Must-Have Wine: Chateau Leoville Las Case 1978, 1981 & 2001
A Chateau Leoville Las Case wine dinner held recently by the Singapore wine merchant Hermitage wines highlights the virtues and intrinsic worth of less-exalted vintages from a producer with impeccable standards.
As some of my readers will know, I am not exactly enamoured with Bordeaux. I concur with James Laube in his assessment and commentary in his latest column in Wine Spectator, 30 Sept, "A Farewell to Bordeaux.", who said that "I have enjoyed Bordeaux, but I've been driven away both by prices and a style of wine that no longer holds the same allure for me that it once did. I moved on a long time ago. There are simply so many other enticing wine experiences to discover and enjoy."
I guess Laube won't be invited to next year's en-Primeur tastings. To be fair, much of my disinterest is based on price too, or the very fact I can longer afford to drink good Bordeaux, but that's the wine socialist coming out in me. Actually, I am a self-confessed hypocrite or closet Bordeaux drinker, being happy to partake in old and rare bottles, should someone else provide them.
And to top it all off, there is that nagging feeling that part of my Bordeaux-bashing is really a reflection of my lack of knowledge of the subject, or the enormity of it and a sense of the reality I will never be an authority on the region and its wines without changing my attitude and devoting an serious amount of time to it.
Also, I am a pinot noir drinker. Actually, I am obsessed with pinot. Moreover, and in no real pecking order, I am equally enamoured with the Rhone Valley varieties and all its permutations around the world. Likewise, the regions of Tuscany and Piedmont revel in mature bottles of Chianti, Barolo and Barbaresco.
That said, I am a Wandering Palate and the essence of being a generalist is to be open-minded. Furthermore, in the context of the burgeoning interest in Bordeaux in practically every Asian wine market, there is a compelling relevance to be attuned to both the wines and its commercial aspects.
On that note, with the staggering 2009 en-Premeur prices, value would appear to be an oxymoron with Bordeaux presently although it sure does make older vintages look cheap, and off-vintages an absolute bargain!
In the case of Chateau Leoville Las Case, the super-second growth dominating the sweet spot of Saint-Julian appellation, arguably the most dependable commune of the Medoc, there is consensus that nothing much has gone wrong at this estate, in any vintage, for the last 35 years or more under Michel Delon.
We also know it is one of the largest and oldest classified growths in the Medoc, once an enormous estate that was divided into two other Leovilles - Leoville Poyferre and Leoville Barton, the latter both a personal favorite and greatly admired by the wine trade.
Chateau Leoville-Las Cases has 97 hectares under vines, which amounts to a whopping 45,000 cases in a good year, with a potential of 16,000-18,000 cases Grand Vin, which is a lot of wine or hardly rare – the other contradictory allusion Bordeaux artfully manages to get away with.
Nevertheless, if you are shopping for a birthday wine or scouring the merchant lists for a mature bottle that you might be able to afford (relatively), Chateau Leoville Las Case will generally deliver in terms of soundness, quality and longevity.
Before commenting on the evening's line-up of wines, and to further assist you in understanding my palate calibration, hailing from the new world I find I have less of a problem with the very ripe or warmer Bordeaux vintages and am equally less sensitive to the modernising nature of Bordeaux wine than are veteran commentators, which much of the debate is now centered on – i.e. what constitutes classic Bordeaux.
I am however, super-sensitive to under-ripe Bordeaux and detest that leafiness and green, vegetal characters – sometimes reminding me of the nauseating smell of over-cooked Brussels' sprouts - that many Bordeaux enthusiast enjoy! That said, I am a big sucker for smelly, feral, undergrowth, forest-floor, mushroom, chook-shed, down on the farm, secondary aromas and complexities; what one of my drinking buddies describes as "That wonderful smell of the clutch pedal on a Massey Fergusson tractor". Which is how we like our pinot noir, and what I might be waxing lyrical about might not quite be your cup of tea.
The first wine was the chateau's second cuvee, Clos du Marquis, 1995. I know there is a lot of merit in declassifying wine in terms of improving the ‘first wine', and certainly there is a price relationship here. However, I personally feel these second wines often carry too much rub-off of the first wines' reputation and can disappoint.
They also need to be drunk much earlier and I think the 1995 Clos du Marquis is going nowhere and had little charm with the firmness and coolness of tannins on the palate being decidedly lean with angular acidity and menthol notes.
These vintage characteristics were also reflected in the 1995 Chateau Leoville Las Case, quite closed, certainly nowhere near the opulent aroma of the 2001 in the same bracket. Again there seemed to be absence of aromatic charm in this wine and an overriding coolness with green olive flavors and a dank earthiness. It looked more and more edgy and unripe as it breathed out with some rubbery nuances, which I think will only manifest with age and overall an un-giving wine. But I could be wrong, maybe it's just asleep?
For the record, I have done no research on the wines or refreshing my knowledge of vintages, as I did not want to be swayed by other opinion, and this is purely how I saw it on the night.
The 2001 Leoville Las Case was a different story, and a textbook example of a grossly underrated vintage that was simply never going to compete with stellar 2000. It showed a heady richness of milk chocolate and dark berry fruit amongst dark timbers with hints of cedar and liquorice; still quite primary and youthful on the nose but with an alluring opulence that draws you to the glass. The palate is equally opulent and rounded in firm tannins and good weight, although supremely elegant and long-persistent, assertive, crunchy fruit/acid that makes it quite irresistible now. I think this is a real sleeper and has to be one of the best wines from the vintage and should age for a good two decades. A Buy!
