Bordeaux: A Question of Vintage

“My dear Greco! You surely aren’t serious!”

We were dining at Chez Panisse with the Count and Countess Ferrari, whom Anne, my better half, had met at some highbrow fundraiser to save vegan single mother whales. The Ferrari’s had latched on to her, representing themselves as the last in the line of the noble House of Ferrari. I thought I smelled a couple of phonies.

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The Count was now questioning my wine selection. To be fair, in my mind I was questioning why German Panzer divisions had not obliterated the Ferrari estate during the last world war, but presently I returned to the wine selection.

The entrée was a medium rare beef loin in a beautiful wine reduction. Clearly a Bordeaux was called for. But which Bordeaux? Therein was the dispute, er, discussion.

It was, you see, a question of vintage. And when you start talking about Bordeaux vintages, you might as well be talking about Middle East peace at the United Nations. Agreement is going to be hard to come by, to say the least.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind with Bordeaux wines, specifically reds. The first is the year of the vintage. There are good vintages, bad vintages, average vintages, exceptional vintages, and even…classic vintages. But how the hell are you going to know plonk from perfection, especially when you haven’t opened the bottle? Furthermore, you’re sitting in a posh restaurant looking at the prices on the wine list and trying to remember just how much your cell phone bill was this month and whether the old credit card can stand the assault. You’re beginning to think the United Nations might be a better gig.

Take a deep breath. Center yourself. Focus, even. (These are Zen terms I picked up since moving to California. I have no idea what they mean.) Since you’re in this elegant restaurant, chances are the sommelier has been very careful about selecting the wines on the list. You’ll probably be in good shape no matter what you choose. Then again, you can simply ask the sommelier for a recommendation, but just remember he is only human and works for tips and wants you to buy a more expensive bottle. If you’re smarter than I am, you might even have one of those little wallet-sized vintage charts that tells you what are the good years, etc.

I was eyeballing a 2003 Mille Roses from the Haut Medoc (that’s an appellation in Bordeaux). 2003 was an exceptional year in Bordeaux and I knew this because the previous week I had fallen asleep reading about it in one of those snooty wine magazines. I realized that I, too, could be snooty and show this fake Count how sharp we ugly Americans could be. Using every ounce of blustering overconfidence I could muster, I ordered the Mille Roses with as much concern for the Count if he were a Jehovah’s Witness knocking on my front door. That’s just the way you have to do it with these highbrow types.

Anne was petrified at my disdain of the Count’s opinion. This was likely because the phony Ferrari’s had told her how much they missed Princess Di and how the Princess used to drop in unexpectedly at their fourth vacation home in the Riviera and drink $2000 bottles of wine, one after another. The pompous-assed Count was now certain that I had made the blunder of a lifetime; a 2003 Bordeaux was just too young to be consumed in 2007 according to him.

Which brings us to the other vintage question. How long does a Bordeaux need to sit in a cellar before you uncork it? There is no easy answer to that one. The really great Bordeaux, the so-called Grand Crus, can be cellared for decades. But that doesn’t mean you can’t drink them in five years if you like. They just won’t have evolved into all they might become. And the lesser wines of Bordeaux can be perfectly fine after only five years or less.

The Bordelais have realized that the wine drinking public generally wants a wine you can purchase and drink that night and they have largely adjusted their winemaking techniques to accommodate that. You can, and should, read up on Bordeaux so you’ll have some idea of how long to cellar that special bottle. But in the end, there is really only one way to know if that bottle is ready and delicious. Open it, decant it, and drink it.

That is exactly what I did, sitting there in Chez Panisse, with a no-count Count and Countess, Anne looking daggers at me, the expertly prepared beef melting on my tongue. After one sip of that wine they all became quiet. Our little question of vintage was resolved.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.