In the last four years, I’ve purchased only two bottles of red Bordeaux for personal consumption. One was a close out deal and the other was my spoils from a bet with my husband. (For the first time in our nine year marriage, I answered a sports trivia question correctly.) I really like good Bordeaux, but it’s so darned expensive. I’m just not willing to spend my own money on it.
Earlier in my career, I remember tasting through a crazy number of the 1995s upon release with Robert Parker and Pierre Rovani from The Wine Advocate. It was the first time I’d ever had the opportunity to get a comprehensive look at a Bordeaux vintage with such a high quality of wines. It was also the first time I’d met the Dynamic Duo and I was a bit nervous. I took dutiful notes and tried to stay focused on the flavors and ignore the jaw dropping prices. I actually spit out wines like Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Petrus. It was like wine Bizzaro World. I remember thinking, “I hope I’m never so jaded in the biz that I forget to stop and realize what a treat it is to taste some of the greatest wines in the world. For free.”
I think I’m still appreciative of the tasty treats that wineries share with me, and I still drool like Homer Simpson in the presence of tete du cuvee (really expensive)
Champagne. But the big kicker is this: I can never taste a wine without contemplating the price. Lots of people in the business can separate the wine from the price tag, but I just can’t. If a wine is really interesting to me, it has to be interesting to the tune of $20, but not $45. Every wine’s quality to me is directly related to its value. Maybe it’s the Midwestern upbringing or my experience as a Financial Aid Poster Child for Northwestern University and starving actor, but that’s how I roll. If a wine costs $200 on release, it better be all that and a bag of chips. Make that a case of chips. Perhaps a chip factory.
This is all a big warm up to my report on the 2004s at the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. For those of you not in the trade, this event is basically all the great producers from Bordeaux in a ball room of a fancy hotel pouring their brand new releases. The room is crowded full of buyers from restaurants, retailers, and distributors tasting and pontificating on all things vinous.
It’s not glamorous at all. Some tables are three people deep. There are a fair amount of elbows and asses to navigate on the way to a spit bucket and everyone has dingy grey teeth. The only cool part is that the tables are generally manned by the General Manager or Owner of the estate. They are gracious, poised and many of them speak impeccable English. Yes, many are distant, indifferent, and desperate for a smoke – but these folks are by no means the norm.
The tough part for me is that these wines are in no way ready to drink. It’s like tasting cake batter to judge the final confection. There is a framework to examine, but that’s about it. Tasting Bordeaux at this stage is a fairly clinical exercise, much like tasting wines while they’re still in the barrel. You smell what you can, but the wines don’t give much aroma yet. Mostly, it’s a diagnostic tasting of aroma, acidity, body, and tannin. In other words – how smelly, tart, thick, and/or bitter is the wine at this stage. The most expensive stuff is often the most unpleasant in this phase as they are designed for long haul aging. So, it can be a big let down to maneuver your way to a Chateau Latour table and get your sip of $400 juice, only to get a muted aroma of cranberry and a really tart and bitter mouthful of viscous wine that lingers on your tongue for five minutes or more. That’s probably exactly how it should taste right now, but it’s a totally unfair picture of the legendary wine. Yes, you’ve had Latour…but you really haven’t had Latour as it was designed to be enjoyed. Give it a fifteen year nap and now we’re talking.
While I hope all of this gives you readers a thumbnail portrait of a trade tasting, and hopefully entertains a bit, it’s really meant as a giant disclaimer to preceed my notes on the wines I tasted. These are terse first impressions and not “reviews” per se. I’m merely passing on my impressions to those who may have an interest in trying Bordeaux for the first time or exploring Chateaux that are new to them. Here’s the other sticky wicket. The wineries do not offer pricing at this event. So, my notes don’t really take price into account, which I always find a troubling exercise. If one of these really interests you, the pricing should be fairly in line from past vintages and a quick search of the net can probably give you some ballpark price tags.
The 2004 Vintage in Bordeaux: an Overall Impression
Generally, I think the wines are lacking in depth, tannins are heavy, and aromas fairly muted. Some of the better producers should show some early charm in 3-6 years, but this is not a vintage for the marathon cellar. Casual collectors might want a few bottles for a special anniversary and hard core collectors may just want to buy just enough to maintain a vertical, but I’d say most folks should save up for the 2005’s.We’ll see whether the fruit can out last the tannins in the long run.
If you are new to Bordeaux and just want to taste a few, be very cost conscious. You could pay big bucks for a 2004 and be disappointed by a tannic and unfriendly bottle. My rule of thumb is: never spend more on an unfamiliar bottle of wine than you would bet on a hand of black jack. You have to be comfortable losing your investment. And the 2004’s are definitely a gamble.
Oddly flat in the mouth. Lacking acidity and not very aromatic.
Chateau Pavie Macquin
More aromatic than most at the tasting. Nice black cherry and cocoa on the nose. Tannins quite pronounced.
Chateau La Conseillante
Aromas of dark berries and plum. Quite pleasant in the mouth with ripe fruit and less aggressive tannin than most. Structure is quite good. Might age well.
Moulis en Medoc
Very tightly wound. Not giving much on the nose, but fruit is forward and tannins are not overwhelming.
Great structure, but no amount of swirling could get a hint of aroma out of this one.
Probably the only wine at the tasting that is drinkable now. More new world in style with aromas of black cherry, vanilla, caramel, and cola. Sort of like Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper in wine form. Not a wine for the ages, but decent in the short term.
Smokey, with some hints of cocoa and plum. Might be OK now with some decanting.
Chateau La Lagune
More flashy than I remember in past vintages. Lots of cherry jam and candied fruit with tamed tannins. Drinking quite nicely now.
Prettier than many past vintages I’ve tasted. Simple, with blueberry pie aromas. If its still $12 retail or less, this might be a bargain.
Chateau Cantenac Brown
Smells like coffee and cigars. Very earthy, borderline dirty.
Black cherry aromas with nice hints of clove and black pepper. Not overly tannic. Quite pleasant.
Wild strawberry and cherry fruit are almost juicy and pronounced. Tannins are integrated and not bitter.
Soft and plumy, but not very complex. I usually expect more from this house.
Chateau Gruaud Larose
Kind of stinky, just not sure if its in a good or a bad way. Earthy with aromas of worn leather.
Forest aromas of pine, gravel, and herbs. Possibly a bit under-ripe.
Nice structure. Softer in the mouth than most with balanced acidity. Simple tart cherry aromas.
Chateau Clerc Milon
Lots of forward fruit here. Kind of like Hi-C, only pleasantly boozey.
Very cedary, with some tobacco and black pepper notes.
Probably the star of the tasting. Already showing complex aromas of black currant, cherry, and dark chocolate. Fruit is dense, forward and balanced. If you have to buy a 2004 to age, this might be the one. Expect a big price tag.
Really lovely. The wine has nice forward fruit with aromas of black cherry jam, cinnamon, spice, and baked clay. Good choice for a 2004 to age for a slightly more modest price than the heavy hitting first and second growths.