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Napa or Bordeaux or is it now the other way round

I am not a great believer in these huge comparative tastings when people proudly show off the thirty (or more) bottles that they’ve just heroically tasted through, a quarter glass per bottle. Swirl, sniff, slurp, spit and render immediate judgement. Even more impressive if the bottles carry smart labels and hefty price tags to show off. Great for the ego, hard on the taste buds and frankly not very interesting for the reader. Like one of those beauty contests…

But I do like to sit down with a couple of similar bottles and spend an evening tasting through them and ruminating upon their comparative benefits, their similarities, and differences. Not in a judgemental manner, but more out of interest and learning. Just what do they really taste like and why?

Hence when a good friend was staying here and had just had dinner with the Moueix family (of Pomerol fame and a certain Chateau Petrus that you might have heard of), and I happened to have a bottle of 1999 Dominus (Californian child of Christian Moueix, the doyen of Pomerol and merlot)on the wine rack, it seemed a fun idea to serve him the ‘other Moueix’ from the far side of the world.

Sadly, he did not then whip out a several thousand-euro bottle of Petrus, but to be honest that would have been a bit pointless as it’s the world’s most famous merlot, but at Dominus Christian eventually stopped using merlot in Dominus from 2003 (and I think ripped it out entirely in 2010) as it just didn’t work there. Some early vintages had 20% or so.

But he did come armed with a more cabernet-based wine, and one from the history books, a 1991 La Tour Haut Brion, a wine from Pessac-Leognan (or Graves as it was classified back then before the two star villages stepped out for their combined individual stardom), located in the southern suburbs of Bordeaux. It’s a domaine that in 2006 was merged into (swallowed by?) the superstar La Mission Haut Brion and now I believe forms part of the second wine La Chapelle. In Bordeaux, unlike Burgundy, the chateaux are blends and brands, so a grand cru classe can buy a lowly cru bourgeois in the same commune and subsume it into itself (hopefully the second wine, not the grand vin itself. Either way the second wines of the top chateaux self for far more than any cru bourgeois, so it’s a good deal financially for the chateaux if not necessarily for the consumer).

So, we had a 1999 Dominus (95% cabernet sauvignon and 5% cabernet franc or so), made by, I think, David Ramey at the time and owned by Pomerol superstar Moueix, next to a 1991 La Tour Haut Brion (probably 85% cabernet and 15% merlot) from as historic and famous a lineage as you could wish, and now part of the legendary first growth Haut Brion family.

Obviously, they had to be tasted side by side.

Glancing through the internet, I came across a couple of fun stories about Dominus from Christian Moueix featured in The Wine Independent.

Did that young French graduate from UC Davis (the famous wine college in California) really sleep in the Napanook vineyard before he bought it?

“It’s true,” he laughed. “It was a love story. I fell in love when I saw this vineyard for the first time. I had a feeling about its potential. I was so young. So, I took my sleeping bag and slept in the vineyard one night. Still, I was so nervous about buying Dominus. Should I buy? I had lunch with André Tchelistcheff. I asked André what I should do. I needed to know. You know what he did? He gave me a toy. It was a little pair of plastic boots on a rubber band that moved step by step. He told me, ‘If you go slowly, you will be successful.’”

And an interesting comment which neatly explains the rather oddly precise and frequent alcohol percentage as declared on the label.

“2001 was a very hot year,” Christian mentioned as were tasted this vintage. “It was potentially the best fruit we ever had, but the fermentation was very slow. We put 14.1% alcohol on the label for tax reasons. Above 14.1, you had to pay more tax, and you had 1% leeway. This was above 14.1.”

Strangely enough, the 1999 also came in at the supposed 14.1%, in reality presumably a notch or two higher. Whereas back in Bordeaux, the 1999 LTHB was labelled as a classically modest 12.5%, as top Bordeaux was, back then.

To taste them gave a fleeting insight into the wine world back in the 90’s, a whiff of nostalgia, a flickering black and white reminder of what life was like three decades ago. Robert Parker was in his pomp and California his favoured source of blockbusters with gobs of fruit, loads of sunshine and soaring alcohol levels. Steven Spurrier’s 1976 tasting of Napa versus Bordeaux and Burgundy had given both the white and red wine trophies to, shock horror, the Californian parvenus and it was all systems go at full throttle.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the old school Europeans were still producing classic wines with many a dreadful, wet, rotten vintage (92,94,97…), global warming was not an issue (indeed it was probably a necessity given Bordeaux’s cool, damp maritime climate) and the ‘educated palates’ derided the over-alcoholic, over-ripe fruit bombs of the rather vulgar American west.

