Sunday, 31 August, 2014

Published May 02, 2014
Wine goes from ugly duckling to fine feather
Tasting the Vieux Chateau Certan 2007 in 2008 and savouring it now reveals how time transforms vinous taste profiles, writes NK YONG
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Ageing splendours: The mental image of wine can be coloured by press reports such as poor growing conditions, inclement weather and uneven ripeness - but these can change years later as wine matures and develops. - PHOTO: AFP

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I EXPECT that most of us are familiar with Hans Christian Anderson's tale, The Ugly Duckling, in which an ugly duckling, born into a duck family, and was so ugly at birth that other ducks ostracised him. Until the day when three beautiful swans came swimming by and when they saw him they swam "round the newcomer, and stroked his neck with their beaks" to welcome this beautiful newcomer! It was then that he, looking at his reflection in the water, realised that he was also a beautiful swan.

I was reminded of this tale at dinner last week when I took my first sip of Vieux Chateau Certan 2007. With that first sip I stopped short and looked again at the label to confirm that the vintage was indeed 2007.

Vieux Chateau Certan 2007

Very dark red, opaque. Lovely aroma, mainly Merlot in character, Cabernet Sauvignon's cedary notes not showing. A big full mouthful, dense, very concentrated, packed with perfectly ripe fruit, very rich intense flavours of very ripe berries, a hint of cedarwood right at the bottom. Complex, well balanced, masculine. Went on and on at the finish. So good after swallowing that you just wanted another mouthful. And what a beautiful wine it proved to be. We had it side by side with a Nuits St Georges 1er cru Clos de la Marechale 2005, Domaine JF Mugnier, and it proved to be a worthy companion wine.

This wine took me completely aback. I looked up my old notes and confirmed that I had indeed visited Vieux Chateau Certan on May 13, 2008 on my annual en-primeur visit to Bordeaux. Alexandre Thienpont, one of the owners and also the wine-maker, led us to the cellar for a barrel tasting of the wine. His own comment about the vintage? "A wine to drink, not to keep."

These were my notes of that barrel-tasting with Alexandre: "Quite sufficient fruit, but not fully ripe, lightish. Nice drink, quite charming, 16.5/20." Clearly both Alexandre and I have been proven wrong! I had certainly not found this wine light when we drank it now almost seven years old last week. Why were we wrong? For me the answer is that I have not tasted enough wines.

But this bottle of VCC 2007 does illustrate again a very important vinous dictum. You must always taste! (The second part of this dictum is "you do not have to finish it") Always taste first, pronounce after tasting! All too often we are too hasty.

In this respect the wine press has a major influence on the image we form in our minds of the character and quality of the vintage. Reports of poor growing conditions in 2007, lots of rain, prevalence of disease and rot, and uneven ripeness combine to form an unfavourable mental image of the vintage. It is added to our mental collection of "ugly ducklings"!

Vieux Certan is one of my favourite Pomerols, it is on my list of "must-visit" Chateau in Bordeaux. Its owners Alexandre Thienpont and Jacques Thienpont always make sure they make the best wine for the vintage, whatever the growing conditions. Our earlier assessments (both mine and Alexandre's) have been shown to be widely out. Where and how did we go wrong? The fallibility of human judgment! It would be wise to make final judgment after tasting it again, just to confirm that the bottle we drank last week was not a fluke. Watch this space.

That brings us to the subject of vintages and vintage guides. These can be and are very useful guides to wine quality. BUT they are only guides. They are not the gospel. Guides are what they are, and guides they remain. It is important to see and use them as such and then to form our own assessments. But we can only do that by TASTING, not in the abstract!

Granted that it is well-nigh out of reach of 99 per cent of those who drink wine for pleasure and enjoyment to be able to taste the wines either en primeur or later, so vintage guides do serve as useful guidelines. The important point to remember is that they are only guides. And they can be wrong 10 years later.

Chateau Ausone 2002

Drunk at a Teochew dinner. Another example of a wine which has proven the dictum: you must always taste. Very dark red with slight touch of brownish tints of age, but for a wine going on 12 years of age, the brownish tints are very light. Very dense, very lush wine, with very rich ripe sweet fruit, intensely concentrated; great depth of flavour, and leaving a clean finish which goes on forever. Very seductive, really very sweet ripe fruit but well-balanced with very good freshness. At peak in a very youthful maturity, a gorgeous wine to drink now.

2002 was another vintage which merited only four out of five stars for Saint-Emilion because the Merlot suffered a lot of rot which affected proper fruit ripeness. There has been a tendency to develop a mental block towards the 2001 and 2002, coming as they did immediately after the hugely successful 2000, and the vintage of the century. This has had the principle advantage for wine lovers that opening prices for 2001s and 2002s were significantly reduced, great for impecunious wine writers!

The additional advantage is that these First Growths 2001 and 2002 are now more or less ready to drink and are making great, really marvellous drinking wines while we wait for the 2000s to reach full maturity. Recent experiences with other 2002 First Growths, Latour and Haut Brion, have confirmed this assessment.

I suspect that a major cause of the problem of unfairly neglected vintages has to do with the Oriental tradition of "face". To serve or offer as gift a First Growth from a non-First Class vintage may be regarded as not giving proper "face" to the recipient, a left-handed compliment! "If I serve my guest a 2002 Chateau Latour instead of a 2000, he may take that as an insult!" What does not come into consideration in such situations is that 2000 is not ready whereas 2001 or 2002 are more or less ready for drinking. That is not important. What is important is to give the right "face"!