Driving to Château Monbousquet, outside Saint-Émilion,from Pauillac, in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, would be easy. All I had to do was go to the village of Saint-Sulpice, turn right, and follow the road along the vineyards. “You can’t miss it,” said Chantal Perse, my hostess. What the dear lady neglected to mention was that there are two Saint-Sulpices in this part of Bordeaux. By the time I found the right one and arrived at my destination, little time remained for the customary chitchat; following a flurry of welcomes, Chantal and her husband, Gérard–now seriously late for their own dinner engagement–dashed out into the night, but not before insisting that I make myself at home.
With the heady aroma of coq au vin filling the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of Monbousquet and began exploring the place. The château had been impeccably restored recently; this reclamation, and the antiques that filled these rooms, suggested a reverence for tradition, an appreciation of what had gone before. But as Gérard Perse’s winemaking peers in Saint-Émilion would have advised me during that visit to Bordeaux in the spring of 2003, nothing could be further from the truth.
The next morning, Chantal joined me for breakfast. The château was lovely, I offered, and the view of the surrounding vineyards so peaceful, as was the picturesque hillside town itself, where Chantal owned the Hostellerie de Plaisance, a cozy jewel box of a hotel. Oh yes, she agreed, noncommittally, it was all very scenic. Only, it had not been easy for the Perses to fit in. “People are a little conservative in Saint-Émilion,” she informed me. “They don’t like change.”
A Taste of Bordeaux 2003
From a classic–though some might say dowdy–second-growth estate, the 2003 Château Montrose is at odds with the flashy, fruit-forward wines that have drawn the most attention over the past decade. Traditionalists praise its longevity, which is another way of saying it can be hard and tannic when young. But Montrose possesses a distinctive terroir; the estate, located in Saint-Estèphe, has a microclimate that is a few degrees warmer than its neighboring estates, and so its grapes–62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 34 percent Merlot, 3 percent Cabernet Franc, and 1 percent Petit Verdot–ripen three or four days earlier than those of nearby vineyards. To the château’s disciples, this makes all the difference. The Montrose vineyards, which border the Gironde estuary, also abound in clay and therefore retain more moisture during heat waves than those with gravel or sandy soil. The result, when the stars are in alignment, is a Grand Cru in the classic style: somewhat reserved but distinctly masculine, with lots of spice, black fruits, tobacco, and leather. Its enthusiasts sound as if they are discussing a Thoroughbred when describing its slow trotting start, its sprint in the middle, and its long stride at the finish.
More to the point, they do not care much for her husband. To the Bordeaux establishment, Gérard Perse is the epitome of the pushy nouveau riche. He had made a fortune in the supermarket business before going into the wine business in a big way–too big, for the old guard. In 1993, Monbousquet became Perse’s first château; five years later he had acquired his fifth, Château Pavie, and spent millions to upgrade Pavie from a run-of-the-mill, traditional Bordeaux into a rich, full-bodied, opulent wine.
This rankled his fellow estate owners in Bordeaux, who disapproved of Perse’s aggressiveness, his money-is-no-object way of doing business, and, for that matter, his wine itself. If this was the kind of wine he wanted to make, why not just move to California? The thought had occurred to Perse. “I feel so much more American than French,” he has said. “In America, people plan for success. In France, people look down on success.”
This is not to say that Perse had no friends at all. The salon at Monbousquet held several photos of the supermarket tycoon—turned—vintner and another man smiling amicably into the camera. “Do you know him?” asked Chantal, nodding toward the man with her husband. Indeed I did. If you were to have only one friend in the world of wine, this, the American übercritic Robert Parker, would be the one to have.
Not long after launching his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, and its 100-point rating scale in 1978, the onetime bank lawyer became the most influential figure in the world of wine. A high Parker score could make a winemaker, and a low score could break him. Even his rivals were known to lament that if Parker gave a wine a high rating, you could not buy it; if he gave it a low rating, you could not sell it.
It was no secret what kind of wine Parker preferred: big and bold and with lots of fruit and alcohol. Et voilà, the new global paradigm. It was enough to make the Bordeaux château owners weep; for centuries their wines had been known for structure, finesse, and character. Now what were they were expected to make, hedonistic fruit bombs?
