Tasting hundreds of young Bordeaux wines from barrel is an annual exercise of self-inflicted pain for many of the world's wine journalists and prominent members of the global wine trade. The purpose of the En Primeur tastings, which are organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, is to get some sense of each vintage prior to the sale of the wines on futures contracts.
A futures contract is simply an agreement to purchase wine that won't be delivered for two years or so. The futures business has been good to Bordeaux, filling the coffers of chateau owners as their wines age in cask. Bordeaux wines are virtually the only wines in the world that are sold this way as a matter of routine business, hence the clamor to assess the quality, as well as the frequent heavy dose of hyperbole that comes with the practice. Bad vintages with a mere six months or so in barrel are torture for those who taste them.
I can say with utter confidence that the 2015 vintage, which I tasted extensively at the primeurs presentations a few weeks ago, was not torture. The wines were plump and juicy, with beautiful tannins that gave structure to the reds without being aggressive. The whites were rich and delicious, though they seemed slightly low in acidity.
This is a very good vintage that will break a four-year losing streak. Not since 2010 has a Bordeaux vintage turned out so well, though I believe 2015 doesn't quite measure up to 2010. It reminds me more of the excellent 2000 vintage, when the quality was consistently high across all districts of Bordeaux, and the Right Bank and Left Bank shared the good fortune equally.
But the excellence of the vintage hardly signals good times for Bordeaux. Stock in Bordeaux wine has fallen around the world. Demand has even weakened in the Asian markets, which has propped up the already-insanely high price of Bordeaux for at least a decade or more.
Here in the United States, an entire generation of wine drinkers has been priced out of the Bordeaux market. Younger wine drinkers have probably never acquired a taste for Bordeaux, and fewer and fewer fine restaurants are putting Bordeaux wines on the wine list.
Even an outstanding vintage, such as the 2015, isn't going to reverse this trend. The only cure for what ails Bordeaux in the U.S. market is a severe reduction in price. Now.
Cycles Gladiator 2014 Chardonnay, Central Coast ($11) — Winemaker Adam LaZarre has had a long and distinguished career making brilliant but inexpensive wines throughout the Central Coast. There are several elements at play that enable LaZarre to hit so many home runs with affordable wines. First, he has a knack for sourcing grapes and knows the Central Coast well. Second, he relies on his remarkable palate for blending, which never seems to fail him. Finally, he knows all the tricks of the trade to get the most from his grapes. This 2014 chardonnay is lip-smacking good, showing notes of lemon oil and pear with a hint of spice. It's a deal. Rating: 89.
Kendall-Jackson Vitner's Reserve 2014 Syrah, Santa Barbara County ($17) — K-J has always had fairly good success with syrah, and the 2014 bottling from Santa Barbara County is an excellent example. It shows dark, dense, layered red and black fruit aromas with good balance and outstanding length, finishing on a note of dark berries, spice, mocha and wood smoke. It's a steal for its price. Rating: 89.
Murphy-Goode 2014 Sauvignon Blanc "The Fume," North Coast ($14) — The historic signature of Murphy-Goode's sauvignon blanc is a pleasant melon note that plays well with food. "The Fume" follows that tradition. It's inviting and easy and affordable. Rating: 85.
Murphy-Goode 2014 Pinot Grigio, California ($12) — This is just what the doctor ordered if you're in the mood to sip the night away with a light and easy summer white. The Murphy-Goode pinot grigio shows pleasing notes of pear and green apple and a slightly floral nose. Rating: 83.
Paraduxx 2012 X2 Estate Red Wine, Napa Valley ($95) — When the Duckhorn Wine Company (the parent company) set out to create Paraduxx, it had the good sense to launch the winery with an excellent vintage. The Paraduxx X2 is the evolution of the original Paraduxx, an eclectic blend of cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel that combines the muscle and elegance of cab with the zesty, spicy fruit of zinfandel. The Paraduxx X2 is composed of a selection of what the winemaker believes are the best barrels from the vintage. It's entirely made from estate fruit, and it's fairly sensational and definitely delicious. This inaugural vintage of X2 is 90 percent cab and 10 percent zin. Rating: 96.
Hawk and Horse 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills ($65) — The hand of Dr. Richard Peterson is evident in this vintage from Hawk and Horse, a Lake County winery that flies a bit under the radar despite having racked up a number of stellar vintages. Its best wines are cabernet sauvigon, and this one is a beauty. The elegance, structure and seductive mouthfeel are typical of a Peterson-inspired wine. He is one of California's most respected consulting winemakers and has served Hawk and Horse well. This cab in particular is a stunner. Rating: 94.
Duckhorn Vineyards 2011 Merlot, Atlas Peak ($72) — The Atlas Peak appellation hasn't been in the Duckhorn stable for very long, but it is very quickly proving itself as worthy of more established bottlings. While it's not as polished and complex as the exceptional 2010 release from Atlas Peak, the 2011 is nevertheless an impressive wine. It shows juicy plum and black cherry notes with hints of tobacco leaf and spice. Rating: 91.
ROAR 2014 Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands ($42) — ROAR is one of the most consistent pinot noir producers in North America, largely because it controls its vineyard sources. Owner Gary Franscioni is one of the most highly regarded grape growers in Monterey County, which shows in the wines. The Santa Lucia Highlands bottling (as opposed to ROAR's vineyard-specific bottlings) is hardly a comedown in quality, and it's a bit easier on the wallet. The 2014 shows enticing aromas of red fruit and spice, with a leafy note and a touch of earthy forest floor. The wine is firmly structured and will improve with a bit of age. Rating: 90.
Nielson 2014 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley ($29) — Once upon a time, a cheap pinot noir tasted like cheap pinot noir. It would be thin and uninteresting, or flawed with notes of green, unripe fruit. Thankfully, those days are quickly coming to an end. Growers today are better at growing the finicky pinot noir grape, and winemakers have a better handle on pinots in the cellar. This vintage of Nielson, the second label of the well-regarded Byron winery, shows plump, juicy red-fruit notes with a touch of spice and soft tannins. And it's less than $30 a bottle, an attractive price in today's pinot noir world. Rating: 88.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.