And, as if they had read the subtext, the Dominus did indeed weigh in at 14.1% (as we know, +) and our frail little French number came in a slim black outfit at a mere 12.5%. On the palate the Dominus was dense, deep and dark, looking a decade younger than its real age. It punched with a big nose, solid, plummy ripe fruit, a lot of dark chocolate, some cedary hints, decent acidity overall but a feeling of rather ponderous weight and power. Impressive, but frankly rather tiring, and I’m not sure if another decade will improve it.

The LTHB was totally different, a more bricky, soft ageing red colour. A classic Haut Brion style nose, curranty ripe fruit, a touch of that bricky iodine, the earthy flavour you find in Pessac and just hint of of mushroomy age on the finish. A wine of elegance not power.

In a way they were almost a caricature of the image of Bordeaux and Napa at the time, the one built on very ripe fruit, power and higher alcohol, the other flirting with under-ripe vintages but based on elegance and balance. A qualitative choice of style, I’m not saying either is better, but I guess it’s fairly obvious where I would spend my dollars, or rather, euros.

But if we wind that frame-by-frame old movie forwards to today’s full colour digital version, what would we find? Still the more obviously (over) ripe Californian with a heavy hand on abstraction and a lot of sweet alcohol versus the wincing elegance of cooler climate France? The brash New World against the austere Ancien Regime?

Well, sadly I cannot tell you. Dominus comes in at over 350 euros a pop, and the grand vin of La Mission at more than that (though the second wine is a good deal less than half). So, I fear my wine blog tasting budget does not stretch to such indulgence. But be my guest, please…

Ah, but what a moment. Something seems to have gone drastically wrong with the scenario. We seem to be upside down, or rather the west and the east have swapped places. Someone has grabbed the director’s chair.

Now geography was never my strong point, and I am not a climate expert, but though I can clearly see the effects of earlier springs, hotter, drier summers and mild winters, I am becoming confused by the ‘microclimates’ in France.

Let me explain. I know full well when the vintages start in Burgundy, and yes, nowadays its often the last days of August, not the mid to end of September. Nobody doubts the reality of a warming climate, but alcohol levels have basically risen from around the 13% to closer to the 14%. Yes, there is the odd shocker above that, even up to 15%, but they remain thankfully rare.

Of course, in California the average alcohol now is probably 14.5% to 15%, but that’s less than a degree above what was supposedly in the Dominus in 1999. And you could argue that the vogue for the mega Parker style wines has waned and a call for restraint arisen, many wineries now trying to dial back on extraction and picking earlier to combat over-ripe high alcohol fruit. The focus is more on how to lessen the effects of the sun than bathe in it. All over the ‘New World’ the search is on for higher elevations and cooler climates. You could say we’ve gone full circle.

So, let’s pop over to the outskirts of the city and stroll down that wonderful road where on the one side you have La Mission and opposite it you find none other than Haut Brion itself, all premier grand cru classe of it. Elegance, class and old world history in a bottle?

Well, let me see, what’s the La Mission 2020, Or 2019 for that matter?


Hang on, surely not? Ok, let’s pick another star vintage, the incomparable 2015.


What? Is the global warming above the Atlantic coast estuary of the Gironde really that much stronger than in Burgundy or, totally awesomely, California? I mean, has Bordeaux really gone from 12.5% to 14.5% in a couple of decades?

Well, actually, in many vintages, yes it really has.

Of course, the Bordelais will tell you that it’s the inescapable effects of the climate. Nothing to do with green harvests, reducing the crop yield to increase the flavour, heavier extraction or a general desire to produce wines that drink earlier, taste easier (ie sweeter) when judged young, and score higher marks in those massive (ridiculous) en primeur tastings… No, no, no. It would be utterly ridiculous, cynical and unfair to cast any such aspersions.

Now, if the critics (especially the American ones who, let’s face it, are the ones the Asian markets follow) like the wines that way, and give higher points that lead to better sales and (much) higher prices, well, that would just be coincidence.

Sadly, I cannot comment as I can’t afford either Dominus or La Mission these days and even if I could, I really don’t like to drink Bordeaux blends at 14.5%+. For that I am very happy to enjoy my Barolo, or even a garrigue infused Chateauneuf from the sun-baked Mediterranean.

Anyway, the 1991 La Tour Haut Brion was delicious.

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