On Wednesday evening I attended a tasting of fifteen wines from Bordeaux 2005. The vintage was widely hailed as superb and pre-recession demand drove the prices into the stratosphere. Aside from the outrageous apparent quality of the wines, the tasting had two other attractions: the ability to taste some of the top wines blind and to do so in the company of Robert Parker.
Over 100 of us packed a room in a midtown hotel for the event, organized by Executive Wine Seminars. I arrived fifteen minutes early and it was already hard to find a seat at a table. Five wines were pre-poured into five ISO glasses, and there was some bread and cheese. At my table were people who had come in from Chicago, Wisconsin, Delaware and Napa. And they had paid a lot of money too: $795 each (I was fortunate enough to have gotten a ticket from someone who couldn’t attend). The air practically buzzed with anticipation.
Even though the tasting was blind, everyone knew the lineup of wines and it included some of the most heralded wines of the vintage as the Parker scores (in parentheses) indicate:
Angelus (98) • Cos d’Estournel (98) • Ducru Beaucaillou (97) • Haut Brion (98) • Lafite Rothschild (96+) • La Mission Haut Brion (97) • Larcis Ducasse (98) • Latour (96+) • L’Eglise Clinet (100) • Margaux (98+) • Montrose (95) • Pape Clement (98) • Pavie (98+) •Le Gay (95) • Troplong Mondot (99)
In addition to my excitement about tasting these wines, I was eager to see Parker engage in a blind tasting. Blind tastings are incredibly challenging, of course, and can humble even the most accomplished tasters. On the other hand, Parker is known to be a formidable taster, and he has made some impressive claims about his own tasting abilities. In the famous profile of Parker published in The Atlantic (that Parker displays on his web site) back in December 2000, the author wrote that Parker “stores the sensation of each [wine] into a permanent gustatory memory. When I asked him about the mechanical aspects of his work, he told me in a matter-of-fact way that he remembers every wine he has tasted over the past thirty-two years and, within a few points, every score he has given as well.”
2005 is a vintage that is obviously very fresh in his memory (and he has said it is the greatest Bordeaux vintage he has experienced in his storied career), and given his apparent total recall of the wines he tastes, I was obviously very keen to see how he’d fare in a blind tasting–particularly one involving his favorite wines of the vintage.
Parker himself was in good spirits, chatting and being photographed with many of the attendees. A burly man, he was wearing a black, open-necked shirt and a gray sport coat with red légion d’honneur pin on the lapel.
On his left, Parker had a “surprise” guest, Dominique Renard, a négociant from Bordeaux who Parker had been wanting to meet up with Parker so Parker invited him to join the seminar.
In his opening remarks, Parker placed the 2005 vintage in the pantheon of vintages that includes 45, 47, 59, 61, and 82. He also said that it was tough to taste Bordeaux that was so clearly meant for the long haul at this point in its evolution and praised the organizer, Howard Kaplan of EWS, for “taking time away from his family this morning” to double decant the wines (from bottle to a decanter, then back into the rinsed bottle). He said he hadn’t tasted these wines since 2007. He also touched on the probable quality of the 09 vintage (“looks superb”) as well as the 08s (“a much underrated vintage”) and the difficulties of 07 (“will be discounted very seriously”).
Finally, we dove into the first flight. It was clearly divided between two modern style wines, #1 and #3, that were quite popular (but that I didn’t really care for) and the others. The second wine was quite reticent and closed and some attendees, including Parker, dumped on it for that reason. I actually had a hard time deciding whether this was delicate or closed and, in the end, I decided on both. The fourth wine was a wall of tannins, but the tannins were elegant and the wine seemed quite like Cabernet. Parker opined after the flight that it was very definitely a Medoc and probably a first growth. The final wine in the flight was drinking the best right now, truly quite delicious. Parker suggested it was a Pomerol (on the right bank).
In his overview of the first flight, Parker discussed the powerful tannins of the wines and that these wines would likely outlive him. When he said, “the worst thing you could do is die with a full cellar,” the room burst into laughter and a smattering of applause.
Unfortunately, given that there were only five glasses, we had to dump what remained of the first flight to make way for the second. Wine number six was bursting with plump and juicy red fruits that I found to be stewy. The seventh wine had an alluring nose with just a hint of Brett (think earth and horses), and a gorgeous structure with a balance of tannin from both the barrel and the grapes. The eighth wine had a pretty nose of rose petal but, in my view, had a slightly confected quality on the palate. Parker suggested after the flight that it might be Cos d’Estournel.