By the time of the 2003 harvest, the wine from which will be released this spring, some critics–notably those with British accents–were wondering if perhaps Parkermania had gone too far. After all, this involved more than just wine; it was an issue of prestige, taste, and civilization as they, the Brits, had known it. Somewhere, somebody had to draw the line, and Château Pavie was a good place to start.
Gérard Perse is hardly the first self-made man to elbow his way into the ranks of the Bordeaux elite. The French Revolution had created a shortage of aristocrats, opening the way for the Rothschilds and other banking families to take over such storied châteaux as Margaux, Palmer, Haut-Brion, and Lafite. In the ensuing century, newly minted merchants, lawyers, industrialists, insurance companies, and investment houses bought into the wine game. For most of the parvenus, it sufficed to drape themselves in the region’s tradition, to partake in the rituals of ownership and enjoy the esteem that comes with possessing a château in Bordeaux. As Jean-Guillaume Prats, director of the second-growth estate Cos d’Estournel, says, “If you tell somebody you are the president of a major bank or a multinational corporation, they will say, ‘That’s nice.’ But tell them that you own a château in Bordeaux, and they will be genuinely impressed.” (Click image to enlarge)
The mystique was everything. It hardly mattered that many of the Grand Cru châteaux produced mediocre wine. As recently as the 1940s, vintners still were planting hybrid grapes on classified vineyards. They were less costly to cultivate, more productive than Cabernet or Merlot, and could be blended with cheaper, faster-ripening white wines that would ultimately appear red. Often the wines of Bordeaux were so hard-edged and undrinkable when young that they had to be aged for a dozen years or longer before consumption.
A Taste of Bordeaux 2003
Château Latour represents the most regal, masculine, and long-lived of the Grand Cru wines. It is also a longtime favorite of English oenophiles; one can almost hear the strains of “Rule Britannia” echoing in the background when the English wine writer James Seely urges, in his 1986 book Great Bordeaux Wines, that Latour “in good years should be laid down by the unselfish and dynastically minded for their children and grandchildren.”
Advise your progeny to buy their own wine if you can obtain a bottle of the 2003 Latour, which Robert Parker describes as “freakishly rich” and one of the three greatest young Bordeaux he has ever tasted. A blend of 81 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 percent Merlot, and 1 percent Petit Verdot, Latour is a heavyweight, with 13 percent alcohol, a deep purple color, and an extraordinary bouquet of crème de cassis, blackberries, and sweet oak. Alas, the château will produce only 10,000 cases.
The British–the greatest consumers of French wines since 1152, when Henry II of England accepted Bordeaux and the rest of southwest France as his dowry from his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine–were raised to believe that this was the way wine was supposed to be. Having to wait for the wine to mature hardly troubled them. According to Jean-Michel Cazes–owner of the esteemed Château Lynch-Bages, among other châteaux, and dubbed “the most powerful man in Bordeaux” by the New York Times–this practice became ingrained into British culture. “The British would say, ‘You drink the wine your father bought and buy the wine your children will drink,’ ” says Cazes. “The idea was if you were a gentleman, you would lay down cases of wine for future generations. Only the common man would buy it and drink it himself.” Of course, he allows, if you followed this rule, you rarely found out what it was you were buying. “Nonetheless,” adds Cazes, “every upper-class Englishman aspired to own a wine cellar.”
Therein, says one wine historian, lay the secret to Bordeaux’s success. “The genius of Bordeaux was convincing the rest of the world that their wines’ flaws were virtues,” says Lynn Hoffman, author of the forthcoming The New Short Course in Wine (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006). What a consumer might describe as astringent, the Bordelais said was formal structure. What others might find unexciting, they would say was elegant and refined. If a claret made your lips pucker, the connoisseur would say of course, it is not intended to be drunk for 20 years. If it smelled like mushrooms and fungus, it had a reassuring earthy note.
The one issue the Bordelais wanted to skirt at all costs, however, was ripeness. “Bordeaux lies on the edge of the zone at which grapes will ripen at all,” says Hoffman. “So they focused on every other aspect of wine–acidity, color, balance, refinement, finesse–besides ripeness. They did this because they could not produce a ripe wine every year. These were wines that had to be aged. It was part of the mystique of Bordeaux.”
