Bordeaux the Mighty

Lady Luck has been a most gracious travel companion on my road of discovery and enchantment through the world of Bordeaux wines. I have been blessed and fortunate to have her beside me, and all I can express is my deepest gratitude for the company. Sincerely.

This love for Bordeaux began in Swinging Seventies London, where my journalist father would keep a portion of his annual salary aside to procure a case of Calon-Ségur, the Saint-Estèphe Third Growth familiar for wearing its heart on its label. Thus, before the age of ten, I had been fortunate to experience the reverence for Bordeaux among our family and friends when one of these bottles were opened. And even getting the chance to sip a symbol of the pungent purple liquid which, although not as attractive to my infantile palate as Tizer or Cream Soda, commanded sensual attention.

It was in 1986, however, when Lady Luck firmly took my hand during a hot June afternoon in London where I had been shown through a line-up of Australian Chardonnays by the late Pamela Vandyke Price, a leading British wine writer and formidable personality. To this day, I can’t remember how I ended up in her townhouse near the Royal Albert Hall, just her and I with a row of chilled bottles. We drank a glass from each bottle, her melodiously stern voice describing the various Chardonnays’ origins, cellar techniques used and flavour profiles. I had little interest, I confess. Then a 22-year-old Stellenbosch student, I was here for the free booze first and foremost.

Pamela Vandyke Price, The Legend.

My gills were green with Chardonnay, and the golden light spilling into Pamela’s book-piled drawing room was getting soft when she made a suggestion. “What about some red to polish the acid from our mouths, shall we?”

I presumed the red she was alluding to was wine, a kind I was far more familiar with than Chardonnay, Australian or otherwise. Back in Stellenbosch, a considerable amount of my student allowance was being spent on Tassenberg and Chateau Libertas, so perhaps a glass of red wine would allow me to join Pamela in winey conversation, instead of standing there like a loose-limbed, long-haired cad.

She disappeared and returned with an opened bottle of wine, which I could see was about half-full. “I thought I bit of Claret would do, seeing as the day is turning to dusk,” she said, “I opened this last night for a few snorts with supper, so it should be well aired.” The wine turned out to be a Bordeaux. Château Haut-Brion 1962.

Trying to sound somewhat enlightened and not totally an ignoramus, I told her yes, I too knew of Bordeaux and specifically the Calon-Ségur my father piled-up. Pamela filled two glasses – Paris goblets – and let rip with a chatty and charming precis on Bordeaux, the Left Bank and the Right. The Médoc. And the four First Growths of the 1855 classification, with Mouton-Rothschild moving from Second to First in the 1970s.

The wine in our glasses, Haut-Brion, was the only First Growth not from the Médoc. I was dying to taste the stuff, but first had to join her at her desk to pore over a map of Bordeaux, following her forefinger as she raced off names of Chateaux and appellations.

“Now, taste,” she said as we sat down.

It was something I’ll never forget. Red wine, this I sort of recognised. The rest was unknown to me, a pounding and overwhelming onslaught on the senses, flavours and a texture and a prod of awakening enlightenment that no liquid – or any other consumable item – had ever offered. It was soft like velvet yet backed by a seemingly supernatural power and a thunderous force. There was something wild and savage about the wine, something windy and bloody, but also a chiselled, harmonious purity.

Then and there, all this talk I had been hearing on British television about wine, displayed in the full-page articles in The Times and in my mother’s Gourmet magazines; the wine-speak peppered ramblings by my parents’ glass-holding, bottle-admiring friends…it began to make sense. I took another sip of this Bordeaux, and it clicked. In wine like this one in my glass, there is something mysterious, something wise, and something great.

A lot has changed since that first experience with a great Bordeaux, the most obvious being that it has become so much harder to come by for reasons of price and scarcity.

But Lady Luck still checks-in, now and again, allowing me on certain occasions to submit myself to the wonder that is great Bordeaux. And when I do, it is with the unstudious and unashamedly child-like enthusiasm of joyous abandon. No notes, research or geeky analyses. Just allowing the wine to show its unconditional love, and me to love it back.

Only last week the Lucky Lady rocked up, with me being offered a place at an extraordinary Bordeaux experience in Cape Town. Here the star-studded list of wines opened was of such statuesque provenance and immense monetary value that I am wary to repeat them, as it all sounds so decadent and ostentatious, if not self-congratulatory and plain bragging. Suffice to say that Pétrus and Cheval Blanc and Ausone popped-over from the Right Bank, while all five First Growths were poured from bottles going back to 1959. On the Sauternes side, none other than d’ Yquem.

Besides this opportunity being an enormous privilege, the overriding take-out from the experience was the affirmation that, for me, fine Bordeaux wine deserves its reputation and status as – along with Burgundy – the very best that the vast world of wine has to offer. Whatever happens in Barossa or Napa, Stellenbosch or Mendoza, Rioja or Piedmont, wherever the future of good wine heads towards, Bordeaux will always be the Mothership. The one to which we return, the one that commands the most respect, provides the mystery, offers the only possible answer to the eternal question of what really good wine is meant to taste and feel like.

If forced to and if under duress, I may select three memories from this splendid night.

Le Pin 1989 (Pomerol): Breathless, totally breathless in its long, reverberating succulence and flirtish display of red fruit, tobacco-leaf and warm, wet gravel running on a taut bowstring of tight, fine tannins. It brings aroma and flavour, visceral and evident and pronounced, but these are carefully placed on the senses like an angel laying a mosaic floor. Every part knowing exactly where it wants to go with a vision of eternal perfection.

Château Mouton Rothschild 1961 (Pauillac): The 1961 vintage is known as one of the greats, and the condition of this 61-year-old wine reaffirms this reputation. Landing in a remote village in the Amazon, a friend said that smelling the forest was “like breathing for the first time”. This is what the aroma of this wine did to me. It was a maritime mist threading through wet trees, with a fragrance of blossoms. On the palate the wine lay cool, comfortable and gracious, a mound of fig-paste, cherry and tobacco leaf with an intriguing note of warm tar. Totally complete, not a note out of place, tannins flittering like baby spiders across the tongue, teasing, titillating and all frighteningly beautiful.

Château Haut-Brion 1989 (Pessac): Pamela Vandyke Price, I don’t what you are sipping in the heavens, but this glass was on you, you who opened the stained-glass window on Bordeaux. For me. Tannins are still muscular, rippling and flexing, but not showy or self-satisfied. A kind frond of dry pine-needle strokes a bed of mulberry and dark fruit, while a Havana cigar-box awaits to be lighted. The wine’s power is immense, not a weighty or brooding power, but one with a wet, throaty growl. Balanced perfection, fruit and acidity singing from the same hymn-sheet displaying taste and presence still-yet unimaginable to the senses of the mortal, making immortality worth striving for.

Luck be a lady, and what a lady is she not.

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