death. The truth is, the French wine industry MUST find ways to recreate itself. As a critic passing broad judgment so quickly, you are doing nobody any favors. The least you can do in this case is have a little patience, if not a little empathy. -- Tish
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 18, 2007 7:20pm ET
Tish, I would like to hear why is it that you feel the French MUST recreate themselves? Personally I think the French need to market the already outstanding product they possess. Not change it...
Bernard Benlevi
May 19, 2007 9:19am ET
Now I'm not saying whether or not I agree with your philosophical sentiments but, I for one am having a tough time taking your tasting score at face value due to the fact that you had such an obvious prejudice & distaste for the concept before the wine ever made it to your mouth.Not very useful for me as a subscriber.
James Suckling
 —  May 19, 2007 10:27am ET
Please. I liked the wine. I am not welcome to my opinion...just like you?
James Suckling
 —  May 19, 2007 10:28am ET
Gil. Thanks for the tasting! You're the man...
Bernard Benlevi
May 19, 2007 3:16pm ET
James, surely you are entitled to your opinion and I respect your opinion quite often. That is why I am a subscriber.

However, it's often hard to separate our true inner sentiments (subjective opinions) from our conscious (seemingly objective) oral conclusions. Take a look at the opening sentences of your article. It seems to me as if you didn't like the concept before you even tasted the wine and I'm just curious what the wine might have scored had you liked the concept. Either way the wine would be exactly the same wine. All I'm saying is that as a subscriber I have to tell you that I'm not certain about your objectivity regarding this review.

No big deal however, as I enjoy your reviews and opinions way more than I find myself differing. But as a really busy individual with very little time to beat around the bush, I usually rely on you guys and go out and purchase wines with at least a 90+ pt score by WS or RP. This one coming in at 89, and with the context in which it was delivered, I found it as I stated before, not useful. If I'm lucky enough I'll be able to snag a bottle and conclude for myself.

James Suckling
 —  May 20, 2007 4:49am ET
As you say, no big deal. But I was not prejudiced when I tasted the wine on a late night in Vegas with Gil. I just tasted it. I honestly don't think the wine was all that special.
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  May 20, 2007 2:55pm ET
Karl, as someone who deals with many consumers in seminar/party context, I do believe that the current French model is not resonating with the majority of modern wine drinkers in this country, who are both tuned in to grapes more than regions and to whom creative blending seems as natural as fusion cuisine. So, yes, I do think the French need to re-create their system to broaden the types of wines they offer (especially because they are producing way more than they can drink domestically) if for no reason other than to ensure that French wine in general can maintain it share of the American wine pie as it grows.

I agree with Ken Koonce's comment; perhaps this sort of outside-the-box blending will benefit modest and lesser wines than Chateau Palmer. Then again, as we have seen in Italy, cross-genre blending started in the 1970s at the very highest level of Tuscan winemaking, and its embrace has benefitted every level (and region) of Italian wine over time.

My main criticism of James Suckling here and now is that if critics had responded to the early Tuscan experimental blends with the same sort of dismissal, we might all be enjoying fewer kinds of interesting Italian blends today. WS critics may protest all they want, but the U.S. wine scene has become over-saturated by ratings today, so that 89 points is in fact a put-down. The numerical "dis" of this specific French blend, coupled with the flippant "Why bother?", serves only to reinforce Wine Spectator's inflated power and is not helping wine lovers who stand to benefit from progress/change. - Tish

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