Ever since the time of Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist, British wine writers have nurtured this reverence. They did not merely advise the consumer whether a wine was dry or sweet, rich or refreshing, or, for that matter, worth the price they were paying for it; they rhapsodized about the scenic countryside where it was grown, the tasteful setting in which it was served, the charm of the company with whom it was enjoyed. Tastings were chummy events, rarely conducted blind, as that might embarrass either the taster or his host. Often as not, the English critic’s involvement did not end with a pronouncement on the wine’s quality; he also sold it to his audience. “It was a matter of harmless fashion, not a moral crusade,” says British wine icon Hugh Johnson, most recently the author of the upcoming Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book (Mitchell Beazley, 2006) and a participant in numerous wine businesses.
But to an idealistic young American it was a corrupt system. “I recall in my early years, at Christies, [British critic] Michael Broadbent was describing one wine as ‘a dignified old woman whose makeup was beginning to crack,’ ” says Robert Parker. “I thought to myself, ‘What a load of crap.’ ”
There was, as they say in the Westerns, a new sheriff in town. “Parker arrived on the scene in the early 1970s, and his timing was serendipitous,” says Hoffman. “For most of this country’s history, few Americans drank wine. It wasn’t sufficiently ripe and fruity for us. Our tastes were different from the Brits; our food was more flavorful than theirs, and we didn’t buy into the symbolism of the wine cellar the way the Brits did.”
That was how it always had been, but some Bordeaux wines were already undergoing a significant change. It began in the 1960s, when a French microbiologist named Emile Peynaud stepped out of the laboratory and into the vineyards, intent on teaching the French how to make wine. “Peynaud was an advocate of late harvests, ripe fruit, and low acidity,” says Cazes. “He also popularized malolactic fermentation, the process that used a secondary fermentation to produce a softer, rounder, and riper wine. Of course, not everyone was in favor of Peynaud’s techniques.”
While Bordeaux’s wines were changing, so were its buyers. In the early 1970s it seemed like every day brought a new ripe wine from California. In 1976 the report of Steven Spurrier’s blind tasting in Paris further piqued American interest in wine. Fifteen years later, when 60 Minutes broadcast a report about the potential health benefits of moderate wine consumption, later to be known as the French Paradox, Americans had what they were waiting for: an excuse for drinking. Since that time the United States has become the world’s most important market for wine.
A Taste of Bordeaux 2003
Château Valandraud owner Jean-Luc Thunevin continues to treat his 5.5-acre property as a garden rather than an enterprise, green-harvesting, leaf-pulling, and crop-thinning by hand to produce a yield about half that of some grand estates. Blended from 50 percent Merlot, 40 percent Cabernet Franc, and small portions of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2003 Valandraud has a deep blue-purple hue and a heady perfume of black fruits, licorice, crushed stones, cocoa, espresso, and spice. Given its beautifully integrated tannins, this may be Valandraud’s biggest and most long-lived wine to date. Thunevin’s first kosher Valandraud debuted at the 2003 futures tasting, and some preferred that version. Photography by Cordero Studios. (Click image to enlarge)
It is no coincidence that, at the same time, Parker has become the wine world’s most important figure. “Parker’s gotten to where he is because he’s a good writer, he’s honest, he has a fabulous palate, and he’s very productive,” says Hoffman. “But he was also the apostle of a creed already up and ready to go. If there had been a Parker 100 years ago, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The winemakers couldn’t have delivered the wine he was demanding. What made Parker Parker was that he started at a place where the world was already heading.”
Wherever Parker started, our paths intersected in the early 1990s, over lunch at the Milton Inn, not far from his home in Monkton, Md. A few days earlier, he related, he had dined with a group of a half dozen well-heeled oenophiles, each of whom had donated $8,000 to charity for the privilege, a fact he reported more in a tone of amazement than braggadocio. We had tasted a dozen or so wines before lunch, a slow day for a man said to sample as many as 150 wines at one sitting. There was something Olympian about the way he worked; with every twitch of his synapses a winemaker’s fortune could be made or lost. When Parker gave an Australian wine 100 points, its producer raised his wholesale price more than 900 percent to $600 a bottle, and it sold out in two weeks. In Japan, a high rating from Parker pushed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from $200 a bottle to more than $4,000. Not everyone is a Parker fan, though; some French winemakers who receive extremely low ratings are known to reproduce them in ads and on posters.
