The best way to learn about wine is to taste it. A lot of it. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? And no matter whether you are a Master Sommelier one of the great things about wine is that there is always something new and wonderful to discover. There is always a new blend, a new vintage and a new region that can be discovered. When you are only an educated tippler like the Advice Sister’s wine columnist, even the oldest and most traditional regions offer new experiences and tastings. So I was excited to attend a unique Master Class on the wines of the Medoc at Corkbuzz in New York City. It was sponsored by Les Vins du Medoc, the class was led by Charles Curtis, a Master of Wine (a qualification issued by The Institute of Masters of Wine in the United Kingdom). It was hard to determine exactly who was attending, but it seemed to be a mix of journalists, oneophiles (wine lovers), and students of wine who might just be learning about the Medoc to become Sommeliers, themselves.
The class focused on the western bank of the wines produced in the western part of the Bordeaux region of France, on the peninsula located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary. Wines from this part of Bordeaux have a long and splendid history, and, as Mr. Curtis suggested, they form the basis of the wine collection business. This is because wines from the Medoc are consistent. They are designed to age for a very long time. This is a result of the grape blends, as well as the winemaking style and traditions of the region. While the Medoc is famous for the Grand Cru wines produced from some of the most notable chateaus in the world like Chateau Mouton Rothschild or Chateau Margaux, the Master Class showed us that Bordeaux wines do not have to be particularly expensive or difficult to understand, and that excellent products and values come from throughout the region. This is due to the fact that all of the wines produced in the region enjoy similar soils, weather conditions and are all blends made from just 6 varietals of grape (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and small amounts of Petit Verdot, Malvec and Carménère). The differences between a Grand Cru chateau and a regional Medoc or appellation classification need not be substantial.
What follows are my tasting notes from the Master Class. While I am not a Sommelier, I admit to tasting plenty of “fruits of the vine” and I have developed a nose and palate for wine. However, like fragrance, and plenty of other delicious things in life, what I like may not be the same for you. What follows are my personal impressions of the wine. I leave it to you, the reader, to consider what you might like, and try them for yourself!
The western side of the Bordeaux region, or the Medoc, is divided into just 8 regions, or appellations, the largest of which is called simply Medoc. Located on the northern part of the peninsula, this region produces wines on the lighter side, as the sandy soils encourage the growing of Merlot. The wine from this region that we tasted was Chateau Potensac Medoc blend (2009) which was as Mr. Curtis stated, the essence of Bordeaux. Beginning with a very floral nose with a bit of nutmeg and some green pepper, the wine opened with a strong strawberry on the front of the palate, and finished quickly with some plumb notes. A young wine, the Chateau Potensac had fairly soft tannins and is ready to drink now – though it would likely hold for a few more years. Priced at about $35.00 a bottle, this is a good example of a reasonable and well-made Bordeaux blend. The largest region of the Medoc in terms of land area is called the Haut Medoc (“haut” meaning “high” or “tall”), though high does not mean much in an area that is essentially a low, flat sand bar. Wines from this appellation are the most widely distributed wines of the Medoc, and with 33 million bottles of high quality wines produced each year it is easy to see why. This area has rockier soils than the northern Medoc region, and is therefore dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, though that grape did not appear to dominate the Chateau de Camensac Haut-Medoc (2009) that we tasted. Opening with a distinct tea rose on the nose, the wine was almost Californiaesque in the way the sweet plum (like a sugar plum) hit the palate right up front. This faded quickly to something that we can only describe as Crayon (strange but good) which held in the back of the palate for some time. This wine was not astringent in its tannins but could sit for a bit. It also appeared to us to have a bit more alcohol than the other wines that we tasted in the Master Class. *editor’s note: for those not familiar with wine, “tannin” is, for lack of a fancier word, that “puckering” or dry mouth feel you get when a wine hasn’t aged. It tends to be more prevalent in younger red wine. Tannins come from the skins, stems and seeds of the grapes used to produce the wine. While not everyone likes strong tannins in a wine, they’re mostly responsible for giving red wines a defined structure which is essential to the development of a well balanced, delicious tasting wine. Outside of the Medoc and Haut Medoc appellations, there are 6 smaller “village” designations in the Medoc, the smallest of which is called Moulis. Located away from the estuary, Moulis is the domain of Merlot grapes. The gravely soil has more limestone than most of the Medoc which gives wines from Moulis more of a mineral characteristic. We tasted Chateau Chasse-Slpeen Moulis en Medoc (2009) which translated to something like Chases the Melancholy Away. From a region that encourages the use of Merlot, this wine was actually dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, and the nose was less floral than a merlot driven