A Ripe Vintage in Margaret River

At the end of a week visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Margaret River, I wound up with a horizontal tasting of the 2007 vintage with producers of fourteen wines.

The 2007 vintage was warmer than usual and Cabernet got ripe everywhere. Given the general reputation of the vintage, I was expecting a fair number of over-ripe wines, but in fact they are rather rare.

Margaret River is a large region, with the heart of Cabernet production focused in the (unofficial) Willyabrup subregion, with wines that tend to be more robust made in Yallingup to the north, and wines that are tighter coming from Wallcliffe farther south. The vintage showed a very wide range of styles, from wines with black fruits classically cut by a herbaceous touch of pyrazines, to lighter wines dominated by red fruits, and in one case with the warm, earthy impression more usually associated with Pinot Noir. Some wines are sourced from more than one subregion, so it’s not always obvious how to relate wines to individual origins (which are not often stated on the label).

Acidity was usually in balance, and in spite of the hot year does not appear to have been over compensated (one of the problems with Cabernet generally in Australia being that winemakers are so fanatically determined to avoid contamination with Brettanomyces that they acidify to a higher level than might be strictly justified by the demands of taste).

This is certainly a very good vintage, but the succeeding vintage in 2008 was more “classical,” and I found I generally gave those wines higher scores in vertical tastings. But 2007 is delicious to drink in the next few years.

Tasting Notes

Fraser Gallop Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant black fruit nose changing in the glass to more herbal overtones. Fine, elegant black fruits, real finesse here, black cherries and plums with subtle aromatic overtones, silky tannins giving a fine-grained texture. This gives a classical impression of pure Cabernet fruits poised on the perfection of ripeness. The very faint herbal overtones on the finish should develop in the next few years to bring complexity to the finish. 14.5% 91 Drink to 2022.

Juniper Estate, Cabernet Sauvigno

Slightly austere black fruit nose tending to savory herbal impressions of sage. Precisely delineated black cherry fruits dominate palate, round and elegant, very much the pure varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon. Firm tannins dry the finish where there is a very faint sensation of herbaceousness. A classic example of the firm style of Willyabrup. More approachable than usual from this estate. Still needs another year, but should age well for a decade. 14.0% 90 Drink 2013-2022.

Voyager Estate, Cabernet-Merlot
Herbaceous opening to the nose with black fruits hiding behind, giving a cool climate impression. Classic impression on palate of black fruits, softer than the nose would suggest, with soft, ripe chocolaty tannins, those notes of pyrazines coming back on the finish, which shows a touch of heat, but overall a fine elegant impression. 14.2%  90 Drink to 2020.

Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon

Nose of fresh red and black berries, opening out into fragrant, perfumed nose with hints of roses and violets. Sweet, ripe, elegant, well rounded fruits of black cherries and black plums, with reserved tannins holding back the fruits on the finish. Flavor variety is developing in an elegant style reminiscent of Margaux, but another year is required to let the tannins resolve. There’s some heat on the finish. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Leeuwin Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Warm nose with vanillin and nuts hiding black fruit character and giving an impression of new oak, and then some herbaceous notes of pyrazines developing and strengthening in glass. Sweet, ripe, rounded, firm style on palate, with ripeness of fruits evident but cut by herbaceous touch coming back on finish accompanied by nutty notes from new oak. Impression at this point is a little rustic from the new oak. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Woodlands Wines, Nicolas Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly austere nose with impressions of cherry fruits. Fine, elegant palate of red and black cherry fruits with refined impression from silky, fine-grained tannins. Just a touch of nuts on finish. Nice balance, needs another year to let the tannins resolve and fruit flavor emerge to show a wine some real finesse in a lighter style. 13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon

Fresh nose holding back red fruits, with some sweet herbal elements including thyme  developing in glass, making a cool climate impression. Showing nice flavor variety on palate with strawberry and cherry fruits coming out, against a light tannic support. Give this another year to let the dryness of the tannins on the finish resolve, and it should begin to develop a nice savory balance to the red and black fruits. Some heat on finish. 14.0% 89 Drink to 2020.

Moss Wood, Cabernet Sauvignon

Light elegant fresh nose of red fruits, opening out into a spicy and floral nose showing cinnamon and nutmeg. The height of elegance on the palate, but with a flavor profile more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon, with fragrant red fruits pointing towards raspberries and strawberries. The elegance and warmth remind me of Sassicaia in a lighter vintage. This is ready to drink but I suspect that may be deceptive and it will last longer than might be evident at first blush. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2020.

Lenton Brae, Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant red fruit impression on nose, leading into soft palate of ripe red fruits of raspberries and cherries. Tannins are fine and silky bringing an elegant impression of fine texture to the finish. As the tannins resolve this will become soft and elegant in a style driven by red fruits. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2019.

Stella Bella, Serie Luminosa Cabernet Sauvignon

Stewed fruit character on nose suggests ripeness, and then pyrazines develop in the glass. More classical on palate than might be suggested by nose, with smooth, ripe, elegant black fruits cut by that touch of herbaceousness that is typical of Wallcliffe (which accounts for a major part of the wine).  Light tannins dry the finish, which shows some heat. This is a light, elegant style, but does it have the stuffing for longevity? 14.0% 88 Drink to 2018.

Ashbrook Estate, Cabernet Merlot

Fresh nose with black fruits behind and slightly nutty cereal overtones (reflecting new oak). Sturdy, ripe, well rounded impression of Willyabrup, blackberry fruits cut on finish by drying effect of tannins, with some faintly herbal impressions on finish. Not a wine for instant gratification but should develop in elegant style over next five years, although there is a slight impression of hollowness on mid palate. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Vasse Felix, Cabernet Sauvignon

Ripe vegetal impression, with mix of ripe, stewed, fruits and green overtones, leading into a palate that mixes ripe and green impressions. Fruits tend to blackberries and blackcurrants, tannins are firm, there is a fairly robust impression on the palate, but some flavor variety is developing. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2019.

Xanadu, Cabernet Sauvignon

Black fruit nose with some faintly over ripe impressions clearing to a faintly herbal impression.Elegant balance on the palate, with blackberry fruits showing a touch of reserve as the tight tannins of the finish cut in. Overall the impression is tight rather than generous and there’s a risk the favor profile will narrow down with age. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Thompson Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Soft black fruit nose, with some cereal impressions, turning to riper stewed fruits in the glass giving a warmer climate impression. Warm, sweet, ripe red cherry and strawberry impression on palate, with a lingering sweetness on the finish, and slightly nutty notes coming back. Some heat on the finish. A warm, forward, delicious style – already approachable – but does it have Cabernet typicity? 14.5% 87 Drink to 2018.

