"In the Medoc more great wine is made than anywhere else on earth." So writes Hugh Johnson in "Wine." Some would argue against his statement, or at least demand that the qualifying word "red" be inserted between great and wine. Nonetheless Bordeaux does tend to dominate conversations when wine fanciers gather, and the Medoc (the Haut Medoc to be more precise) is the dominant area within Bordeaux.
As one drives north from Bordeaux along this peninsula that juts into the Atlantic with Gironde estuary on its east flank, the map reads like a restaurant wine card. The main road winds past such renowned grape farms as Chateaux Palmer, Beychevelle, Leoville Las Cases, Latour Lafite-Rothschild and Cos d'Estournel. Following a pattern established in 1855, the most commercially successful of these wines are grouped in five tiers of "classified growths," followed by additional "Crus Exceptionnels" and "Crus Bourgeois."
It's a dreary landscape by and large and the soil is peppered with gravel. But the vines love it, particularly those of the cabernet sauvignon, and they reward those who care for them properly with grape juice of the very highest caliber. English and American connoisseurs have led the world in consuming these celebrated "clarets," though the French themselves are be coming a much more important factor in the fine wine market.
These are not the easy wines of everyday drinking. The best-made will last for half a century or more. In their youth, due to an abundance of tannic acid, they can be harsh, even distinctly unpleasant. They don't match well with "everything" and some foods, in turn, rob them of elegance and charm. Collectors are just now beginning to fully enjoy the 1966 Medocs, still waiting to discover if 1961 truly will be the "vintage of the century," thereby displacing 1929 (which for some has already been displaced by 1928), and timidly sampling selections from the 1970 and 1971 to learn how rapidly they are maturing.
Such samplings are not to be scoffed at. Just as an elementary tasting should convince the doubting Thomas that not all wine tastes the same, the following relatively inexpensive experiment should underline one of the chief factors that distinguishes table wine in the bottle from whiskey. Buy several bottles of an appellation controlee Bordeaux and sample the bottles at intervals of six months or more, recording your observations. The taste sensations will change. Wine lives!
Why take such effort with Bordeaux? According to the romantic school of wine appreciation, Bordeaux (and in particular, Medoc) is the wine of maturity. The young, this theory goes, love the spring-like kiss of a Beaujolais or the robust passion of Burgundies. Only later does one develop a full appreciation of the subtleties, the fruity complexities (and, it should be added, the inconsistent behavior) of great Bordeaux.
In a world filled with "pop" wines, where one is told of the joys of "red rose" and Beaujolais sells at prices up to $5 and even beyond, the romantic's progression may need rewriting. Bordeaux's standing at the top seems assured, however.
Not every year is a good year in Bordeaux, however. Weather fluctuations lead to considerable variance in quality from one vintage to another. Of the wines of this decade, the 1970s and 1975s (available so far only through pre-arrival sales) are the critics' favorites; the "71s have their supporters but overall lack the charm of the previous year; 1972, with the inevitable few exceptions, is a year the trade would rather forget; 1974, just launched on the local market, is to be approached with caution because a rain-plagued harvest led to spotty quality; 1976 has not yet had sufficient evaluation.
That leaves 1973. A selection of Medocs from the vintage were the subject of a tasting conducted recently by The Washington Post, the result of which appear elsewhere on this page. There has been a tendency by wine experts to dismiss this vintage. They warn collectors it is light, not a wine to buy in quantity and lay down. But other wine drinkers - lacking the cash to make an investment, cellar space and the patience to wait years for a wine to mature - needn't follow along in elbow-jerk fashion.
Nature, the unpredictability of supply and demand, plus a speculative bubble that burst four years ago, have conspired to bring this, Bordeaux's largest vintage ever, onto the market here at very attractive prices. It should be very useful to the consumer.
For example, the 1973 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in our sample was purchased for $14. The 1970 was $25 at a local shop last week. Other comparisons: Chateau Palmer was $13.95 for the 1970, $6.99 for the 1973; 1970 Chateau Beychevelle cost $4 more a bottle and 1970 Chateau Cissac was $2.20 more.
This is not to imply that the two vintages are of the same quality. In most cases the 1970s probably are the superior wines and obviously they have been aged and additional three years. But The Post's tasting established that the 1973s are representative Medocs maturing quite quickly. (The other major Bordeaux areas not included in the tasting are Graves, Pomerol, St. Emilion, Sauternes. Entre-Deux-Mers produces a great volume of wine of less elevated quality.)
While not ecstatic, the panel that sampled the wines found most of interest and were impressed with the distinct differences among them. Some were aging rapidly; others needed more time to mature. Overall the wines showed signs of balance if not depth, tending to be stronger on acid than fruit. What this means to the lay person is that the 1973s probably won't be showcase wines, but should go well with food - meats such as lamb or roast beef, or cheeses.
Some were faulted for a lack of bouquet (smell) and fruity taste. A wine's bouquet may increase, but its strength (body) won't and despite signs of tannic acid, many of the wines probably will reach a peak within a year or so. (They may, of course, remain at that peak for some time, perhaps a decade.) The Most serious failing, however, was found in four or five wines that obviously had been sugared to raise the alcoholic content.Called chaptalization, the process of adding sugar is legal, but inevitably distorts a wine's character. For these wines, which several tasters felt "smelled like Burgundies," a short lifespan was projected.
As is the case with all Washington Post wine tastings, the bottles were covered so none of the tasters knew the identity of the wine he or she was sampling. The surprise of the evening was the showing of Mouton-Cadet. Despite its popularity and its association with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who owns Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, this wine is a regional Bordeaux, not a true Medoc. The 1973 appears to be clearly superior to recent vintages of the same wine.
The results follow, with price, average score based on a 0 to 20 scale and a sample of tasters' comments offered with each wine. With one exception, the wines were purchased in local retail stores and the prices given are those at the store. They may vary at other locations. The Chateau La Salle de Poujeaux was donated by a member of the panel. It is not presently on sale in the area and therefore the price is indicated with an asterisk.