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Last week in Downtown LA, with my tasting group, we focused exclusively on Bordeaux for under thirty-five dollars. Nine wines were served in addition to a cache of empanadas, a large tortilla (an egg, potato and vegetable frittata), cheese and olives to tide us over while we sampled a fair smattering of wines from both banks of Bordeaux (the region separated by the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne river), the accompaniment to an Argentine repast.

We were underway by 7:30 p.m., waiting for our last members to carry in, each toting a different bottle that would need to be assessed—to the best of our ability—for purposes of establishing a tasting order. Tasting the wines in a reasonable order gives each wine roughly the same opportunity to show well, no jarring tannins to be followed by the lightest bodied of the bunch—we wanted to give no wine a leg up or diminish any showing of the wines. After our group methodically plotted the tasting we casually sipped ‘n spat through the pride of Bordeaux (in this order):

04 Ch. Saint-Valéry St. Emilion Grand Cru

05 Ch. Faizeau St. Emilion

07 Ch. Moulin St.-Georges St. Emiliion Grand Cru Classé

05 Ch. Carbonnieux Grand Cru Classé Graves

07 Ch. Beaumont Haut-Médoc

06 Ch. Saint-Hilaire Médoc Cru Bourgeois

05 Ch. La Tour Carnet Haut-Médoc

03 Ch. Cambon La Pelouse Haut- Médoc

03 Ch. Potensac Médoc

During the sampling we came up with descriptors that I had never heard before like the Ch. La Tour Carnet having a fragrance of bruised apple and an elegant mouth feel too. Olives were frequently thrown out as well; people were ascribing all the varieties (Kalamatta to Empeltre) to a vast array of wines we sniffed. We were in a different environment, but I was not sure from whence these lively pastiches originated!

The 2003 Château Cambon La Pelouse had an intense scent leaping from the glass, a synthesis of earth and fruit detected, with an emphasis on dried cedar like the inserts from Allen Edmonds Shoes.

Apart from the fragrances, quite a few of the Bordeaux hit the mark. The 2005 Château Carbonnieux was probably tied for first with my taste buds. I was stumped by the closed odor but on the palate the wine came alive with notes of blue and black fruits—not too ripe—, leather and lavender. It was elegant and rich with a long persistent finish. That was the wine I sipped most frequently and chose with the meal.

The 2007 Château Saint-Valéry from St. Emilion was wonderful in a different way. The first wine of the night is always a tough spot to be, no mark is established and it is really a sensory exam because the tasters have not come to. This blend, predominantly of merlot, showed supple tannins (soft on the palate) with blueberry sprinkled lightly along with aromatic dried herbs. It showed favorably.

The Château Moulin St.-Georges had a moderate perfume of plums and potpourri and on the tongue it had great structure with drying tannins and good acidity and tasty doses of fruit.

Like listening to Kelly Stoltz’s “Prank Calls” for the first time (or the 25th), the tasting brought a smile to my face, where my proudly stained purple teeth were emblazoned for all to see. The Argentine food married nicely with the Bordeaux wines and before I knew it it was 11 p.m. and I was down to 220 wines in my countdown, leaving downtown and heading west with pleasant memories of Bordeaux.

I continued my countdown-to-500 this week with another sixteen wines, sampling between Burgundy and Bordeaux. In my Tuesday course it was a continuation of Burgundy, tracing the map further south along the Côtes de Beaune, the Mâcon and Pouilly Fuissé and concluding our travels in Beaujolais.