 

 

Clonal Paradox

I was struck by the importance of clonal variety by an experience along the lines of Sherlock Holmes’s dog that (didn’t) bark in the night. On a trip to Washington state to visit Cabernet producers, it turned out that virtually all of the state is planted with a single Cabernet Sauvignon clone, #8 (on its own roots, since there is no phylloxera because of the sandy soils, but that’s another story). Clone 8 is essentially the same as clone #7, the Concannon clone, which is common in California.

Elsewhere there may be a focus on clones (such as in Napa) or an indifference to them (such as in Bordeaux), but in either event the vineyards have a wide diversity with regards to origins of plants. Of course, the availability of clones has led to all sorts of dire predictions about homogenization of flavors (more with the increasing dominance of the Dijon clones of Pinot Noir than with Cabernet Sauvignon), but here is an actual example.

So what are the consequences? One noticeable feature of Washington State with regards to Cabernet Sauvignon is that wines blended from different vineyards are more common than single vineyard bottlings. I wonder if this is because the homogeneity of the genetic material limits diversity in the vineyard and drives producers to find it by blending from different sites?

A tasting at Col Solare on Red Mountain, where other clones have been planted as well as the predominant #8, suggested that producers may be missing out by using a singe clone. Barrel samples showed that a blend of clone 8 with clone 21 had Red Mountain’s characteristic strong tannins, clone 6 conveyed its usual more herbal impression, but clone 2 was intense and precise, while clone 10 was delicate and fragrant. As the vines are relatively young  (planted in 2002), it may be that these differences will narrow with age, but I was left wondering whether Red Mountain’s reputation for strong, aggressive, tannins might partly be due to a specific interaction with clone #8.

On the one hand, the prevalence of a single clone allows vineyard differences to be seen directly; on the other, you wonder at the assumption that the same clone fits all sites, in spite of their different exposures, temperatures, etc. With plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon (and also Merlot) dominated by single clones, you might argue that clones play a much smaller part in Washington than elsewhere. Or perhaps considering the lack of diversity this implies, clonal selection plays a much larger role than elsewhere, since the uniformity significantly restricts the potential expression of different sites.

 

 

 

Bordeaux 1970 versus California 1974

As part of the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to determine whether the stereotypes about aging of Bordeaux versus California Cabernet are true, so  I compared wines from the classic 1970 vintage in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1974 vintage in California, really the first vintage that put California on the map as a potential competitor to Bordeaux. Is it true that California Cabernet has more limited aging potential compared with Bordeaux?

The two top wines in the tasting absolutely typify the character and quality of Bordeaux versus Napa. The Pichon Lalande had that delicious balance of fruits and herbaceousness; as it gets older it turns more savory. The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon (which comes from an old plot of ungrafted wines on Santa Cruz Mountain) has that warm impression of sweet, ripe red fruits; age has brought a faint impression of piquancy that adds complexity. Ultimately it will become sweeter and simpler.

The California wines are aging well, but they are staying ripe and sweet and warm and showing impressions of ripe strawberries rather than going savory. The best are absolutely delicious, but it’s not obvious what further evolution will occur if they are kept longer. To what extent is this because most are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon or simply a consequence of the warmer climate? The California wines that made great reputations in their day remain the leaders. Heitz Martha’s vineyard has lost some of its density, and is less evidently in a European style. Ridge Montebello shows more evident savory notes. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is every drop a mountain Cabernet, just a touch behind the Mayacamas (from Mount Veeder).

Bordeaux was more surprising with some reversals of reputation. From Margaux, Châteaux Giscours and Brane Cantenac, generally considered to be slightly rustic and slightly overcropped in the era, showed better than more classic wines from Pauillac or St. Julien. The issue with the Bordeaux as they age is just how savory you like your wine, as ultimately they can turn herbaceous and medicinal. On this showing, typical or not, the best showed  more complexity than California, but usually were less delicious.

The difference is not so much that California Cabernet doesn’t age so well as Bordeaux, as that it ages differently.

Tasting Notes

Wine were tasted blind in one flight by a panel including Joel Butler MW, Bill Blatch (Bordeaux negociant), Peter Sichel (former château owner), and Josh Greene (Editor, Wine & Spirits magazine).

 Château Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly cedary, spicy nose, a touch of Brett lending a leathery complexity: classic Bordeaux. Sturdy on the palate, giving a rather St Estèphe-like impression.  Classic herb-driven palate with almost medicinal after finish. Absolutely classic Bordeaux in the tradition of the sixties and seventies with that delicious mingling of fruits and herbaceous influences. If there was a wine in the tasting that typifies Bordeaux of the sixties and seventies, this was it. 91 Drink to 2018.

Mount Eden, Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Spicy with faint suggestions of cereal, then warm ripe suggestions of sweet, ripe fruits suggesting California. Still lovely and ripe on the palate, the generosity of the warm fruits is evident, but relatively slight development in the direction of savory evolution. Alcohol is a little higher than average. Complex array of flavors on the palate, albeit a touch rustic. and a faint impression of herbaceousness coming through. Delicious balance. 13.9% 91 Drink to  2018.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Faintly savory intimations of roasted meats, then reverting to a faint spiciness, even a hint of perfume. Sweet and ripe on the palate although there is a touch of volatile acidity. Warm impression with nice flavor variety. There’s a touch of iron that resembles Pauillac. 13.0% 90 Drink to 2017.

Freemark Abbey, Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 1971

Quite youthful on the nose with slightly floral perfumed mixing with impressions of spices. Palate follows the nose, nice balance, elegant and flora; a touch of that sweet strawberry impression identifies the origin with California. There seems to be very little development in a savory direction, but good acidity pushes this a little towards a Bordeaux spectrum. 12.4% 90 Drink to  2018.

Château Giscours, Margaux, 1970

Fresh, intriguing nose, hints of spices, a touch of perfume, hints of fruits, quite complex.  Elegant and ripe and the palate, refined red fruits, but lacking a touch in the complexity you expect at this age. Very good, but a little rustic. This fooled almost everyone into thinking it came from Napa; it’s definitely much fuller than you usually find from Margaux, but that’s Giscours. 89 Drink to 2017.

