Just when I thought I was maxed-out on business school assignments, along came an educational opportunity that I couldn’t say no to: the Left Bank Bordeaux Challenge. The LBBC, as it’s known by, is a two-part tasting competition for wine-appreciation clubs from leading universities around the world. Next month my team from the University of Chicago will go to NYC to take part in the first elimination stage.
I thought it would be fun to turn our team’s month-long training sessions into a series for the Melange. We’re going to taste wine from every corner of Bordeaux, brush up on our knowledge of soil varieties, and memorize the names of chateaux for hundreds of producers (yay!).
For me, taking part in the LBBC marks a turning point in my relationship with wine. For years I’ve been an enthusiastic imbiber, and as I developed a palate for the sorts of wines that I really like, I tried to learn more about the wine itself: where is it from, how is it grown, and how does a wine store decide to carry the particular selection that it does. But I never formally studied a wine region or even how to taste wine. I’m hoping that in a month’s time, I’ll be a more informed bon vivant, and can apply what I learn to a lifetime of sipping.
If you're unfamiliar with Bordeaux, here are some quick facts:
Bordeaux is a region in western France along the Atlantic Ocean. The region is divided into two banks, the left and right, which produce different wines. We’re focusing on the Left Bank, which itself is divided into sub areas: Médoc (Haut-Médoc, Bas-Médoc) and Graves. Generally speaking, the Left Bank is where the really good stuff comes from. And by good, we're talking about bottles that sell for thousands of dollars at restaurants and auction houses.
Bordeaux wine is a blend of different grapes, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and the Left Bank emphasizes Cabernet Sauvignon. What makes Bordeaux special? According to Alexandre Dumas, Bordeaux are "neither generous nor vigorous, but the bouquet is not bad, and they have an indescribably sinister, somber bite that is not at all disagreeable." Call me intrigued.
Week 1: Pauillac, St.-Julien, St-Estèphe | Julia’s New Vocabulary
Some wine are precocious: they’re amazing from an early age. This batch needed a few more years in the cellar. But because the tastes were a little odd, they forced me seriously think about how to describe them. New words entered my wine vocabulary: “sawdust,” “sweaty leather,” "marker," and “dead mouse.” Actually, what I realized at the end of this first tasting is just how important vocabulary is for articulating attributes of a wine. My vocabulary needs to broaden, and I've been using an aroma guide like this one to pick up new descriptives.
Chateau Lynch Bages 2013
Julia’s Tasting Notes: A deep magenta with thin edges. It smelled like bark or cardboard. The taste was very bitter, almost cottony.
What the Professionals Thought: 94 Points Cellar Selection (Wine Enthusiast) - Ripe and showing the typical generosity of this château, this bold, round wine is powered by rich berry and damson fruit flavors. It is juicy and perfumed, while the tannic structure and wood flavors are enveloped by the fruits. Drink from 2020.
Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste 2011
Julia’s Tasting Notes: It smelled very earthy, sort of like moss and blood (which sounds weird). The taste was thin and salty, and put me in the mood for a cheese plate.
What the Professionals Thought: Wine Spectator - 91 (3/2014) Shows purity and focus, with a core of bitter plum, cassis and lightly singed vanilla notes leading to a silky, relatively unadorned finish that glides along. Flickers of cedar and iron should emerge with cellaring. Best from 2015 through 2025.
Chateau Lagrange 2002
Julia’s Tasting Notes: This one was kind of fun. It was a cloudy red with orange edges. It smelled earthy and jammy, and tasted strongly of saline and iron. I would say medium bodied with a blackberry aftertaste.
What the Professionals Thought: Wine Spectator 92 (3/2005) Pretty aromas of blackberries and currants, with hints of lead pencil. Full-bodied, yet very balanced, with a solid core of fruit and ultra-fine tannins. Really well-crafted wine. Lagrange often excels in less than easy vintages, like 2002. Excellent. Best after 2008.
Chateau Leoville-Poyferre 2011
Julia’s Tasting Notes: I think something other than grapes died in this bottle.
What the Professionals Thought: Wine Spectator 92 (3/2014) Shows a warm charcoal note from the start, backed by melted fig, crushed blackberry and steeped black currant fruit. A strong graphite edge pins down the finish. Dark in profile, but defined and well-suited to mid-term cellaring. A very solid effort. Best from 2016 through 2026.
Chateau Haut Marbuzet 2003
Julia’s Tasting Notes: This smelled like sharpie marker and tasted very dry and bitter. Saw dust comes to mind.
What the Professionals Thought: Wine Spectator 91 (7/2006): Lovely aromas of crushed raspberry and Indian spices, with hints of dried flowers. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and a fruity berry aftertaste. I like it better than the 2000. Seductive. Best after 2007. 25,000 cases made.
Chateau Lafon Rochet 2005
Julia’s Tasting Notes: This one was my favorite. It's older than most of the others in the group, and tasted more mature. The tasting notes I got were pepper and spice. It smelled like pine wood shaving.
What the Professionals Thought: Wine Spectator 90 (3/2008) Has notes of blackberry, with Indian spices and green tea. Full-bodied, with velvety tannins, a silky texture and a medium finish. Balanced and very refined. A beautiful young wine. Best after 2011.