BY JUSTIN DILLON
Columnist’s note: This column cannot reasonably be construed to incite a race riot. If you’re a 1L, feel free to keep reading.
This column is about Bordeaux, a region in France that makes what some people (like myself) consider the best wines in the world. In fact, the best wine I’ve ever had was a 1982 Chateau Talbot, which had a nose so big it made my head snap back. (You can imagine how fun I am to drink with.)
The problem with Bordeaux, however, is that it’s in France, which means the names of the wines are in French, which means that they can be very hard to remember. Compare, for example, the names of some of the best-known American wines – such as Silver Oak, Beringer and Screaming Eagle – with the names of some of the best-known Bordeaux wines – such as Talbot, Margaux, and Mouton Rothschild (and don’t get me started on things like Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande).
The problem, for non-French-speaking ignoramuses (ignorameaux?) like me, is that most of the wines are just named after dead French people you’ve never heard of, so they’re not as visual as, say, Silver Oak or Screaming Eagle (both of which come in highly distinctive bottles, unlike many Bordeaux, which often have nothing but the name of the wine in hard-to-read cursive on the front). All of which can make French wines, and Bordeaux in particular – with its “I know I’ve heard of it but I have no idea what it is” allure – somewhat intimidating.
Hence this column – a quick and dirty guide to help you know what questions to ask next time you’re looking for Bordeaux in a restaurant or wine store.
The dominant grape in most red Bordeaux is either Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. (White Bordeaux, which is very good but not one of the world’s great whites, is usually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.) Most of the wines also have other grapes blended in – so you could have, say, a wine that’s 70 percent Cabernet, 20 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Franc.
The first thing to figure out when ordering Bordeaux, then, is whether you want something that’s going to be softer and Merlot-dominated, or brawnier and Cabernet-dominated. (Keep in mind that these are rough distinctions.)
If you want something that’s Cabernet-based, ask for something from the Left Bank, which includes the Médoc, Haut-Médoc (which in turn includes, pause for breath, St. Estèphe, Paulliac, St. Julien and Margaux), Graves and Pessac-Léognan.
If you want something Merlot-based, ask for wines from the Right Bank regions of St. Emilion or Pomerol. Remember that be-cause Merlot is softer and somewhat more approachable than Cabernet, Merlot-based wines might be a safer bet if you’re relatively new to wine.
And if, as is likely, you remember none of these names after you finish reading this column, just remember to ask your waiter about which ones are Merlot-dominated and which ones are Cabernet-dominated. Even that will help him guide you to something you’ll like.
Because this is only a rough guide to Bordeaux, the only other factoid I’ll burden you with is a list of vintages to look out for (or stay away from). Because Bordeaux is divided into different regions, the vintages tend to be region-specific, but overall, 1991 and 1992 were terrible, 1999, 1995 and 1989 were very good, and 1982 and 1990 were stellar.
And then there’s 2000, which wine guru Robert Parker recently called “the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced.” If you see a 2000, odds are it’s very good. Odds are also that it’s not yet ready to drink, so ask whoever you’re buying it from when it’s supposed to mature. Parker said that one of the vintage’s stars, Chateau Ausone, will be ready to drink between 2020 and 2075. If you’re old enough to buy wine today, the Ausone will probably outlive you.
Before turning to the tasting notes, I’d like to put in a plug for the legendary Rakoff/Wilkins dinner, which will once again be auctioned off at tonight’s Public Interest Auction. Seven friends and I finally had our dinner this past Sunday, and it was exquisite.
Dean Rakoff led the multi-course cooking efforts, the highlights of which were his homemade potato bread with caraway seeds, pasta with mango-curry sauce and a dessert so good I literally moaned (albeit quietly). And Professor Wilkins brought up from his 4,000-bottle cellar a different and excellent wine with every course, including a 1985 Guigal Cote Rotie, a 1985 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Rabaja, and a 1990 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos St. Urban Rangen de Thann. (Got all that?) Add in the fact that Rakoff and Wilkins – neither of whom I knew at all – are warm, gregarious hosts, and it made for a terrific dinner.
I won’t tell you how much we bid, but suffice it to say that if you want to win this thing and you’re working for a firm next summer, think in terms of a day’s salary per person. (Hint to 1Ls: the only way to win the good items is to plan ahead. I found that out the hard way when I lost this dinner my 1L year to some better-prepared 2Ls.) A day’s salary may sound like a lot of money, but it goes to the great cause of helping your public-service-minded classmates defend murderers and make the world safe for trees.
(I bought all of the following wines at Marty’s.)
For this column, I bought two Bordeaux from the Right Bank and two from the Left Bank. First the Right Bank. The star of the evening was the Chateau D’Aiguilhe Cotes de Castillon 1998 ($22.99-and see what I mean about hard-to-remember names?), which was just a striking and complex powerhouse of a wine. Huge, cassis-like fruit combined with overtones of tobacco and a finish of dark chocolate made this a hedonist’s delight. As the wine developed in the glass, I also began to detect hints of asphalt and clove. Had I given it more time instead of going after it like a seventeen-year-old on prom night, I’m sure I would have noticed even more.
Also very good, but tighter and more challenging, was the Chateau Bel Rose Lalande de Pomerol ($16.99); not quite as ready to drink, it had terrific cigar box overtones and an earthy, chocolately finish. The fruit was there, but it was more buried than its predecessor’s.For the Left Bank wines, I braved the 2000 vintage-and I say “braved” because of the low odds that these wines would be ready to drink. Both were good, but both did, in fact, need more bottle time-even after being decanted in the morning and open all day. The Les Cavaliers du Hâ Haut Medoc 2000 ($10.99) did finally peek out a little, with some cherry-raspberry fruit amid the tight tobacco. And the Chateau Beaulieu Comtes de Tastes ($12.99) also quite tight, tasted of dark fruits and cigar boxes. My guess is that in three or four years, these wines will taste two or three times as expensive as they are, so if you’re willing to be patient, buy a few and try them out.
Finally, two excellent wines that are not from France: The Barnett Vineyards Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 1998 ($26.99), from California, was a knockout. Made in the bold California style, it has concentrated cherry fruit and overtones of cola and coffee; it paired perfectly with roasted salmon. And leaping to Italy, the Grimaldi Giacomo Dolcetto d’Alba 1999 ($14.99) had a fruit-bomb nose and Dolcetto’s characteristically earthy, plummy flavors, as well as a focused, cassis-like sweetness that made it almost impossible to put down.