Mayacamas, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Perfumed and floral with suggestions of roses and violets on the nose. A lovely balance on the palate here, firm ripe fruits yet with an impression of delicacy, and just a faint herbal underlying hint. But oxidation is beginning to creep in. Touch of  Brett adds complexity. 89 Drink to  2018.

Ridge, Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz, 1974

Some impressions of cinnamon and other spices on the nose, a surprisingly youthful impression, developing savory overtones of roasted meats in the glass. If you ignore the increasing acidity on the palate, there’s an impression of ripe, sweet, warm fruits from California, presently ripe and nutty retronasally (with a faint impression of American oak), but developing in a savory direction, even a hint of herbaceousness (more Bordelais than most California wines in this tasting). 89 Drink to 2016.

Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, 1970

A very faint leathery suggestion of Brett on the nose, turning a little flat, but the palate is still lively. Solid fruits, firm, but subject to attack by the acidity. This is a very solid wine, developing some flavor complexity, with a warm impression reminiscent of California (not seen on previous bottles, which were more clearly in the herbaceous spectrum). 89 Drink to 2017.

Chateau Brane Cantenac, Margaux, 1970

Controversial between those who loved it and those who thought it had dried out. Classic Bordeaux nose of cedar, spices, and leather, identifying some Brett (more distinct than on the Pichon Lalande, which also showed a touch). Although acidity is threatening to take over the palate, there is still complexity to the savory fruits counterpoised against the leathery overtones, still delicious. 12.0%, 89 Drink to 2016.

Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 1975

Amazingly dark. youthful color. Fragrant, perfumed impression on the nose, a really clean impression compared with all the other wines. The only wine not to have some Brett, said Joel Butler MW. Ripe, sweet, warm, acidity is lifting up of course, but nice fruits underneath, with a touch of tobacco. The initial soft warmth of the fruits identifies California, but in the glass they become more evidently taut, reflecting the mountain site. 12.0% 89 Drink to 2018.

Château Léoville Lascases, St. Julien, 1970

Restrained nose, in fact completely closed. Piercing acidity on the palate as the fruits dry out. May have been elegant, but too old now. Slowly picks up a bit in the glass to reveal some flavor complexity in a savory Bordelais style, and then (after a couple of hours! reverts to a warmer, softer, richer impression, although the finish remains dry and a little tart. 12.0% 87 Drink up.

Château Pontet Canet, Pauillac, 1970

Herbal and savory intimations, barely perceptible hints of raisins, a little tired on the nose, faintly musty. Tight fruits on the palate, originally elegant, but the acidity is beginning to take over, disguising its origins. Elegant fruits but tiring now. 86 Drink up.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly acid nose, some herbaceous intimations, but seems old. Nice fruits on the palate, elegant style, but a touch of volatile acidity. Fruits are lightening and drying out but have not become savory. 86 Drink up

Beaulieu Private Reserve, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

You never know what you are getting with this wine, because there were two bottlings, one of which was evidently much better than the other. In this bottle, you can see the original spices and fruits , but some oxidized notes of raisins are threatening to take over: the general warmth of the impression identifies California as the origin. Volatile acidity is taking over, turning to raisins in the glass. 13.5%  85 Drink up.

Mondavi, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

This was a great bottle in its time, and one of the wines that put the 1974 vintage on the map, but this example did not seem to be the best condition. Mature nose with mixture of acid, fruits that aren’t quite tertiary, but giving an impression that the fruits are drying out. Palate shows better than nose although spoiled by a must, moldy impression. This was delicious before the spoilage took it over. Possibly corked at sub threshold. 13.0% 85 Drink up.

 

Balance and Pornography

Balance is perhaps the most sought after quality in a wine. When you ask winemakers what they are trying to do, the common answer might best be paraphrased as “to express the vineyard in a balanced wine.” But what is balance? Somewhat like pornography, you know it when you see it, but it’s awfully hard to define.

The most common occurrence in which you hear balance evoked as a descriptor is in the context of alcohol. Complaints about high alcohol are usually met with the rejoinder, “but the wine is balanced, so why is it a problem?” This is and isn’t true.

I would say that alcohol was balanced in a wine when it is not noticeable. Lack of balance most often takes the form of a perceptible feeling of heat on the finish. While this occurs most often in wines with high alcohol, I’ve had wines with alcohol over 14% where it was not evident and I’ve had wines at 12.5% where alcohol was obtrusive. I have been puzzling over what it is that confers balance.

I think the most common mistake that producers make is to believe that because a wine is balanced with regards to alcohol, acidity, tannins, all the obvious factors, that’s the end of the argument. But isn’t it true that a wine with 12.5% alcohol needs a different balance overall than a wine with 14% alcohol? If you added 1.5% alcohol to a 12.5% alcohol wine, the effect would be pretty noticeable. The limit of chaptalization to 2% potential alcohol (now reduced to 1.5%) in the northern areas of Europe was intended to stop the wines coming out of balance.

Different grape varieties accumulate sugar at different rates, and certainly the varieties grown in warm climates have always reached high sugar levels at ripeness. High alcohol has always been part of the character of wines such as Chateauneuf du Pape or Barolo or Rioja. But with varieties originating in cooler climates, take for example Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux or even Napa, or Pinot Noir from Burgundy, the alcohol has shot up in the past two decades. The reason is that the grapes have been picked at much higher levels of ripeness. Yes, the wines are balanced, but the balance is different: overall it is richer, more extracted, there is more (but riper) tannin; you need all this to balance the alcohol. (Of course, I’m referring specifically to dry table wines here: fortified wines such as Sherry or Port are another kettle of fish, to mix a metaphor.)

The change in extraction is surely just as responsible as alcohol for the change in the character of Bordeaux and Burgundy over the past two decades: people talk about the alcohol levels, which have increased about 1.0-1.5%, but the richness has increased more than that because some of the alcohol in the older wines came from addition of sugar before fermentation. The change in style over the past three decades is equivalent roughly to a 3% increase in potential alcohol. In North America, as typified by Napa, the increase as been around 2% in potential alcohol (here sometimes hidden by the use of alcohol reduction techniques).

