Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bordeaux Step 1: Drink Some

If you're going to start buying Bordeaux, the first thing you have to know is: do you like it? This may seem an obvious first step, but you'd be surprised how many people skip it. Don't buy wine just because a magazine tells you it's a great vintage, or because someone you know likes to collect trophy wines from top chateaux.

Since I do not have a bank account the size of Bordeaux, nor a trophy wine mentality, nor unlimited storage (and I suspect you don't either), it was important to me to actually have some of this famous wine before I took the plunge. I did so several years ago, and my first serious exposure to Bordeaux was magical in every way. I loved buying the wine, planning a meal around the wine, and of course drinking the wine.

It was the fall of 2000, and the wine in question was a 1985 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases. I was living in London at the time, and was three years into my serious engagement with wine. While in the City, my wine shop of choice was the venerable institution Berry Bros. and Rudd. Established in 1698 by Widow Bourne just up the street from St. James' Palace, they've been selling wine there ever since.

After buying a few cases of wine and getting to know their unbelievably knowledgeable staff, I decided to buy a bottle of Bordeaux to take home for the holidays and have with a traditional English holiday meal with close friends. I went to the shop, opened the ancient wooden door, stepped down into the store alongside the ramp that was used to roll barrels from the street back in the day, and sat down at the desk with a wine merchant outfitted in a morning coat.

One thing to know about Berry Brothers then: there was no wine in sight. Now they've put a few bottles out but when I went they were still old school.

Feeling slightly disoriented as usual at not being able to browse the labels and stumble around in relative solitude and ignorance, I instead talked to him about what I liked in a red wine, when I was going to serve it, and with what.

My wine merchant disappeared down a twisting set of stairs into the cellars beneath the shop and reappeared with the 1985 Ch. Leoville-Las-Cases (and a bottle of inexpensive Riesling Kabinett that I've long since forgotten but which blunted the shock of what I had done when I sat down in my flat that evening). I paid around $125 for it when the taxes were levied and the exchange rates were figured out. It was and is the most expensive bottle of wine I have ever purchased. Not a single bottle of Bordeaux I've bought since was more than $30, but I'm glad I started with this one.

The bottle was packed up in a carrier for me to take on board the plane (pre-2001) with me in early December for serving late in the third week. (You can still get this wine from Berry Brothers, for around $236.00 plus shipping). Both of us arrived safely in San Francisco, and the wine was stowed in cool dark place for the next 3 weeks.

When the night of the dinner came, I realized I had no idea whether to decant this wine, or how early to open the wine. I signed on to a Wine Spectator forum, described my dilemma and got excellent advice (decant, yes; only about 30 mins before you sat down to eat). After glasses of champagne, we sat down to prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes--all the makings of a traditional English holiday meal. I poured the wine, and everybody's noses went straight into the glasses. Flowery, spicy, berry, and leafy aromas made us all eager to take our first sips. And what sips they were, with every note of the aromas echoed in the flavors--and then some. People ate the food, but all anyone talked about was the wine. I continued to open up and develop throughout the meal.

Harry Potter for grownups. Magic. Alchemy.

Before you consider buying Bordeaux futures and devoting some precious storage space to these wines, it's crucial that you have some Bordeaux and discover whether you find it magical, too. If at all possible, look for some aged Bordeaux that is ready to drink. K&L has some excellent wines that are ready to drink now that are under $100, and one of their recent blog posts highlighted several Bordeaux from 1996 to 2003 that are available for under $35 (and three of them are ready to drink now). Still, drinking Bordeaux you haven't aged yourself is usually an expensive proposition, and merchants seldom hold on to lots of the lower priced Bordeaux wines, so you might prefer to look in your area for Bordeaux tastings instead. Here in LA, for instance, there are several Bordeaux events in the upcoming weeks, and Local Wine Events has lists of events all over the world on its site so even if you're not in LA you can find something that will better acquaint you with the wines of these regions. I'd hoped to make it to the UGC Bordeaux Tasting sponsored by Wally's and on January 20, but I have a conflict so no report from that event this year--at least not from me!

Next week: Bordeaux Step 2 will focus on the varietals used in most Bordeaux blends, and the differences between Old World and New World styles of wine.


Sonadora said...

How long do you plan to age your current bordeaux purchases before drinking one? I'm curiously following your story since I've never actually had any bordeaux. I think that probably makes me a bad wino!

Dr. Debs said...

Hi there, Sonadora. Well, not to be evasive, but it depends on the wine and the vintage. In general, I order future/pre-arrivals a year or more before they are sent to the US, then there is a further 3-5 years before I start drinking them (mainly because I don't buy more then 3x of each bottle). Some sauternes are ready earlier, and some wines that are made in a "New World" style are, too. In general, though, I steer clear of the "New World" Bordeaux cause if I wanted a new world cab I would get one from here! In two weeks I'm going to talk about cellaring issues, so stay tuned. And if you check out that link to K&Ls blog you will see the variety of vintages that they are saying are "ready to drink".

Sonadora said...

So you're telling me I still need to be reading in 3-5 years? :)

Dr. Debs said...

No (but good question!) I have a 2001 that I will review, and will also do a 2003 earlier because they seem to be drinking ok right now, and a few older ones, too!

Anonymous said...

dr.debs, you're a better person than I. When you said you shared the meal with friends, I immediately thought,"How many?" as that would alter how much of your delicious, expensive wine each person got. With my most costly bottles I tend to share with one friend who's as fanatical about wine as I am. That way, I know she'll appreciate it, and we can both get 2 glasses.

Dr. Debs said...

Hey, Farley. Of course, I had no idea how fantastic it was going to be when I opened it. Seriously, I shared it with 2 others (we were four total, but one person doesn't drink), so there was enough to go around. And even the person who doesn't drink spent a long time smelling it!

Sonadora said...

I was just joking Dr. Debs! If you're still writing in 3-5 years, I'm sure I'll still be reading, as I doubt my love of wine is going to go anywhere anytime soon!

David said...

good article! I do buy mostly ready to drink wine, but you make a good case for getting more for the bordeaux $ buying bottles that need to be aged. I'll have to keep an eye on your bordeax articles to learn more on that.

Dr. Debs said...

Sonadora, I know what you mean. If I keep drinking wine, no doubt I'll keep blogging! Thanks for the comment, David. I'm really enjoying searching out the lesser-known Bordeaux and finding great wines at good prices, then putting a few bottles away for a special meal. Like most of us these days, much of my wine purchasing goes into wines to be drunk over the short term, but it's nice to feel you know at least one bottle you'll be drinking in 2008 or 2009!