One of the best quotes I've ever heard on wine came from Jean-Michel Cazes, the patriarch of Château Lynch Bages in Pauillac. He was presenting his 2000 vintage at the New York Wine Experience in 2014 when he said, "Wine is a time machine. It's the only time machine that really works."
When I received an invite from Château Talbot to attend a tasting in honor of 100 years of ownership by the Cordier family, replete with wines covering that time span, I couldn't resist the chance to enter the time machine of wine.
Talbot, a fourth-growth estate in St.-Julien, enjoys a long history, as well as a solid track record for quality and a strong following in the U.S. The family lineage in Bordeaux begins with Désiré Cordier, who had a wine-trading business in Lorraine in the late 1860s when Bordeaux piqued his interest. In 1917 he purchased Lafaurie-Peyraguey in Sauternes, Fanning Lafontaine in Pessac and Gruaud-Larose in St.-Julien. The following year, after being joined by his son Georges in the family business, he added Talbot.
Désiré was mayor of St.-Julien in the 1930s when he gave a speech to then–French President Albert Lebrun, in which he noted the lifespan of those living in the Médoc was higher than the national average due, he said, to wine.
Georges worked alongside his father and focused his efforts particularly on Talbot, renovating the cellars and house and replanting portions of the vineyard, including some parcels to white varieties, and the estate still produces a white wine. Georges passed away in 1938, his father in 1940.
That left Jean-Talbot Cordier to eventually take over the business. Georges' lone son, Jean-Talbot eventually bought out his family members to become the sole owner of Cordier Estates. Along the way he took the company international, with exports, while adding additional properties to the portfolio, both in Bordeaux as well as the Loire and Provence. In the 1960s he developed the signature Talbot bottle, with its squat body and elongated neck. He also instituted a second wine at Talbot in 1979.
Jean-Talbot's daughters, Lorraine and Nancy, became the fourth generation of the family to run Talbot, and today Nancy is joined by her husband, Jean-Paul Bignon. During their tenure, they have overseen a newly constructed and expanded chai as well as the installation of 10.5 miles of drainage in the vineyard, all to help improve the quality of the wine. Their children, Philippine, Marguerite and Gustave, are in the company, ensuring a transition to the fifth generation in the future.
The wine has always been consistent, delivering textbook St.-Julien notes of dark black and purple fruit, with brambly grip and a bolt of iron. The DNA of the vineyard was on full display over 11 vintages of the wine, one from each decade. Most of these wines are long since gone from the marketplace, and as they were tasted non-blind, no scores were given. Instead, in lieu of the time machine, I've added some historical context to the vintages (thanks to the lovely tasting book provided at the event) along with my tasting notes. The wines are listed in order tasted, with all bottles coming directly from the château's cellar.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1919: A dusty garnet color with aromas of warm brick and cedar, this is very trim and very sanguine at the core, with a long, mineral finish. The fruit has left, leaving a piercing echo of dried orange rind and clove behind while a note of mint emerges as it sits in the glass. This vintage saw the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the death of Renoir. From half-bottle.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1926: Alluring sandalwood and bergamot aromas have an echo of sweetness (if one can smell sweetness), though on the palate it quickly turns sanguine, with a long, iron spine and light cedar and brick dust hints. The finish is filigreed and persistent. The year saw the births of Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, Miles Davis, Paul Bocuse and Mel Brooks. From magnum.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1934: Paler and more diffuse in color than the 1919 or 1926, but with charm and surprising persistence to its rose water, bergamot, sandalwood and dried peach notes. The filigreed finish lingers prettily and this is impressive considering it was marked by a very wet August. The assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was captured on film and Brigitte Bardot was born.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1945: Clearly mature but also with discernible fullness as the iron twang here is enveloped by sweet dried currant fruit, as well as worn cedar, orange peel and bergamot notes. There are both sweet and dusty nuances through the finish, with a lingering green tea echo. This beauty is the wine of the tasting for me. Charles de Gaulle became head of the French government in the wake of victory in World War II. From magnum.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1955: This has a woodsy persona, with olive and cedar notes leading the way, along with pretty mushroom and brick accents. A light bergamot hint and a flash of browned peach provide some roundness, with a flash of iron through the finish. Argentina's Juan Perón was removed from power in a coup, James Dean died in a car accident and Bill Gates was born.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1962: Similar to the '55 with its light woodsy profile, this has a hint of bramble though, in addition to mushroom and cedar notes, while the peach and bergamot fruit flavors take a stronger stand. The finish has its telltale iron twinge, though it is surrounded by more substance than the older wines and has less of a piercing feel. Marilyn Monroe died and the Beatles auditioned for the Decca label but were turned down.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1975: This is showing well for a vintage with a hard reputation, as the fruit takes on more cherry and currant notes (albeit dried in feel). The woodsy side shows a fuller bramble edge and an alder thread. It's on the austere side, overall, but has a rather proud character—head held high. Spain's Franco died, Jaws was released, Margaret Thatcher became leader of the conservative party in Britain, and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army. From magnum.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1986: This takes a big leap forward in terms of color and profile. With a more clearly ripe core of steeped currant and cherry paste laced with a tarry note. Clearly in its secondary phase, though with cedar, iron and tobacco in full flourish on the finish. Classic aged-claret lovers would dig this, as it is in its wheelhouse now. The only thing of importance that occurred in 1986 is my beloved New York Mets won the World Series in dramatic fashion, with a playoff run for the ages. I saw a few of the key games from way up high in the upper deck as a 16-year-old—my fondest childhood memory.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 1996: This is just starting to hit its stride, as it still has notably grippy bramble and tar notes around a core of tightly wound currant, warm earth and singed cedar. There's that bolt of iron on the finish that marks these wines, with a long, driven alder- and brick-infused finish. This needs a fireplace and a long, lazy afternoon to enjoy. Both Clinton and Yeltsin were re-elected; Charles and Diana divorced.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 2005: A rock-solid wine with still-youthful plum, currant and blackberry fruit inlaid liberally with bramble and tar. There's less austerity than the '86 or '96, as this captures the modern Bordeaux era of tannin management—sappy, juicy and gutsy. Pope John Paul II dies and Lance Armstrong wins his seventh straight Tour de France.
Château Talbot St.-Julien 2010: This brims with fresh, juicy dark plum and blackberry preserve flavors. There's ample brambly grip, of course, but the fruit is in control here, with a sappy intensity through the licorice-lined finish. And yet even with its copious youthful fruit, that bolt of iron can still be found on the finish. The DNA of a great terroir always shows up. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurs, South Africa hosts the FIFA World Cup and Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at 2,716 feet high, opens in Dubai.