Come to think of it, perhaps there are more similarities than just the difficulty of description between questions of balance and pornography. Wines that have high alcohol, even when balanced, tend to have a titillating effect on the palate: after a small taste that fills the senses, you try for more. But the wine rapidly becomes fatiguing. I suspect that the issue may be the level of dry extract. A wine with 14% alcohol is more powerful not just because of the alcohol but because of the total level of extraction, and I think this is what makes the wines so attractive at first blush, but fatiguing afterwards. They show well at tastings, but I like to perform a reality check by having a bottle for dinner: my measure of a great bottle is that when it’s finished I would in principle like to have another; but when it’s delicious to begin with but I tire of it half way through, I have to concede I was fooled at the tasting. That’s my real measure of balance.

Has Malbec Run Its Course?

A tasting of wines from Uco Valley made me wonder whether Malbec is running out its appeal as a varietal. It’s been the big thing from Argentina for quite a while. Nicolás Catena told me on a recent visit that “when my grandfather came from Italy and planted vineyards in 1902, they were Malbec because that was what everyone was planting at the time.” In Mendoza, which is the center of quality production, Cabernet Sauvignon is pushed into second place by the success of Malbec. Is Malbec just so successful that it reverses the usual trend where Cabernet Sauvignon occupies the best terroirs wherever it can be planted? “The answer is yes, Malbec is occupying some land that would be better suited for Cabernet. Malbec is so well adapted to Argentine culture because it is less demanding,” Paul Hobbs, who makes wine in both California and Argentina, told me.

I was struck by a comparison of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, both grown at Finca el Origen’s  La Esperanza vineyard at 1,200 m elevation above Uco Valley, that at both the Reserva and Gran Reserva level, the Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to have more interest. All the wines showed quite a bit of new oak, with vanillin well in front of the fruits, but whereas this impression was somewhat unrelieved with the Malbec, with the Cabernet Sauvignon there was a faintly savory overtone and a sense of structure to provide more counter balance. At either price point ($12 for the Reserva or $24 for the Gran Reserva), I would prefer the Cabernet. The most interesting wine, however, was the proposed new “icon,” called Phi, a blend based on three quarters Malbec. Given greater interest and complexity by the minor components of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot, this may do well in the United States if the price point can be kept below $50.

If what you are looking for is a simple entry level wine, with lots of upfront fruits and the impression of new oak, without wishing to be snobbish, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference which variety is used. The varietal name is more significant as a marketing ploy than an indication of character. In that context, people do get tired of varietal labels, and the focus is so intense on Malbec in Argentina that the more thoughtful producers are asking what might be next. There’s some talk of Bonarda as a possible alternative (this is not the same as Bonarda in Italy, but  is the same as Charbono in California), but I’m not sure it really has enough distinction or interest to carry it off.

Producers  believe they need to stick varietal labels (which in Argentina means a wine must have 85% of the named variety), at least at lower levels. “I don’t think we can go far from varietals because that is the way the market understands wine, but many of the wineries have a blend as a high end wine,” says Nora Favelukes, who represents Wines of Argentina in the United States. It’s a pity, because not all varieties are interesting as monovarietal wines, and I think they might make more interesting wines at all levels if they broke out of the straitjacket of single varieties.

Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.

The Improvement in Second Wines

When I investigated the second wines of Bordeaux in detail about five years ago for my book What Price Bordeaux?, I was not very impressed. The impression given by the chateaux was that the second wines provided an opportunity to experience their expertise in the form of wines that were ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, in the same general style, but of course at lower cost. Declassified from the grand vin, these wines would come from vines that in another year might have gone into the grand vin. But this did not entirely accord with reality. Only a minority of second wines were in fact principally derived by declassification (usually from vines that were considered too young to contribute to the grand vin); most had become separate products coming from vineyards that rarely contributed to the grand vin. And most second wines on the left bank had a much greater proportion of Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, certainly making them ready to drink sooner, but also much reducing the resemblance with the style of the grand vin. When I held some tastings specifically to compare second wines with other wines available at similar price points, the consensus of both professional and amateur tasters was that they preferred the other wines. Rather than representing special value because of economies of scale or expertise coming from the grand vin, the second wines seemed to have prices that were inflated by the reputation of the grand vin.

On a recent visit to Bordeaux, I gained an entirely different impression and it seemed generally that there had been a great improvement in the quality of second wines. Possibly a contributory factor was that many of the wines I tasted were from the recent excellent 2009 vintage, but beyond quality per se, it seemed that the second wines showed better representations of communal typicity and genuine resemblance with the styles of the grand vins. As I was tasting at chateaux, I did not have the opportunity to compare second wines with other wines at similar price points; perhaps they too have improved equally. One factor that may have contributed to an improvement in the relative quality of the second wines is that now they too are subject to selection; the rejected lots may go into a third wine or be sold off. “The second wine used to be a dumping ground – everything was put in it – but now it’s much more an independent brand, and there is selection for it,” says Bruno Eynard at Chateau Lagrange. John Kolasa at Chateau Rauzan Ségla sees it also as a spin-off from the recent swingeing increase in prices. “The improvement in second wines is due to the increase in pricing, which drove people away from the grand vins to the second wines.”

My tastings may also have been biased by the fact that they included some of what are always the very best second wines, those of the Premier Grand Cru Classés, which usually sell at prices around those of second growths. Although their second wines will be ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, I’m not sure there’s going to be so much difference as to justify the old description of second wines: certainly these at least are not for instant gratification. It remains true that most second wines still have more Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, but the reasons may have shifted a bit. Problems with Merlot becoming too ripe limited the amount that could be used in some grand vins in 2009 and 2010. An incidental consequence is that some second wines have higher alcohol levels than the grand vins, a real inverse of the traditional situation that the best wines came from the ripest grapes.

Are second wines good value? That’s the crux of the matter and I’m not sure I have a clear answer yet. When they did not seem to represent the style of the chateau, I felt that they could never be good value, no matter how much less in price than the grand vin, because they could not aspire to be the real thing. Now it seems that the quality and style are there; but lifted up by the huge increase in prices in 2009 and 2010, and the failure to reduce prices sufficiently in 2011, the wines seem expensive.

