Every January, usually in the midst of the worst weather on the East Coast, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux sets up shop in NYC to share the latest vintage of Bordeaux wines. The union represents a group of 134 top vineyards from the most prized appellations in Bordeaux. Like last year, it was held at Cipriani on 42ndStreet, a beautiful and stately venue, directly across from Grand Central Station.
Arranged by region [Marguaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, etc.] the wines are set up in long rows along the length of the room, with their makers and reps standing behind to give guidance and information. The participants – wholesalers, retailers, writers, and sommeliers – grab a glass at the entrance and begin their work. They smell, sip, spit and make copious notes. After 3 hours of wending my way through literally dozens of wines, I can safely say that, despite the frosts that devastated much of the region, the 2017’s are beauties. They may not be as memorable as the 2015’s, 2016’s, or 2009’s but many are fruit forward, supple, and ready to drink.
While most people I know would not normally rush out to their local liquor store to spend $50, $100, or more on a fine wine – myself included – buying, drinking, or traveling to find and try great wines can be a real pleasure, as well as a wonderful way to recapture memories.
The first time I drank wine I was eight years old and on a family trip to France. With four kids in tow, my folks did not have lots of spending money, so every lunch hour, they pulled our VW van off the road and set up a picnic of bread, cheese, and wine. Of course, we kids were given only small amounts diluted with water. I still have fond memories of that time, as well as our plastic wine cups, which came in blue, green, yellow, and red.
At the age of 40, I went to Bordeaux. The vineyards were not terribly welcoming to American adults at the time. In fact, my friend and I were turned away from house after house … until we reached Prieure Lichine. They welcomed us with open arms, gave us the grand tour, and plied us with their lovely wines. This approach was what the French called, “Lichine’s American style,” direct and convivial. I have been a fan ever since; and always make sure to revisit their booth at Bordeaux tastings and to thank them for their grace and good business sense. By the way, their 2017 is soft, silky, and full-bodied with lots of dark fruits, coffee and hints of oak.
My own first big Bordeaux wine purchase was a 1989 Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, which I bought for $50 (a fortune for me in the 90’s) to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday. She graciously offered to open it right then and there to toast the occasion, which we did. The 89’s were considered to be some of the best wines ever. An unusually warm and dry growing season in Bordeaux, these big wines were built to last. Three years ago, at an auction at Sotheby’s, they were still selling strong.
But my best and most recent wine memory is of the Marathon du Medoc, a glorious, crazy, movable 26.2 mile wine “romp” through the most best known wine country on earth. In 2014, the race’s 30th anniversary, I was lucky enough to have been invited to attend by Philippe Blanc, Managing Director of Chateau Beychevelle. I stayed at their grand Chateau and was treated to a private tasting of their wines. Then, as now, they were exceptional. In fact, the Wine Enthusiast gave their 2017 a 95! And I would have to agree.
But back to the run. I prepped for several months for the race itself because no matter how slowly you run it, 26.2 miles is still a formidable distance. But I needn’t have worried. The cut-off time is 6.5 hours, ie. you could almost walk the distance at that pace. After all, it’s really meant to be a fun run and a grand costume party. I saw people dressed as trolls, cavemen, cowboys, chevaliers, and can-can girls. My costume? “Femme de manage” or French maid as we say in the States. But my cuffs, apron, and headpiece were discarded about a mile in, as the temperature rose past 80 degrees.
The course itself was a dizzying tour along dirt roads and through the vineyards. We went in the gate of one chateau for a quick tasting followed by a gulp of water, then on to the next. I’m pretty sure we did not run more than a mile between each vineyard; and with 23 different wines to try, I think the math works. Along the way, “runners” were also given time to sample cheese, ice cream, and oysters as they raced … though I remember only the wine. My favorite stops were Phelan Segur, Gruaud Larose, and Leoville Barton. Luckily those three wines were also at Monday’s tasting. And they did not disappoint.
This year, the weather in NY was a bone-chilling 28 degrees, with harsh winds. Several years ago, I tromped through almost a foot of snow to attend. But inside, it’s always warm and full of delightful and delicious surprises.
Photo of Chateau Prieure Lichine by Gunther Vicente; all other photos by Paula M. Levine.