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Friday, April 10, 2009

DRINK

Looking beyond the Premier Cru

Value Bordeaux tasting introduces choice wines from region's lesser-known châteaux


Special to The Japan Times

Nothing can quite beat the elegance of haut couture: the individual tailoring, the attention to detail and the assurance that you'll be the envy of others. The elegance is unparalleled — and the price tag can be, too. By the same token, for sheer elegance and finesse, the classic wines from the top châteaux of Bordeaux are in a league of their own.

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Just as you would for a one-off Christian Lacroix gown, you'll pay through the nose for a glass of Premier Cru Classe Château Margaux. But there are cheaper alternatives: Fans of classic Bordeaux can discover wines from lesser-known châteaux of the same region that will satisfy their taste for elegance without breaking the bank, like a frock from a less prestigious French fashion house. There may not be quite the same attention to detail, but you will be able to enjoy that inimitable French style in a more quotidian setting.

Or so claims Sopexa, the organizer of this year's Value Bordeaux tasting, which brings together a selection 100 reasonably priced wines from the region to present to the Japanese market.

"Of course there are the exceptional wines of Bordeaux which have a high price tag. But these are only a small proportion of Bordeaux wines," said Thomas Jullien, Asia manager of Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux (CIVB) at the campaign launch on March 25 at the Roppongi Ritz Carlton. "There is also a huge amount of excellent wine that is affordable to the general public."

Recruiting the services of 10 of Japan's top wine experts, CIVB set out to put together a portfolio that would tempt the palates of Japan's French-wine lovers. Among the judges was Kayoko Funato, a sommelier and lecturer at Bordeaux Wine School in Tokyo.

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Tempting palates: Thomas Jullien (below) of Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux and sommelier Syunichi Kajikawa were on hand at the Value Bordeaux event promoting less expensive wines from the region. FELICITY HUGHES PHOTOS
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"With 600 wines to taste, it was very difficult to get a good sense of which were the really excellent ones," said Funato. "But we whittled it down to this list, and I think you'll really enjoy our selection."

Of the 100 wines on the list, it was surprising to see that 24 were whites. White production in Bordeaux is way below that of red, and the whites of Bordeaux do not share the classic reputation as those from the northern parts of France. I had a suspicion that the whites were included in order to shift units rather than having gained a place on merit, and, on tasting, these whites were distinctly underwhelming and rather flabby. They may have been chosen, though, as a match to Japanese cuisine, which goes better with white wines. Chef-turned-sommelier Syunichi Kajikawa, another of the judges, confirmed the latter hypothesis.

"I tried to choose wines that would marry well, not with especially expensive imported food, but with ingredients that you'd find in most people's freezers," said Kajikawa.

Most reds in Bordeaux are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, which gives structure and tannins for aging potential; Merlot, which is a fleshier fruit; and Cabernet Franc, for fuller aromas. The reason to shell out a little more for a Bordeaux ought to be due to a wine's style, its ability to develop in the bottle with time and in recognition of terroir (the unique soil and climate of the region). When it comes to terroir, nothing can quite beat the Mêdoc region, which contains all but one of the Premier Cru châteaux — those deemed as producing the top wines in the Bordeaux area.

While the wines presented here will not share quite the same pedigree of soil quality — which can change rapidly from field to field — they nevertheless benefit to some degree from their proximity to the creme de la creme.

B&G Mêdoc 2006 (¥2,390 from Mercian; www.mercian.co.jp ) is a light summery number with a strawberry- patch scent and cherry-sweet aftertaste. Though it is 60 percent Cabernets, which age well, this one is ripe and ready to drink now.

Château Listran Cuvee Prestige Cur Bourgeois 2005 (¥2,835 from Fuji; www.fujitrading.co.jp ), on the other hand, might be one to hold onto. From the spectacular 2005 vintage, this is a heavyweight wine with somber and impressive bass notes of deep tannins and concentrated currant. The finish is surprisingly smooth, but it stands to improve with a few years' aging.

