BRACE YOURSELF for another round of Bordeaux fever, as the early line on the spanking new 1996 vintage is it will be better than 1995, which produced the most feverish futures buying in years. . . .
My source is none other than the man they call the next Peynaud, but unless you owned a Bordeaux chateau or perhaps a California Cabernet or Merlot vineyard, you probably have never heard of Jacques Boissenot. . . .
Boissenot (pronounced Bwah-seh-noh), now in his 50s, is a former pupil of Emile Peynaud and now one of the leading wine consultants, or hired wine guns, in Bordeaux, working with a number of estates there both big and small, famous and less well known. . . .
Among the properties he works with now are chateaus Margaux, Palmer, Rauzan-Segla, Leoville Las Cases, Lafite Rothschild, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, Pichon-Baron-Lalande and La Tour-de-By. . . .
HE IS ALSO an advisor in California's Napa Valley, where Agustin Huneeus has hired him to work with the red wines at Franciscan, Estancia and Quintessa, the latter being the new Rutherford estate Cabernet-Cabernet Franc-Merlot Meritage blend that Huneeus expects to release sometime this fall. . . .
Backing up a bit, Emile Peynaud was the legendary enology professor and brilliant wine mind who greatly influenced winemaking in Bordeaux over the past four decades, dating to the 1950s. . . .
Peynaud's name and reputation surged to the forefront of winemaking in the 1980s as his thinking and advice took hold and he is credited with magnificent turnarounds at Margaux, Cheval-Blanc, Lafite and Leoville Las Cases, among many others. . . .
DURING THAT SPAN between 1982 and 1990 when Peynaud's influence was at its zenith, Bordeaux reveled in its finest decade in history as Bordeaux wines became known for their richness, opulence, harmony and finesse. . . .
Peynaud is credited with leading the charge that led to many changes and innovations in viticulture and vinification techniques and the crucial importance of wine selectionseparating a chateau's best lots of wine from the rest, only bottling the "Grand Vin" under the primary label and either selling off or using the remaining wine for a second or even third label . . . .
In that regard he was a wine lover's greatest companion because he encouragedand in some cases demandednot only better winemaking and setting higher quality standards. . . .
He also kept in mind that it is the consumeryou and Iwho must always come first since it is you and I who pay the bills for the world's finest wines and our palates and paychecks should never be taken for granted. . . .
IT'S DIFFICULT TO single out any one thing that Peynaud did that single-handedly changed wine thinking in Bordeaux, but his emphasis on harvesting the ripest grapes possible to achieve ripe tannins is an essential ingredient in the modern Bordeaux winemaking recipe. . . .
He was also fond of saying "the first attribute of a great red wine is to be low in acidity," despite all the talk you hear about high acidity, structure and firm tannins. . . .
One need only taste many of the vintages from 1967 through 1981 to realize that many of those yearsincluding 1970, 1975 and 1978yielded wines that are much less inspiring today than initially hoped for and that years such as 1982, 1985 and 1989 are broad, fleshy and rich in flavors. . . .
I only met Peynaud twice while touring France, but chateau owners and winemakers I met or interviewed spoke quite highly of him and his techniques and many credit him for helping Bordeaux reestablish itself after a long period of ordinary to good vintages in the interim cited above. . . .
I STILL ENJOY and recommend reading his classic wine book, The Taste of Wine (Le Gout du Vin, Wine Appreciation Guild, 1987), which is a must for anyone interested in a more detailed analysis and description of how great wines are made and how they should taste. . . .
"The goal of modern enology is to avoid having to treat the wine at all" was Peynaud's philosophy in a nutshell, the ultimate manifesto that great wine begins in the vineyard with super-ripe grapes and winemakers should do as little as possible to intervene thereafter. . . .
As a Peynaud disciple and enology professor, Boissenot adheres to the Peynaud doctrine that the key to making great, age-worthy Bordeaux lies in the picking dates and that the greatest wines are made in years when the grapes ripen to their fullest. . . .
That's one reason why it's easier pegging a great vintage in Bordeaux than in, say, California, for in Bordeaux you can often predict the quality of a vintage based on how hot it is at harvest. . . .
BOISSENOT ALSO DOES a lot of work in trying to sort out the good tannins from the bad tannins, which is why I call him and others who do this kind of work "tannin doctors". . . .
Bad tannins, or course, are easy enough to taste in wine: They are grassy, herbaceous and marked by hay or stalky flavors and a bitterness. . . .
The good tannins are just as easy to spot, says Boissenot, "as they roll around the palate" and the rich fruit flavors come to the forefront of the wine. . . .
In great winemaking there is always an emphasis on balance, concentration, depth and flavor, but in the past decade or so the great Bordeaux vintages between 1982 and 1990 were marked by wines with ripe tannins plus higher alcohol and lower acidity levels. . . .
DISCUSSING THE PAST few decades in Bordeaux, Boissenot is a determinedly tough critic, giving the highest marks to only four vintages: 1966, 1985, 1986 and 1989. . . .
He is not a great fan of either 1982 and 1990two of our favorites at Wine Spectatorbecause those years are so atypical of classic Bordeaux with their ultraripe flavors. . . .
Those two vintages reflect super-warm temperatures and taste like wines grown elsewhere in Europe, says Boissenot, applying the term "Mediterranean" to describe the hotter climate. . . .
What's fun and educational about his work with California red wines is his realization about how different the terroir there is and how similar Bordeaux and California Cabernet are in flavor, complexity, depth and richness. . . .
IN CALIFORNIA, it has taken longer to realize that higher acidity is less a factor in great wines than riper grapes, higher sugar levels and riper tannins. . . .
Mature tannins are not necessarily related to sun exposure or hot temperatures, says Boissenot, who then admits: "No one knows for sure how to get noble tannins, not even the experts with their crystal balls". . . .
At Franciscan as in Bordeaux, Boissenot works to create wines that feature more complexity, elegance and finesse rather than extract and power. . . .
"It is easy to make big, powerful wine with a lot of oak tannins but it banalizes the crus. I prefer to highly harmony, balance and elegance in a wine". . . .
HE'S ALSO CAUTIOUS about the use and over use of new oak barrels: "The very best wines can support a lot of new oak but even very good wines cannot tolerate as much as 50 to 60 percent new oak without the wood dominating" . . . .
With Bordeaux, Boissenot thinks most wines from the best vintage peak at seven to 10 years even though he likes his Medocs at about age 12. . . .
The bottom line is there is no excuse whatsoever for making bad wines and all wines should be made to be appealing, a philosophy that's hard to argue with. . . .
"Even when you've made a good wineby its tasteit's hard to know exactly how and why," he adds, and that's one of the mysteries of wine that many of us are happy to live with. . . .
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