Regards From Bordeaux
This is the first in an occasional series of reports from Wine Spectator editors as they go into the field to taste the new vintages. Senior editor James Suckling starts us off with his notes from a recent trip to Bordeaux.
If Bordeaux wine producers are correct when they say that a great vintage produces wines that are immediately drinkable, 1995 is certainly an exceptional year. I have spent the last five days not only tasting my way through hundreds of samples of '95 for a Wine Spectator report in January, but I've also been drinking many of them--and with great enjoyment.
Wine Spectator's "tasting central" is the Hotel St.-James in the tiny village of Bouliac, about a 10-minute drive from the center of Bordeaux. Each night, after tasting dozens of wines, I invite to dinner such well-respected vintners as Dr. Alain Raynaud, whose family owns chateaus La Croix-de-Gay and La Fleur de Gay, and Christian Moueix, who controls such properties as Petrus, Trotanoy and La Fleur-Petrus. A small selection of the day's samples are usually included with the dinner, and I can confirm that there is seldom much left in the bottle after dinner. The stuff is just too good not to drink!
One evening at the St.-James I ran into Tim Mondavi, the Napa Valley vintner, who was dining with his French colleague Patrick Leon, the winemaker of Mouton-Rothschild. They were discussing the intricacies of making Opus One, their joint-venture Napa Valley wine. And they were in awe of the handful of '95s I poured for them, which included Kirwan, Troplong-Mondot, Pontet-Canet, Palmer and Clerc Milon.
What makes the '95s so wonderful is their harmony. They seem to have everything in balance, from their ripe fruit to their round and intense tannins. This is a vintage that will be compared to the best, from 1990 and 1989 to 1961 and 1959. The fruit is there. The tannins are there. And the acidity is there. Of course, it is a shame to drink '95s now--the best are made for long-term aging--but it's difficult not to indulge when you have the opportunity.
The only problem with this vintage? The prices. The best are already very expensive, anywhere from $40 to $300 a bottle. Nonetheless, you can buy outstanding wines from some of the lesser-known estates, such as La Cardonne, for $12 to $18 a bottle. I would even suggest buying some of the wine merchants' brands. Sichel's Sirius, for example, is a very good bottle and will offer a glimpse at the quality of '95.
As for Bordeaux's latest vintage, 1997, the reports are still mixed. Obviously, the uneven weather resulted in an uneven harvest. Most top producers say they were forced to respond to what Mother Nature threw at them. The main problem was uneven ripening in the grapes, meaning bunches had ripe berries mixed with green, unripe ones. So, wine producers had to carefully separate the grapes before throwing the ripe fruit into the crusher.
The few vat and barrel samples I tasted, however, showed some promise. They didn't have the solid fruit and strong tannins of a great vintage, but they did show some pretty fruit and tannins. It's too early to say now just how the vintage will rate. Some optimistic wine producers say the quality of '97 could land between 1995 and 1996, while others say it could be like 1971 or 1988. Look for my future reports for more on the development of the '97 Bordeaux.
Read the chat with James.
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