the unexpected bordeaux

The Wine:   Chateau Magdelaine 2002

The Grapes:  Merlot, Cabernet Franc

The Region:   St Emilion (1er Grand Cru Classe), Bordeaux France

Pairs Well With:  Mild red and white meats:  filet mignon, roasted lamb

Stay Away From:  Acute herbs and spices – garlic, onions (especially in the raw)

You Will Like It If:  You enjoy Bordeaux but sometimes find it lean, thin, green

Stay Away If:  You like traditional, understated Bordeaux

Cellar Potential:  Best now – 2020

As I picked myself up off the ground, bleeding, bruised, but evidently unbroken, I was quick to realize things hadn’t gone as planned.

The idea had been a simple one.  A co-worker pointed out a local paved bicycle trail ran just past my office on the way to a section of dirt trails.  I could ride my bike from work to the single-track and then home, allowing me to save money on gas while having some fun riding my bike and even getting some time off-road.  But I made a mistake.

Here’s the deal:  I’m not a good rider, and worse yet I’m stupid.  I love cycling, and as the weather has warmed I ride often.  But me on a bike is best thought of as a series of near-crashes (sometimes just crashes) where I use faulty technique and subpar fitness to ride into situations beyond my comfort level. 

Today, I would defeat myself before even getting to the dirt.  I made it to work easy enough, but riding to the single-track from the office, one of my front disc brakes started catching.  What to do?  I put my college education to use and decided the solution would be, while still riding at a good clip, to forcefully kick the brake until things improved.

If there had been a plan, one could say it worked perfectly.  My foot made several benign swats, only successful in getting my shoe caught up the spokes.  The wheel, impeded by the unfortunate foot, stopped short, and I was sent careening over the handlebars.  Time seemed to slow; the world majestically receded beneath me.  My body careened to its apex at what seemed like a couple stories, at which time the earth rebounded and rushed up to meet me with dizzying speed.

A bicycle is a remarkable machine.  How I flew so far while the bike stayed on the trail (with only two broken spokes to tell its tale) is a confusing thing.  Ears ringing, I hobbled my bruised knee and free-bleeding elbow to the bike and trekked to a local parking lot and awaited my fate. 

It was, of course, the wife who was recruited to pick me up.  It was a reproaching, scornful visage that peered out from the car as I loaded the bike.  I smiled sheepishly and wondered aloud if the local shop could fix the bike while the daylight endured – maybe I could get some good riding in before dark…

My ambitions of continued riding were met with the usual questions.  Why wasn’t I more careful?  Didn’t I get tired and /or scared with all these spectacular falls?  Why did we have to keep paying to fix broken bike and body parts? 

The answer to these kinds of questions is simple.  Those pursuits just outside our scope are where we make the great discoveries.  Transcendent experiences come from going out on a limb and discovering just how far we are willing to go.  And falling down is essential.  How do we know our limits, and how do we appreciate our successes, unless we know we have pushed our personal boundaries?  Even stupidly smashing a foot into a bicycle wheel seems justified if it was done in the spirit of adventure.

It often goes unnoticed, but wine drinkers often lose this spirit.  It’s all too easy to resign ourselves to the ‘I drink what I like’ mentality, where we try wines until we have found a certain style, area, or formula we enjoy.  From there, our view narrows.  We go only after wines with which we are comfortable, afraid if we venture into the unknown we might fall on our face.

Counter intuitively, it tends to get worse the more one learns about wine.  That ‘I drink what I like’ mentality seems justified when we feel like we know a good wine from a bad.  Educated wine drinkers are often proud to know certain wine producers, regions, vintages, or styles have fallen out of favor, either personally or industry-wide.  Many seasoned drinkers adamantly decry even basic categories:  dry over sweet, red over white, still over sparkling.  In the wine world, knowledge seems to increase ideas of right vs. wrong.

One might be legitimately concerned the 2002 Chateau Magdelaine could fall into the ‘wrong’ category.  On paper, the wine has a bit stacked against it.  First, it was made in a tough vintage.  Bordeaux in 2002 was a cool, wet year, resulting in wines often thought of as lean and green.  Second (and a bit conversely), Magdelaine often doesn’t fit the Bordeaux mold.  Where many Bordeaux lovers prize the region’s earthy, brooding, sometimes mineral-laden qualities, Magdelaine (along with some of its brethren on the Bordeaux ‘Right Bank’) can tend more toward open and fruity, putting it at odds with Bordeaux stalwarts like Latour or Lafite.

And the wine isn’t cheap.  At about $50 retail, the idea of going after a unique wine in a tough vintage can be sobering (pun intended).

Here’s the kicker:  despite all the reasons for concern, the 2002 Magdelaine took me completely by surprise, and not necessarily for the better.  Looking for a lean, hard wine, I was confronted by explosive, almost jammy notes of cherry ganache and blackberry.  With some air, I could pick out some hallmark pipe tobacco, loam, and currant, but these were certainly secondary. 

On the palate, the Magdelaine showed a fuller body and more integrated tannins than many Bordeaux in this vintage.  The finish was short but the flavors stayed ripe and balanced, with that tobacco note really shining through toward the end.  The lighter tannins mean the wine isn’t immortal like classic Bordeaux can be, but the overall density and balance likely point to another several years of life.

I didn’t love this wine.  There was nothing wrong with it, but when I go after Bordeaux it is specifically for those lean, hard claret qualities that make California-only wine drinkers squirm.  But that is personal preference.  The jammy fruit flavors and overall density are no doubt an achievement in this cool vintage, and many ‘New World’ wine drinkers will find an unlikely friend in the ripe, round 2002 Magdelaine.  It’s a well-made wine with obvious quality.

In the end, the point wasn’t whether or not I loved the Magdelaine.  The point was venturing outside of my wine comfort zone, then having the wherewithal to find its qualities even when it defied expectations.    By drinking more wines that push your own personal envelope, and learning to love aspects of even the most challenging bottles, you will enjoy wine all the more.

– b

All content and photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house

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2 thoughts on “the unexpected bordeaux

  1. I didn’t KNOW about all the “spectacular falls.” Oh, dear. Well, Ben-o, at least you’re putting your college education to good use. Jenny’s a saint. Love, Mom/Marcia

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