WanderCurtis Wine

Wine tastings, corporate events, reviews and recommendations

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“Appreciating Wine – The Flavour of Wines Explained” by Phillip Hills

In preparation for our Four Decades of Bordeaux tasting, I reread an excellent book on wine by Phillip Hills called ‘Appreciating Wine – The Flavour of Wines Explained’. Although slightly technical, it gives an excellent explanation of what factors contribute to the aromas and flavours found in wine and in particular the aging process.

Hills is the first to admit that there are plenty of gaps in the scientific (biochemical) understanding of exactly what is going on. For instance, we don’t know what gives cabernet sauvignon its characteristic black currant flavour. Apparently it’s not the same stuff that gives black currants themselves their taste.

It appears that the tannins derived from the grape skins and pips and contact with toasted oak barrels account for most of the wine’s flavours and aromas and for the way that these change with age. This is particularly true of cabernet sauvignon.

Tannins are part of the group of chemicals called phenols which are smelly and often referred to as aromatic compounds. Small changes in these complex polymers can result in very different aromatic characteristics. As a wine ages, this is exactly what happens. The phenolic compounds change and combine with each other, many eventually becoming so large and heavy that they come out of solution and form the sediment that you find in older bottles.

The effect of this is to remove some of the harsher bitter tastes that ‘young’ tannins often have and also to remove some of the colour of the wine. By implication some of the primary black currant and fruit flavours are also eventually lost, and secondary more subtle flavours are either formed or allowed to come out from under the shadow of the young wine’s strong cassis, graphite and wood notes. Taking this to its logical conclusion, at some point the aromatic compounds may just retreat entirely.

For a wine to have good aging potential it needs good acidity because the acids play a part in the polymerisation of the tannins. They also change and reduce. From experience, I’ve noticed that wines which are too old offer fleeting interest and then seem to quickly oxidise. Apparently this is because there is not enough acid left to resist oxidisation.

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Four decades of Bordeaux – Highgate, London

Tasting and comparing classed growths from each of the last four decades certainly delivered plenty of intellectual interest, but a little more drinking pleasure from the wines wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The theme of the tasting, which included wines from 7 through to 42 years old, was aging.(Quite appropriate as it came a few days after my birthday on which one of the nicest treats was realising that over the last few months I’d been labouring under the impression that I was a year closer to 50 than I really am!)

Round 1: Old v Young

  • Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste 5th Paulliac 1975

We opened the two remaining bottles of this, the first being oxidised. The second although not faulty was unfortunately really an example of a wine on its very last legs. Brick coloured and noticeably lighter in colour than the Batailley. The nose initially delivered some stewed fruit and forest floor notes, bark chips etc. but soon faded. Interestingly after a while it turned to a not unpleasant scent of turmeric. On the palate more cooked fruit, then unmistakably oxidised. This was one of seven bought at auction, three of which were fantastic, three completely oxidised. *

  • Chateau Batailley 5th Growth Paulliac 2005

Garnet colour, restrained and tight nose but as it opens up classic cassis, cedar wood and a touch of blackcurrant leaf, good balance and freshness (acidity to age well hopefully). The tannins are there in abundance, but not harsh or aggressive at all. With decanting this becomes more complex and shows its potential. A good contrast, as this wine is too young but still lovely **++

Round 2: Saint Julien Leoville seconds
(sort of but not really as each of these are chateaus in their own right)

  • Chateau Langoa Barton 1989

Both of these similar colour with brick rim. Some similar characteristics as one would expect from neighbouring vineyards, but as they opened up they showed their individuality. ’89 was the better year and the Langoa didn’t disappoint, gradually opening up in the glass with wave after wave of subtle sweet and savoury scent combinations: forest floor, baked fruit tart etc. Similar experience in the mouth, soft and delicate blends of flavour sustaining one’s interest. This is a great example of how the primary flavours have dropped away to reveal more subtle and complex ones beneath. Excellent ***

  • Chateau Clos de Marquis 1988

Quite a perfumed nose, someone suggested of fabric plasters and Savlon but in a good way? In the mouth still some life with fruit and vegetable flavours. This didn’t develop in the same way as the Langoa and in comparison was a little one dimensional but enjoyable if not particularly long. **

Round 3: Left and Right bank

  • Chateau Cantenac Brown growth Margaux 3rd 1996

On the nose this was at first a little restrained but opened up with classic cassis, graphite, and a bit of wood still predominant, but accompanied by more savoury flavours of caramelised fruit and a bit of peat. Good balance still tight, refined as a Margaux should be. Could have done with decanting and has plenty of years left. **++

  • Le Jardin de Petit Village 1996. Pommerol

This has plenty of fruit on the nose, plumbs and a hint of cocoa powder which is the predominant merlot in this right bank second wine. On the palate rounded and mellow less structure than the Cantenac Brown but more mature and very tasty. My guess is that this is just right now in terms of aging.**

Round 4: Second Growths

  • Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2nd Growth Margaux 1970

The oldest wine of the evening, light brick colour, initially slightly funky nose as one taster put it, for me it was a whiff of Brussels sprouts with other vegetal notes, still some sweetness, changing to earthy loam then stewed fruit. On the palate nice sweetness, and engaging complexity, autumnal red fruits, baked tarts, spice, savoury notes. Again developing with a progression of fleeting flavour combinations to keep one interested. Lovely ***

  • Chateau Pichon Longueville 2nd Growth Paulliac 2002

A rather ungiving nose, some cassis and wood but a bit light and not forthcoming. Same on the palate, a bit too delicate, some fruit and mineral, but after a decade one would have hoped for more, perhaps a bit hollow? Will this improve is it just still shut tight or is there not much there? ’02 not a great year and disappointing for the price.*

The evening finished with a couple of sweet Bordeaux and Gerald’s excellent apple tart.

On reflection it was certainly an education in how Bordeaux age. Most people enjoyed the 1980s and 1996 wines, which were I think more accessible. The 1970 Brane-Cantenac was for me the wine of the evening just because it was so interesting whereas the Langoa 89 probably gave the most pleasure. The Cantenac Brown and Batailley didn’t show their full potential as they have on recent pre-tastings when they had time to fully open up over an evening, but should be delicious with a few more years.