The 1981 Leoville Las Case was nothing short of a revelation, and it too suffers the same fate as 2001, although after the fact, that is the following year,1982, being the vintage of the century, or one of the vintages of the century? It started with a green olive and cedary aroma, in a good way, with some richness and dark chocolate bring sweetness to the nose, however with a little air reveals an abundance of forest-floor-damp-earth and mushroom, indeed very alluring and just what you want in aged Bordeaux. The silky mouth-feel and totally integrated tannins caressed one's senses, the sort of texture one dreams of in wine, and yet it still had perky, tangy fruits and excellent length carried by the impressive acidity, and whilst drinking perfectly, showing no signs of deterioration or fading yet. Much to the glee of one of my dining companions across the table, declaring she was born in 1981, this is indeed a rare find from a difficult and generally over-the-hill vintage. A buy!
The 1978 Leoville Las Case was my wine of the night, resplendent with wonderful barnyard and chook shed aromas, clearly showing excesses of age with caramel and toffee notes lending a nice sweetness to the perfume; then developing a heady Indian spice-shelf perfume with a distinctive cardamom seed aroma (bring on the mutton curry). With more air the aroma takes on an intoxicating earthiness, an infusion of iron ore or hot desert rocks (clearly I have spent too much time in the Australian outback) with notes of liquorice and sweaty old leather. The plate is soft and seamlessly textured, and as light as a burgundy with a tawny look yet holding nicely with a caramel-sweetness and barky, walnut and antique timbers flavors rather than any definable fruit. Perhaps not long for the living although I do enjoy such aged wines and a well-cellared bottle of this wine will likely hold for a while yet.
The 1975 Leoville Las Case, this is where I get confused or at odds with the Bordeaux palates in the room, including our host who exclaimed this was the wine of the night for him. The nose immediately showed a damper aroma than the 1978 with more green olive, cooked green beans, actually more like overcooked Brussels' sprouts (yuck) although some attractive cedar and pine forest notes but definitely a wet, winter forest and showing the cooler tannins of the vintage on the palate, still firm and raspy and looking like they might never soften. The acidity is still very strong and dominates in quelling the fruit with sharpness and nagging tartness, overall looking angular and disjointed. But then again, I could be wrong? Maybe it's just asleep and will continue to age for decades?
The problem is I have seen this wine many times over the decades, indeed the very night I arrived in Melbourne in 1986, we dined at the acclaimed Mietta's restaurant, indulging ourselves and toasting our escape from New Zealand with a 1975 Leoville Las Case, which seemed extraordinary good value on the wine list. Our waiter, Rocco, who was in fact an actor (just between jobs of course) suggested immediate double-decanting, and obviously he had had experience with this wine. A true professional, Rocco tasted it on the half-hour for us to see if it had softened, and we ended up consuming a bottle of white and several glasses of the house pinot noir (a Bourgogne Rouge whose name I forget) before broaching the Leoville, which never softened at all. We agreed that it was a reasonable match with our cigars.
In conclusion, I believe the fixation on top, investment-grade vintages has blurred objectivity in Bordeaux and its enthusiasts with newcomers more interested in high points and status than what's actually in the bottle. This snubbing of off-vintages of course has its advantages for those who are confident with their own palate and what they enjoy. In the words of veteran wine marketer, Russell Branton, "Give them what they want, so we can drink what we want."
Quoting prices for Bordeaux is always hazardous as there will always be exclamations from price-savvy consumers bleating they can get the wine much cheaper. The fact is Bordeaux is a commodity, heavily traded on the secondary market and extremely difficult to value between different countries and purveyors – wine investment funds, auction houses, brokers, merchants and private traders.
Provenance is everything with mature, off-vintages as well-cellared examples at least stand a chance of reflecting the nuances of the vintage. Ex-chateau is highly desirable with small releases of mature wines from the chateau cellars is becoming more common although there is a premium to be paid for such credentials.
As an example, Hermitage wines www.hermitagewines.net can sell you the 2001 Leoville Las Case at S$278 per bottle/purchased by the case – almost a third of the price of the 2000! What is completely mindboggling, least I cannot work out the rationale, is great vintages of Leoville Las Case that are wonderful drinking such as 1990 or 2000 are selling around the same price as 2009 en primeur, which is not even in bottle yet and likely to be 20 years and more from optimum drinking – madness! And then there's the completely acceptable if not seductive 2007 Leoville Las Case, being heavily discounted at present and selling at a fraction of 2009.
Long live the off-vintage!
Footnote on the menu and wine service:
Saint Pierre is arguably Singapore's most proven fine dining experience with chef/proprietor Emmanuel Stroobant and his head chef Paul Froggatt at the cutting-edge of modern French cuisine. Front of house service standard, both food and wine, is very high here under consummate talents of Maitre d'hotel, Jan Peter Stroop, something that many Singapore restaurants lack. The menu devised for the evening was outstanding; roasted lemon sole fillet with celeriac puree, wheat sprouts, red wine sauce and truffle scented wild mushroom emulsion was a revelation with such firmly structured reds. And the pièce de résistance was a 72-hour, low-temperature braised Aberdeen Angus beef rib with beetroot cream, kohlrabi fricassee and corn salad, not only a perfect match but an extraordinary gastronomic experience. www.saintpierre.com.sg
Curtis Marsh is an independent Asia-based wine and food writer. His commentaries are published in www.thewanderingpalate.com Marsh's theorem: "Life is filling in time between meals... and a meal without wine could only be breakfast!"