Not long ago I had the opportunity to drink four bottles of very fine Bordeaux, wines by Château Pichon-Lalande. A good friend was in NYC for the weekend and he brought these from his cellar - lucky me! I've had mature Bordeaux before but one bottle at a time, and quite infrequently. This may not surprise you, but I don't have any old Bordeaux in my cellar. Here's another thing that might surprise you - I truly wish that I did.
There are few wines that could be considered less hip and cutting edge than Bordeaux right now. And rightfully so, in a way. The modern wines tend to be over extracted fruit bombs with little to offer in the way of terroir articulation, never mind detail or elegance. They are big, artificially made wines, in most cases. And they are hugely successful, making tons of money for everyone involved.
But like most things that are classic, old Bordeaux is classic for a good reason. They are made from noble grapes and come from interesting terroir, and when well made they combine brawn with detail, complexity, and grace. Many wine lovers of my generation and younger may not have had a great old Bordeaux - it's not something that gets much attention anymore. I think that those of us who haven't had a great old Bordeaux are missing out, not only on beautiful experience, but also on a vital piece of wine appreciation and history. How can we even approach having an understanding of why wine is great without knowing what a grand old claret tastes like?
Pichon-Lalande is one of the top second growths, and comes from Pauillac, a terroir that apparently gives some of the brawnier wines of the region. You can almost see this in the color - look at that inky purple!
I roasted a leg of lamb over potatoes, and we went to town. The wines were amazing, all four of them. They continued to evolve over many hours, and were delicious and deeply satisfying throughout. In general, I appreciated the raw power of the wines, and this was easy to do because they also showed such detail and complexity. There was power, but that was only part of the package. There was also balance - these were wines that showed lovely and refreshing acidity, and great complexity of aroma and flavor. Inspiring, really. Not in the way that I felt like going out and buying the current vintage, because as I understand it, the new wines will not become like these wines, even with 25 years in the cellar. They are made differently now. But inspiring nonetheless. If you have any old Bordeaux and you want some one to appreciate it with, I will make dinner.
The 1989 was a wonderful wine, Peter said that it was the grandest wine of the four, and that it had years, maybe decades of life in it. It was the most complete wine on the table, but I found it hard to compare the wine from 1989 to the wine from 1978 - I just don't know enough to be able to understand where the 1989 is in the context of the evolution of Bordeaux. Will it shed some weight and feel like the 1978 in 10 years? Will it always feel this full bodied, but become more gentle and mellow, and offer even more complexity with further maturity? I would guess, yes.
I found the 1978 to be the most rewarding on this evening, with its mellow and gentle nose of tobacco and leather, its complex and long cedary finish. It felt like being inside a log cabin in the woods. Still plenty of energy, an elegant structure, very long and plain and simple - absolutely delicious.
There are plenty of reasons to ignore modern Bordeaux, I get it. The wines can be bombastic and overbearing, and the story of the Bordeaux region seems to be one of opulence and privilege, there is no struggle, no individuality. People in meticulously hip Brooklyn restaurants want to drink wines made without sulfur by scruffy guys or gals living in ramshackle trailers on lonely hillsides. Those wines have their place, I guess. But that's not Bordeaux.
But there is something to this, to old Bordeaux wine. Don't believe me? Get your hands on an old bottle by a good producer - you and three of your friends can do this and spend less than $50 per person. And really, this is history, and it's worth knowing for yourself.
Would you ignore The Police because Sting was kind of lame later in his career? Would you dismiss Woody Allen because Scoop kind of sucked? Are you not going to drink the one bottle of 1976 Lynch-Bages that Chambers Street is selling for $115 because 2010 Lynch-Bages costs $150 and will never be as good? Seriously, what kind of person are you, anyway?