Tasting notes

Carruades de Lafite, 2011

Dark purple color. Fresh black fruits on nose with just a whiff of blackcurrants. Quite tight and constrained on the palate, showing elegant but tight fruits with firm tannins. At this moment it gives an impression of coming from somewhere between Pauillac and St. Julien, with the tautness of St. Julien but also the power of Pauillac. Slowly fruits of red and black cherries release in the glass. There’s a touch of heat on the finish. Very fine.   12.7% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2011

Dark purple color, almost inky. Sight impression of nuts as well as black fruits on the nose. Fruits are more rounded, deeper, concentrated than on the Carruades, in fact more Pauillac-ish. Tight and reserved with fine tannins evident on finish. A very fine, classic structure for aging.   12.7% 92 Drink 2017-2032.

Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, 2011

Rather stern, brooding, black impression on nose. Dense fruits on palate with slightly nutty aftertaste. Insofar as you can tell at this early stage, this is more approachable than the grand vin because the structure isn’t so apparent, but it is pretty dense for a second wine. The style is somewhat similar to the grand vin, but with less roundness.   13.0% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Margaux, 2011

Even sterner and more brooding than the Pavillon Rouge. Great fruit density hides the structure more than in the second wine, but then the austerity kicks in on the finish. Very dense and backward with the highest IPT (measure of tannins) ever recorded at Chateau Margaux. The vanillin or new oak is evident, but the nuttiness and perfume comes up the glass, suggesting a fragrant future.  92 Drink 2018-2030.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly, 2011

Fresh nose of youthful red berry fruits; the fresh, light, palate follows with a slight bite on the finish, perfectly pleasant, but – at least not at this stage – showing much character. It’s quite a fine, elegant, style, and slowly some more chocolaty notes emerge on the finish, suggesting that the wine may round out as it develops, but I have some question as to how far this vintage really reflects the style of the chateau.

Château Haut Bailly, 2011

There’s an impression of sweet, ripe, black fruits on the nose. It’s ripe and round on the palate with nice freshness, with a touch of chocolate coating from smooth, supple, tannins. Overall a light, elegant, impression with a faint suggestion of the classic cigar box, in fact a very characteristic Pessac. Not a great vintage, but certainly a good one that should show well for the mid term. The step up in quality from Le Parde is really obvious.   12.8%

La Croix de Beaucaillou, 2009

A darker color than the Lalande Borie (which is effectively regarded as the third wine), this shows more classic sternness to the nose, and a lot more weight and roundness on the palate. Now we turn to black fruits, showing as blackberries tinged with blackcurrants, and you can see something of the style of the grand vin – second wines are certainly coming on. There’s a good sense of refined structure on the mid palate with the fruits showing restrained elegance in a style characteristic of St. Julien.   13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2022.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou  2009

Not so much darker than Croix de Beaucaillou as more purple in hue. Restrained nose gives impression of tight black fruits. Lots of concentration here, with the deep, black, fruits matched by tight tannins, but closed at the moment. Typical of the top level of St. Julien vis à vis Pauillac, the restrained elegance shows a fine texture of taut tannins. promising long life in the classic style. Fruits are certainly full, but not overbearing; reports of excess exuberance were exaggerated.   13.6% 93 Drink 2016-2031.

Carruades de Lafite, 2009

Slightly nutty nose yet with some savory undertones. Round, elegant, soft, yet there is that underlying sense of the power of Pauillac. Although the tannins are supple, the wine is very restrained; the Cabernet seems more dominant than its proportion of 50%. The palate softens a little in the glass but the nose remains muted. The tannins need to resolve to release the elegance of the fruits. Even as a second wine, this is not for instant gratification, but needs time.   13.6% 90 Drink 2016-2031.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2009

Restrained nose with faintly nutty tones of blackcurrants. Softer and rounder, yet more concentrated, than Carruades. Tight grained tannins create a very fine texture, but show as dry on the finish. That hallmark core of elegance, of precision to the fruits, runs through the wine.  Even after only a few months, the initial exuberance has calmed down. “The wine has had good evolution, the exuberance we had at the beginning is no longer there; at the en primeur I was not sure we were in Bordeaux, now we are coming back into Bordeaux,” says Director Charles Chevalier. It’s that smooth roundness on the palate and the long velvety finish that tells us this is Lafite, that quality of seamless layers of flavor is already beginning to show.   13.6% 94 Drink 2018-2038.

Les Forts de Latour, 2009

The nose offers spicy sensations with cinnamon at the forefront. Fruits on the palate are intensely black, with blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums at the forefront. The underlying structure is tight, with firm tannins leaving a bite on the finish – but it’s a sense of grip rather than bitterness. The great fruit is partly hidden by the density of the tight supporting structure. This is going to need some time, but it should age for a very long time.   13.6% 92 Drink 2017-2029.

Château Latour, 2009

I asked M. Engerer, the Gérant at Latour, when he thought this wine would be ready to start drinking. “Well it depends on your taste,” he said, “if you are new and young to wine, perhaps five years, but we might prefer to wait longer.” Personally I think it would be infanticide before a decade is up. The intensity is indicated by the inky appearance. The nose is quite restrained. The palate is more subtle than the Forts de Latour in that its components are less obvious, principally because of the balance of fruits and structure. There’s great fruit density, but it’s held back by the structure; on the other hand, the structure is less obtrusive than in the Forts de Latour because of the fruit density. The main impression here is of the reserve of the wine, of a sense of power holding back, so massively constructed that it will take a decade to come around. This will no doubt become a classic like great Latours of the past.   13.7% 94 Drink 2022-2040.

Château Beychevelle, 2009

More fruit evident than the Amiral, but still with classic mineral freshness of St. Julien. More generous on the palate, but also more evident depth and supporting structure. Very much in the character of St. Julien, elegant rather than powerful, with supple tannins giving a furry finish with chocolate overtones. Oak is evident in the soft impression of vanillin and nuts on the finish. Fine, but will be finer yet when the planned increase in Cabernet Sauvignon occurs.   13.85% 89 Drink 2015-2025.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2009

Typical Cabernet impression of fresh black fruits, following through to a light, elegant, palate, but with chocolate undertones. The Amiral is lighter than the Beychevelle but also a little more austere (perhaps because it has 58% Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Beychevelle’s 48%). The light underlying structure is a  good balance to the fruits, with unusually classic representation for a second wine. This should age nicely for the mid term; drink over the next decade.   13.6% 87 Drink 2013-2022.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2005

Touch of garnet at rim shows start of development. Black fruit impressions have hints of spices. Very nicely balanced, developing well in the elegant style of St. Julien. Given the softness on the palate you would not think this was three quarters Cabernet Sauvignon, although there is a nicely defined structure. This gives a slightly fresher impression than the grand vin, almost you might say a tighter impression on the palate, because the fruits are not so well rounded.   13.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

Château Beychevelle, 2005

Rather restrained on the nose. First palate impression is of furry, chocolaty, tannins coating soft fruits – softer than the Amiral – and then the structure kicks in on the finish and you see the underlying strength of the wine for aging. Beautifully balanced, elegant, black fruits have lost the initial fat, but not yet started into middle development. The quality of the grand vin shows in a roundness that’s not on the Amiral.   13.0% Beychevelle 90 Drink now-2027.

