Jefford on Monday: Greatness in Context

I'm just back from Alain Brumont's 'Rendez-Vous des Icônes' – an open weekend when, amidst a welter of vertical tastings, festive meals and cellar tours, Madiran's hyper-active master craftsman pits three of his own best wines against seven of the world's best. Twice.

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These two tastings – blind for those attending, with a friendly obligation to rank the wines and to make guesses as to variety and origin – were moderated, and the wines commented on, by French journalist Jean-Emmanuel Simond and myself. As we helped select the non-Brumont wines in the first place and had to provide useful background for them, our tasting was sighted rather than blind. Sometimes the exigencies of timing mean that events of this sort are hurried, but not in far-flung Madiran over a languid, eerily warm November weekend: there was a generous hour to get to know the combatant bottles.

Though the point I’d like to make here, in fact, is just how wrong that word ‘combatant’ is. Inevitably in a tasting of this sort it’s fun to find winner wines, and winners mean losers …yet the full results revealed that every wine in the tasting (even those which came last) got somebody’s top vote, and I don’t doubt that drinking verdicts would have been different, as always, from tasting verdicts.  

Personally, I find the most interesting aspect of these uncommon tastings to be context. Tasted against dissimilar peers, the preconceptions crumble.

Examples? There were four fine Bordeauxs mixing it with the rest: Margaux and La Mission 2004, and Léoville-Las Cases and Angélus 2006. The quality, for me, which distinguished those wines from the rest in this context was not finesse or structure or balance, but something I hadn’t expected at all: aromatic complexity. This was particularly marked for the two 2004s, but all four seemed to run through a greater gamut of aromatic allusions than any other wine in the tasting could manage, and La Mission dazzlingly so. When you buy fine Bordeaux, you buy aroma.

By the way, none of the four, not even Angélus (whose high percentage of Cabernet Franc suddenly made itself felt), was truly more than a middleweight. I don’t suppose the 2009s or 2010s will eventually be more than middleweights in the global context, either, for all the grumbling about high alcohols and ‘blockbuster’ Bordeaux.

I had always assumed that Châteauneuf was the most crowd-pleasing of fine French reds, and hard for any taster to dislike. Now I know better. Our two Châteauneufs were the most divisive wines of the twenty, and both came last in their flights of ten, though we could hardly have chosen better or more contrastive examples: the Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin 2001 and the Pierre Usseglio Cuvée de Mon Aïeul 2007. In fact the vast aesthetic gulf between them (the former a craggy medicinal essence, the latter meltingly sweet and ocean-wide) made me realise that 13 grape varieties, 3,200 ha of vines and three different soil types permits, in fact, a much larger range of expression than most French AOCs. Châteauneuf, if you like, may well be France’s most ‘New Worldly’ AOC.

The audience of tasters was almost exclusively French, yet it was a resoundingly successful couple of days for the non-French wines.  California provided the most-liked wine in both flights (the intricate Araujo Eisele 2007 and the gratifying Opus One 2000): both Jean-Emmanuel and I felt that any ‘amiability’ we might previously have ascribed to Châteauneuf is, rather, a hallmark of fine California Cabernet.  The ‘Judgment of Paris’ is likely to be indefinitely repeated.  

A great terroir wine from Australia (Ron Laughton and Michel Chapoutier’s Domaine Cambrien La Pléiade 2008) came third in its flight, where it seemed the ‘most mineral’ of the ten, just as Alvaro Palacios’s 2000 L’Ermita had done in the first flight (when it came fourth). Comparing the L’Ermita with the Usseglio Aïeul, moreover, showed that Grenache is a much more terroir-sensitive variety than it is normally given credit for: it was hard to believe the same majority grape could create two such different wines.  

Italy was in second place for flight one (with Luciano Sandrone’s masterfully floral, delicate and fleshy Barolo le Vigne 2007) and Spain for the second flight (Artadi’s glowing Rioja Viña El Pison 2006). The assembled tasters were full of praise for both, though neither resembled any known French wine.

What, finally, of the home team? Brumont wines were ranked third, fifth and sixth in the first flight, and fourth, fifth and seventh in the second. This impressive performance underlines what I have long believed: that Madiran deserves to be considered in the same context as the world’s other great reds. In each case, it was Brumont’s single vineyard La Tyre which was most liked: it has slightly less daunting tannic mass than the Montus XL and the Bouscassé Vieilles Vignes, with greater purity of fruit. But let’s not exaggerate the polyphenolic prodigality of Madiran, either. No one found these wines more challenging than Beaucastel’s Hommage, the 2001 Domaine de Trévallon or even, in its own mutteringly reserved way, the 2004 La Mission. They are country aristocrats, full of dusk shadows and firelight, but generous to the core.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com