Maharajas' Wine Comes To India…Again!

The 1855 classification of Bordeaux that established the hierarchy of its chateaux from First Growths to the Fifth ('growth' being a confusing term, only implying the level in the hierarchy) remains virtually unchanged and unchallenged even today. However, there are years when the First Growths may not perform their best and some Second Growths may bring out the quality very close to theirs. The term Super-second evolved about 20 years ago to include such second growths including Chateaux Palmer, Pichon-Comtesse-de-Leland and Cos d'Estournel.

Ch. Cos d'Estournel is the star winery that has made St. Estephe a known commune of Bordeaux. This chateau had been selling wines to Maharajas and Nawabs of various Indian states in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

A few of us had the privilege of tasting this Maharajas' wine last Friday at the residence of the French Ambassador, Bernard de Montferrand. Jean-Guillaume Prats, the 31 years young President of the Chateau, conducted the special tasting session, which included some other fine wines as well. His father had earlier turned the Chateau around to its current heights when he bought it in 1971 till he sold it in 1998 due to a piquant situation arising out of the archaic French laws. Prats started by explaining about the Bordeaux wines. His lucid style of presentation made the highly complex topic sound so very simple. The tasting of four wines followed. Here are the brief notes:

1. Numero Uno de Dourthe, AOC Bordeaux, 2001: White wine with 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon from a winery, which has the largest selling brand of generic AOC Bordeaux wines. It is a negociant produced wine in contrast to a chateau-produced wine. Straw colour, clean, crisp and fruity, ready-to -drink young wine which would make a good aperitif before beginning some serious wine tasting or to start an evening, especially in the Indian summers.

2. Chateau Trottevieille, AOC St. Emilion Grand Cru, 1995: St. Emilion is the village on the Right Bank of Dordogne river and is a part of Libournais District. Recognized for good quality red wines made predominantly from Merlot, the region was first classified in 1958 (apparently in 1855 the area was not considered worth classifying). It is reclassified around every ten years (1958, 1969, 1985 and 1996). Premier Grand Cru Classe is the highest classification that is further sub-divided into two classes. Class A includes superior Chateaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc while Class B has eleven- all equally classified including Ch. Trottevieille.

This wine is made from Merlot (55%), Cabernet Franc (35%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%). True to its character, this vintage, one of the best of the previous decade, is a very fine and seductive wine. It had concentrated rich fruit of a Merlot. Maturing of the wine in 100% new oak barrels has given it a subtle oaky flavour. Tannins are well balanced. Very fat and chewy wine. Though ready to drink now, it will mature in another 10 years or more.

3. Chateau Cos d'Estournel, AOC St. Estephe, 1989: Piece de Resistance of the evening, this wine was slightly closed to start with, especially after the aromatic and chewy Trottevieille. Breathing and swirling in the glass brought about an excellent symphony of flavours arising from the grapes (58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot). Dark cherry red coloured full-bodied wine was very complex with silky fruit and finesse. It also had excellent, prolonged after-taste of berry fruit. Very alluring bouquet, spicy on the nose with shades of coffee and chocolate flavours, this wine is supposed to have a real oriental flavour. A very well structured wine, indeed.

This chateau has an interesting history. It was very popular with Indian Maharajas and Nawabs in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The princes who went to study abroad but came back with plenty of their wine instead also patronized it. It was discovered that the wine improved on its journey to India because of rolling of the ship (contrary to the generally held belief that wines do not travel well and fine wines need to lie still for upto 6 months after travel). Understandably, this must have something to do with the uniqueness of its terroir.

This vintage for Maharajas may not be otherwise available in India but a two- notch lower rated 1994 can be delivered to a hotel or a licensed restaurant of your choice by the importer, Sansula Imports of Mumbai for an earthly 10,000. Per bottle.

4. Chateau Guiraud, AOC Sauternes, 1999: This dessert wine is produced by one of the two Premier Cru Chateau of Sauternes (the most famous Chateau d'Yquem is Premier Cru Superior). It is made from 35% Sauvignon and 65% Semillon, the most predominant grape in the region, producing sweet wine using Noble Rot of the grapes). Deliciously sweet wine with luxurious complexity and finesse. Very powerful aroma of peaches and mangoes. One wonders if it received a fair exposure after the seductive 'Cos' preceding it. Prats opined that due to the sugar and acid levels it would go well with Indian food. I am not sure if it would be match for the spicy Indian food. One would have to try and decide for oneself.

The tasting was followed by an excellent buffet spread of cheese and fruit tarts for the Sauternes lovers in the sprawling lawns with a live jazz band providing yet another dimension for enjoying the wines. The beautiful crystal glasses, though, could not do justice to the excellent red wines inside. I believe the hosts had organized the perfect Riedel glasses for the occasion.

Wines of the evening once again re-affirmed my belief (and I am sure I am in august company here) that ABC of wines does not begin with an A but with B for... Bordeaux!

A Votre Santé.





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