French Wines for the Here and Now
Ah, to savor the fruits of the best French vintners. To revel in the perfection poured from a bottle of Château Latour 1961, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache 1978, or Château Lafite 1959. If you should come into possession of one of these (or one of many other) rare, sought-after vintages, you know you’re in for a treat. There may be no greater indulgence than the languid appreciation of a lauded French vintage from decades past, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the contemporary releases out of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
According to Stephen Williams, president of AWC in London, many French winemakers are crafting wines that appeal to a younger audience, one that seeks instant gratification. “People aren’t living in castles and manor houses in the countryside that have cellars where they can lay bottles down for 20 years before they’re ready to drink,” he says. “Winemakers in France have responded to this by making wines in a style that don’t have to be laid down for 20 years. They have tannins that are more fully integrated, but [they’re] still wines that have a full concentration that can last for a long time.”
Keep an eye out for Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche 2009 ($8,000 for a case of 12 bottles), Williams advises, or Chambertin–Clos de Bèze, Domaine Armand Rousseau 2007 ($4,700 for a case of six bottles). He also points to Château Angelus, which has embraced a younger, trendier audience. To celebrate its promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classé A status in 2012, the house replaced its traditional paper label with one that is embossed in 21-karat gold. “What was seen as a gimmick 10 years ago now appeals to a more trendy audience, and it’s working very well,” Williams says. The Château Angelus 2012 vintage is set for release in the fall, with AWC currently taking reservations at $4,000 per case.
It used to be that wine collectors all eventually ended up concentrating on fine Burgundies, but only after their palates gradually matured. These days, according to Williams, wine enthusiasts are discovering Burgundy at a younger age, in large part due to the amount of information that can be found online. “The first thing that people notice is that the texture is very different than Bordeaux,” he says. “Burgundy is all Pinot Noir, so it’s all about the fruit and perfume of the wine. It tastes thinner and lighter; it doesn’t have that creaminess that you get with the tannins of a good Bordeaux. But if you stick with it, you get the spices and complexity that you don’t get with the Bordeaux.”
On the topic of vintage Burgundies, Williams explains that they’re much less about powerful fruit notes and instead are appreciated for their complexity. “When a wine is 30 or 40 years old, you’re looking for less of a wow factor and fruit in the mouth,” he says, “but for complex changes that occur in the glass every few minutes. It’s that sort of intellectual engagement that wine can create.”
Unlike contemporary Burgundies, however, Williams says that an appreciation and a palate for vintage examples can’t come from Internet research. That, he asserts, still comes with time. “At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can learn reading words,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun by pulling corks out of the bottles and drinking the stuff.”