We tasted the following:

08  Deux Montille Soeur, Pernand-Vergelesses

08 Ch. Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet

08 Ch. Puligny Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet

08 Ch. Puligny Montrachet, Meursault

04 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Macon-Milly-Lamartine “Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon

94 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Macon-Milly-Lamartine (Sample)

07 Domaine Manciat-Poncet Pouilly-Fuissé “Le Crays”

95 Domaine de la Chanaise Morgon

07 Domaine Piron-Lameloise  Chenaz Quarts

Of the set we sampled there was one standout, among the many well-crafted wines that night, it belonged to the second set that we tasted, standing apart from it’s brethren by emitting unabashed odors of asparagus and baby corn—unique. On the tongue the 2004 Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon was dry, painting the inside of my cheeks with medium high acidity, boasting a shapely figure (med. bodied) and yielding strong flavors of aspargus, baby corn and some baked apple that were slow to leave the palate. It was a swan among ducks.

The following night we had our last all-about-Bordeaux class, where we would say goodbye to the Southwest of France by tasting the white and dessert wines of Bordeaux and leave on a sweet note.

The white wines of Bordeaux are paid little attention in America, favoring the hulking reds of Bordeaux, with one exception… the wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Collectors’ wines. The sweet wines of Sauternes are comprised of botrytis[ed] Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and maybe even a splash of Muscadelle.

Botyrtis Cinera is a spore of fungus that leeches the water from grapes, dehydrating them, and in turn ramping the sugar levels of each fruit that is affected. This is a beneficial process when it is done to perfection, dubbed Noble Rot; if it fails to produce the coveted sweet wines then it is referred to as Grey Rot. The method of making Sauternes and Barsac is labor-intensive and a passion of love, enshrined in history.

I mention they are collectors’ wines because of their aging ability, often spanning a normal lifetime and beyond if they cellared in the proper conditions.

Wednesday night we tasted:

09 Festival (Ch. Le Gay, Pomerol)

09 Ch. L’Hoste, Entre-Deux-Mers

07 Ch. Larrivet-Haut-Brion

08 Ch. Thieuly

07 Ch. Sigalas Rabaud

99 Ch Julien Cabernet Sauvignon from Monterey

07 Ch. Du Seuil, Graves

The Sauterne was the showstopper of Wednesday evening; in comparison to the white wines that came before, it was unrivaled, making it hard to perform the customary spit that follows each sampling. The esters of the wine jumped from the glass delivering honeysuckle and honeycomb aromas straight to the olfactory. The viscous golden liquid only got better on the tongue with honey, vanilla, almonds and apricots coating and lingering in my mouth. An interesting note about Sauternes is that there is a fair amount of acidity but it is hard to detect because of the greater amount of residual sugar masking it.

It was bon voyage to Bordeaux and Burgundy, for now, with sixteen wines behind me in two days and 432 left to taste before the year’s end; I just made it on to the freeway and am looking to get to 500 on the quick. Worth sticking around… it’s only going to get tastier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overwhelming. A summation of my experiences in one word, after I attended the Union des Grand Cru de Bordeaux event this past Saturday at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica. Last Saturday was also a very special Ducks hockey game; the first time that Saku Koivu would return to Montreal, as an opponent, after captaining the Canadiens for nine seasons. The stars were aligning.

Wally’s—a champion of Bordeaux wines—sponsored the event, making their sponsored presence felt at every turn with offers to buy Bordeaux. The tasting featured some of the legendary Châteaux, showcasing their wines of the 2008 vintage.

The event is held annually and allows the consumers/professionals to taste through an esteemed lineup of producers’ efforts that might be hard to replicate. It also presents an opportunity to have conversations with some of the Château owners, along with other knowledgeable representatives of these famous estates.

It was my first time at an event of such magnitude (and caliber), having been to tastings more intimate before. This was a classier free-for-all—a run on all precious vin de Bordeaux. It was not what I was expecting.

I met up with my professor at the beginning of the event, before establishing a tasting order, heeding her advice on sampling through the wines and diligence about spitting, no matter how many bodies crowded me out. She also told me break frequently, for my palate’s sake, and to change up the sampling by tasting some of the dry white wines that were being served, to reinvigorate the taste buds.

