On Thursday night a tasting courtesy of the Cape Winemakers Guild to explore changes regarding the use of wood in Bordeaux as a result of the influence of über-critic Robert Parker. The take-out from a presentation by Andrei Prida, research and development manager of cooperage Sequin Moreau was that while Parker’s impact can’t be under-estimated, the forces shaping the Bordeaux market are complex and diverse. The 1976 Judgement of Paris which saw Bordeaux surprisingly trumped by California was a turning point: “green” wines were no longer acceptable.
Meanwhile, as “en primeur” tastings (the rating of wines prior to general release) have become more important, wines have to be “presentable” as soon as possible. Since the 1980s, yields have dropped, harvest time has become later and later, pre- and post-fermentation macerations have increased and cellar hygiene has improved all because wines should make an impression as soon as possible. Simultaneously, climate change has meant riper fruit and, in turn, bigger wines.
The use of oak in terms of both providing flavour and as a maturation device has obviously been a key factor, Prida saying that the “golden era” for cooperages was the mid-1990s when the demand for heavy-toast, new oak was at its peak. Cooperages have had to broaden their respective offerings as winemakers demanded more and more options so as to hedge their bets come the time of en primeur tasting – show the critics what’s showing best early on and then blend all the different components up to make what was truly intended. More recently, there has been a shift towards wines showing greater fruit purity and freshness and there has been a general trend towards milder toasting and less new oak.
On to the tasting, and my most important insight was that taking up an intractable position on wine aesthitics is so not helpful. Hardly a revelation but worth being reminded of. There is a whole spectrum of legitimate stylistics from elegant and subtle to weighty and powerful, and there’s reward for the wine drinker in appreciating that different wines sit at different points on that spectrum. Wines fail when they fall off either end of that spectrum: too “elegant” and a wine becomes thin and mean, too “powerful” and they become overdone and exaggerated.
Wines were tasted blind, the final flight of two including the highly controversial Château Pavie 2003. When the wine came available for pre-release tasting in 2004, Parker felt it was “an off the chart effort” and lavished it with a score of 96 to 100 points on the 100-point scale. UK-based Jancis Robinson MW, meanhwile termed it “ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux” and scored it a lowly 12 points on the 20-point scale. I scored it 17/20, my tasting note as follows: “Prominent oak on the nose. Huge concentration on the palate. A core of dark fruit, great acidity and firm tannins. Big and weighty, still very tight and closed.”
The other wine was Château Montrose 2003, a wine that Parker and Robinson were more in accord on, with the former rating it 100 points, the latter 19/20. I scored it 18/20, describing it thus: “Dark berries and pencil shavings on the nose. The palate shows very pure, concentrated fruit. Great balance. Powerful but not exaggerated”. The Montrose is a little less embellished than the Pavie and hence the better wine; that Robinson and Parker were in such disagreement over the Pavie says more about the politics of wine criticism than it does about this particular wine’s inherent quality.