On Jan. 25, I attended a Wine Media Guild vertical tasting (multiple vintages) of two important Bordeaux wines, Chateau d’Issan and Chateau Rauzan-Ségla, introduced by their respective managers, Emmanuel Cruse and John Kolasa. A day later, at an event sponsored by the Long Island Merlot Alliance, I blind-tasted 12 merlot-based wines that included seven from Long Island. The results of these two tastings, both featuring wines made with grapes traditionally grown in Bordeaux and now commonly grown worldwide, were provocative.
The futures of both Bordeaux and Long Island as wine regions would not seem to be linked, but the imperative to make wines appealing to the next generation of drinkers while reaping high scores from more aged wine critics puts them together in the same quandary. A rift has formed in the wine industry between influential critics who reward jammy, inky, high-alcohol reds from hot climates, made for immediate consumption, and wine collectors who prefer more traditional, nuanced, cool climate wines that are more challenging when young but age with finesse and complexity.
At the Wine Media Guild Bordeaux tasting, we sampled five different vintages between 2000 and 2009, then had lunch paired with older vintages (1986-2001), three examples from each estate.
Both Chateau d’Issan and Chateau Rauzan-Ségla have existed for centuries. D’Issan was selected in 1723 for the Prince of Wales and admired by Thomas Jefferson in 1787, but was occupied and trashed during World War II by Nazi occupiers. Emmanuel Cruse told us his family bought it in 1945 instead of the more prominent Cheval Blanc because the latter “had too many mosquitoes.” D’Issan’s reputation has soared since Cruse himself took charge in 1998.
Rauzan-Ségla has been similarly rescued from long decline by the house of Chanel, who poached top staff from nearby Chateau Latour, including John Kolasa, and granted them free rein in upgrading the estate.
To me, the d’Issan and Rauzan-Ségla wines defined what I like about cabernet sauvignon and merlot-based wines: They had flavors that were hard to define, but balanced and dynamic at once, with extraordinary suppleness in the older wines. They were so fine, I was shocked when some of the journalists challenged the eminent, articulate and impassioned Cruse and Kolasa to defend their wines, indicating that the younger generation doesn’t consider them “benchmark” wines; they turn instead to California’s fruit bomb wines to define the form.
Kolasa noted that Americans prefer wines that are “easier to understand and consume quickly than Bordeaux.” His Chinese customers, a newly minted consumer group who buy Grand Cru Bordeaux for status, understand the benefits of aging wine even less.
He said, “I arrived at La Tour, where I could drink wine made 100 years ago … It’s a religious ceremony to drink it. It makes you aware you are just passing by. Thank Bordeaux for making wines that can give you pleasure over many years. … We are humble.”
He then acknowledged that high prices of top Bordeaux have led to ego-driven, nontraditional winemaking. To him, “The worst illness in the world is head swelling.”
There were no swollen heads at the next day’s Merlot Alliance tasting, just a room full of eager beavers keen to see how Long Island’s merlots stood up to the competition. In tasting the wines blind, I found samples of what I consider to be the traditional (Bordeaux) style and the popular (California) style but, really, it was impossible to guess where the wines were from. The next day, we had results tallied from all the tasters’ scorecards.
The first wine, which I thought was from Long Island, was from St. Emilion. The overall favorite wine was “Ben’s Blend” 2007 from McCall Vineyards in Cutchogue, but all the wines scored within 5.54 points of each other. A Pomerol came in second, and a Napa wine third. The message I took from this tasting, then, was that the controversy about style was absent here: Those wine professionals who attended this event like merlot, and appreciate both styles almost equally.
A week later, I went to another blind tasting, this time with some friends who each brought an interesting bottle from another region (Germany, Sicily, California, Tuscany and Portugal — the rule was they couldn’t be from Long Island) to taste and discuss while enjoying the fine food and comfort of The Riverhead Project’s private “vault.” Some were expensive cult wines but all but the German riesling were fruit bombs and, frankly, I wished I had a nice glass of Rauzan-Ségla, or Ben’s Blend merlot instead.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.