The hangar was brimming with people on both sides—bees buzzing vibrantly around the comb—and I decided to break right and taste the wines of Paulliac first. The first pours of Bordeaux I really prized. I held on to my stemware to sniff the delicate and amazing perfumes in no rush to taste, but instead to take it easy and keep from being overcome.

I tasted too many wines to remember the exact order but the 2008 vintage was showing well with the Cabernet based blends of Paulliac. Tasting myriad wines and scribbling my notes in the books (provided by Wally’s) proved difficult because I had to balance the glassware on some of the booklets, mind my clunky camera and move through the crowds of people to find some elbow-free room.

I was able to catch notes of fruit (primarily cherry, blackberries, plum…), tobacco, herbs and sometimes an occasional trip to the kinderboerderij [kin-der-börder-rye]. The tannins inside the mouth ranged from dry and firm to bitter and all were omnipresent. The finish on some of the wines was intense and others were truncated… tasting side-by-side did some favors.

I was really impressed by some of the wines of St. Émilion, especially Château Figeac and Canon-La-Gaffelère, which were really a treat to try—I even contemplated not spitting but remained dutiful and consistent. By the time I made it to Pomerol my phone had alerted me that the Ducks game was underway and at that same time my tongue was beginning to show signs of fatigue. My glass also began to be partial, retaining some of the powerful jam-like odors of all the red fruit blends.  I called a timeout and drank some water, swishing aggressively to revive the palate. I decided it was time to engage the white wines of Graves.

The first glass of Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte was perfect; it sent an electric pulse down my tongue, resuscitating it with the refreshingly high acidity (higher in contrast to the red Bordeaux). Moving casually down the line of the white wines until my taste buds came to.

I then embarked on the wines from Margaux and tasted some wonderful examples from Ch. Lascombes and Ch. Giscours. I continued weaving in and out of the frenetically paced (by this time…buzzed) crowd, pushing through till it was time to taste the dessert wines of Sauternes. Unfortunately though, I was not the only one with that idea. It was suddenly much more aggressive, people snaking others for the last sip of Ch. Guiraud and other honeyed sweet wines. What little I tasted, before I called it quits was spectacular but that crowd turned me off; it was crazy. On the flip side of crowd behavior, the hockey fans of Montreal were giving Saku Koivu a spine-tingling ovation—very rare to see an opposing team’s crowd bestow such an honor on a former player.

If only the majority of consumers acted so beautifully (or I had the courage to ask that girl from my class to come with me) this tasting would have been my favorite. Much like huge music festivals, I prefer smaller concerts and definitely smaller tastings—where a few special wines are sipped with more emphasis, each particular bottle being understood and appreciated or, just hearing one musician that would be worth the price of admission instead of rushing through sets to get to the next artist, sacrificing bands and songs along the way. I feel very lucky to have tried all the Bordeaux that I got around to but will probably have a much different approach for the next major event.

I went home, prepared a dry-aged ribeye with chanterelle mushrooms and brussels sprouts (held off on the wine) and caught the tail end of the game; a shootout victory for the Ducks and I was able to witness the other neckhair-raising cheer for Saku as he took to the ice as the second star of the game. Beautiful evening.

Well, another flurry of wines came cycling through, as I tasted 15 bottles in two days time. In Class we took a brief trip to Alsace via projector and then off to Burgundy, where we would taste these fine wines:

07 Domaine Ronald Schmitt Muscat

07 Domaine Ronald Schmitt Pinot Gris

08 Domaine Ronald Schmitt Reisling Grand Cru, Vielles Vignes

08 Hervé Azo Chablis 1er Vau de Vey

96 Hervé Azo Chablis 1er Vau de Vey

07 Goisot Saint Bris Sauvignon

98 Goisot Fie Gris

It was awesome to do a vertical tasting (tasting the same wine in different vintages), seeing bottle evolution and it’s intriguing effects—firsthand. The 96 Chablis had staying power on the palate. And after class, my roommate and his girlfriend offered me an actual glass of 09 Sauvignon Blanc from the Franciscan estate in Napa Valley to celebrate her interview with an extraordinary school.

