By guest columnist Thomas Matthews, senior editor
Last week in Bordeaux, I tasted my first Uruguayan Tannat.
Now, both Uruguay and Tannat (a red grape grown primarily in southwest France) are obscure blips on the world wine map, so the ripe, berry flavors and soft, round texture of the 1997 Casa Luntro came as a pleasant surprise. But even more startling was the news that the wine, made by Bordeaux negociants Jacques and Francois Lurton, was already a success in London and that the brothers were planning to double production in the 1998 vintage.
"We have enormous confidence in the wines of South America," said Jacques, who already makes wine in Chile and Argentina, as well as in Spain, Australia and his native France, producing a total of four million bottles per year. "In fact, in July we will sign a deal to create a new winery in Argentina, focusing on top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon."
While Lurton and I were tasting, we were interrupted by greetings from an American importer, a Russian looking to put a deal together for Moldova, and friends speaking Spanish and French, all of whom Jacques invited to a South American fiesta he was throwing at his house in Entre-Deux-Mers, the vineyard region that lies just outside the city of Bordeaux.
"I haven't had more than three hours' sleep any night all week," Jacques confided. "But there's no way to slow down. If you can't make money in wine today, you simply can't make money at all."
That chaotic, euphoric, exhausting combination of conviviality and commercialism is the essence of Vinexpo, a biannual five-day trade fair that draws producers, sellers and buyers of wines and spirits from all over the world to Bordeaux for the world's biggest wine party. This year's version, held June 16 to 20, was the biggest yet. Some 2,230 exhibitors from 39 countries vied to catch the eyes and palates of more than 50,000 visitors from nearly 100 countries, who roamed through two vast exhibition halls, sat through conferences on subjects ranging from health to emerging markets, and jockeyed for seats at a dozen temporary restaurants featuring cuisines from around the world.
I tried to stick to a logical plan of attack, focusing on wine regions I taste regularly for the magazine, such as Chile, Spain and the Rhone Valley. When it worked, it was great. One day I interviewed Gerard Jaboulet and Marcel Guigal, two of the Rhone's top producers, in the morning; ate a lunch of Spanish tapas with the Civite family, wine-producers in Navarre, Spain; then tasted through three dozen new Chilean wines with commentary by their winemakers and owners in the afternoon.
More often, though, I was ambushed, sidetracked, or just plain distracted. An old friend would appear with a wine I had to try, and the next thing I knew I was exploring Israel, discovering the best whites I had ever tasted from the country, made by family-owned Baron Cellars. Or I would pause at the Wine Spectator booth and wind up deep in conversation with people such as Dr. Jean-Marc Orgogozo, whose research suggests that wine consumption may protect against Alzheimer's Disease, and chef Alain Ducasse, whose two French restaurants boast a total of five Michelin stars. Or I would leave the main hall to avoid the crowds that choked the aisles and find myself sitting on a bench in the sun, wondering whether I had shaken more hands or tasted more wines, and whether there was a physical limit I was about to cross, and what would happen if I did.
And that was only the daytime.
The fair shut down around 6 p.m. each day, and then it was back to the hotel to jot down a few reactions, freshen up and change for the long formal dinners at various Bordeaux chateaus and restaurants. Didier Ters, wine journalist for Bordeaux's local newspaper, Sud-Ouest, told me he had received 42 dinner invitations for the six nights of the fair.
Three of my dinners were black-tie. Since they all featured more or less the same guests, the same winery decor and variations on the same food—foie gras, tiny birds roasted with red wine sauces, truffles—they tend to blur in the mind. I particularly recall the beautiful flowers at Chateau Canon in St.-Emilion, and two monumental wines there: an enormous and youthful 1961 Chateau Canon and a 1959 Chateau Cheval Blanc, opulent and exotic, its greatness due in no small part to what today's science-oriented winemakers would probably call defects.
And then, suddenly, it was Friday night, and the gala finale known as the Fete de la Fleur. The party is sponsored by the Commanderie de Bontemps du Medoc et des Graves, a fraternal association of chateaus from these two areas, and this year it was hosted by Chateau Cantenac-Brown in Margaux, owned by the giant insurance company AXA and run by Jean-Michel Cazes. Film star Hugh Grant was inducted into the Commanderie, Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe gave the welcome speech, and 1,600 guests gathered under a huge tent for a dinner whose wines included 1985 Chateau Lynch-Bages, 1982 Chateau Haut-Brion and 1989 Chateau Suiduiraut. There was entertainment between courses—acrobats, jugglers, people on stilts dressed as corkscrews. And at the very end, a beautiful young woman did a breathtaking aerial dance, swinging and tumbling on an elastic trapeze.
I couldn't help thinking of the week just past. The international wine market is flying high these days, with record Bordeaux prices, new markets in Asia, positive health news and good vintages all around the globe. Everyone knows that prices may fall, that rain may ruin a promising harvest, that everything that rises must one day fall. But not during Vinexpo 1997. For now, the wine world can enjoy the effortless flight of the beautiful young woman, as though the laws of gravity have been at least temporarily repealed.
Thomas Matthews, senior editor and New York bureau chief of Wine Spectator, is sitting in for regular Web columnist James Laube. Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. And if you missed a week, or want to reread a piece, back editions are available in the Column Archive.
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