Pichon-Baron: When growing old isn’t so bad

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Growing old, while a bit of a bummer when your knees give out and your bowels begin to misbehave, has a few advantages.

For instance, the things that might have embarrassed us when we were young no longer matter. We’ve not only given up on vanity, but we’ve given up caring what other people think.

Once you are north of a certain age, you have decided that everyone else in the world is crazy (because we’re never the crazy ones, are we?) and any love interest you meet now has probably just settled for you. But that’s okay.

They say everything improves with age like a fine wine, but I’ve never really bought that theory.

This is because only the best wines improve with age. When it comes to people, well we don’t so much improve with age, we just learn to love live with our quirks and foibles – and those of others.

If we’re lucky, we can use this knowledge to our advantage, such as attracting women who find it endearing when, say, you fall over comically on the bus after one too many glasses of Sauternes (I still haven’t perfected this, but I’m sure it will work for me some day).

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This was all front of mind the other night when I donned my wine geek’s hat at a wine tasting held by Axa Investment Managers for members of the finance press.

You see, Axa, French insurance giant, also owns Axa Millésimes. Which owns Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron (and many more). And I’ve been dying to try it.

On this occasion we tasted Chateau Suduiraut 2006; Suduiraut’s dry white, S de Suduiraut 2011; Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron 2004; Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010, the second wine of Pichon-Baron; Chateau Pibran 2007; and Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2007.

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This tasting was a lesson in the virtues of growing a bit older, even if the wines themselves were relative babies. While we had the younger 2010 and 2007 vintage, it was the 2004 – not considered a spectacular growing year – that impressed.

So here’s the boring, wine bore part of this post. This was a tasting that offered so much of what I loved. The S de Suduiraut was a little oaky, loaded with citrus and grapefruit, as well as being waxy and rounded. I could see myself sipping this on a sunny patio in Bordeaux or, more likely, in front of my television watching Food & Drink or something equally banal.

From here we moved on to the red wines. First was Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010. Obviously this is the baby Pichon, but it was deep and brooding, a heavy wine full of dark fruits, oak, liquorice and caramel. It’s a good candidate for decanting.

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Next we skipped back three years to Chateau Pibran 2007, which was again very deep in colour, starting to show a bit of age at the rim but still youthful and classic cabernet through and through. Lots of toasty oak, a vegetal nose, green peppers with plenty of tannin and dark fruits.

Now, one of my favourite wines, Chateau Tertre de Belves, comes from this 2007. Granted, the Belves is cheap and cheerful, loaded full of rustic charm and comes from the do-whatever-we-like region of Castillon, but the sentiment is the same: these vintages are becoming more charming as time goes by.

Then we had what we were all waiting for, the Pichon-Baron 2004. And it was at this point in the evening my note-taking took a turn for the worst.

This is what I managed to record before my pen made pulled a disappearing act: A deep, dark wine, orange hints of maturity at the edge, nicely integrated oak, vegetal nose, tertiary aromas of leather and tobacco, plus cedar and mint. More importantly, it was showing very well and proved that even if 2004 wasn’t a blockbuster vintage, there were some great wines and they are maturing better than first predicted.

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After the Pichon-Baron, I lost it completely. Never mind the fact there were two more wines to follow the Pichon-Baron – Suduiraut 2006 and Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos – I just gave up on my notes at that point.

None of this surprise me. Nearly every time I go to a wine tasting, it is only a matter of time before the pen makes a disappearing act. As a result, I don’t really know what the final two wines were like.

I can say, however, that I remember the Sauternes was wonderful and the Tokaji sublime. But whichever aromas they offered up, the flavours they expressed, were never recorded.

And it must have been true, because while I was headed home I fell over on the bus and didn’t feel remotely embarrassed. But it didn’t attract any women either.

As I said earlier, I’m not so much improving with age but instead learning to live with what I’ve been given.

On the cheap – Bordeaux for £6. Sure, it can be done

I’ve heard it time and time again: cheap Bordeaux just doesn’t exist. And if it does, it tastes like paint thinner mixed with marked gasoline.

Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s most expensive wines, they say. There is very little value there, they shout.

But I’m one of those people who says this whole “Bordeaux is a ripoff” thing is a bit of a myth.

After all, there are more than 120,000 hectares under vine in the Bordeaux region, producing about 700 million bottles each year. That’s a lot.

It would stand to reason, then, that a few bargains can be found from time to time. So I have a made it something of a mission of mine to find cheap Bordeaux that doesn’t taste like acetone.

How hard can it be? I can buy a bottle of 15-year-old claret for just €8 at the Maison du Vin in Montagne, France, so why can’t I find something similar here?