The following night it was on to the wines of Bordeaux—specifically the right bank—from the appellations of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Renown for their structured and powerful Merlot-based blends; it would be an exciting class. We tasted:

05 Chateau St. Jean de Lavand

05 Ch. Gombaude Guillot

05 Ch. Tour Canon

08 Ch. Cheval Noir

04 Ch. Fleur Cardinale

05 Ch. Grand-Mayne

06 Ch. Canon-La-Gaffeliere

My mouth was thoroughly thrashed after the two rounds of Bordeaux. Rounding the rotation of carousel vin with the last stop falling on Canon La-Gaffeliere, which displayed unparalleled finesse and my ravaged tongue was appreciative. Scents of cedar and earth gave way to soft tannins on the palate. It was in a class of it’s own that night.

Fifteen wines from three premium regions (four, if you include my glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley)… my goodness I have tasted thirty wines in less than thirty days, only 470 left to go. It might go faster than I thought.

Tuesday night I continued my mission to five hundred, with my new schedule of courses I would be studying the old world wines, exclusively, tasting up to 10 wines a night and learning a lot about a few regions in France, Italy and Spain.

We began by getting the lowdown on Champagne: Timelines of important events in the region like detailing the church’s role and chronologically making our way to Prohibition. After an intense amount of history was condensed into an hour, we jumped into the climate and specificities of the region; this was in hopes of getting the class acquainted with an historic region and then being able to taste our way through a couple selections the professor had imported.

We tasted two variations on a theme, both being Champagne, the first from Agrapart & Fils “Les 7 Crus” was a co-operative effort, and the second bottle hailing from R.H. Coutier, a smaller producer (Récoltant Manipulant, or RM, as it appears on the label), growing their own grapes as well as making their own wine.

Agrapart & Fils “ Les 7 Crus” blanc de blancs was straw in color with a moderately intense nose of green apples, vanilla, some toasted notes and a fainter smell of ripe pear. On the palate it was dry with medium high acidity, medium body and lengthy finish, yielding more apple and toasted bread notes.

R.H. Coutier’s Champagne was a mixture of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, showcasing a little more development in the bottle as the straw colored sparkler was redolent of mushroom (fungal notes) and ripe red apple. On the palate, it was dry with a touch of residual sugar, teeming with medium acidity painted on the sides of my tongue and medium finish length showcasing more ripe apple, bit of crushed rock and some almond.

A good caliber of Champagne in this sampler and definitely a lot more wonderful wines to come from the class as I look forward to another eleven classes left in the course—it should also help me achieve the five hundred mark a little easier than making up a lot of tasting ground late in the year.

Deuxième Classe:  Bordeaux

On Wednesday, I had my second course of the week and this one tested me on all things Bordeaux, as well as my ability to catch any of the Ducks game (vs. St. Louis), it is as if the classes have little regard for my hockey games. Luckily, I have many phone apps to help me to follow my team.

The class is four weeks long, each class showcasing six different Bordeaux and tailoring all imparted knowledge from the region’s topography, to the climate of the different appellations—and everything in between.

After copious notes were jotted down, it was time to taste; six glasses filled with wines ranging from hue/clarity to vintage (2005 -2008). The wines included: 08 Chateau Mylord, 05 Chateau Croix-Mouton, 05 Chateau Plaisance, 08 Chateau Haut Sociondo, 05 Chateau Cap de Faugeres and 08 Chateau Les Tours Seguy.

The lineup was designed as an introduction for the sake of our innocent palates, however it proved to be overwhelming. By the end of the tasting, the drying tannins roughed up my tongue, with a feeling similar to scraping your tongue in between your teeth vigorously.

