In praise of Japanese Bordeaux

9 October 2014

2:00 PM

9 October 2014

2:00 PM

Château Lagrange, a St Julien third growth, has the largest acreage of any Bordeaux classed growth. For much of the 20th century, this was its sole claim to distinction. Under family management, it consistently failed to justify its ranking. Then the Japanese arrived.

In 1983, Suntory bought Lagrange for £4 million. There were resentments. In 1987, on the floor of the stock exchange just after the Big Bang had transformed the City, a Japanese broker asked an English counterpart if he could direct him to Wedd Durlacher. This was after lunch and the Englishman was old-fashioned. ‘You lot found your way to Pearl Harbor without any help from me. You can find your own fucking way to Wedd Durlacher.’

Although Bordelaise incivility was more sophisticated, it was as pointed. But the Japanese did everything right. They recruited first-rate French managers and vignerons. They invested ten times their purchase price in improvements and new techniques. It was 13 years before Lagrange made a profit.

Today, the château is worthy of its status. It has a somewhat Pauillac style and is not the equal of Léoville-Las Cases or Ducru-Beaucaillou, those outstanding St Juliens — but apart from first growths, what is? The château also produces Les Fiefs de Lagrange, a second wine, and Les Arums de Lagrange, a white Bordeaux. I have not sampled that, but reliable judges commend it.

I had the pleasure of a Fiefs the other day, at a lunch organised by Cassidy Dart of Pol Roger. As was only fitting, we started with a 2002 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, only recently on the market. It was fresh, taut and inspiring. In ten years’ time, the 150th anniversary of Churchill’s birth, it will still be full of vigour and style.

It was followed by some Corton-Charlemagne, a 2010 from Drouhin. Delicious, but too young. These days, however, everyone is terrified of losing serious white Burgundies to oxidisation. Then the Fiefs, another 2010. It had been opened two hours before lunch: not long enough. We concluded that it should have been decanted at least 12 hours earlier. It was a huge wine, but towards the final glasses, there was subtlety as well as power. An increasing number of experts argue that the ’10 will be one of the great vintages of all time. There was nothing in the Fiefs to refute that claim.

We were in Medlar, an excellent restaurant du quartier on the King’s Road. The two formidable and jovial proprietors of the vintners Burns & German, Edward Burns and Piers German, sent us over a test. Pinot noir from the nose and the colour, but which continent? I opined that it was too sophisticated for California and too perfumed for Burgundy. Could it be a New Zealander? But can the All Blacks really produce such a graceful wine? Cassidy showed why he has recently passed the tasting part of the Masters of Wine exam. Au Bon Climat from California, he said: correctly. Given the appalling price of good wine, this is a label to look out for: like the Fiefs, it is still relatively good value.

We finished with an experiment. Medlar has an excellent cheese board, and Cassidy thought that we should be bold and see whether a white wine would work as an accompaniment. This was not just any old white, though it was indeed old: a 1991 Viña Tondonia. It was superb: beautifully mature — and an admirable complement to the cheese.

Apropos of maturity, around this time last year I wrote about the most remarkable four-year-old in Her Majesty’s realms, one Florence King. Given her enthusiasm for field sports and her frustration that she is not yet allowed to practise them, I confidently predicted a great future. A year on, there is no reason to alter that assessment. Watching her delight in handling a stag’s eyeballs in the game larder, there is a clear conclusion. As soon as she can control a firearm, this delightfully feminine little monkey will become a mighty huntress.

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