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Every winter the Union des Grands Crus, an association of all the top Bordeaux producers (except the five First Growths) brings its road show to New York. It is one of the few walk-around tastings I attend, as even today, Bordeaux remains the most important region in the world for serious wines.
This year the group was showing its 2008s—a cool vintage, with many of the wines tasting unripe to me. However, a handful of minor properties produced delightful wines for early drinking. A few major châteaux excelled.
My favorite, this week's Wine of the Week, was the Pichon-Longueville Baron 2008 ($90). Baron long languished in the shadow of its pricier sister, Pichon-Longueville Lalande—these magnificent rivals face each other across the D2 road (the famous "route des Châteaux") like glaring dowagers. But thanks to major investment by its owner, the AXA (AXAHY) insurance company, Baron has recently been going from strength to strength, and its 2008 was the star of the show. It glows with gorgeous, juicy, berry flavors and is blessed with soft, ripe tannins and an elegant, polished structure. The key word here is balance.
Baron has been managed since 2000 by Englishman Christian Seely, a managing director at AXA Millésimes and son of wine writer James Seely. I asked him how Baron was able to make such a spectacular wine when so many fellow Bordelais were stumbling.
The secret apparently lies in yields. Seely explains: "At Pichon we've been working for the last 10 years on pretty low yields—between 35 and 40 hectoliters (per hectare) in order to be absolutely sure of getting the Cabernets ripe."
Seely goes on to say that "the heart of Pichon's vineyard is a 35-hectare parcel of very old vines of Cabernet on deep beds of gravel. It's now giving pretty low yields—about 30 hectoliters in 2008—and when you've got old vines working on low yields, the grapes get riper in given conditions. If we pushed the yields up to the kind of yields people tried to do 10, 20 years ago we wouldn't have got the Cabernets so perfectly ripe."
So one can make a lot of mediocre wine and hope to sell it on name alone—or make a smaller quantity of very good wine. I am happy that Seely took Pichon-Longueville Baron down the latter, less-traveled road with the difficult 2008 vintage.
When to Drink: For the next 20 years
Breathing/Decanting: Breathing—and if possible, decanting—are essential.
Food Pairing: Roast meats, game.
Grapes: 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Merlot, 3 percent Cabernet Franc.
Web Site: www.pichonlongueville.com