Mediterranean Cabernet

My reference point for characterizing Cabernet Sauvignon has always been Bordeaux, or more specifically its Left Bank. Even though the wines are blended, and even though only a minority actually contain a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, still the top wines–especially the Grand Cru Classés of the Médoc–track the character of Cabernet Sauvignon, from its herbaceous nature pre-1982 to its overt fruitiness today. Those wines are still my standards for comparison when assessing varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World, even though acknowledging that in some regards Bordeaux now follows the imperatives of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. But the same factors are in play, most especially the balance of fruit to structure.

But this reference point has failed me in looking at Cabernet Sauvignon from the Mediterranean. It’s partially effective in considering the super-Tuscans of Bolgheri; although the tannins there are softer, the structure somehow sunnier, there remains a relationship. I had a much more difficult time applying criteria from Bordeaux to a vertical tasting of Mas de Daumas Gassac. Since 1978, Daumas Gassac has been producing a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend at Aniane. It’s usually around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (although the extremes are as low as 65% or as high as 90%), and the other varieties in the blend have changed somewhat over time. Initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, and Syrah; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties,” which includes a real hodge podge.

I don’t think that’s the determinative issue anyway, which is more a reflection of two or perhaps three things. The Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in the  mid seventies with a selection that the nursery told them had come from Bordeaux in the first part of the twentieth century. “It looks quite different from modern Cabernet Sauvignon; in fact the Bordelais sometimes have difficulty in recognizing the variety,” Samuel Guibert told me. It forms long thin bunches with very loose grapes, and a crocodile skin, and gives low yields. The interplay of climate and terroir is also distinctive, since the vineyard is in a small valley with a pronounced microclimate that gives extreme diurnal variation. And there’s a determination to make a traditional wine. “We belong more to the Bordeaux 1961 attitude – wine with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity. Only 15% new oak is used to get finesse,” says Samuel.

Although the avowed intention is to produce a Grand Cru of the Languedoc, I was not easily able to relate the wines to traditional claret (by which I suppose I mean Médoc pre-1982). I felt that the wines fell into two series: those dominated by perfume rather than herbs, very soft and gentle on the palate; and those with a more savory bent. Aniane is right on the edge of the Languedoc, close to the point at which there are said to be Atlantic as well as Mediterranean climatic influences–indeed the small AOCs of Malepère and Cabardès not far away are allowed to plant the Atlantic grape varieties–and I’ve been wondering if what we might be seeing here are the differences between years in which Mediterranean influence or Atlantic influence dominated the weather pattern. In the Mediterranean camp come the vintages of 2001, 1990, 1985, and 1983; in the Atlantic camp come 2005, 1996, 1988, 1982. The Atlantic vintages are more obviously Cabernet-based; it can be more difficult to perceive Cabernet in some Mediterranean vintages. The extremes were 2005, which showed a pretty clear Cabernet rasp; and 1985, which I might have mistaken for Grenache. It’s especially interesting when successive years show quite opposing characters: 1983 versus 1982, and possibly 1986 versus 1985, although it was difficult to tell because the 1986 was slightly corked. The Atlantic years showed something of that lacy, delicate, structure of claret of years gone by; I would find it harder to relate them to the Médoc wines of today. The Mediterranean years seemed to have as much in common with wines of the south as with Bordeaux.

The most impressive wine, in the proper sense of the word, was the Cuvée Emile Peynaud from 2001. Every year, the wine from a plot of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon is vinified separately. The decision is made only just prior to assemblage whether to include it in the regular bottling or to make a special cuvée. The first vintage was 2001; subsequent vintages have been 2002, 2007, and 2008. The wine was darker than any of the regular bottlings, almost inky, redolent with aromas of new oak, and intensely fruit driven on the palate. In a blind tasting it would give a top Napa Cabernet a run for the money. I’d expected a more intense version of the regular wine, but this was almost its antithesis. I feel about it somehow the same as I do about Petit Verdot; fantastic to taste, you can see at once what a few of barriques of this quality would do to lift the blend, but do you want to drink it by itself? I think if I were to split a bottle over dinner, I’d rather have the Daumas Gassac 2001.

The killer vintage of Daumas Gassac was the 1988. I was with a group of contemporaries, who remember when claret was claret, and as the 1988 was tasted, there were appreciate murmurs praising the delicious herbaceousness. This could easily have been a Grand Cru Classé in the style of a good vintage from around the seventies, with that lovely balance of fruit to savory elements, so poised you have to hesitate as to whether fruit or savory is the dominant influence, with complexity added by that very subtle suggestion of herbaceousness. No one would dare use the word herbaceous in modern Bordeaux, but in turning herbaceousness into a pejorative description of wine, we’ve definitely lost something.

