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‘Must-ling’ Up in Bordeaux

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Driving through the Medoc, that tongue of vineyard land that extends north from the city of Bordeaux, one is surrounded by neat rows of vines, the imposing stone facades of famous cha^teaux. You could easily imagine that nothing ever changes here.

But red Bordeaux wines have changed a lot in recent years. If you taste the excellent 1995 and 1996 vintages, which have recently pushed Bordeaux back into the limelight, and compare them with the Bordeaux of a decade or more ago, you’ll find the lean but elegant wines that were once the norm are now few and far between.

In some cases the change is a matter of quality; the performance of many cha^teaux has improved dramatically during the last decade. In others, it has been a stylistic change. Many well-known Bordeaux have become softer, richer or more massive in body. As a result, many Americans could be in for a surprise when they open the first bottles of these vintages as they arrive on the market. The most extreme examples of new-style red Bordeaux could be mistaken for reds from California or Australia.

A look at the modern wineries where the owners of many leading cha^teaux invested the profits of the 1980s Bordeaux boom will show one reason. During the last few years, must-concentrating machines (concentrateurs) have become standard Bordeaux winemaker’s equipment. They concentrate the grape juice by removing water, either by boiling it off at room temperature in a vacuum chamber or by extracting it through reverse osmosis. Concentration literally “pumps up” the flavor intensity and alcoholic content of the resulting wine.

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“The danger of this technique is that it concentrates everything in the wine,” says Daniel Llose, the technical director of the properties owned by the French insurance company AXA and Cha^teau Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. “Take it too far with must from mediocre grapes and the result is pronounced acidity and unripe flavors.”

Although Llose prefers to build up the wines he makes by reducing the size of the crop through bunch-thinning several months before the harvest, he makes no secret of the fact that he has used must concentration at AXA’s Cha^teau Pichon-Longueville since the 1992 vintage.

There has certainly been a dramatic improvement in the quality of the wines, which had been erratic and sometimes poor, since AXA took over Pichon-Longueville in 1987. The style has also changed, this now being one of the most muscular and tannic wines in the Medoc.

“Like a sumo wrestler” is how one Bordeaux vintner (who wished to remain unnamed) described the new-style Pichon-Longuevilles, and it certainly fits the massive 1996 vintage wine. Too big and muscular for its own good? I certainly preferred the less assertive, more supple 1995.

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Just across the road at Cha^teau Pichon Lalande there is also a state-of-the-art winery with a must concentrator, but the wines taste completely different. The 1995 here is packed with ripe blackberry aromas and has a texture on the palate reminiscent of the finest silk. The more powerful 1996 tastes like an essence of black cherry and has a ravishing harmony, in spite of being loaded with tannins. It reminded me of the marvelous 1986 Pichon Lalande, one of the best Bordeaux of that excellent vintage, and still full of life and vigor.

Pichon Lalande has been one of the pioneers of modern winemaking in the Medoc since 1978, when the resolute and dynamic May-Elaine de Lencquesaing took control of the estate. The many changes and improvements to the estate’s winemaking facilities have done nothing to alter the rich, supple style of wine she introduced 20 years ago. Wine style is as much a matter of personal vision as of technology in Bordeaux.

Many of Bordeaux’s leading winemakers say that the biggest change of recent years has been in the vineyards. “It is true that today’s wines are softer than those of 20 years ago,” says Christian Le Sommer, director of Cha^teau Latour. “This is the result of the better ripeness of the grapes we pick, not through changes in the vinification. To achieve this, we now pick slightly later and control the quantity of fruit each vine carries more precisely.”

The result is some of the most magnificent red wines produced anywhere in Bordeaux--or the world. For all their concentrated aromas and flavors, it is not through their power that the 1995 and ’96 vintages of Cha^teau Latour impress; there is nothing flashy about them. Rather, it is their aristocratic deportment that makes them stand out from the many other exciting wines made in Pauillac.

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“An iron fist in a velvet glove” is a favorite expression of British wine writer Michael Broadbent for great Medoc wines, and the glove certainly fits the fist of the 1995 vintage Latour perfectly. The 1996 is a wine of monumental, but perfectly balanced, proportions. It is unquestionably one of the great Latours and should live for decades, even though it is more supple than such classic vintages of the past as 1970 or 1966.

