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Tasting the 1996 Bordeaux First Growths
We attended the 1996 Bordeaux First Growths black tie dinner at the Hyatt in Washington, DC on May 3rd. It was elegant, pricey ($225 each), featured the finest wines and some very good cuisine, and a chance to hear experts from Chateau Margaux talk about the wines.
The "first growth dinner" is an annual event in Washington. Leading personalities from one of the five Bordeaux first growths (Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Haut Brion) make a circuit of American cities (New York, Washington, Houston, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles). This year it was Chateau Margaux's turn, and we were graced by the presence of Managing Partner Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Director Paul Pontallier.
Although the food was excellent (and the first course, a shrimp, scallop and sweet corn "sausage" was sensational), it was really a wine dinner, so mostly I'll talk about the wines. One comment, though, in passing. The meat courses were served, by custom, rare. If you don't care for that, then you have the choice of picking away at the edges, or sending the meat back. We both did send back the lamb course, which was virtually raw.
Two Margaux wines began and ended the dinner. Their 1997 white Pavillon Blanc was refreshing, with promise of depth. I would have mistaken it for a fine chablis. The trick though with Pavillon Blanc is to cellar it for several years. We were seated with Paul Pontallier, who told us that it would cellar nicely at least for 7 or 8 years. Then it takes on even more body and interest.
Ending the dinner was a 1983 Chateau Margaux. This was of special interest, for I had visited Margaux shortly after that wine was blended in early 1984. It was apparent even then that this was an exceptional wine. The fruit, flavor and body confirmed that. To my surprise, it didn't seem quite ready yet. Clearly it could cellar for another decade!
The main features of the wine tasting were two flights of wines from the five first growth properties. The first flight, with a venison course, was with the 1995 "second wines" of the five chateaux. The wines are named Les Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de Latour, Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild, and Le Bahans du Chateau Haut Brion.
"Second wines" does not mean second rate. It means wines from vines that are not old enough to qualify for the first growth. Of the five, I had never tasted Le Petit Mouton before. I liked it very much. It was rich and expansive like Mouton Rothschild, at a fraction of the cost. The production of second wines is not a new idea, although it is a concept that is spreading in Bordeaux. There are bottles of Pavillon Rouge that are a century old! Monsieur Pontallier told us that in response to demand, Chateau Margaux is now also making Pavillon Rouge in magnums (double bottles).
Four of the second wines struck me as something of a rougher, adolescent version of the first growth. That is just fine, and it is no knock. Gwyneth Paltrow is after all an approximation of her mother, Blythe Danner! The one exception was Les Carruades, which was surprisingly tannic and large, not really resembling Lafite the parent. Since I am very fond of Haut Brion and can't afford it, the Bahans will give me an approximate and genuine taste in the future. If there were a prize on this flight, it would go to the Pavillon Rouge, which was very smooth and pleasant drinking. Les Forts de Latour was a largish wine, without astringency.
The main event of course was the flight of 1996 First Growths. Here I would enter a caveat (and did, when comments on the dinner were requested later). The wines are always served in alphabetical order, which is total nonsense. That means you taste the Latour before the Margaux. Since Latour is a much larger wine, and since one doesn't spit out wines at dinner, that means that after appreciating the Latour you are not going to do justice to the Margaux. I always taste them in a different order, ending with Latour.
The circumstances for a dinner tasting are always chancy. Under the best conditions, you can only hope for a rough idea of how an infant wine will taste when fully ready, perhaps thirty years later. And any given wine might have closed up due to the shipment. That was the case with the Mouton Rothschild this evening. My notes simply read "closed, tannic ... and asleep."
The others were superb, and give promise of excellence. I tasted the Lafite first and found it a superior wine. It was "tasteful and light, full of flavor and some unobtrusive structure." I found the Margaux elegant, "light and pleasant and fruity." One is supposed to have a hint of violets in the aroma of Margaux. It may have been the nice spirit of the dinner, but this time I think I did smell them!
The Haut Brion was excellent. Haut Brion has a wonderful hint of something earthy. I know that doesn't sound very appealing, but that is the case. I introduced the 1989 Haut Brion and the 1990 Margaux at earlier vintage dinners, and they are the finest two wines of the first growths for the last decade. Their quality was immediately apparent, even for infant wines. This Haut Brion isn't quite in that league, but it is very much an Haut Brion, and a very good one. The Latour was as usual very large, so full of tannic structure that it is for me the hardest wine to gauge properly. One does look to see if the fruits will match the structure, so that it evens out in the long run. This one will, and like all Latours, is a keeper.
After the dinner, our Margaux guests were kind enough to answer general questions, another tradition at first growth dinners. I wanted to now more about the blending process. Others asked about aging, or the Margaux property itself.
Nobody asked whether the dinner had been worth the $225 charge. Having posed it myself, I'll give that a try. I have just received a wine catalog from a leading Washington supplier, which lists these 1996 first growths. They range in price from $200 to $299 a bottle. Now, when I was growing up a dollar was still a dollar, and these prices strike me as outrageous. Still, if you have the money and are trying to decide what to buy, the dinner gives you an approximate idea of quality, and you can get a taste of each for the price of one bottle. That seems worth it. It is also a treat to talk with people from Bordeaux, and in my case, old friends.
On the other hand, if unlike 1996 the vintage year is not a very good one, it makes less sense to spend that much. The investment would better be spent on half a dozen bottles of the very fine 1995 second growths that we tasted at the May 3 dinner!
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Bill Shepard learned to love the wines of Bordeaux when he served as Consul General there. You can read more about his life as a consular officer in Can the U.S. Embassy Help in a Crisis? Copyright (c) 1999 Paris New Media, L.L.C.