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On Tasting
The Other French Paradox
Tuesday, 2nd May, 2006  - David Farmer

French cooking uses ample amounts of cream, butter, eggs and most meals include meats, cheese and pastries. With a high intake of saturated animal fats why is it that the French have low rates of heart disease? This is called the French paradox.

There is another French paradox that has puzzled me for many decades. The great wines of France are associated with very hot years. Hot European summers are not common and when they happen they produce rich concentrated wines with high alcohols such as the amazing 1945 and 1947 Bordeaux reds. The good wines of normal years are not those that excite, it's the wines from the rare and unusual hot years.

The paradox is that Europe talks about cool climate winemaking and how this is essential to make fine wine and yet they love a really hot summer to make the very great wines.

Being blessed with a warm to hot climate Australia has a good vintage every year and easily reaches the fruit concentration and alcohol levels of the fabled French years. I used to ask myself, why were warm climate Australian wines seen as alcoholic, clumsy and over extracted when similarly concentrated, high alcohol wines in France would receive rave reviews? I have started to ask the question again as with a few strong exceptions, in particular the strong endorsements from America, the style is again under debate.

The debate lingers with many U.K. wine critics and oddly in our own wine judging circles and as a rough rule of thumb with those who hold up French wines as being the pinnacle for all wine to be judged against.

Two recent 'heat wave' Bordeaux vintages, the 2003 and the 2005, and what the critics think of them throws a perspective on this big red debate.

Here are a range of comments about these vintages culled from some recent articles.

James Suckling writing about the 2003 Bordeaux (Wine Spectator, March 2006) says; 'They may be slightly New World in style for their opulent fruit and ripe character, but the best 2003 Bordeaux remain classic clarets, displaying a richness and structure reminiscent of past great hot weather vintages.” And later, “Some of the 2003's do remind me more of wines from California's Napa Valley, Tuscany's Bolgheri or Australia's Barossa Valley than they do wines from Pomerol, St.-Emilion or Bordeaux, but I still find most of them uniquely Bordeaux.”

The hype for the 2005 Bordeaux is even greater. The American critic Robert Parker says they show 'compelling greatness' and describes his jubilation about the vintage with many Chateaux making their greatest wine ever; 'I know I sound like a broken record,' he admits, 'but here is another estate that may have produced its finest wine…ever.' Now we know that Parker likes big wine so he is very happy with the vintage.

A few quotes from an article by Adam Lechmere in Decanter, April 2006 further illustrate the vintage.

"The world's wine hacks are inundated with figures and indices – measures of sugar and alcohol, tannin and acid. Ancient cellarmen's memories are invoked to give credence to the claim that this is the best vintage in living memory...

And Paul Pontallier at Margaux said the Merlot alcohol levels were the highest that had been seen in 100 years – 'it went up to levels unheard of.' However he made clear that the higher-alcohol Merlot was only used for the second wine, Pavillon Rouge...

At Chateau Teyssier in St Emilion, Jonathan Maltus was picking Merlot at 15.5% alcohol – two degrees higher than normal, and Philippe Blanc at Chateau Beychevelle said, 'the Merlot has never reached levels as high as this. Many batches were coming in at 14.2 or 14.3.' The normal level is 13.5 degrees."

But was this ripe vintage at the expense of balanced wines? No, not us, said the Bordelaise as they made the point again and again that the wines are not big in the sense of being over extracted. Some tasters are not so certain and a few voices pointed to the over-extracted, over oaked and totally un-Bordeaux styles, particularly from the right bank.

Thus from The Times, Jane McQuitty had this to say in April, “Yet for all that, as my week of Bordeaux tastings showed, a fair few proprietors could not resist gilding the lily and unnecessarily giving nature a hand. The result is some horrid, late-picked, confected, jammy, over-extracted wines, especially in the right-bank areas of Pomerol and St. Emilion.”

So big is good but it can be overdone. Few would disagree with this though it is not certain what being too big should mean. Worldwide there has been a movement in many fine wine areas to much riper wines which means later harvesting and this has lead to an increase in the alcohol of a good red of about 1.0% over the last few decades.

Finally the market will decide at what extraction level they see the features they want to buy. I for one would not count out the 'over-extracted' right bank wines. Time will tell.

In Australia as we have previously mentioned that the auction market has decided that warm climate reds should be re-evaluated upwards.

Australian wine judges are holding firm and maintain that the style of a good red will be lower in alcohol than they like from our warm areas and to get the elegance they seek it will normally come from a cooler region. It is indeed a pity that they are biased against what this country does best. It also makes me wonder what show judging is about and its relevance in a sophisticated wine making country.

The judges appear to have moved from being adjudicators to being the final arbiters of taste and it does seem silly to try to mould style directions.

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