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August 5, 2022updated 10 Nov 2022 10:49am

Bordeaux, fruit, and Mother Nature

By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

The 2021 vintage in Bordeaux may have had its challenges, but the conditions also helped bring about what Ch’ng Poh Tiong feels is a necessary, stylistic revision. 

Since Nature is a mother, nothing grieves her more than bringing life into the world only to see the fruit of her labor snuffed out, killed, on purpose. Premeditated murder. When the killing is clearly a pattern, I think it logical to describe the culprit as a serial killer and those who witness the killing but turn a blind eye to it as being complicit. 

Bordeaux, where wine imitates life 

In more than 30 years of visiting Bordeaux and having tasted its wines en primeur since the 1999 vintage (with a few gaps, most recently because of Covid), I have found some wines, overseen by the same one or two consultants vintage after vintage, so overextracted, so overoaked, and so over the top that I can’t help but wonder if these repeat offenders are allergic or indifferent to fruit in wine—as if the prime purpose of converting grape juice into wine were to remove its very soul.

My imagination being unusually fertile when it comes to violence, I even hear the wine consultant reminding himself, as he makes his way to the cuverie of the château, having parked his car, “I must strangle the fruit in the grapes.”

When their teeth, tongue, and palate are assailed by the atomic tartness and blockbuster tannins of these wines, inexperienced tasters think that they are simply “too young.”

(There is a monumental chasm between such vanquished wines and an intense, layered, vibrant, six-month-old infant at Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, Margaux, La Mission, Léoville Barton, Calon-Ségur, Beychevelle, Trotanoy, Vieux Château Certan, or Lafleur).

Those tasters like to think that time will somehow resurrect the fruit lurking underneath all that brutal extraction and raw wood. The poor things—the tasters, I mean—don’t realize that these wines were already DOA. 

Dead on arrival

The DOA wines will start to brown after only a few years, becoming more and more austere and drying. As the years wear on, they deteriorate into nothing more than very expensive wood juice. If you have not tasted such “monsters” but wish to know the sensation they unleash, turn on the vacuum cleaner and put the nozzle in your mouth.

There are châteaux in Bordeaux—on both the Right Bank and the Left, but mostly in the former—where there is at least a lost decade and more of such black juice masquerading as wine. 

In 2021, while the world was distracted by the battle against Covid, Mother Nature engineered a series of weather setbacks to negate, at least for several months, the effects of climate change, ensuring that it was impossible to make overly alcoholic wine in Bordeaux. The dear lady wanted to identify those winemakers who would put the freshness back.

“The weather was surprising for us, and we needed the sensitivity to adjust,” reflects Eric Kohler, technical director of châteaux Lafite and Duhart-Milon, as he remembers the trials of a vintage that included frost in April, rain in June triggering mildew, and rain again in September.

“Great vintages are so easy to make. Not 2021. In such a vintage, you need to help the vineyard, to help the maturity, to be more present (even though we are always present). And you have to take care not to extract too much. Young children give us problems, but if you are a good father or mother, you react well, listening rather than shouting. Then when they grow up well, you are proud.” 

Freshness is the genius of Bordeaux

Lafite is a stalwart, year in and year out. The château with a label that has hardly changed goes about its work with a purpose that has been thought through and reflected upon. The first growth on the border between Pauillac and St-Estèphe makes one of the most sublime wines in the world.

Bordeaux

An 1871 engraving of the cuverie at Chateau Lafite. Image courtesy of iStock / Getty Images Plus

Whether you taste the newest born the following spring during the en primeur season or a fully mature wine 50 or more years old, Lafite sparkles on the palate even as it moves the mind. Freshness is the genius of Bordeaux. Some wines are just magic.

“The terroir is very strong,” Kohler explains.

“Our history is the philosophy of the Rothschilds, Baron Eric and now Saskia. It is the same line. We always respect the philosophy of the wine. I arrived in 1994, and at that time there was a great change in the style of many Bordeaux wines: They became more concentrated and much riper.

“We never accepted this. A lot of people said, ‘You are old school.’ But now, after so many years of excess, even the most excessive are going back to a more classic style.”

Time remains the final arbiter

Tasting infant wines is not unlike a coach assessing young sporting talent: If we know what to look for, we can anticipate the potential of the wine or the person. We may not be able to taste or to see the full potential in a young Bordeaux, but as clearly as night becomes day and day returns to night, we can identify future greatness.

“Fashion can be good—but we need time to think,” Kohler concludes.

“We are not vinifying Lafite exactly as we did 25 years ago, but our evolution is measured. We don’t have a problem with change—only when the change is bad.”

Mother Nature, happily, has her accomplices, too. 

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