an unexpected tasting

The wine:   Chateau La Mission Haut Brion 1999

The grapes:  Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc

The region:   Pessac Leognan, Graves:  Bordeaux

Pairs well with:  Simple, rustic fare – steak, grilled lamb

Stay away from:  Complicated, overwrought dishes.  These will overwhelm the wine’s subtleties

You will like it if:  You are familiar with aged wine and/or enjoy more mellow Bordeaux

Stay away if:  Robust, youthful wines (think powerful fruit and hard tannin) are your favorites

Cellar potential:  Best now – 2020

The man controlling my fate glowered down at me, and I noted ruefully that for him, this was all just a game.

A guy goes through a lot to impress the ladies, even an irresistible heart-throb such as myself.  I found my future wife as we were both finishing college, and I knew very quickly I was out of my league.  Having met at a bar in rather inebriated state (yes, a foreshadowing circumstance), I was able to parlay what must have been some serious beer-goggles (on her part) into a few rather unsuccessful follow-up encounters.  While I was smitten with this little blonde from Chicago, there was no doubt she was a scholar playing with an idiot.  

My standby charms, exceptional table-tennis prowess and a rather unhealthy affection for baseball and mountain bikes seemed inexplicably lost on this sophisticated creature.  And my gastronomical prospects (on our first date, I took her to Dairy Queen where the most interesting gestation, I was later informed, was a lightning bug that landed unnoticed on my vanilla cone) were obviously lacking.  Indeed, it was quickly apparent that despite my flirtation with outright stupidity, there was no need for me to talk, think, or indeed really bring anything of consequence to the mix, as long as I could manage to pick the right restaurant. 

Salvation!  The way to this girl’s heart was through her stomach.  And to woo her, I unleashed my credit card on every swanky Midwestern restaurant I could find (my bank account, it should be noted, continues to feel the aftershocks).  It must have been some tasty food, because for a while the strategy seemed to work.  Even as my waistline expanded (I actually accused my would-be spouse of shrinking my clothes), and I developed a rather alarming set of what I was told were called “man-boobs,” my assault on the Midwestern culinary world was formidable enough to keep a hold of the girl, and for a time I thought I was home free.

And then her parents arrived, and I learned with food only half the battle was won.  We were packing J’s things to move her out of her college apartment, and her folks travelled in from Illinois.  They called ahead to ask what kind of wine they should bring, as if packing could not be accomplished without a little something to drink.  But wine?  We had been drinking wine with all those fancy meals, of course, and I had worked rather hard to appear to enjoy what I thought tasted like kerosene-laced cough syrup.  Unwholesome as I found the stuff, I fully intended to go on pretending to tolerate it as long as necessary.  But as that parental call-ahead should have told me, tolerance wasn’t going to cut it.

We muscled through the packing (and I politely muscled through a glass of red), and pretty soon it was time to truck most of J’s belongings back to Illinois for storage.  Confident that moving boxes was an entirely dry pursuit, I travelled certain my secret fear of wine would remain undiscovered.

But J’s father (I call him Padre, maybe without his knowledge) seemed intent on exposing my shortcomings.  Before I knew it, the drive was finished, the boxes were away, and I found myself facing Padre across the kitchen table.  Several wine glasses magically appeared, and with a mischievous giggle he called J and her mother to join in a blind tasting.  Better yet, we were to distinguish between one of his homemade white concoctions and a well-known California stalwart. 

For J and her family, it was no doubt a fun little Saturday evening, a casual little nothing to pass the time.  I, on the other hand, was a hunted man.  I watched Padre, his wife, and then his eldest daughter taste each wine and pick out the homemade version, almost laughing with the ease of it.  As the glasses were passed my way, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I nosed each glass, noted I could at least tell they were very different, and pointed to my favorite.

It was here I noticed the ridiculous smile on the face of this paterfamilias.  He beamed at me and waved dismissively.  It was his wine I had picked (I was the only one), and while he appreciated my rather brownish nose, it was evident across the table that I didn’t know what I was doing.  Everyone was very nice about it of course, but nice in way that adults might watch a toddler try to shoot a basketball.  Everyone cooed at me around the table, basically patting me on the head and congratulating me on playing in an arena far beyond my scope. 

I will be the first to admit, the embarrassment was all in my head.  Everyone was perfectly great about the whole thing, and at no time was anyone ever intentionally trying to make me look silly.  But as we all know, wine and all its trappings are a complicated and potentially intimidating business.  Flavors, regions, styles, labels….pretty much everything has its own technicalities and vernacular.  It’s a complicated beast, and it can make one feel pretty insecure.  For me, this insecurity was a call to action.  If I was going to keep this girl, even my stunning good looks would not be enough – learning wine was a necessary challenge.

