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Première Bordeaux — Epilog
This trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was not always comfortable, sometimes irritating and even frightening at moments when confronting unanticipated roadblocks in unfamiliar surroundings. Yet, when anyone looks back on memorable occasions in their lifetime, more times than not these reflections are accompanied by mixtures of euphoria and turmoil. Such are the recipes of our human existence.
In the realm of wines encountered, I am drawn into making comparisons of those giants that I have already experienced in California. In my humble opinion, many of the brilliant Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Napa cannot be beat. The soils of the valley floor and several of the surrounding hillsides and mountain slopes result in wines which continue to amaze me. I acknowledge the fact that California’s vines can be irrigated with precise amounts of water, helping to produce the best possible results each growing season, as compared to the restricted water conditions in Bordeaux which must rely on perfect natural rainfall to enable a great vintage. With that said, the Cabernets produced in Bordeaux are “no slouches.” It seems that the differences in these grapes of the two regions relate to the minerals found in the soils and to some degree the ripeness of the grapes at the times in which they are harvested. Bordeaux tannins (from earlier harvests) seem much more “biting” and predominate in most new vintages.
In the case of the final wine produced, numerous California wineries offer Cabernet as a single grape wine, or mixed with only very small percentages of other varietals. Cabernet dominates, based on its big, ripe flavors, typically drinkable (with a bit of air exposure) on the day the new bottles are marketed. More often than not, Bordeaux reds are not ready to consume until subjected to years of bottle aging, beyond the time when they are released to consumers. Yet, if the Bordeaux wines were created with the same high percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon as Napa’s, I do not believe most would become quite as special, even over time.
So, what makes the red wines of Bordeaux such a stand-out, sought by so many around the world? I believe it is the result of infusing significant percentages of Merlot. One might assert that many California wineries do attempt to create fine Bordeaux blends, adding notable doses of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. And, since they do, what makes their efforts fall short of the greatness achieved in Bordeaux? The answer (again, my perspective) is that the mineral-laden Merlot produced in Bordeaux is superior to what California has ever managed. Thus in the left-bank blends, with average amounts of 30% to 45% Merlot, the final product is elevated to its deserved greatness. And, right-bank blends with Merlot as the dominant ingredient tend to soar in the ratings (i.e. “good and great year” offerings of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion).
Could similar results ever occur, if current day California reds were again compared to those of Bordeaux in a blind tasting by French critics (similar to the 1976 Judgment in Paris)? I think not. The French (of course, patriotic as they are) would more easily choose their own wines because the Bordeaux have become easier to distinguish, given California’s recent emphasis on big, ripe, fruit forward vintages. But, neither side of the pond needs (or should ever be subjected to) such a contest again. The world of wine consumers now recognizes that true beauty exists in the reds produced by both regions.
Upon my return, I made lists of the Bordeaux which thrilled my taste buds. Then, I checked the Robert Parker and Wine Spectator reviews of various vintages which were highly rated and ready for consumption. I must confess, I have made some purchases of these (more than I should admit). Has this exposure caused me to abandon my beloved Napa? Far from it. However, it has opened my realm of wine appreciation into a new sphere. And, the more wines we can consume and appreciate for their own beauty, the better our lives will be. Oui??
Will I ever return? Hopefully. My group of wine buddies is all enthused and ready for such exposure. And, if any of my faithful readers ever want the benefits of my experience in the region, my ability to access many of the estates which are considered “inaccessible” to the touring public, and my now sharp navigational skills through the uncharted roadway maze which is Bordeaux, just allow me 3 to 4 months of set-up time, cover the costs to take me along on your trip, and I promise to earn my keep! Cheers!!