The British writers, to hear them tell it, did not mind that Parker had stolen their thunder, though the 100-point Parker scale seems to drive them crazy. Hugh Johnson, over dinner in London, exasperatedly asked me how on earth anyone can tell the difference between a 95- and a 96-point wine.
Jancis Robinson, editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine and wine critic for the London Financial Times, says she has no problem with Parker and his rating system. “Oh, there’s the occasional difference of opinion,” she allows, “but isn’t that to be expected?” Nevertheless, a tone of condescension surfaced when she described the American critic in her 1997 book, Tasting Pleasure: “His working life,” she wrote, “is to report on his reaction to a succession of glasses.”
Parker struck Robinson as serenely unconcerned with the human and geographical contexts that make a wine. What made wine writing so rewarding to her was the chance to describe when and where wines are made, and particularly, the people who make them. After all, the wine was more than liquid in a glass. Rather, she wrote, “It is my link to a fascinating story, a spot on the globe, a point in time, a fashion in winemaking, an argument between neighboring farmers, rivalry between old schoolmates, perhaps new owners who want to make their mark at any cost.” Parker, for his part, is rather less circumspect about the British wine press. “They always say, ‘Here’s Parker with his 100-point gimmick,’ ” he says. “They can’t stand that when I go to England I draw bigger crowds than they do.”
If Robinson felt that Parker was due for a comeuppance, he would receive one at the futures tasting of the 2003 vintage Bordeaux. The summer of 2003 was hot, hotter than any in memory, and in a country where air-conditioning is a rarity, the consequences were tragic, with the loss of life numbering some 10,000. However, there was one small consolation for the château owners in Bordeaux: The heat wave just might produce a marvelous wine, if a wine could be produced at all.
“There was no historical precedent for this vintage,” says Parker, who visited Bordeaux in September 2003, just after the harvest. “Some vineyards looked like a giant hair dryer had run over them, scorching the vines. In adjacent vineyards they were cutting the foliage. In Saint-Émilion, the shrubbery by the side of the road was dead, but in Pomerol, the limestone areas looked great. Le Pin didn’t bother trying to produce a wine.”
Gérard Perse had extremely high expectations for his Château Pavie 2003. He had begun harvesting in August, a month early, and was reintegrating the lees into his cuvées, in the style of Burgundy, to produce bigger, fatter, rounder wines. At the same time, he was reducing his yields dramatically by crop-thinning and leaf-stripping. His goal, he announced, was nothing less than a new style of wine for Saint-Émilion.
A Taste of Bordeaux 2003
Château Lafite Rothschild
In circles of connoisseurship, Château Lafite has been a formidable name for centuries. In 1755, it was introduced to the court of Louis XV, where it became enormously popular. In 1868, Baron James de Rothschild acquired the estate for 4.4 million francs, an enormous sum considering the average vintner earned one franc a day. The baron was quite old at the time of the purchase and died shortly thereafter, but his descendants have been intimately involved with the château ever since.
For all the estate’s cachet, a visit to the Lafite cellars can be arranged with a phone call. One of the reception rooms houses the desk on which the Franco-Prussian treaty was drafted in 1871. The chai is especially interesting; it is circular, rather than linear, in shape, suggesting a UFO built for a wine-loving extraterrestrial. Beneath the château lies the family’s private cellar, with vintages dating to 1797. Perhaps they are saving those for a special occasion. The same fate may await the Lafite 2003, which some experts consider the wine of the vintage. Its blend of 86 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Merlot, 3 percent Cabernet Franc, and 2 percent Petit Verdot reveals an intense nose of scorched earth, balsamic vinegar, and desert fruits, along with flavors of crème de cassis and oak.
Only, as Robinson and other British writers might have asked him, what was wrong with the old style, with its emphasis on terroir? For centuries, terroir had stood for all that the British held dear: tradition, pedigree, deferred gratification, stiff upper lip, and names resonant with history. But now, more and more châteaux in Bordeaux were producing rich, full-bodied wines–the kind that Parker liked.
