On this rather gloomy, wet, winter’s day, The Royal Opera House opened its doors to an army of wine professionals to sample the 2010 Bordeaux vintage. The smell of wine filled the magnificent Paul Hamlyn Hall with its large iron and glass windows and gleaming modern glass and gold interior. This juxtaposition effortlessly absorbed the wine tasting into its characterful splendour, providing a perfect backdrop to such a handsome tasting.
The UGC was established in 1973 to promote and develop the reputation and image of the Grand Crus of Bordeaux. The federation is a collective of individuals from the Crus of the most prestigious appellations of the Gironde, Médoc, Graves and Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Barsac, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. Around 7,000 temporary workers and 2,500 full time employees look after this economically and culturally important part of the world. It boasts an annual average production of 236,000 hectolitres from 5,240 hectares of vineyards that reaps sales of over €300 million.
I entered the hall with slight trepidation because I knew what was ahead of me. Tastings of this magnitude are difficult. It is difficult to make a plan of action (because you certainly can’t taste them all). It is difficult to make proper notes de dégustation because there are people everywhere and unfortunately our ancestors found no reason to evolve a third hand. And most difficult of them all is the practice that supposedly comes so naturally to those in the wine trade – the smelling and tasting. After disentangling the complexities of a handful of wines, your nose begins to fail you, your palate is stained from the countless flavours of the preceding and you get oddly overcome by an alcohol-induced disorientation. Add to that the fact that you are tasting baby Bordeaux – i.e. red, acidic, tannic wine – and boy do you have yourself a challenge.
Before my disorientation got the better of me, I did come across a few babies that are sure to turn into gems when they develop, soften and mature. The Pomerols stole the show for me. Even in their youth they had a richness and complexity about them that would make you believe they were older. I was instantly mesmerised by the deep, bright ruby hues and similarly the rich red fruit on the palate with hints of spice and the beginnings of a rounded acidity and tannic structure. I particularly enjoyed Ch. Clinet and Ch. Conseillante. From Saint-Julien I enjoyed Ch. Leoville Barton for its deep, rich ruby hue and the beginnings of a complex fruit, acid and tannic profile. Pauillac offered some delights in the form of Ch. Lynch-Bages with its inky colour and warm, rich, stewed fruit, and cassis notes which I’m sure will develop into something special. Ch. Pichon Lalande had a stunning tannic structure and purity that should mature nicely with cassis, herbs and spice on the palate.
There were a few white wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan, but their youth really showed. It was difficult to get much from any of them apart from a virginal purity, minerality and an almost indiscernible smoky oak. My favourites were Ch. Pape Clément which had spicy apricot notes and a subtle sweetness on the palate and Smith-Haut Lafitte which exhibited rich, creamy lemon, melon and a subtle smoky oak.
The Sauternes were the other show stoppers for me. Whether this was to do with the refreshing respite they offered after the tannic reds however, is another question. I do adore the gleaming gold sweeties though. Some were possibly lacking a little acidity but I was mostly impressed by the complexity, balance and length. My favourites were Ch. Coutet, which had a really powerful minerality that cut through the initial sweet pear, peach and pineapple before opening out into a honeyed blossom finish; Ch. Suduiraut had a spicy honeyed apricot nose and an acidity that cut through similar notes in the palate leaving a honeyed, medium-length finish.
As I professed, one cannot do a tasting of this magnitude justice. After a handful of these young wines they become indiscernible. Your nose stops working, your mouth is on overdrive chewing the tannin residues and your teeth are unpleasantly stained purple. Everything smells and tastes the same and you become distrait and hazy. That’s the point that you have to drag yourself away from the numerous un-tasted wines and enter back into the real world – although you may be there in person, but certainly not in mind. And when will I learn to take a toothbrush to these things? Unlike the tasting venue, the streets of London are not full of fellow purple mouthed people to whom it is a sign of a hard day’s work. But what a day. Thank you UGC and The Royal Opera House for an educational, interesting, beautiful and challenging day.