Comparing these wines with those from Latour’s direct neighbor to the south in Saint-Julien, Cha^teau Leoville-Las-Cases, proves that, despite many technical innovations, the greatest Bordeaux wines of today are as individual as those of a generation ago.

Like Latour’s, Leoville-Las-Cases’s vineyards lie on gentle slopes overlooking the Gironde estuary. They also have a deep gravel soil planted primarily in Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the wines of the two estates taste dramatically different.

Leoville-Las-Cases shows a dazzling brilliance that is quite different from Latour’s restrained grandeur, but in recent vintages it has been every bit as impressive. The 1995 has enveloping black currant and black cherry flavors and a very long finish that is both firm and extremely fine. You could drink it now for the vibrant fruit character, but in five to 10 years it will be even more elegant.

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The 1996 is so densely packed with flavor it made me think of the core of the atom. However, despite huge tannins, it has a lightness of touch that makes this giant of a wine seem to skip across the palate. The aftertaste just goes on and on and on--the sure sign of a truly great wine.

I cannot remember ever tasting a better young red Bordeaux. It should continue improving for 20 years after bottling later this year.

The 1994 Leoville-Las-Cases, which lacks the hard edges typical of this vintage, is also impressive. Indeed, its combination of depth and elegance makes it the best Medoc of 1994. Many ’94 red Bordeaux are quite big but so tannic and acidic that they give little pleasure; they taste as if over-use of must concentrators has thrown them so far off balance that they will never regain it, however long they are aged.

You find the most extreme new-style Bordeaux on the other side of the Gironde, in St. Emilion and Pomerol. This is perhaps because of the fact that the critical acclaim for the wines from very small properties, such as L’Angelus and Tertre Ro^teboeuf (St. Emilion) and L’Eglise-Clinet, Lafleur and Le Pin (Pomerol), has pushed their prices far above the level of comparable wines from the Medoc. The lure of big profits makes the use of radical new vinification techniques a very attractive gamble.

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Nowhere here is the break with traditional winemaking more complete than at Cha^teau Canon-la-Gaffeliere, which has been directed by Count Stephan von Neipperg since 1985.

With the 1996 and ’97 vintages, he has introduced a new vinification that flies in the face of Bordeaux practice. Instead of crushing the grapes, then protecting the wine from too much contact with air during fermentation and racking the wines (decanting from barrel to barrel) at three-month intervals before bottling, he leaves the berries uncrushed before fermentation begins, pumps oxygen through the fermenting wine and doesn’t rack at all.

The result is wines that are an inky black color, smell like freshly crushed blackberries and are extremely full, imposing and tannic. The 1997 La Mondotte--a new special bottling from a single parcel of vines that will be launched with the 1996 vintage--is a bizarre wine. Its aromas of blackberry jam and fruitcake reminded me strongly of a young vintage Port. The first impression on the palate was of enormous richness and force; then came a great slug of tannins that made it turn very dry on the aftertaste.

With this wine, has Von Neipperg succeeded in making the greatest wine of the difficult 1997 vintage in Bordeaux, or is he a Dr. Frankenstein who has created a monster? The judgment of a handful of wine critics will decide this for many of the collectors who are clearly the target market for this limited-production wine. If the critics come down in favor of the 1997 La Mondotte, Von Neipperg will be the hero of the moment.

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Either way, the wine tastes nothing like a traditional St. Emilion--or any other Bordeaux wine, for that matter. It raises the question whether the region’s traditions are essential to its identity or whether they have become an encumbrance to its advancement. That’s a question nobody would have asked even a decade ago.

Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer.

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Other exceptional wines tasted include the following.

Saint-Estephe: Montrose ('95 and ’96), Cos d’Estournel ('96), Sociando-Mallet ('96).

Pauillac: Les Forts de Latour ('96), Lafite-Rothschild ('96), Lynch-Bages ('96) Mouton-Rothschild ('96), Clerc-Milon ('95 and ’96).

St. Julien: Clos du Marquis ('96), Ducru Beaucaillou ('96).

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Margaux: Margaux ('96), Palmer ('95 and ’96).

Pessac-Leognan: Haut Brion ('96), La Mission Haut Brion ('95 and ’96).

St. Emilion: Belair ('95), Cheval Blanc ('95), Tertre Ro^teboeuf ('95 and ’96).

Pomerol: L’Eglise Clinet ('95 and ’96), Petrus ('95), Le Pin ('95), Vieux Cha^teau Certan ('96).

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