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April 19, 2016

Canary in the Coal Mine

 Michel Rolland is perhaps the world's most famous winemaker. From his home base in Bordeaux, the winemaking guru's influence reaches across the globe, from France to Argentina to California.

His style of wine is robust and full-bodied, much like the man himself. Rolland has strong opinions on everything wine-related and is never at a loss for words. So it was hardly a surprise that on the eve of the annual Bordeaux En Primeurs tastings hosted by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, he would have his own thoughts on the 2015 vintage that was about to be evaluated by both the wine trade and wine press.

During an interview with a French magazine, Rolland declared the 2015 a great vintage and, in advance of the evaluations, criticized any journalists who didn't see it his way, suggesting they lacked whatever the French word is for that part of the anatomy that is associated with being male. He also observed — correctly — that wine journalism no longer possesses a single voice so influential, a la Robert Parker Jr. in his heyday, that it can create a stampede to purchase the latest vintage of Bordeaux with just a few words of praise.

The outburst was the talk of the tastings throughout the week. The big question among journalists was what to make of it, and whether or not to take offense.

First, let me say I personally took no offense. Robert Parker Jr.'s decades-long sway over the Bordeaux wine trade was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. But even if another wine critic were to emerge with Parkeresque clout, I'm afraid he or she wouldn't be able to save Bordeaux from itself.

The world's most expensive wine is closing fast on its day of reckoning: when demand weakens and prices inevitably must fall. I believe Rolland knows this and senses that the forces of economic reality are closing in. For example, strong demand in the Asian market has previously propped up the insane prices of Bordeaux wines from the top chateaux, which often exceed $1,000 per bottle. The momentum from these price spikes had the effect of pushing up the prices of less attractive wines across the Bordeaux region. But now, the Asian market seems to have lost its appetite for expensive Bordeaux.

In my humble opinion, Rolland's outburst prior to the En Primeurs was a cry of anguish over a changing price dynamic. The customers just aren't there, at least not enough of them, for over-priced Bordeaux. Rolland is the canary in the coal mine. Bordeaux's date with reality has arrived.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:04 PM

April 8, 2016

Lassegue: Hidden Gem Among Bordeaux Elites

 SAINT-EMILION – Pierre and Monique Seillan run Chateau Lassegue, a small estate of modest stature amidst many of the most important chateaux of the Saint-Emilion district of Bordeaux. Indeed, Chateau Pavie’s impressive palatial new winery is just down the street. The legendary Chateau Ausone is another of the neighbors, as is highly regarded Chateau Canon-la-Gaffeliere.

Yet Lassegue is little known, a condition Pierre, the winemaker, fervently believes will change someday, for his heart is firmly planted in the 60 acres of sloping vineyards of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and just a tiny swath of Cabernet Sauvigon, at the top of Lassegue’s estate, where it gets maximum exposure to the sun.

Pierre also makes wine in California, producing the acclaimed Verite for Jackson Family Wines, and in Tuscany, where he oversees production of Jackson Family’s Tenuta di Arceno. He fell in love with the vineyards of Lassegue and purchased the property in partnership with Jackson Family Wines in 2003. The vines at Lasseague range in age between 40 and 70 years.

The chateau was in disrepair, however, and the reputation of its wines greatly diminished when he, Monique and the Jacksons, Jess and Barbara, bought the property.

Since the purchase, the cellar has been renovated and the rows of gleaming new stainless steel fermentation tanks signal the beginning of a new era for Lassegue. The wines of Lassegue were once rated Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe, but lost that prestigious designation some time ago.

Pierre is optimistic Lassegue will regain Grand Cru Classe status, but must wait until he has ten good vintages under his belt to submit for the classification review, which occurs but once every ten years.

Lassegue produces a first wine and a second wine from the estate, with the first wine under the Chateau Lassegue label coming from the vines higher on the property, where the sun exposure is best and the well-drained soils impart a touch of minerality to the wines.

“Chateau Lassegue is the expression of the hillside,” said Pierre. “In the wine you can smell the calcaire from the hillside.”

Lassegue was the first wine I tasted during Bordeaux primeurs, the annual introduction of the latest vintage (2015) to the Bordeaux wine trade. The 2015 vintage is very promising for Lassegue, showing plump, juicy fruit with firm but silky tannins and moderate levels of alcohol.

It should be a wine that can be enjoyed young as well as a wine that has the structure and fruit to age. It is a wine for the U.S. market to watch, for in a world of prohibitively expensive Bordeaux, Lassegue is priced well below most of its more famous neighbors at $80 suggested retail, and widely distributed because of its connection to the Jackson Family Wines distribution network. Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:12 AM

April 6, 2016

Postcard from Paris

 PARIS – It was a Wednesday night following a long flight in from California. The taxi pulled up to the front door of the iconic Willi’s Wine Bar and I jumped out, eager for an evening of decompression at one of my favorite wine haunts.

As I peered inside I noticed something very strange. The bar was empty, save for the man behind the bar, Mark Williamson, aka Willi. At first I thought perhaps Willi’s was closed, but that was unlikely at 9 p.m. on a weeknight. Then I heard a din coming from the restaurant side of Willi’s.

I ventured in and greeted Mark, no doubt with a perplexed expression on my face. In the 20 years or so I’ve been making Willi’s a regular stop when I visit Paris, I had never encountered an empty bar. The attraction of Willi’s, for me at least, had always been the vibe at the bar: Complete strangers from the world over chatting away as they drank great wines by the glass and chowed down on solid bistro cuisine.

Then it dawned on me. This was my first visit since the Paris terrorist attacks.

“Tourism is down,” Williamson said. “We certainly feel it.”

I chose this night to dine in the dining room rather than the eerily silent bar. When I emerged from the dining room two hours later, the quiet scene had barely changed. One gent sat at the end of the bar nursing a glass of wine.

Williamson was philosophical. “New York came back after 911,” he said. “Paris will come back, too.”
Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:52 AM