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From Mighty Oaken Barrels, Many of the Finest Vintages Grow

March 10, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

The sweet smell of success in the wine industry is oak.

Like fine Corinthian leather in a new car, new oak barrels impart an aroma to red wine that can be sweet, cedary, even toasty. To wine makers, that indicates profitability, since the cost of new barrels is so high these days that only the successful can afford them.

There's more of that new oak aroma in Bordeaux red wines over the last few years, partly because most of the producers in that French region have had the funds to afford new barrels and make better wine. Success breeds success, and the Bordelais have been blessed in the last decade with a plethora of good luck.

Unlike the poor vintages of the early 1970s, the vintages since 1975 have been beneficent to Bordeaux, not only in quality but in quantity. Great vintages of red Bordeaux in 1975, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1983 and now the imminent 1985s were combined with good vintages in 1976, 1979 and 1984 and the result has been nine years of good fortune out of 11. Only 1977 and 1980 were rated off years.

Plowing Profits Back

Moreover, some producers are saying the 1986s could be better than the already-acclaimed 1985s.

All this has meant strong profits for most properties, which, said Anthony Barton, owner of the chateaux Leoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton, means the producers can plow profits back into the wineries and vineyards and produce even better wine. (It didn't hurt, too, that a potential disaster vintage of 1982 was turned into a most acceptable one with modern technology; more about that later.)

Improvements in wine can take many forms, but the one most noticeable to me in Bordeaux is in the new oak barrels used to age it. During the last decade or so, I have noticed that some of the slightly musty, casky smells I detected in some Bordeaux have been replaced by cleaner scents--more like vanilla, sandalwood and cedar.

Barton is somewhat amused by terms used to describe wine, and at a recent tasting in Calabasas staged by the Duke of Bourbon wine shop in Canoga Park he had the audience in stitches, reading a tract he wrote some time ago for a British newspaper on the term wet dog as used to describe the aroma of some wines.

Dissecting '84 and '85

The evening, complete with half a dozen chateau owners, was a dissection of the two most recent vintages of red Bordeaux to be released, 1984 and 1985. The former has been rated by some wine experts to be just shy of the sump; the latter is rated a step from nirvana.

In fact, the chateau owners spent more time defending the '84s than I ever heard in defense of the Edsel. They argued that although the weather wasn't ideal, the wines are "quite decent," "not as bad as you've read," etc.

Jean-Michel Cazes, the delightfully humorous, easygoing owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages, said of the '84s: "They have been very down-rated in the last few years, but the wines are almost ready to drink and we really think it's going to be a useful vintage."

The term useful may seem a backhanded compliment, but whereas Americans find the word best applies to something like a wrench, the French and British use this term to denote a wine that is acceptable, worthy of being served though perhaps not of being praised.

Prices Up, Sales Down

In years past this would have been a vintage for April 16--the day after pockets are emptied by the tax man. Yet after tasting many of these wines and then looking at their prices, I have concluded that I won't often use the term bargain when referring to them.

Though the wines are not bad, their prices are.

The price of the French franc, sitting there at 5.8 or so to the U.S. dollar, means that prices for all French products are about 40% more expensive than four years ago when the franc was above 10 to the dollar. Thus prices for all French wines are up, and sales of all French wines in the United States are off an estimated 25% because of it.

The word most used in my tasting notes of 10 Bordeaux from the 1984 vintage was "hard," meaning the tannin level of the wines was so high in relation to the fruit that I didn't feel they were worth spending upwards of $18 a bottle for. Nine of the 10 wines tasted were that price or more; the 10th was unavailable.

(I felt the best 1984 wine on the table was Domaine de Chevalier, which sells for $37.)

Some 1984s may come down in price, what with a huge amount of them still unsold and sitting in warehouses. I recently saw '84 Chateau Gloria selling for less than $10.

The 1985 Bordeaux are another story. Although I haven't had many of them yet, those I've tasted show '85 to be a very good vintage, producing wines that have good fruit, superb balance and suppleness.

Cazes added, "The wines have good acidity--and for us, that means low acidity," pointing up the fact that in off-vintages such as 1984, the higher acids can add to a wine's astringency.

'Wonderful Structure'

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