By New York City Correspondent Sasha Smith
I'd been waiting for last Tuesday’s class for a long, long time.
Finally, I was going to learn to love Bordeaux.
Of course I’ve always appreciated it and held it in high regard, and its primacy is self-evident; it’s tough to argue against the greatness of Bordeaux, the same way you can’t refute the fact that Citizen Kane is a cinematic masterpiece or Crime and Punishment is a darn good book. But just as Orson Welles and Dostoyevsky leave me cold, Bordeaux has never been a personal favorite. I was sure I was missing something — and I was hopeful that our first class on Bordeaux would show me what it was.
The class started off promisingly enough, with our instructor Mary Ewing Mulligan MW telling us how much she loved Bordeaux — drinking it, talking about it, reading about it, etc., etc. She shared her frustration at the difficulty of preparing for the class, given the sheer size of the topic, and I truly felt for her. Prepping to give us a 90-minute talk on the red wines of Bordeaux must be like a history professor putting together lectures for a freshman survey class: The History of Ancient Greece in 75 minutes — and next week, the Rise and Fall of Rome.
Her talk meandered for a bit, but we finally hit upon the primary theme, namely that the finest chateaux are doing just fine, but the rest of Bordeaux is up shit’s creek. I knew the basics already — the top 5% sit atop a vast sea of basically anonymous wine that has, in the past, been consumed locally. But the diminished consumption of wine in France, plus changing tastes
that favor fuller-bodied, fruitier wines, and vine-pulling programs that didn’t take all add up to a lot of supply, not so much demand. (For my instructor's
thoughts on what might help turn the tide for Bordeaux, check out her
review of these wines from Christian Moueix http://www.winereviewonline
As Mary ran through the specifics — the rigid classification system, the harebrained agricultural schemes, the pretensions of the chateaux proprietors (my interpretations, not her words) — I realized how closely I had been associating Bordeaux with my least favorite things about France: bureaucracy, elitism and the rigid adherence to rules in place of common sense.*
Of course I’ve had the experience of enjoying a wine more because it came from someplace I loved (my infatuation with sherry increased tenfold after I visited Andalusia), or felt the itch to go someplace because of the wine (my interest in traveling to Austria coincided with my first taste of Grüner Veltliner), but but this is the first time I've held a grudge against a wine because of its origin. I’m not proud of my pettiness, and it’s definitely not going to help me study for the diploma, but at least now I understand where my antipathy for Bordeaux comes from.
I’m curious — have any of you had the experience of liking a wine less because of where it came from?
On a more pragmatic note, the other obstacles in my path to full Bordeaux appreciation are time and money. Mary told us — and no surprise here — that a great Bordeaux doesn’t achieve greatness until it has a few years under its belt and acquires those telltale leather, tobacco, and cigar box aromas.
Unfortunately, all the wines we tasted were from 2004 and, in one case, 2005. I wasn’t expecting 1961 Pétrus, but something from the 20th century might have been nice, especially for those of us who aren’t in the wine trade or don’t have millions to lavish on our cellars.
Some of the wines we tasted hinted at what makes Bordeaux great. The 2004 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte was certainly refined, although I didn’t quite get the dry, “gravelly” finish Mary told us was typical of Pessac-Léognan. I did understand what she meant about the “classic Bordeaux nose” of the 2004 Château Certan-de-May (plums and lead pencil), but can’t say that I adored it. I’m sure I could learn to love it in time, but time is a luxury I do not have as we continue our whirlwind tour through the wine world.
Next week we head east, to the Rhône, where I can resume my already-flourishing love affairs with Syrah and Grenache.
*In case there are any haters out there who want to take me down for knocking France, let the record show that I love most things about France, including nearly all French wines -- a fact that will become abundantly clear when I write about next week’s class.