I have too many tasting notes to bore you with, but some of the wines, even at the introductory level were interesting, like the nose of the “Cuvee Alix” by Chateau Plaisance which fell victim to Brettanomyces (not that I have a problem with the funk but it can be considered a flaw). Brettanomyces is a yeast strand that provides an odor equivalent of barnyard, bandages, and other off odors. Another standout was the Chateau Cap de Fagueres, which had the body of a heavyweight boxer with pronounced notes of dark chocolate, vanilla and blackberry on the nose and an even greater concentration on the palate of black cherry—still youthful after six years of bottle age.

By the end of the course, my teeth turned a darker shade of purple and my tongue had been fatigued, but I know I must work harder on combating palate fatigue if I am going to stand a chance at the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux tasting next Saturday. As for the hockey game it finished on a big note too—the Ducks won 7-4 and Bobby Ryan had an at-home hat trick. I now see a vision of 487 wines in my future like a mountaineer pulling into view of a target peak after getting over the first low hill.

It is time to define another wine term. In my crosshairs: the mighty, mighty… Jeroboam.

A wine bottle of extravagant proportions—the Jeroboam, whose name is derived from the Bible, more accurately a derivative of the name of the first king of Northern Israel—encompasses six bottles worth of wine when talking about Bordeaux and four bottles worth of liquid when talking about Burgundy or Champagne.

The Jeroboam is a large format bottle, ideal for the collector because it is believed to be a better way to age the wine slowly (especially in regards to Bordeaux), as opposed to 750ml worth of wine confined in a tight package that will not have the room to age as comfortably.

The Jeroboam may not be suited for everyone. Reserved for serious collectors (or people with serious partying habits… I kid), because you must have the space to house this enormous bottle. Cellaring also becomes a challenge, to accommodate the hefty size in shelves that may have been constructed for standard format (750ml) lighter bottles; the Jeroboam will clearly not fit nor can the racks bear the weight. Cumbersome.

Embracing the larger bottle or not, the Jeroboam is a fun word to know and throw out there at a party (like the other nonstandard size names), it is also a lot of wine to down! In the words of that famous adage and a tribute to the world’s most interesting man:

“Stay thirsty my friends.”

In early June the futures–wines that have not made it into bottles and thus will not be available for a long period of time—came online for consumers. Offers to purchase the futures have been inundating my email accounts. Wine shops in California and all over the world that procured soon-to-be treasure troves of liquid are now presenting their customers with them. Presenting: futures of Bordeaux, class of 2009.

Bordeaux (as I have said before) demands a lot of respect and is one of the most, if not the most collected wine on this planet. It is a hotbed of activity throughout the year but it intensifies when a new vintage is about to be unveiled (generally around April). Critics flock to Bordeaux to begin their assessments of what might be the next great vintage.

Certain bottles of Bordeaux, at select vintages are analogous to status symbols like the Maybach or a Rolls Royce. Cases of Chateau Latour, Haut-Brion or Petrus can command sky-high prices and dominate the wine world. The Holy Grail for collectors. I personally will always remain dubious of prices that are in the thousands for 750ml of liquid (regardless of vintage, I cannot justify it) yet those exorbitant price tags are met with fervor because of the sterling reputation of the chateaux.

Futures are a business and homework must be done if you decide to participate. You are banking that the wine will go up by the time it is sold in the marketplace. When executing an order these factors are to be considered:

The vintage plays an enormous role in the prospect of buying futures—a good reputation overall implies a steep price. If the ideal conditions for the vintage were met, satisfying the idealized grape-growing requirements, then the product could prove fantastic. However, there are underachievers in every vintage so you need to be cautious even when selecting from those with an excellent pedigree.

The reputation of the vineyard is also very important—even in off-vintages (or years that did not yield any wines that were too exciting) certain Bordeaux proved to be bright spots.

Ultimately, you should immerse yourself in literature. Follow many sources and do not get mired in the ink cycle—publications that extol indiscriminately.

