ONE OF THE best ways to assess the quality and consistency of a winery is to taste several different vintages against each other.
Members of the Buffalo Chapter of Les Amis du Vin had such an opportunity Tuesday evening when they compared four successive vintages of a leading Medoc chateau at the Hotel Hilton.
Maurice Lartigau, senior vice president of Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines, led an informative discussion of wines from Chateau Gruaud Larose, a second cru St. Julien which many believe should be elevated to first cru, and two Cordier table wines, Lauretan Blanc and Lauretan Rouge.
The tasting was especially interesting because Gruaud Larose wines have won high praise, particularly since 1979 when Georges Pauli took over as Cordier oenologist. The vintages we tasted, 1982 through 1986, received scorings from 90 to 96 out of 100 from Robert Parker, golden palate of the wine world.
The wines were served in pairings of the 1986 ($29.95) with the 1985 ($32.99) followed by the 1983 ($33.25) with the 1982 ($39.95). These were preceded by tasting of Cordier's Lauretan table wines, blends in the Mouton Cadet style but good value at $4.99. The white was a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with a modest amount of Semillon. The red was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
The 1986 Gruaud had a deep purple/ruby color, a berry fruit bouquet and rich, spicy taste. Despite a lavish amount of tannin, the wine seemed ready now but actually will take another four or five years to arrive with a long-lived future predicted. This character of early softness which disappears during the long period of maturation is typical of the Gruauds. Parker has given the 1986 a 92.
It was interesting to feel the contrast with the 1985, a wine which has developed beautifully. It had a black/ruby color which was starting to lighten. In the bouquet was a melange of berry fruit and smoky oak. Georges Pauli has compared it to his 1979 but this may be premature. Most tasters preferred the 1986 to the 1985. Parker rated the 1985 at 90.
Tasting the other two Gruauds drew similar comparisons with most liking the 1982 over the 1983. The 1982, which Parker enthused over with a 96 score, undoubtedly deserved the tasters' vote as the favorite of the evening, followed by the 1986, the 1985 and the 1983.
The winner was very dark, black/ruby with a concentrated flavor of fruit both in its bouquet and taste. Lartigau predicted it would last 25 years without any trouble. This does not mean that the 1983 is not a big and very promising wine. It shares with the other vintages a great amount of tannin for the long haul. Pauli had pulled it up to a 90 rating despite a poor growing year.
Lartigau's comments were spiced with humor and familiarity with his subject. In answer to a question, he said a wine without appropriate fruit or tannin in its youth could not be expected to develop them later. He termed the attempt to compare French wines with Californian as "cerebral gymnastics" but told his audience he felt many Californians aimed at exaggerations in their styles while the French went for a traditional pattern.
Cordier, owner of several chateaux and a leading negociant, has relinquished some control of Gruaud Larose in recent years to La Henin, a French banking firm. The Cordier family has owned Gruaud since 1918 when members moved from Lorraine to avoid Germanic invasion of their wine business.
Gruaud Larose, founded in the early 18th century by two Gruaud brothers, was first called Fond Bedeau and was one of the largest St. Julien vineyards. Thomas Jefferson visited the region and rated it first rank in a report he wrote on the various chateaux, a report which was used as an official classification until the famous 1855 classification.
Gruaud Larose turns out 32,000 cases a year from the 82 hectares of vineyards in its total of 150 hectares. The harvest includes about 63 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, 24 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot for spiciness Charolais cattle on 35 hectares for grazing make a vital contribution to the quality of the vintages.
Lartigau pointed out the consistency of the wines, noting that in the past it was usual to expect an exceptional harvest only one out of every five years while these four vintages in a row show the reliability of Gruaud Larose and Pauli's skill.
Members of the Buffalo Branch of the International Wine & Food Society will taste several Chandon wines at their final seminar of the season next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Calasanctius School. Douglas Beach, regional Chandon representative, will lead tasters through Domaine Chandon Napa Brut, Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir, Moet et Chandon's White Star Extra Dry, Imperial Non- Vintage, Imperial Vintage, Imperial Rose Vintage and Petit Liquor. Call 885-8508 for reservations before Wednesday.