Château Loudenne Rouge 2005 (¥3,380 from Asahi; www.asahibeer.co.jp ) is an excellent wine but rather rough with chewy tannins and the flavors of cherry and licorice. It too is from a great vintage and might be one to keep for a few years.

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Making lists: Sommelier Kayoko Funato judged the Bordeaux.

From Haut Mêdoc is Château Larose-Trintaudon 2004 (¥2,480 from Fuji). Tasting this one was like the experience of walking out of a gloomy cold house into a fresh spring garden: Floral scents blossom spectacularly in the palate, and there's just enough tannin for structure without damaging the delicate bloom.

If you're looking for a wine that's a cut above your average Bordeaux table wine, have a look out for the Bordeaux Superieur AOC sign on the label. These wines are made from older vines on specially selected plots. The resulting product is more concentrated and has a greater potential for aging.

Two Bordeaux Superieur wines caught my eye on the Value Bordeaux list. The first was Château Recougne Rouge 2005 (¥2,520 at JSR trading; www.jsrtr.com). Deep black-currant flavors were sonorous with oak and the color rang clear in a deep ruby shade. The second was Château Thieuley Rouge Reserve 2004 (¥3,290 at Seijo Ishii; www.seijoishii.co.jp). In my estimation, it is the best for both elegance and price, featuring enticing scents of licorice with all elements in balance.

Not on the Value Bordeaux list, but part of a wider Bordeaux tasting held the same day, was Château Petrus Gaia No. 2 2006 (¥2,888 at O'let Japan; www.olet-japan.com). Another Bordeaux Superieur, this one leads nicely with a light oak fragrance that establishes itself more fully when rolled around the mouth. Light tannins give the wine just the right amount of grip to enforce its crushed-petal taste.

If you're strictly into brand names, you might like to try Mouton Cadet Rouge 2006 (¥2,030 from Asahi). Coming from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, which manufactures the renowned Premier Cru wine Château Mouton Rothschild, Mouton Cadet Rouge has a great pedigree. Be aware, though, that it is a simple AOC Bordeaux, meaning the grapes could actually be from anywhere in the region. The wine is for those who like a lighter confection, having cherry and licorice flavors that blend superbly.

Presented alongside the Value Bordeaux list was a huge selection by some of Japan's top wine importers. A quick sniff and slurp round the tables revealed some other excellent Bordeaux wines, albeit with slightly higher price tags. Chateau Desmirail Initial 2004 (¥4,410 from ANA trading; www.anatc.com) was one of the most sophisticated of the bunch. This has a nice "pow" of melted aniseed when it hits the nose.

From Margaux AOC was Château le Coteau 2004 (¥5,000 from Vinos Yamazaki; www.v-yamazaki.co.jp). Château le Coteau is the smallest winery in Margaux, at only 11 hectares, and the wine has just the slightest hint of freshly roasted coffee beans and great finesse and clarity.

Finally Château de Viaud-Lalande 2005 (¥2,980 from Vinos Yamazaki) is well worth a try for its succulent black cherries and velvety elegance. Only a small amount of this wine from AOC Lalande-de-Pomerol is available, so grab it while you can.

One warning: Value Bordeaux is a term relative to considerations of the place in which it was made. If you're paying under ¥2,000, it's likely the château hasn't put in the necessary effort to make a really drinkable wine.

"In order to make wine, you need an excellent terroir, wine knowledge, technology and lots of time," said CIVB's Jullien. "Time is an essential ingredient in the making of a Bordeaux wine, and when you open a bottle of Bordeaux, you are able to travel back in time and savor the moment in which it was made."

This is the key message to bear in mind if you're considering buying a bottle of Bordeaux. You will pay slightly above the odds for the care and attention to detail the French put into wine production. At around ¥3,000, the cost of a decent Bordeaux wine means I'd probably keep it in reserve for a special occasion rather than consume it as a daily pleasure.



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