Tasting notes

Wines were tasted in June 2012 except for 1983 and 1982 which were tasted in November 2011.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2005

Still youthful in appearance. A rush of perfume when the glass was filled, then some savory undertones. The sense of perfume carries over to the palate, with a faint aromaticity identifying its southern origins, but quite fresh on the palate, although different from Bordeaux’s savory tang. Then a Cabernet rasp shows itself on the finish. which shows more dryness as time passes in the glass, making the wine seem a little rustic. Tertiary development seems about to begin. Moderate alcohol emphasizes the lightness of the style – no heavy handed modern extraction here. The wine certainly rounds up in the glass, so perhaps that initial rustic impression will ameliorate with time.   12.5%  88 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2001

Maturing now to a garnet appearance and giving an immediate impression on the nose of some development with a whiff of tertiary aromas replacing an initial, more perfumed impression. The palate makes a more savory impression, although with still with the soft edge of the south. This now presents quite an elegant balance, indeed, delicate would be a fair description. It’s certainly much lighter than Bordeaux would be from the same vintage. Character is a bit amorphous, the wine somehow fails to declare itself, although it’s very appealing for current drinking.   13.0%  89 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1996

Restrained nose somewhere between perfumed and savory. Smooth palate, but with a faint rasp of Cabernet on the finish. At first the tannins seem just a touch rustic, but then the wine reverts to elegance as the fruits take over. That rasp disappears with time in the glass, although the fruits show a nicely rounded Cabernet character, which is to say just a suspicion of savory development. This is an Atlantic vintage.   13.0%  91 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1990

Delicate and refined, with just a touch of structure showing on the finish, but a sense of dilution as the fruits begin to lighten, slightly nutty and delicate, with a faintly glyceriny impression on the finish. The fruits are soft and appealing, but does it have enough character? It’s superficially delicious, but without any determined structure may not improve any further, and may lose its interest as there isn’t really enough flavor variety to withstand much further lightening of the fruits.  This is clearly a Mediterranean vintage. 12.6%  88 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1988

There’s an immediate impression of Bordeaux here with a faint but delicious herbaceous touch showing: the wine immediately produced appreciative noises all round. It’s right at the tipping point from fruity to savory with just a faint touch of perfume adding to the herbs to show that you’re in the south. There’s still enough structural support for a few years as the wine continues to develop in the savory direction. You might think here in terms of a Grand Cru Classé from Bordeaux, except that the structure is a bit softer. This takes you back to the time when you could use herbaceous as a description in the context of delicious, and when cabernet was elegant rather than powerful. This is the most classically “Atlantic” of the vintages.  12.7% 92 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1985

Following the path of Mediterranean vintages, this is now turning somewhat nutty on the palate, and this is a bit too noticeable on the finish for comfort. Certainly it’s soft and appealing, in an overtly southern way, with nice fruits – but not a lot of structure behind. This might be difficult to place as Cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting; I think you’d be more inclined to think in terms of warmer climate varieties. No doubt this reflects the brutal summer with very hot conditions through September and October.  87  Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1983

Still a fairly dark color. An intriguing slightly floral note on the nose, almost a whiff of violets à la Margaux, conveying a vague sense of garrigue but one that is more floral than herbal. The ripeness of the fruits is evident on the palate, giving a kick of sweetness to the finish. Black fruits on the palate show more as blackberries than blackcurrants, but with a fleshiness on the midpalate, presumably from the Merlot and Syrah. Still youthfully vibrant, and I’m struck by the warm tones of the palate with chocolaty hints on the finish. Age has brought a definite softness rather than the savory development that’s common in Bordeaux; in fact, the wine shows surprisingly little tertiary development. 13.0% 92 Drink to 2017.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1982

The immediate impression on nose and palate is that this wine more shows Atlantic influence with a resemblance to the savory development of old Bordeaux. The nose is relatively savory compared to the gentle, soft, perfumed fruits of the 1983, and there’s a very slight touch of herbaceousness. This spectrum follows through to the palate, which makes a more classical food wine than the 1983. There is lovely flavor variety right across the palate. A faint impression of cedar develops on the finish, giving a Graves-like impression. There are the first signs of the fruits beginning to dry out, as the wine becomes dumb in the glass to show an austere finish of residual tannins, then reversing itself to let the fruits hang out again. At peak moments there’s a lovely balance and classic impression of Cabernet, but it is getting close to time to drink up. 13.0% 93 Drink to 2015.

Cuvee Emile Peynaud, 2001

I do wonder what Emile Peynaud would have thought of this wine, which comes at you in a full knock-your-eyes-out international style. Much darker in color than the Daumas Gassac of the vintage, with an intense nose of pure Cabernet­ – sweet, ripe, dense, rich, nutty, a touch of vanillin­­ – loaded with new oak. This is a lovely wine: no one could complain about the quality. But it’s not simply a more intense version of the Daumas Gassac bottling, it’s altogether in a different style, modern where the Gassac is traditional, oaky where the Gassac relies on fruits It doesn’t seem even to have started to age. 13.0%  91 Drink now to 2022.

The Noblesse of Cabernet Sauvignon

Visiting chateaux in the Médoc as research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I spent a morning at Chateau Latour. The visit did not get off to a very promising start. We were met by Gérant (general manager), Frédéric Engerer. He started by asking me if I had seen an article in a recent issue of the World of Fine Wine, about blending Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought for a moment and realized this must be the article I wrote in which I asked whether Cabernet grown in Bordeaux or in the south of France could make a complete wine or whether it needs to be blended. I concluded that there is something intrinsic about Cabernet Sauvignon, at least as grown in France, that requires a blending partner (although not necessarily always the classic partners of Bordeaux). “Ah,” I said, “I wrote that.” “Ahah,” said M. Engerer, pouncing, “I disagree with everything you said, it is all wrong, it is complete nonsense.” We had what you might call an interesting discussion.

I should let M. Engerer speak in his own words. He is passionate about Cabernet Sauvignon. “You look at single varieties, you look at the blend, you say the blend is better, so Cabernet needs Merlot. This is absolute nonsense. It’s all a matter of Cabernet Sauvignon—it’s the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon alone that determines the quality. The only reason that we put in some Merlot is that it’s old, it’s located on gravelly soil, it behaves like Cabernet Sauvignon; the Merlot is as masculine as the Cabernet Sauvignon (the vines are 80 year old Merlot on relatively sandy soil.)  It’s not that we need Merlot, you need to add it when the Cabernet Sauvignon is not up to the standard. I am happy with Cabernet Sauvignon alone, it is not the Merlot that makes a difference. You see huge differences in the Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots, in the flesh around the tannins, in some plots it is missing, and in these the Merlot may be necessary.”

M. Engerer sees Cabernet Sauvignon through the prism of Chateau Latour. “The character of Latour depends on the terroir. Maybe we should plant some Syrah but it is a bit complicated. You would see the same effect. The nobility of the whole thing is just the terroir. I know your feelings for Cabernet Sauvignon, I don’t want to diminish its importance, but it needs the terroir. The Cabernet Sauvignon is just the instrument, it is just the tool to express differences between terroirs.”