Most importantly, if you find yourself swayed by critics and feel inclined to make a purchase then make sure the people vending the futures are reputable, not hucksters. You are paying up front for a bottle of wine that does not exist yet and will not be in your possession for up to a couple of years.

Futures are prevalent, not just in Bordeaux but all over the world. People are offering their wines before they are bottled; it can be costly or even reckless to gamble when buying them, making sure you have done your research will avoid unnecessary purchases and reward you with lucrative (and enjoyable) wines in your cellar. Prudence is invaluable.

As for the class of 09 (regarding Bordeaux) it seems bona fide.

A lot of attention is always dedicated to Bordeaux—it proves to be a collector’s wine. These wines have a long existence in the bottle, depending on the vintage it can be kept for forty or more years without real strain (this is achieved in the proper cellar conditions). In rare cases Bordeaux (Chateau D’Yqeum – a prized sauterne) from the early 1800’s is still being consumed to this day. With this kind of staying power and the quality of these wines the excitement is not at all overrated.

The problem is educating a palate since Bordeaux does not directly correlate to budget. I really do not have enough money to go my local wine shop and purchase a smattering of these wines—even the more modest producers of Bordeaux can cost forty dollars, depending on the appellation—to perform random tastings so I immediately signed up to attend the class offered by Wally’s Wines.

My first official Bordeaux tasting took place last week, hosted at the prestigious and exclusive LA Sports Club. Wally’s holds a few classes to allow their patrons a glimpse into the world of wine and experience the nuances of particular varietals. This tasting was also attended by the Owner of Wally’s who gave a brief word about the 2009 futures of Bordeaux which helped to jumpstart the evening. Rising excitement.

This tasting gave all attendees the chance to sample 8 different producers (9 in total) of Bordeaux to experience the different expressions of “terrior” and in some cases—grapes. This class/ tasting was thirty dollars about half the price I would expect to pay for a couple wines being featured that night. The nine wines included a 2005 Blanc de Lynch Bages, 2006 Chateau Rouget, 2004 Chateau La Gaffeliere, 2004 Bahans Haut Brion, 2000 Chateau Kirwan, 2006 Chateau Leoville Barton, 1990 Chateau Lynch Bages, 2004 Chateau Montrose and a 1996 Chateau Rieussec (sauterne—or sweet wine from the southern part of Bordeaux).

Billed as a class—this tasting provided a little history of each region in Bordeaux and some broad strokes on the region as a whole. Clarifying the meaning of “first growths”—those estates of exceptional quality that also fetch top dollar consistently, the soils and conditions of each prominent appellation that produces wine and understanding the differences between the “left bank” and the “right bank” for all in attendance.

The instructor of Wally’s poured hearty glasses of each wine as her Power Point cruised through the seven prominent appellations. The generous pours lead to a more raucous crowd of enthusiasts who became reluctant to dump the contents of their Riedel glassware as the night wound down.  Buzzing slightly.

The class was informative; I raced to jot down as many notes on Bordeaux but a bird’s-eye view was trained on France’s major port. Instead, it was a colossal undertaking for my palate and senses.

The nose (bouquet) of these wines were vast and many. In some glasses an odor of manure and earth were detected while other wines yielded scents of ripe berries, plum, leather, tobacco and chocolate. The scents are closely related to the taste yet even the wines that gave off an intense earthy aroma were refined on the tongue. Some of the wines—as was pointed out were a tad high in tannins due to their age and nothing could illustrate this more clearly than tasting the 1990 Chateau Lynch Bages with a silky texture and long finish against a brash 2004 Chateau Montrose that despite youth still showed great structure and complexity.

It was an amazing experience to be able to try so many different varieties of Bordeaux, this class was not the history lesson I expected it to be (for that I will look to “The Oxford Companion to Wine”) however having experts walk me through the subtle flavors that exist in my stemware was beyond the worth of admission.

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