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Great Bordeaux You Can Actually Buy

(November 4, 1999) I’m not exactly talking about bargains here, but some of the prices aren’t yet out of sight.

     Last weekend, I attended the "Heart’s Delight" charity wine tasting in Washington, D.C. Hosted by Robert Parker, Jr., it featured a broad array of 1996 Bordeaux. And you know what? There’s great stuff to buy and drink in this vintage after all.

     Up until now, I had been boycotting this vintage as just too expensive, no matter what it offers. But I’m humming a slightly different tune now.

     The Cabernet-based wines seemed well-balanced to me, with supple, albeit ample tannins. Quite a few were amazing, and some were even priced within a mortal’s budget. Happily too, some of the more modestly-priced Chateaux have put out beautiful efforts.

     One warning, though. Do not, repeat, do not buy the Medocs unless you’ve got a cellar and the patience to wait anywhere from three to ten years and maybe a little longer. A few of the wines from Haut Medoc and Pessac-Leognan would be tasty tomorrow, as would some Pomerols and St. Emilions, but the truly exciting stuff should locked away and forgotten about.

     And a handy tip. Bob Parker had all the reds double-decanted two hours before serving. It worked very well -- you could taste and appreciate even the biggest monsters. So if you just can’t wait to break into your trophies, soften ‘em up and you may get away with it.

     Onto the notes. First we got our noses wet with two WHITES:

Comtes de Jonqueyeres 1996 has some sulfury aromas, a bit of floral stuff, thin melon flavors and tastes a little tart for this boy’s palate. It’s just okay.

But *Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc pleases me more. Seems dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, with aromas of pineapple, gooseberry and cat pee. Lively acidity, but nice and slippery on the palate. Moderate length. Definitely on the raunchy side and I have a friend who would hate it, but I like it!

     Then FLIGHT ONE. This features wines where Cabernet plays a major role, but other grapes tone down the structure:

Chateau Belgrave (Haut Medoc) may be the lightest red in the tasting, but it’s utterly charming Bordeaux. Tobacco, cassis, light on its feet. Try it tonight.

*Chateau Larrivet-Haut-Brion (Pessac-Leognon) has more grace and finesse, plus some sexy oak. Aromas of toast, coffee and cigarette all marry well. Thins on the finish, but a beaut all the same. I’d buy this one for an everyday wine.

And I like ** Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Leognan) a lot! If you love the big cigar aromas of stuff like Haut-Brion or Pape Clement, this could be your smart buy of the vintage. Lots of sweet strawberry and cassis flavors on the palate too. Approachable and sexy.

By contrast, I found Pape Clement (Pessac-Leognan) disappointing, maybe partly because I’ve liked it so much in previous vintages. This not the reincarnation of the heavenly 1990, I’m afraid. Some cassis and tobacco show, but it seems both tannic and thin on the finish and I don’t have high hopes.

But *Chateau Cantemerle is a back in form. Characteristically backward, but grows more and more charming with study. Currants, Bordeaux smoke and allspice. Nice!

     FLIGHT TWO showcases the right bank, where Merlot plays a heavy role. These are wines that usually charm me a lot. With a couple of exceptions, though, this flight was a let-down:

Vieux Chateau Certan (Pomerol) features some chocolate and plum. Nice flavors, but kind of thin.

*Chateau Le Bon Pasteur (Pomerol) did terrific things with what God gave them. Bitter chocolate and cherry aromas with a whisper of tannin on the palate. Opens impressively revealing plenty of red fruit. Excellent wine, just short of outstanding.

Chateau Clinet (Pomerol) dumbfounds me. For all the decanting it got, this baby is really reticent. Some plum. Maybe a little unripe? I’ll pass.

But **Chateau Monbousquet (St. Emilion) pulls a rabbit out of the hat! Fudge and coffee aromas, and the fruit is full and flamboyant. Flaunts her stuff, beckons you into the alley, hollers, "Hey sailor, want a good time?" Maybe it’s not the equal of the 1995, but I like it a lot.

Chateau Angelus (St. Emilion) is usually one of my favorites. While it’s not quite as inscrutable as the Clinet, I still have to wonder, though. Asian spice, tannin, a lot of extraction, a hint of cherry flavor -- but will this wine ever emerge? Shrug, on to the next.

     Finally, FLIGHT THREE shot out the lights. These wines from the heart of the Medoc were rippling with muscular fruit. Tannins were big but in balance.

*+Chateau Calon Segur (St. Estephe) seems atypically rich and sweet for their normally austere style. No complaints.

+**Chateau Cos D-Estournel (St. Estephe) is flashy. Big coffee bean aromas, followed by a whallop of cassis. Lot of concentration on the palate. Lot of wood, too. Maybe too much wood? Big, beautiful wine all the same, but oak-allergic folks should beware.

***Chateau Montrose (St. Estephe) is massive, but wonderfully supple. You get the expected Montrose flavors of brass, blood and berry and a long, clean finish. Showing even better than I expected, given the reviews.

***Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste (Pauillac) is pumping out pure, sweet fruit. Unlike Cos and Ducru (below), these guys soft-pedaled the oak and I love the result. No tarting up -- just an ocean of blueberry and cassis.

Maybe the wine that surprised me most was ***Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou (St. Julien). So many so-so, musty wines in the past decade. But here -- heaven! Lots of coffee, cassis, followed up by stone and flint. Very backward for a Ducru. Flat-out great wine.

But the "buy" of the evening, by my lights, is ***Chateau Leoville Poyferre (St. Julien) Huge concentration, beautiful tobacco and cassis flavors, and finesse as well. Gorgeous Bordeaux. I checked local prices afterward and it was selling for $50 -- less with a case discount. For a great 1996 Bordeaux that’s not shabby at all.

***+Chateau Pichon-Lalande is a perennial favorite of mine. And this one is just awesome -- but I doubted I would have ever guessed it for Pichon-Lalande if it had been served blind. Intense, violet-tinged aromas. Immense, almost hurtful concentration. Tremendous presence on the palate with a lingering finish. But this is a big brawny Cab-type thing, instead of the Merlot-influenced lady I’m used to. Biggest Pichon-Lalande I’ve ever tasted. I’ll drink it gratefully, but I’m not sure I want them to stick with this style.

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