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DRINK | WINE

'Must-ling' Up in Bordeaux

April 08, 1998|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Driving through the Medoc, that tongue of vineyard land that extends north from the city of Bordeaux, one is surrounded by neat rows of vines, the imposing stone facades of famous cha^teaux. You could easily imagine that nothing ever changes here.

But red Bordeaux wines have changed a lot in recent years. If you taste the excellent 1995 and 1996 vintages, which have recently pushed Bordeaux back into the limelight, and compare them with the Bordeaux of a decade or more ago, you'll find the lean but elegant wines that were once the norm are now few and far between.

In some cases the change is a matter of quality; the performance of many cha^teaux has improved dramatically during the last decade. In others, it has been a stylistic change. Many well-known Bordeaux have become softer, richer or more massive in body. As a result, many Americans could be in for a surprise when they open the first bottles of these vintages as they arrive on the market. The most extreme examples of new-style red Bordeaux could be mistaken for reds from California or Australia.

A look at the modern wineries where the owners of many leading cha^teaux invested the profits of the 1980s Bordeaux boom will show one reason. During the last few years, must-concentrating machines (concentrateurs) have become standard Bordeaux winemaker's equipment. They concentrate the grape juice by removing water, either by boiling it off at room temperature in a vacuum chamber or by extracting it through reverse osmosis. Concentration literally "pumps up" the flavor intensity and alcoholic content of the resulting wine.

"The danger of this technique is that it concentrates everything in the wine," says Daniel Llose, the technical director of the properties owned by the French insurance company AXA and Cha^teau Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. "Take it too far with must from mediocre grapes and the result is pronounced acidity and unripe flavors."

Although Llose prefers to build up the wines he makes by reducing the size of the crop through bunch-thinning several months before the harvest, he makes no secret of the fact that he has used must concentration at AXA's Cha^teau Pichon-Longueville since the 1992 vintage.

There has certainly been a dramatic improvement in the quality of the wines, which had been erratic and sometimes poor, since AXA took over Pichon-Longueville in 1987. The style has also changed, this now being one of the most muscular and tannic wines in the Medoc.

"Like a sumo wrestler" is how one Bordeaux vintner (who wished to remain unnamed) described the new-style Pichon-Longuevilles, and it certainly fits the massive 1996 vintage wine. Too big and muscular for its own good? I certainly preferred the less assertive, more supple 1995.

Just across the road at Cha^teau Pichon Lalande there is also a state-of-the-art winery with a must concentrator, but the wines taste completely different. The 1995 here is packed with ripe blackberry aromas and has a texture on the palate reminiscent of the finest silk. The more powerful 1996 tastes like an essence of black cherry and has a ravishing harmony, in spite of being loaded with tannins. It reminded me of the marvelous 1986 Pichon Lalande, one of the best Bordeaux of that excellent vintage, and still full of life and vigor.

Pichon Lalande has been one of the pioneers of modern winemaking in the Medoc since 1978, when the resolute and dynamic May-Elaine de Lencquesaing took control of the estate. The many changes and improvements to the estate's winemaking facilities have done nothing to alter the rich, supple style of wine she introduced 20 years ago. Wine style is as much a matter of personal vision as of technology in Bordeaux.

Many of Bordeaux's leading winemakers say that the biggest change of recent years has been in the vineyards. "It is true that today's wines are softer than those of 20 years ago," says Christian Le Sommer, director of Cha^teau Latour. "This is the result of the better ripeness of the grapes we pick, not through changes in the vinification. To achieve this, we now pick slightly later and control the quantity of fruit each vine carries more precisely."

The result is some of the most magnificent red wines produced anywhere in Bordeaux--or the world. For all their concentrated aromas and flavors, it is not through their power that the 1995 and '96 vintages of Cha^teau Latour impress; there is nothing flashy about them. Rather, it is their aristocratic deportment that makes them stand out from the many other exciting wines made in Pauillac.

"An iron fist in a velvet glove" is a favorite expression of British wine writer Michael Broadbent for great Medoc wines, and the glove certainly fits the fist of the 1995 vintage Latour perfectly. The 1996 is a wine of monumental, but perfectly balanced, proportions. It is unquestionably one of the great Latours and should live for decades, even though it is more supple than such classic vintages of the past as 1970 or 1966.

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