Bordeaux's Annual Rites of Spring
Warm spring sun streams into the Chateau Latour tasting room as I spit one of the top wines from Bordeaux's 2010 vintage into a small stainless sink.
"It's like a skyscraper," says Chateau Latour President Frederic Engerer, his arms forming a column in the air to illustrate the taste-shape of this stunning first-growth red.
Ten days ago, Bordeaux's famous chateaux were basking in the attention of 5,000 merchants and journalists from 68 countries for the yearly ritual of tasting barrel samples of the latest vintage. The purpose, as always, is to create buzz and entice the trade to buy the wines as futures.
Blue skies and temperatures up to 80 degrees had everyone smiling and expansive.
The yet-another-fabulous-vintage tale had been circulating for weeks. But wait a minute — wasn't the same story peddled for last year's "legendary" 2009s?
Bordeaux's en primeur spin always brings out my inner skeptic. After 8 days of sipping and spitting about 450 wines, my verdict is that while many 2010 wines are truly exceptional, there are plenty of caveats.
The best are stylistically very different from the opulent, glamorous 2009s — classic, almost architectural, with powerful tannins, high alcohol and, luckily, fresh acidity.
I start my first day with a bang at Chateau Mouton Rothschild, whose seductive grand vin has a wonderful floral nose and long rich finish. The percentage of cabernet sauvignon in the blend is one of the highest ever and that seems to be one key to balanced wines in 2010.
Ditto cabernet franc, which adds freshness. At tiny Chateau Lafleur in Pomerol two days later, the succulent blend of cab franc and merlot is just about perfect.
Early ripening merlot suffered during 2010's long summer drought. In St. Emilion, where the grape is king, many picked late and extracted too much tannin from the grapes in the cellar. The result? Unbalanced wines with harsh bitter tastes, ominously high alcohol and overripe flavors.
Pomerol fared better, but overall I found the most successes in the Medoc, where everyone contrasted 2009 with 2010. Emmanuel Cruse of d'Issan in Margaux and Jean-Hubert Delon of Leoville Las Cases in St. Julien prefer their 2010 to 2009. For others it's the reverse. Thomas Duroux of Palmer shrugs his shoulders and says over lunch, "The vintages are like two beautiful women, one blond and one brunette." (French winemakers still talk like this.)
Taste Buds Whipsawed
Each day my taste buds are whipsawed between the official morning press tastings sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus, the trade group of 132 top estates, and appointments at the first growths and others who snobbishly refuse to show their wines outside the chateau. I spit into silver buckets, black plastic cups, white ceramic containers that look like flower pots. By day's end my teeth and tongue are stained dark purple, and I've filled another notebook.
My top marks go to Lafleur, Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Le Pin and Petrus, plus dark, seductive Hosanna, silky, savory Grand- Puy-Lacoste, elegant, pure Pontet-Canet, plummy, sensual Calon- Segur, harmonious, sleek Palmer and Ducru-Beaucaillou, d'Issan, Rauzan-Segla, Lynch-Bages, and deep, profound Leoville Las Cases.
There will be many good buys, such as Chasse-Spleen, Lagrange, Capbern-Gasqueton, Cantemerle.
Several sweet Sauternes are delicious, including a subtle and velvety d'Yquem that some predict will be the next darling in China.
The thirsty Asian market is a hot topic. Stacks of pamphlets in Chinese sit on tables at every first growth.
Son in Hong Kong
Chateau Margaux's technical director, Paul Pontallier, introduces his Mandarin-speaking son, Thibault, 25, who's living in Hong Kong to drum up business.
"Last year," he says, "a third of all Margaux sales were in China, Hong Kong and Macao."
At second growth Cos d'Estournel, a newly hired Chinese woman pours for a group of her countrymen in the dimly lit two- story tasting room, which looks like the lavish lobby of a luxury hotel.
American buyers are busy reminding chateau owners not to forget the U.S. Chris Adams of New York's Sherry-Lehmann says he ticks off for them the many ways his shop promotes their wines. He'd like to offer more than the 130 chateaux he bought last year — if the prices are right.
Even if chateaux don't increase over last year, Americans will pay 10 percent to 15 percent more when prices are released thanks to the low dollar.
"Historically no one has been able to stomach back to back good vintages at high prices," warns Simon Staples of London's Berry Bros. & Rudd Ltd.
Bottle for $1,000
Gil Lempert-Schwarz, chairman of the Wine Institute of Las Vegas, now on his 23rd en primeur, predicts the first growths will release a tiny amount at $1,000 a bottle and top chateaux will sit on most of their stock. "The '05s, '06s, and '08s are cheaper," he says.
If you want to taste for yourself, 90 chateaux (but not the first growths) will show off barrel samples of their 2010s at London merchant Bibendum's sixth annual Bordeaux en primeur tasting on May 4 at Lord's Cricket Ground.
Don't forget to bring a toothbrush.