Bordeaux. In fact, the nose on this wine was quite peppery, with just light florals. The wine was very fruity up front dominated by raspberry. Across the palate the wine became much more mineral, with a hint of bacon on the finish. The wine was very tannic and had good acid suggesting that it will age very well. Priced at just under $50.00 this was a good wine from a small, less know region of the Medoc. Sitting just north of Moulis is the region of Listrac. Known as the roof of the Medoc (at just 140 feet above sea level) the region is dominated by gravely soils that are a bit more difficult to work with than other parts of the Medoc. We sampled Chateau Clarke’s Listrac-Medoc (2009). This winery is quite old and is owned by a branch of the Rothschild family. Priced at about $30 per bottle,. The wine is 42 percent Merlot with most of the rest Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose reminded us somewhat of a gas-station with some current or cassis undertones and some vanilla, and the wine itself was more minerally than the other Medoc’s we sampled at the Master Class. While the finish had a lot of plumbs and the wine itself was nicely balanced, there were some soapy tastes which along with the petroleum on the nose left us a bit unimpressed by the wine. We next moved to the famous villages along the Gironde estuary that are home to so many of the Medoc’s Grand Cru wineries. Starting at the appellation closest to the City of Bordeaux itself, the famous Margaux commune. Margaux is the largest of the village appellations, and contains the majority of the vineyards that were classed in the 1855 classification. We tasted Chateau d’Issan Margaux (2009) which is priced at about $80.00 a bottle. This wine opened with a green peppery, grassy nose with just a bit of allspice. The wine itself was extremely well made and blended with a silky character that reminded us of a mixed fruit torte as there was a certain butteryness to the mouth feel. The finish had a hint of raisin and the wine did not have a ton of tannins suggesting that while it will age, it probably would not be the longest lived wine. We next moved up to Saint-Julien another village appellation dominated by classed growths. This region has only 24 producers who are located on two gravel outcrops that are oriented toward the river estuary. The wine that we tried was a th growth classification produced by Chateau Talbot (2009), a winery that traces its heritage well back into the 18th century. Priced at about $90.00 a bottle, this wine was more like the 20 to 30 year old classic Bordeaux blends that one finds at auction. A floral nose with a strange bit of Bay seasoning, the wine itself was very balanced with quite a lot of fruit. Beginning with the sweet sugar-plum on the front of the palate, the Talbot moved toward red fruits like cherry and current, and we tasted a bit of apple as well. The fine had mellow tannins but a lot of structure and a huge finish, suggesting that in 20 years time this wine will be showing very well. The Pauillac village was next on our tour, this region is home to 18 classed vineyards. Poor gravelly soils impart a great richness to the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that dominate here. We tasted Chateau Haut Batailley Pauillac (2009), a wine that is priced in America at about $50 per bottle. This was a very distinct blend, with a nose that reminded us of a forest or a woodshop. Up front the wine presented currents and some raspberry, but the finish was quite alcoholic and lost its taste quickly. However, the wine was extremely tannic (with a persimmon like astringency) suggesting that is was a wine that really needed to age, and was a bit too young to drink “as-is.” Possibly after sitting for a few years, the wine will open a bit more on the finish. The final appellation, and unfortunately, the final wine, was Chateau Tronquoy-Lalande St. Estephe (2009). This region is characterized by layers of clay, gravel and sand and produces wines of an aromatic and mellow character. The Chateau Tronquoy-Lalande which is priced at about $30.00 a bottle was dominated by a small amount of Petit Verdot in its blend. This grape is used to add tannins and structure to wine and can be very astringent. The nose was floral with some bitter grapefruit pith, but the wine opened very fruity – almost too fruity kind of like Kool-aid, dominated by current, cassis and black cherry with a bit of plum. Unfortunately the petit verdot then took over and the finish was cut off quickly as the tannins puckered our tongue. This wine is designed to cellar forever, and can easily use some age for the tannins to mellow some, however, for those who want to wait (and gamble a bit), the price point could make it a very interesting part of a wine collection, when opened in 10 to 15 years. One of the things that the Master Class showed us is that one doesn’t have to go to expensive wine auctions in order to find some excellent wines from the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux. Bordeaux wines are collectible, and covet-able, and yes, many of them are expensive, but as Mr. Curtis pointed out, you can find wines from this region that are affordable, and lovely to drink, too. And he suggested that wines fro the Medoc are not novelty products to consume for novelty’s sake, but rather excellent wines with a long and consistent history that make up an important part of every collection. If you’d like learn more about the wines of the Medoc, the good people at the Conseil des Vins du Medoc are a great resource. They can be found at www.medoc-bordeaux.com *the Advice Sisters want to thank our Wine columnist John Dunham putting this report together DUBOIS Iris <firstname.lastname@example.org>, PEZIN Thierry <email@example.com>