Not long after I tell people that I write reviews for food and wine pairings or explain that I have experience working in the wine industry in various capacities, the question that I always get asked is, “What was the best wine you tasted?” Inevitably, I am at a loss for words at such a question.
First, how do I encapsulate nearly fifteen-years of wine drinking with only one favorite bottle? Secondly, how do I explain that my thoughts and opinions on great wines have changed over those same fifteen-years?
When I answer the question of the best wine that I have ever tasted, I look for other, more-objective criteria. For example, I may talk about one of my favorite wines or one of my favorite winemakers. I may discuss a preference for a certain varietal and my favorite wine made with that grape. Or I may, depending on the audience, tell of the most expensive bottle of wine I have held in my hands.
That bottle, the most expensive I have ever been privileged to taste, was a Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 2000.
In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification system of Bordeaux wines in time for the Universal Exposition hosted in Paris that same year. Wine brokers used the only objective criteria they had — the price of the wines — to determine how to classify them into “growths.” Since price was directly related to quality, they determined that the more expensive a wine is, the better status it would naturally possess. These brokers determined that there would be five growths with First Growth status reserved for the most expensive (and therefore, best) wines in the Bordeaux region.
Since 1855 there have been only two changes to the ranking system and only one of those resulted in the elevation of a wine from one growth to another. From the beginning, Chateau Lafite Rothschild has been classified as a First Growth wine, indicating that it was of superior quality (because it was superiorly priced!).
As a Bordeaux wine, Chateau Lafite Rothschild is a claret, or blend, of several different grapes. In the case of Lafite, it is typically 80-95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5-20% Merlot, and 3% of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. There have been exceptions, such as in 1961, when the vintage was released as 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Through the years, there have been demands for the 1855 classification system to be reworked as some First Growths have relied all too often on their status rather than the quality of their wines. Chateau Lafite Rothschild is no exception to this tendency; several vintages have been decried as unworthy of the premier status afforded to the winery. The 2000 vintage, however, was truly worthy of the winery’s reputation for the past 150 years.
Wine critics have pointed to the Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2000 as a indicator of wine excellence, with Wine Spectator giving it a perfect 100-point score and announcing that the 2000 vintage was the best since 1961. Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate also gave it a perfect 100-point score and had this to say about the wine:
“Well, well, well – Lafite Rothschild does it again. Ever since manager Charles Chevalier was transferred from his beloved Sauternes property of Rieussec… to Lafite in 1994, there has been a succession of profound wines to emerge from this noble estate. The 2000 Lafite Rothschild… has opaque ruby/purple color, followed by an extraordinary aromatic expression of liquid minerals/stones interwoven with the tell-tale graphite notes, mulberry, black currants, caramel, and tobacco. In the mouth, it is remarkably light on its feet, but somehow seems to pack intense flavors into layer upon layer of fruit and richness that cascade over the palate. A compelling wine, with extraordinary precision, great intensity, and a seamlessness in spite of what are obviously elevated levels of tannin, this wine was provocatively open and beautiful when tasted in January and February, but I am sure it will soon close down. The finish lasted a whopping 72 seconds! This is utterly fascinating stuff.”
It is not often that Mr. Parker is moved to near-poetic superlatives in his description of a wine, but the 2000 Lafite clearly deserves it.
In 2005, I was working as a wholesale wine distributor for a company that sold wine to restaurants, wine stores, and supermarkets all across Ohio. As a Cleveland-based company, they expanded slowly southward and the Cincinnati/Dayton markets were their last area of expansion. As a consequence, when the time came for trade shows, drawing representatives from the wineries that we sold, to gather with the various wine store owners, retail buyers, restaurateurs and chefs that formed our customer base, it was announced that the Cincinnati sales group would join with the Columbus group for one large show.
After commuting for two hours after a day’s work traveling around Cincinnati to sell my portfolio of wines, I entered my company’s trade show to find some of the best wines available being poured as samples for us and for our customers. There was a table for Kistler Chardonay, Flowers Pinot Noir, Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, and in the corner, the great-granddaddy of the night, Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
Say what you will about the 1976 Paris tasting that pitted “new world” wines from California against the “old world” of France, as an indication that U.S. winemakers are, or were, worthy of mainstream recognition, there is something to be said for several hundred years of winemaking experience. After all, the vineyards at Chateau Lafite were planted in the 1680’s and in the 1800’s the wines were so well-received by the world that even Thomas Jefferson was a customer! So, it comes as no surprise that in a room that featured great wines, the one that stands out to me is Lafite.
Only five years old, this wine was bold and aggressive, with a huge tannic punch that clearly indicated that it would age for twenty years or more under the right cellar conditions. The flavors were intense and seemed to go on forever: plum, cherry, tobacco, chocolate, leather, with a mineral component that was at times dusty and earthy, like freshly turned soil, and at times more like a pencil lead, and a hint of beautifully integrated oak. This was a ideal wine, a standard for which to judge others, and one that would stand the test of time for several decades.
Suffice it to say, the line at the table to taste this extraordinarily rich and structured wine was longer than any other table!
Of course, now you are wondering, how much did it cost? At the time of its release, a single bottle sold at a retail price of $435 in the state of Ohio. At current market prices, a bottle of the same vintage can be found for $2,000 or more.
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