Tasting Bordeaux: Learning by the glass

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Learning Bordeaux wines could be a lifetime pursuit. With more than 8,000 châteaux or wine makers located in a 500-square mile region of France, just sorting out the basics is a formidable task. In the end, perhaps simply learning by tasting is a good place to start.

Last Thursday, January 23, offered such an opportunity at the Union des Grands Crus du Bordeaux 2011 Vintage Wine Tasting in Denver. The five Red Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot – were on brilliant display. White Bordeaux aficionados of the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes were not disappointed.

More than 250 wine tasters seemed to arrive all at once at the McNichols Civic Center. The event was crowded, so it took a while to move from table to table, tasting white, red, and Sauternes wines. The cozy waits in line afforded several opportunities to learn by listening, either asking questions or eavesdropping unavoidably. Those in attendance included tasters in search of wines to add to their cellars, enophiles who knew the châteaux well, and others who were only getting acquainted with French wines.

Classic Bordeaux wines are Old World in style, which means they are crafted with the intention of complementing food. High in acid and tannin, it can take decades in a wine cellar for a full-bodied Red Bordeaux to achieve a level of balance among the elements of fruit, acid, and tannin.

The 2011 vintage is considered average, especially when compared to the stellar vintages of 2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010. Despite the wine industry’s lukewarm reception of the vintage, it was a treat to swirl and sip around the room. Highlights included:

Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Grand Cru Classé, Pessac-Léognan – a rich white wine with pineapple on the nose and ample grapefruit on a finish that lingered after the minerality had cooled. More, please.

Château LaTour-Martillac, Grand Cru Classé de Graves, Pessac-Léognan – an inviting wine offering robust red fruit on the nose and palate. It was more than quaffable that night but will improve with age.

Château Oliver, Grand Cru Classe, Pessac-Léognan – a balanced red wine that smelled like a bag of brown sugar when first opened, and tasted like a handful of dark cherries. This wine sent me searching for a hunk of veiny blue cheese, which was thankfully available on the buffet.

Château Pichon-Longueville, Cru Classé, Pauillac – a subtle red blend with notes of cedar in the bouquet and a good fruit-acid-tannin balance that will improve with cellaring. Think meat. Red meat.

Château Rauzan-Gassies, Second Grand Cru Classé, Margaux – a lush, round, balanced red wine with a velvety finish. Simply, yum. I was grateful for the large pour of this wine.

Chateau La Tour Blanche, 1er Cru Classé, Sauternes – a glass of pure nectar! The last morsel of blue cheese paired beautifully with the golden liquid.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux was an enjoyable tour of Second and below-growths wines. For First Growths of chateaux Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and Ausone, visit Applejack Wine & Spirits, which specializes in Bordeaux sales at all levels. For a luxe Bordeaux tasting opportunity, check out Applejack’s upcoming annual Fête du Bordeaux Wine Tasting Dinner on February 4, 2014.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux is an association of 133 grand crus estates. The 2011 Vintage Wine Tasting was hosted by Applejack Wine & Spirits; and sponsored by The DeRose Krantz Group (RBC Wealth Management, RBC Capital Markets, and RBC Wealth Management), 9News, and 5280 Magazine. The event was a benefit for the Denver Public Schools Foundation.

Until our next adventure in wine and food…

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