The ninth wine was another beauty and, for me, the wine of the night. Although there was another big slab of tannins, the tannins were elegant undergirding a delicate layer of dark berry aromas. Tightly wound and clearly one for the long haul, I would gladly tuck this away in my basement to enjoy decades from now. Parker called the wine “virtually perfect,” and thought it was from the Medoc.
The tenth wine was another beauty, with a lovely herbal note on the aroma. On the palate, huge but graceful tannic structure proved that the best wines can have both power and elegance. Parker said it was “very Medoc and very cabernet” but likely not to be a first growth and suggested, specifically, Ducru. Overall, he called this flight a “really extraordinary” flight of wines.
The final flight started badly with a horrendously corked wine. Fortunately, Howard found another bottle and brought it to our table. I found this pour to have a sort of char brulée note, a juiciness on the midpalate but also a nice minerally quality at the core. Parker called it “shut down.” The twelfth wine was big, rich, luscious but the tannins were not a wall, rather rich, polished, and expensive, the Ferragamo loafer of tannins. I thought it was a good example of the modern style. The thirteenth wine was a lovely aromatically but on the palate had somewhat sweet tannins. Parker commented that he thought it was a first growth.
The fourteenth wine I found to be overblown, a wall of tannins with overripe fruit. Parker liked it, however, so much so that he hailed it as a first growth. The final wine was another gorgeous example of cabernet in a bit more modern style, rich, tarry but not to tarry. Parker didn’t have a comment on this wine.
The organizers of the Executive Wine Seminars like to have the participants vote on the top wines of the tasting. So we all filled in our top three choices, and with alacrity that would put many polling stations to shame, Howard ran the tallies, awarding three points to a wine for a first place finish, two for a second, and one for a third.
But before the unveiling, one of the organizers asked Parker if he cared to pick two wines out of the tasting. “Um, no,” was his immediate reply to an outburst of laughter from the room. However, he then decided to elaborate a few picks, as is the tradition at these annual EWS events. He said that his favorite wines of the evening were 9, 8, and 3 followed closely by 13, 14 and 1. As to specific picks, he ventured that wine #6 was Pape Clement, #8 was Cos, #10 Ducru, #9 Margaux, #13 Latour, #14 Lafite, saying that it was hard to confuse those last two but that they could be the other way around.
Here was the order of the wines with their popular vote tallies:
1. Pavie, St. Emilion (51)
2. Haut Brion (6)
3. Pape Clement (56)
4. Montrose (2)
5. Ducru (30)
6. Angelus, St. Emilion (57)
7. La Mission Haut Brion (43)
8. L’Eglise Clinet, Pomerol (53)
9. Le Gay, Pomerol (53)
10. Latour (86)
11. Larcis Ducasse, St. Emilion (28)
12. Margaux (40)
13. Lafite (28)
14. Troplong Mondot, St. Emilion (54)
15. Cos d’Estournel (39)
I note the appellations of the six right bank wines since they are mostly Merlot based as opposed to the Cabernet-based wines from the Medoc.
What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, for one, you could have ten bottles of Le Gay, Parker’s favorite wine of the evening, for the price of one bottle of Lafite.
A second conclusion is about the wines themselves. There are clearly some winemakers that have pushed a style of wine making that makes forceful, extracted wines, enhanced with new oak and the resulting wood tannin. Sometimes that style can obscure the grape variety or even the place to such an extent that one might confuse a cabernet for a merlot, a Medoc for a Pomerol. And in a blind tasting, a delicate and/or close wine such as Haut Brion can fare poorly when sandwiched between two opulent wines such as Pavie and Pape Clement.
A final issue is about points and the nature of blind tasting, a capricious undertaking if there ever were one. Although Parker did not rate the wines yesterday, his top wine of the evening (Le Gay) was the lowest rated in the lineup from his most recent published reviews. It goes to show that on any given night, one wine can show better than its “pedigree.” For all the precision that a point score implies, it is not dynamic, changing with the wines as they change in the bottle nor does it capture performance from one tasting to the next.
Blind tasting removes preconceptions about wines while maintaining the ability to rate wines in a peer group setting. Wednesday night, Parker upended the order of his published ratings of the wines and, in the process, could not correctly identify any of these wines. In print, he awarded L’Eglise Clinet, a Pomerol, a score of 100 points. While he did call it his second favorite wine of the night, it is interesting to note that he could not pick out this wine in the lineup (he thought the actual L’Eglise to be Cos, a wine that is not only from across the river, but from St. Estephe, an appellation known for the extreme tannic structure of the wines). In that same vein, he mistook Lafite, a Paulliac, for Troplong-Mondot, a new wave St. Emilion. Blind tasting can be ruthless in its outcomes.