Robinson acknowledges that she and some of her fellow critics were growing concerned. “Frankly, things were getting out of hand,” she says. “There was an exaggeration of a certain style, of extreme ripeness. I know the winemakers didn’t like making this kind of wine, but they had to win [Parker] points.”
In March 2004, Robinson and other critics–excluding Parker, who always tastes alone–gathered in Bordeaux for the tasting that would determine 2003 futures prices. When the notes on Château Pavie were revealed, it was hard to believe that Parker and Robinson were describing the same substance. Parker, who had tasted blind, went around the bend in his praise for the Pavie. “An off-the-chart effort from perfectionists Chantal and Gérard Perse . . . sublime richness, remarkable freshness . . . a brilliant effort.” He awarded it a range of 96 to 100 points. (The precise score would not be determined until after bottling.)
Robinson, who claims also to have tasted it blind, had a different reaction. “Ridiculous wine,” she wrote. “Completely unappetizing. Overripe aromas. Porty sweet. More reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux.”
Her countryman Clive Coates concurred: “Anyone who thinks this is good wine needs a brain and palate transplant. This wine will be scored simply as undrinkable.”
Michael Broadbent sided with Robinson and Coates. “Parker is looking for concentration, opulence, impressiveness,” he wrote. “He should be looking for a wine that is civilized, that is for drinking with food.”
According to Robinson, both the public and the winemakers have vindicated her taste. “There’s a retreat from the Parker model,” she says. “There was more alcohol, more concentrated ripeness in the late 1990s. But the winemakers don’t really like this style; it’s hard to drink, and it’s hard to sell.”
Parker spares us any gallantry when disputing Robinson’s assessment. “What BS. There’s no retreat from rich, ripe wines,” he says. “Conditions simply haven’t been right to produce fruit with much power or concentration. Any Bordeaux château would be thrilled to do a 2000 [a remarkably rich, ripe vintage] every year.”
As for the harsh reviews of Perse’s Pavie ’03, says Parker, those were intended for him. “The Brits see Gérard as the poster boy for the Parker-style wine, whatever that is. The Robinsons, Broadbents, and Coateses all belong to the goose-step school of writing. They see more value in an oxidized, maderized 1900 Margaux than in a 1990 Cheval Blanc because of the history. For me, it’s all about what’s in the bottle.”
A Taste of Bordeaux 2003
With the release of his latest vintage, Château Pavie owner Gérard Perse raises the stakes on Saint-Émilion’s “garage wines,” a term that, depending on your perspective, refers to either a lush, ripe, enjoyable wine or a highly alcoholic, in-your-face fruit bomb that could have come from Australia, Chile, or Napa instead of Bordeaux. The 2003 Pavie epitomizes what some call the Parker style. Château Pavie always has been blessed with one of the finest terroirs in the Saint-Émilion appellation, but Perse was loath to rely on the vicissitudes of nature. After relocating his Cabernet Sauvignon vines from the foot of the hill to higher ground, he constructed a new fermentation room, installing 20 temperature-controlled wooden vats to replace the old cement tanks. He then designed and commissioned an entirely new split-level aging cellar that has indirect lighting and the low murmur of classical music to ease the wine’s metamorphosis from fermented grape juice into a Premier Cru. A blend of 70 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc, and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine has been praised for its sublime richness, minerality, and marvelous inky purple color. Those who appreciate this kind of wine will enjoy its provocative aromas of minerals, black and red fruits, balsamic vinegar, licorice, and smoke.
An admirable sentiment, yet human nature being what is, the very rarity of the 2003 Bordeaux makes them more valuable than they would otherwise be. Even more remarkably, the highly denigrating commentaries by Robinson, Coates, and Broadbent have served only to drive prices of the Château Pavie ’03 higher, says Chris Adams, executive vice president of Sherry-Lehmann, the Manhattan wine and spirits merchant that pioneered futures sales in this country. “If everyone had said it was a lovely wine, it would be high priced,” he explains. “But because it represents such totally opposite points of view, demand has been tremendous.” As Adams notes, the ’02 Pavie, which his company has in stock, costs $1,620 a case, while the ’03 already is priced at $2,150. “And it hasn’t even arrived yet,” he says. “Once we get it in stock the price will rise much higher. It’s a true collector’s item.”