For any normal person, walking around San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel tasting dozens or even hundreds of young, astringent red wines all day, spitting each and every one out instead of swallowing, sounds akin to a visit to the dentist (sorry, dentists).
Doing it five days in a row at the annual Union de Grands Crus des Bordeaux sounds more like a visit to the psychiatrist may be in order. But this is my work; strangely, I enjoy it.
Partly, this is because I don’t view these tastings as simply one wine after another. Instead, there is a narrative at work, particularly when I can taste 75 or so 2012 Bordeaux wines in one sitting, and then do the same a couple of days later with about 100 Bordeaux from the 2014 vintage. With Bordeaux representing for many the pinnacle of age-worthy wines, there’s a great deal to learn.
Which wines show well? Which don’t? How similar are the wines from the Margaux commune in 2012 to one another, and how different and inconsistently styled were the Margaux wines in 2014? (The answer: quite a lot different, and I’m not sure why.)
I’m tasting all these wines in a perhaps vain effort to understand them and to find patterns among their flavors, aromas and textures. I want to know which wines are “good,” which are “great” and which are … “not so much.” Those quotations are meant to suggest that “good,” “great” and “not” are very much subjective, with personal preference, taste and experience part and parcel of those determinations.
This is not an admission that my notes are of no use to anyone but me; rather, unlike some other wine writers, I do not prefer colossal red wines with massive color, weight, alcohol, spice, oak and astringency. Those just don’t taste that good to me. I prefer wines that are silkier, or maybe with spiciness, fruitiness and tartness working in concert.
That doesn’t make me right and the others wrong. It’s simply that we all have different preferences because we all have slightly different sensitivities, experiences and upbringings. It shows in what we like to eat and drink. But I believe wine writers should confess their preferences up front, and those who have similar palates can stick around, while those who want Godzilla wines can take it all with equally sized grains of salt.
And the plot unfolding as I tasted all those 2012s was very different from the story of the 2014s. 2012 was a wet and weird year; wines didn’t ripen well, and under-ripe wines can be herbaceous and tart. I generally like tart when it’s accompanied by fruitiness, but that’s not really the tale of the 2012s. Certain superlative producers, like Cheval Blanc, Pichon-Lalande, Cos d’Estournel, Leoville las Cases, Trotanoy and Domaine de Chevalier made excellent wines regardless; many others were just lacking in that thing that makes some wines seem delicious.
I usually look for bargains (because, frankly, I can’t afford pretty much any of those wines I just mentioned). Going from wine to wine, my mood darkened. It’s as if 2012 was a recitation of the rich and famous, doing foul deeds or just making dull conversation.
2014, on the other hand, was like a book that opened with a bang. Fruit was out front: Black cherries, plums, blueberries, red currants and many more all abound. And the telling grew; herbal notes like rosemary sprout along with red roses and violets in the aromas. Some of these were just plain fun. The St. Emilions (Canon, Grand Mayne and Clos Fourtet) were vibrant and delightful; the Pomerols (such as Beauregard and le Bon Pasteur) nearly as rewarding.
The Margaux wines were, as I said, strangely uneven, with Brane-Cantenac, Durfort-Vivens, Lascombes, Marquis de Termes and Giscours showing well but d’Angludet, Dauzac and Prieure-Lichine less so. That was a bumpy chapter.
Saint Julien was winning throughout; Pauillac nearly as nice. St. Estephe was rigid and unyielding as it so often is in youth, while Medoc and Haut Medoc wines offered some affordable pleasure (I was particularly pleased with La Tour Carnet). Pessac Leognan was pleasant but not such an exciting part of the story; the whites were very good but rarely exciting. The reds the same. Yet every story has an emotional core; I’m a bit fanatical about Domaine de Chevalier, one of the star properties in this region.
As usual, both the white and red wines were lovely, graceful, even showing complexity at this young age. Bordeaux isn’t only dry reds and white wines; the lush dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac are among the world’s greatest wine bargains. But as pretty as were the sweet 2014s (especially Coutet, Guiraud and Suduiraut), the story of the 2012’s held a surprise ending with the same estates offering delightful character, as well as Climens, Döisy-Daene, Filhot, La Tour Blanche, Sigalas Rabaud, and Clos Haut Peyraguey. It wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it brought a rather boring tale to an exciting conclusion.
Don’t let me put you off 2012s entirely; there were some pleasant wines such as Beaumont, Cantemerle, Camensac, Coufran and La Lagune, and they can be found at reasonable pricing. And given the vintage’s bad rap, people may end up discounting some of them. Hope springs eternal, and maybe this yarn isn’t completely spun yet. Some of these may yet grow shapely and round, but the general tenor of the vintage is less generous than 2014s offerings.
Yet each reader may view the stories differently. My colleagues were not as impressed with 2014 as I was. But then they can tell their own stories. This one’s mine.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a wine column for The Kansas City Star’s Food section and the Chow Town blog.