This week I found myself drinking something for £5.99 that was apparently rather savoury, was displaying great fruit and came complete with cedar notes. There was more to the blurb but most of the time I find wine labels rather forgettable and misleading, so I didn’t think to memorise it.

This is Waitrose’s Reserve Claret 2010 I’m talking about and, despite its already cheap price, is actually a step up from their most basic option, their Good Ordinary Claret, which sells for less than £5.

For that money, it’s probably better than most wine you’ll ever find in a late-night off-licence, but how many late-night wine-drinking decisions are made during the day anyway?

Anyway, a grand wine this was not, but that was always going to be obvious. But was it drinkable, was my main question?

Sure, but it had some negatives. For a penny less than £6 the first thing I noticed when I opened the bottle was an overwhelming aroma of rubber.

Thinking a bit of air would sort things out I left it in the glass and shifted over to the 18-year-old bottle of Chateau Potensac I’d been working on that weekend.

The difference between the two, of course, was palpable. One had pedigree, age, class and complexity; the other had a supermarket’s name on the bottle, a clear misuse of the word ‘reserve’ on the label and not much of anything to show for it.

Ah, except for price. At £5.99, it sells for about a quarter what the Chateau Potensac costs. For weekday drinking where you just want to get spannered, dump something neutral into a spaghetti sauce or maybe mull some wine, this wouldn’t be offensive at all.

To give this poor wine credit where due, it has a lot going for it. It was drinkable for one. It was showing the right amount of fruit and, unlike some other cheap red wines I’ve had, it wasn’t so tannic that it was tight-as-a-rusted-nut.

As I was buying this bottle during my weekly trip to the supermarket, I was reminded of other ‘value’ Bordeaux wines I’ve tried in the past. Front of mind was a 2009 sold by Virgin Wines under what they call a ‘cleanskin’ label. The marketing spiel made bold statements about its origins and how it was “the vintage of a lifetime” – all for just £7.50 a bottle.

One sip of that wine told me that, under no circumstances, was it a fine example of a vintage of a lifetime, even if 2009 was a great year in Bordeaux.

That brings me back to Waitrose’s Reserve Claret. For less than £6, what do we really expect from this wine, even if 2010 was a great vintage? I expect it to be drinkable, to be pleasant, to give me the confidence that I’ve not been duped.

So, has this wine delivered? Yes and no. Yes insofar as it was a drinkable wine that didn’t really cause much offence, particularly after it was allowed to breathe so the funky burnt rubber smell would dissipate.

No insofar as I couldn’t get over the burnt rubber smell in this wine. I know £6 is pushing the price/quality ratio a bit, but I’m sure it can be done.

How do you like your 2010s? With a little Gavroche

Not long ago I found myself at a dinner where I had to double-check the place names to make sure I was, er, in the right place.

Was that email sent to me on purpose? Check. When I got to the door were they expecting me? Check. When you sat down at the table was that your name on the place card? Check.

Phew.

Well, hey, I’ve seen it happen to other people before.

These thoughts ran through my head because I found myself at London’s Le Gavroche one evening to taste the 2010 vintage from the Bordeaux properties owned by CA Grands Crus, the vineyard management arm of Credit Agricole run by Thierry Budin. Full disclosure: CA Grands Crus supplied the wine and paid for the dinner, which was attended by a few wine writers.

It gave me a chance to notice something I’ve not noticed before. Even though the wines on show came from different vineyard sites across the Médoc, and even though they spanned several different quality levels, there was a consistency in style and flavor all the way from the humblest offering to the grand vin from its best vineyard.

You know how family members all tend to have common traits that are easy to pick out in a crowd, and how you can often find out if someone is related to that family because they bear a resemblance to someone you know? This is what this wine tasting was like.

So, anyway, the restaurant was cozy, the food was spectacular and, well, few faults could be found in the wine.

Thierry could have hosted this tasting in a body shop under a railway arch in Tower Hamlets and I’d have gone. That he chose a two-Michelin-star restaurant was an appreciated convenience, although I’d probably have settled on Byron in a pinch.

Now, to the wine. First up was the firm’s entry-level wine, Château Blaignan Cru Bourgeois Médoc. It wasn’t the most complex wine I’ve had, but given its position in the portfolio I wasn’t expecting it either.

This was an honest everyday wine that displayed spice, cherries and black fruits, and that was just fine for me. My notes on this wine contain several scribbled words I can’t read now, but I’m fairly sure they were positive descriptions.

Oh yeah, and there was a firm grip of tannins here, which is a theme across all of the wines. Mr Budin said all of the wines are made in a traditional style, which is to say they won’t be adopting a New World style like many other French producers have done recently.

I think he made the right decision.

