30 Second Wine Advisor: Getting older, getting better

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 Getting older, getting better
Holiday festivities justify a rare excursion into the upper stratosphere of wine as we examine how a well-cellared, top-rank Bordeaux has fared with time.
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 Chateau Pichon Longueville 1988 "Comtesse de Lalande" Pauillac (Gift)
Approaching its peak of maturity but with many years of life ahead, this highly regarded Bordeaux second-growth highlights our Christmas feast.
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Getting older, getting better

For those of us who usually devote our wine-buying strategy to seeking wines of good value at a price we can afford (and I certainly include myself among this number), there's a special sense of excitement that attends a very occasional spare-no-expense, take-no-prisoners blowout.

Next week, I'll mark the year's end with my usual wrapup of all the best-value "QPR" (Quality-Price Ratio) wines that I've enjoyed during 2007. Today, though, I'll ask your indulgence as I talk about our Christmas dinner wine, a rare excursion into a high-end, well-aged Bordeaux that would have run well into three figures if I hadn't been lucky enough to receive it a few years ago as a gift from a friend.

The wine was a top-rank Bordeaux from a very good vintage, 1988 Pichon Longueville "Comtesse de Lalande," a wine ranked in the Second Growth in the historic Médoc classification of 1855 but widely if informally described as a "Super Second," a second-tier Bordeaux considered worthy of competition with the five first growths including its near neighbor, Chateau Latour.

A tangled if typically French history of inheritance has sprouted a rather complicated family tree for Pichon Longueville. The estate was founded in the 1700s but was divided by inheritance in the 1800s in a will that divided the estate into two parts, one portion going to his son, the Baron of Pichon-Longueville ("Pichon-Longueville Baron," nowadays shortened to just-plain "Pichon-Longueville") and his three Countess sisters ("Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande"). Now both estates have moved into corporate hands, but the wines remain among Bordeaux's best.

Although Cabernet Sauvignon tends to dominate the wines of the Médoc, Comtesse de Lalande weaves a seductively silken fabric of 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 35 percent Merlot - the highest percentage of Merlot of any Pauillac estate - along with smaller contributions from Cabernet Franc (12 percent) and Petit Verdot (8 percent).

While 1988 doesn't rank among the absolute top vintages - it was a bit overshadowed by the more critically acclaimed 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux vintages - it was cetainly fine, a vineyard year in Bordeaux that started rainy but turned hot in midsummer and ended with a long, ripe harvest that lasted well into October.

This wine, cellared well until the last couple of years, then kept in "passive cellaring" under cool, dark conditions here, still seems on the uphill track, maturing, its youthful tannins softening, but showing little sign of age in its vibrant color and still-fresh fruit. Kept under excellent conditions, it should be good for at least another decade; but it was a mighty fine way to celebrate the holiday now. You'll find my tasting report below.

Chateau Pichon Longueville 1988 "Comtesse de Lalande" Pauillac (Gift)

Chateau Pichon Longueville

Very dark garnet in the glass, almost black all the way to the edge, where it's a clear violet with only a slight tinge of bronze. Classic Bordeaux scents of cedar and herbs, "lead pencil" and "cigar box" over blackcurrant fruit. Flavors are consistent, clean and fresh, tart blackcurrants and whiffs of fresh herbs. Medium body and tart acidity, still remarkably youthful, showing its maturity only insofar as the tannins have largely resolved, and there's a bit of gritty sediment in the bottom of the bottle, hardly worth decanting to remove. U.S. importer: Kobrand Corp., NYC. (Dec. 24, 2007)

FOOD MATCH: A classic pairing with dry-aged beef standing rib roast; simply prepared lamb is also a great match with fine, older Bordeaux.

VALUE: Turning up at auction in the $100 to $150 range, which curiously is about the same as the current U.S. retail for the 2005 Comtesse.

WHEN TO DRINK: As noted, this well-cellared 1988 is maturing but still on the youthful side 19 years after the vintage. Like most good classified growths of Bordeaux, it will keep and improve for 20 to 30 years or more, assuming a good vintage and careful storage conditions. The winery suggests this wine's plateau of maturity could last from 1997 through 2017.

You'll find in-depth information about the history of Chateau Pichon Longueville and its wines on the winery Website, which is published in French, English and Japanese. Here's the English-language home page:

To compare prices and find select vendors for Pichon Longueville 1988 "Comtesse de Lalande" on Wine-Searcher.com:

For Wine-Searcher.com's listings for all vintages of "Comtesse de Lalande," click:

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