And learn I did, eventually taking part-time work at a local wine shop, and committing myself to countless hours of primary research (translated:  I spent far too many nights sipping away, with slurred speech reiterating my love for the beverage and the girl who introduced me to it).  Soon I could not only hold my own, I was a dedicated convert. 

I tend to think of our little blind tasting every time a 1999 La Mission makes it up from the cellar.  I found about a case of the stuff at a big-box wine retailer when shopping with the in-laws in Illinois.  It was a pleasure to recognize this Bordeaux gem, realize its rarity and understand it was priced about 70% cheaper than I had ever seen it.  Padre and I put our heads together and eventually bought all they had, a legitimate investment on my part, even at these bargain prices.

It was quite a find, maybe the best wine purchase I have ever made (aside from the bottle of Iron Horse “Wedding Cuvee” bubbly I used to propose to that Chicago girl).  For me, finding the La Mission represented a transition from newbie to wine-lover. 

But why all the fuss?  La Mission Haut Brion is a special wine.  Located in a small southern Bordeaux sub-region known as Pessac Leognan (itself part of the Graves appellation), the area on the Bordeaux “left bank” is famous for its gravel topsoil.  The wines use more Merlot than other left bank enclaves, which tends to give them a more supple character while still setting them up for exceptional longevity (it’s also fun to remember that unlike most of Bordeaux, Graves chateaux typically produce both red and white wine).  What’s more, La Mission is essentially the sister property to the famous First Growth, Chateau Haut Brion, the only Graves actually included in the 1855 classification (which was the source of all this First Growth, Second Growth, etc nonsense in the first place).  While Chateau Haut Brion is more the famous sibling, La Mission Haut Brion can be a bit of a sleeper and can sometimes be the better of the two, and the properties famously compete.  La Mission is truly a world-class red and considered a premier Bordeaux.

Despite the value, there was some reason to be apprehensive.  The wine was purchased circa 2007, meaning this 1999 Bordeaux had been sitting on the retailer’s shelf (more likely in a distributor’s warehouse) for several years.  At the shop, they had been laying on their sides, and the store itself wasn’t prone to temperature problems (large fluctuations can be damaging), but nevertheless these were less than optimal storage conditions.  Further, 1999 Bordeaux was a mixed vintage, with the wines generally thought to be fragrant and complex if a bit less age-worthy than some.

In practice, the wine has been a lesson in what is known as bottle variation.  Some bottles tend to show a lot more age and oxidation (think of that glass of wine you leave sitting on your counter overnight), while others have been youthful and robust.  This results from random characteristics within each bottle – cork integrity, specific temperature fluctuations (where some might catch more heat, sunlight, etc than others) and other miniscule variables that compound over time.  For me, the variation has been a call for early consumption.   I generally recommend, when finding wines under these circumstances, drinking them earlier rather than later.

My most recent 1999 La Mission experience was a good one.  The wine still showed a dark ruby color and was noticeably youthful on the nose.  There were notes of blackberry, dust, crushed rock, leather, cocoa and cassis, marked by a slight minty note (which can be a hallmark of aged wines).  On the mid-palate and finish, youthful tannins flexed their muscle but did not interfere with a long ripe finish marked by currants and just a hint of Oloroso Sherry.  Overall, the wine showed its age a bit but everything was in the right place, and a person could realistically hold on to this wine for years to come.  It probably won’t improve, but in true Bordeaux fashion it will slowly fade, losing its fruit nuances and highlighting mint and leather.  Certainly after maybe 10 years it will have lost much of its former glory.

I only have a couple bottles left of this lucky discovery, but each time I try a bottle, and try to taste the nuances behind how each will be somehow slightly varied from all the others, I remember facing Padre across the table that day.  It’s somehow a reminder of the pleasures of family, and the lengths we can sometimes go for first impressions.  And it can also remind us of the happy discoveries we often make as we expand our horizons.

– b

All content and photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house

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4 thoughts on “an unexpected tasting

  1. Ben,
    You have the gift of writing just like your Mom!
    I was talking with some friends and we think you and Jenny should roadtrip to CR for another bash at our house!

  2. Yet another completely entertaining post – but really, the author’s clouded recollection of that fine evening’s blind tasting is only heightened by the poetic license he took in retelling the story. Suffice it to say it was all in fun, as noted, and never meant to intimidate. But really, B, would you really have picked my fine Chard over FA’s Carneros treasure chest?

    Our next (la) mission is to exploit yet another great find a la the 04 Col Solare and 99 Pessac Leognan tradition. To the hunt!

  3. I’m catching up on the pourhouse. As if I didn’t already feel guilty about anything and everything, now I’m regretting having sent you out into the world without any wine-tasting skills. Sigh. To think you could have missed out on Jenny, if she hadn’t had the wisdom to look beyond this ONE failing, and the patience to let you catch up. Love you, Ben-o! — Mom

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