Next up was another cru bourgeois, this time from Margaux in the shape of Château La Tour de Mons.This has medium tannins, a light scent of oak on the nose, some spice, cassis, more dark fruits.

My notes tell me this was a little light on the finish, so I’m going to trust them in this instance and say while this was again fairly enjoyable, it left me wanting something more (as I always do).

So, what’s next? Ah, yes, the Château Meyney from Saint-Estephe, that’s what.

I’m not going to get too repetitive here. This was once again all dark fruits and vanilla, but it had a vegetal quality, perhaps green pepper, with wet stones, spice and medium tannin.

Next up, Château Grand-Puy Ducasse in Pauillac, the big one of the night. This, too, was displaying those dark fruits, that light oaky nose, that traditional Bordeaux style.

It took time to open up in the glass and therefore wasn’t showing as much complexity because it was still a bit closed. Either that or my nose was closed, since I distinctly recall having to give my sinuses a shot of Sudafed before the tasting began.

Ah, perhaps that was it.

Topping it all off was the Sauternes. Oh, Sauternes, what a wine. A lot of people approach sweet wines with trepidation. Admittedly, I did the same when I was new to wine. I didn’t know what to make of it, I didn’t know when I’d ever drink it and I was worried it would be, well, too sweet.

Château de Rayne Vigneau was acquired by CA Grands Crus in 2004 and seemingly has had a great deal of investment in the past decade or so. The wine in 2010 has 135g/litre of residual sugar and has a fresh, light flavour. It’s definitely still a bit young. But for me, it was wonderful all the same.

If the wines from CA Grands Crus are a sign of what we can expect from the rest of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux, I’m looking forward to drinking a whole lot more.

Castillon: Fashionably unfashionable

Castillon: it’s getting better and better

Sometimes this whole wine tasting lark opens my eyes to the fact even the most expensive bottles on show don’t necessarily lead to as much satisfaction as, say, that miracle find that cost me less than a tenner.

There I was the other week at the Laithwaite’s press tasting and then a dinner with the managing director of CA Grands Crus, alternating between fine wines from lust-worthy chateaux and reassuringly delicious offerings for midweek drinking.

At the Laithwaite’s event we rolled in at about 3 p.m. with every expectation of slowly working our way through everything they had on show – only to edit out large swathes of wine from the start. Turns out the doors were being shut at 5 p.m. and, given our tendency for non-stop childish banter between each taste, it was going to take several hours to work through the trove ahead of us.

More often than not I found immense satisfaction in wines that came with most price tags as opposed to the icons, giving me reassurance there is hope yet for the punter who can’t – or won’t – pay for the posh stuff.

One of my favourite wines was an affordable viognier in a sexy bottle that plunges from a wide base into an almost too-delicate neck, reminiscent of the new Bollinger Champagne vessel.

Now, I’m not going to say I don’t love expensive wines because that would be a) a lie and b) hypocritical since my cellar is littered with things that you will never see on a half-price offer at Tesco, let alone for sale in a supermarket.

Some of the most memorable drinks I’ve ever tasted have been Lafite, Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and so on. The last thing I will do is tell you expensive wine isn’t any good, because so much of it is, in fact, really rather amazing. I would bathe in them if this was 1) in any way beneficial and 2) financially attainable.

But everyday life is not about drinking first growths. Not if you’re a journalist like me who earns less in a year than Bill Clinton is paid for a single after-dinner speech.

So with that rather sobering thought in mind, it is reassuring I can still find amazing value within my limited budget, the sort that makes you lean back in your chair with incredulity.

Enter Chateau Tertre de Belvés, a wine from the somewhat unfashionable but up-and-coming Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux appellation. This is the place where Tony Laithwaite has his vineyard and French winemaking base even though many of the snootier types turn their noses up at the appellation’s wines.

At the recent #7wordwinereview dinner, this was the wine I pulled out of my cellar to share with the group. It was bought two years ago from the Cafe a Vin at Le Comptoir de Genès, a restaurant/bar/market located a few minutes away from Castillon an one of my local hangouts when I’m in the area.

A few hours before the dinner I nearly decided to go to a shop to buy something different. I’m glad I didn’t, because it received more accolades than most wines that have ever been served at that table, and certainly more than anything I’ve brought in the past.

This bottle cost me no more than £10. But the first time my English friend and I tried it, at The Winemaker’s vineyard back in 2010, we knew it was good. The oak on the nose, the fruit on the palate. While not a perfect wine – it is a bit rough and ready and is missing a few things on the palate here and there – its value for money and rustic charm make it a hit.

And that is the whole point about wine appreciation. If a bottle can bring a smile to your face, it matters very little how much it cost.

Other Castillon wines worth a try: