Bauhaus's Wine Director, Alan Koller, is back on the blog - this time, talking about his long journey with Bordeaux. He's warning you - this post is a long one.
"You may have noticed that I have neglected talking about Bordeaux ever since this series of mine began, but I can avoid it no longer. Bordeaux, oh, Bordeaux - how I have hated you. You are my abusive relationship in the wine world. So many times, I have been lucky enough to try what was supposed to be an amazing wine and somehow you have let me down. Now, was it your fault? Probably not… but maybe it was. I know this may sound odd to hear from a restaurant wine director, but I have my reasons.
Let’s get into this: when did my relationship start with Bordeaux? Back in the 90s I was at the Waterfront Hotel, and I am sure I had Bordeaux during that time but I can’t remember any one specific moment with a bottle of Bordeaux. However, I do remember buying a copy of Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book. This was my first look into the vintage ratings for some of the best wines, and specifically Bordeaux for the last 200+ years. That was the moment the seed was planted.
Honestly, it wasn’t until I got to the Wedgewood Hotel that I began getting more moments with Bordeaux. I remember my “I drank the Kool-Aid” moment where I was confused as to why people would be buying a $700 bottle of ‘97 Insignia, over the ‘87 Domaine Chevalier for half the price. Of course, the ‘97 Insignia was a 100-point wine but it was 2001, there was no way the Insignia was ready to drink. My logic was that even though the Domaine Chevalier was an ’87, an average year, at least this wine should show some more character than the dark tannic fruit bomb that was the Insignia. So, we had 6 bottles, I sold 4 of them before I tried the wine. Have you heard the words ‘muddy’ and ‘acidic’ used as negative descriptors for wine? Well, this is the wine where you would have used those words. I had believed the hype of Bordeaux, and that cost me. This was the first moment of disappointment with Bordeaux, but sadly it was not my last. In fairness, this was more my lack of knowledge than the fault of Bordeaux. On an average year, Domaine Chevalier isn’t guaranteed to survive 14 years.
There were other moments with Bordeaux at the Wedgewood that added to my frustration. A guest dropped 3k on a bottle of the 2000 Petrus in 2004. It smelled incredible but it was so tannic and aggressive it was almost undrinkable. Infanticide is the only word you could use. Then, there was a guest who brought in 3 vintage Bordeaux, 2 from the ‘70s and 1 from the ‘60s. All three were done – undrinkable. Again, not Bordeaux’s fault but it certainly added to my growing frustration.
Let’s leave the Wedgewood and move onto to my next restaurant and that exposed me to the failure of an ‘86 Mouton. Apparently, the ‘86 Mouton was known as the donut by some critics because it starts great and is empty in the middle. Decanting it was the mistake made by the guest. Sometimes air isn’t a good thing. Now, I moved on to a smaller restaurant for a while and my exposure to Bordeaux dropped for a while, then I move to Black+Blue in 2013.
Black and Blue was moving some Bordeaux and its clientele were bringing in their own bottles from home. I thought I was going to figure out what the fascination is with Bordeaux. Needless to say, that didn’t happen (again). I can honestly say I never tried one Bordeaux the entire time that made me say “WOW.” That is not to say I didn’t have some good ones, but nothing worth the price people were paying. I remember trying a 2003 Margaux from a magnum. It was thin and unexciting, and for a twelve year old Bordeaux of this quality that made absolutely no sense (what did make sense is a thought I had a year later – was the bottle fake?) Then, there was the incident at a private Bordeaux tasting where the signature wine in the tasting was the 1995 Decru Beacaillou, Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 1998. So, I am sitting there with 20 other wine snobs and I am listening to the host rant on about how amazing this wine is, and shockingly people are agreeing with him. Ultimately, I think the host tried the wine when he had opened it three hours prior, but by the time the rest of us got to it the wine had thinned out. It has almost nothing redeeming left in it other than some rotted vegetation and a light cedar and smoke. So, I moved on from Black+Blue and took a break from the elite wine world for a couple of years.
Eventually, I arrived at Bauhaus and fortunately we attract a clientele that enjoy vintage Bordeaux. We had a Zachys wine dinner for 10 people one evening. They brought in the 1982 vintage of Cheval Blanc, Margeaux, Latour, and Montrose. ‘82 is one of the storied vintages from Bordeaux, so this was the first time I had a chance to try a legendary Bordeaux in its prime. I was amazed at how the Montrose still showed so much fruit. What I wasn’t ready for was the intense smokiness, strong cedar, and earthy umami flavours of the other wines. I can say that I now understood, but am still too immature to fully appreciate them.
A month ago, some regulars showed up with 4 vintages of Grande-Puy-Lacoste. The 2000, 1996, 1995, and the 1982. The 2000 was still young. The 1995 was good, but the stars were the ‘96 and the ‘82. The ‘82 still held its fruit, showed great aged complexity and still had a balanced amount of acidity. The guests and I felt it still had a few years left in it. The ‘96 also showed well, except the acidity was soft so it was drinking as well as it ever would, and again the guests agreed.
My next moment came a couple of weeks later when some guests showed up with the ‘82 Lynch Bages and an ‘82 Montrose. Once again, the Montrose showed very well and tasted the same as the one I tried a year prior. It’s nice to see consistency in a wine at 35 years old. The Lynch Bages showed very nicely as well, still had great fruit balanced with the typical earthy tones and a decent amount of acidity. Both wines appeared to me to still have some years left in them. And this is one of the keys to what makes Bordeaux great. On release both of these wines would have been about $50 dollars and for that money you got a wine that aged into something wonderful 35 years later. That is what makes Bordeaux. Very few wine regions can say that as consistently as Bordeaux can.
After 25 years of tasting, and hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux, this has been a glimpse of my journey into the Bordeaux world. What have I learned thus far in the journey? Well, I have been in some of the nicest cars ever made, visited some of the nicest hotels in the world, and I have tried some of the most storied Bordeaux ever made. It is easy to see what sets a supercar apart from the rest. There are statistics, an attention to detail, and recognizable quality to even the most untrained eye. You can walk into a 5 star hotel and immediately see what separates a Fairmont from a Delta hotel. There are guidelines that tell you what the difference between a 4 and 5 star hotel is. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with Bordeaux – there are no guides to follow, no statistics to be read, and nothing defining about the bottle or a poured glass that will separate it from another wine. The only way for you to truly understand what separates Bordeaux from all other wines on the planet is to put in the work.
What work do you have to do? Do the book work. Learn the region and sub-regions, learn the classifications and learn the vintages. Learn the different houses that make these wines. Then, taste a lot of Bordeaux. Extend your tastings to include vertical tastings from the same winery and horizontal vintage tastings of the same year. Buy a case of 6 decent Bordeaux and age it for 18 years. Drink 1 bottle every three years just to observe how a wine developed in the bottle. Learn to buy from the best years and store the wine for the 20 to 40 it needs to develop. Oh, and did I mention to keep drinking and pushing yourself?
As you read this to-do list you may recognize the incredible amount of work and money it takes to learn about Bordeaux. That is what makes Bordeaux the greatest in the world. You can drive a Ferrari, you can stay at the Ritz. All that takes is money. But to understand and truly appreciate Bordeaux you must invest your time, heart, and soul into it. It will challenge you, frustrate you, and confuse you, but there will be times you will have the moment of clarity that will prove to you once and for all, Bordeaux has earned the right to be called the best. I am very lucky to have tried the wines I have tried, and I am curious to see where the next steps of my journey take me. I hope to see some of you along the way. Feel free to ask me when you are in Bauhaus about what wines we have that will help you along your journey, or where I know there are some hidden secrets in the city.
I hope you enjoyed discovering my journey. Happy drinking everyone.
PS. I would like to apologize to Burgundy and Barolo for potentially offending them for putting Bordeaux on the top of the list. I know Barolo is called the king of wine, and Burgundy has the highest priced wines in auction. But when it comes to a wine recognized by the masses as the best, Bordeaux wins."
- Alan Koller,
Wine Director, Bauhaus Restaurant