“So you feel the character of Latour would show in the same way with a different variety?” I asked. “I don’t know. With the same variety I measure huge differences in quality between the different parts of the appellation. I would think this would be true with another grape variety. The question (you are asking) is whether Cabernet Sauvignon is neutral enough as a variety to express the terroir better (than another variety).”

I followed up by asking, “In that case, do you regard Latour more as blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots rather than a blend of varieties?” “Well, Latour is a single vineyard, only a limited number of plots make the Grand Vin. I want to plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Merlot in some areas. First growth terroir maybe allows Cabernet Sauvignon (alone) to make great wine. Should we go to Cabernet Sauvignon alone in all the best areas? That’s a very good question. The [increasing] maturity of Cabernet Sauvignon, especially the flesh around the tannins, makes Merlot more and more unnecessary. The main cause is better viticulture and canopy management. When Merlot is planted in the best areas, they would probably make an even greater Cabernet Sauvignon.”

This prompted me to wonder, “Well the real question is what will you do when you replant, will Merlot be replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon?” The answer was partly historical and partly pragmatic. “The Grand Enclos originally was Cabernet Sauvignon with some complantation with Cabernet Franc. This was replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon alone.  But the decision may be to put in Merlot in some places. All the bottom slopes are harvested separately – we call this the Cabernet d’Argile (Cabernet from clay). It may be better to plant Merlot in these areas, so there may be a few rows of Merlot in the lower, wetter, areas. Otherwise the question is what to do when you could make either good Merlot or Cabernet?”

“The style of Latour, this incredible length, backbone, refinement, is better expressed by Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. When the Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe, it’s always a step up above the best Merlot. When we look at the ideal Merlots in Pomerol, we think that the natural playground of Merlot is not in the Médoc. Our Merlots, even the oldest, are always a little lower, with the exception perhaps of one or two vats. If only we could have a vat or two of Merlot from Pétrus…” M. Engerer concluded wistfully.

I thought I would pursue the key question. “You’ve never made a wine that is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon?” “No, but we’ve tried. Every year we taste the final blend without the two vats of Merlot, and honestly, I always prefer the ones with the Merlot because there’s a little essential touch from the old Merlot vines that adds interest in the blend. But among individual vats, Cabernet Sauvignon is always top… There’s a noblesse to Cabernet, you know, it has everything, freshness, purity of line, fruit, when we have ripe Cabernet Sauvignon it’s at 13%, and inevitably the Merlot is at 14%—I’m not at all a fan of high alcohol wines.”

The logical extension of M. Engerer’s position, it seems to me, is to argue that if you took only your very best Cabernet lots, you would not need a blending partner, and you could make a complete wine. But if only the very best lots could do this, the collateral question becomes what proportion of your Cabernet is good enough to make a complete wine. This is more a matter of intellectual curiosity than a practical question, of course. In places other than Bordeaux, perhaps they’d be more tempted to take out some top lots of Cabernet Sauvignon for a monovarietal special cuvée—but of course then you come back to the question of what that does to your Grand Vin. All of this is interesting food for thought, but practically speaking, my view remains that you get better wines by blending in Bordeaux. But I’m going to give M. Engerer the last word. “The world is full of intellectual rubbish.”

Cabernet Sauvignon: Bordeaux versus Languedoc

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape that conjures up immediate impressions of stern black fruits, austere if not herbaceous when young, slowly giving way to more varied and savory impressions as the tannins resolve and the fruits lighten up. It’s not a grape where there are violent feelings about yields, as there are with Pinot Noir, and there is a far wider range of wines, from entry levels to cults. I thought it might be interesting to see how much typicity Cabernet Sauvignon displays in entry level wines, and whether Bordeaux remains competitive with the Languedoc, where there have been significant plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, presently amounting to 18,000 hectares compared to Bordeaux’s 28,000 hectares. The mandate for comparison was that all wines should come in bottles and should be priced under $15 (£10).

My first impression was of the similarities of the wines rather than their differences. Whether they were exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon or blends where Cabernet Sauvignon was as little as half the total (the rest usually being Merlot, but sometimes in Bordeaux including Cabernet Franc), the general style for entry level wines was for soft, red fruits with a sweet impression on the palate. No, I’m not accusing the producers of leaving residual sugar, but there was a soft, glycerin-like impression on many of the wines, which was reinforced by a slightly aromatic impression that to me conflicts with the character of Cabernet. The only consistent difference between Bordeaux and Languedoc is that the wines of the Languedoc tended to just slightly more evident aromatics, and most of the Bordeaux had a slightly greater impression of tannic dryness on the finish. None of the wines had any trace of herbaceousness: this has now completely disappeared from the lexicon of descriptors for Cabernet Sauvignon irrespective of origin or vintage. If there is indeed a common stylistic objective based on suppleness of fruits and minimal tannins, the Languedoc’s warmer climate gives it an advantage.

The main difference between the regions is price: the Languedoc wines are on average around two thirds of the price of the Bordeaux. This bangs home the difficulty of Bordeaux in surviving at the AOC level: it’s not competitive with the Languedoc, let alone with the New World (although admittedly there’s more difference of style when you compare with the New World). Part of that difference is due to the restrictions of the Appellation Contrôlée in Bordeaux, compared to the greater freedom in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc. One major place for this effect is the higher yields allowed in the Vin de Pays, from which I was expecting the wines to be less concentrated. However, virtually all the wines struck me as not exactly over cropped, but certainly liable to benefit from any increase in concentration. I really could not see what benefit came from the yield limits around 50 hl/ha in the AOC compared with potentially higher yields in the Vin de Pays. The Languedoc wines have a marketing advantage that they all state Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, whereas almost all the Bordeaux require detailed examination of the back label to determine the character of the blend.

The wine that actually most conformed to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should taste like these days did not come from Bordeaux: it was Gerard Bertrand’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pays d’Oc, which unusually for the region retained some typicity of Cabernet in the form of a restraint to the black fruits. The most interesting comparison was between Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Mouton Cadet, for many years the archetypal Bordeaux blend, and his Cadet d’Oc. The Cadet d’Oc was my runner-up from the Languedoc, with some impressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Mouton Cadet gave more of a interdenominational impression, with soft fruits, pleasant enough, but no sense of constituent varieties or place of origin.

The two most expensive wines offered an interesting contrast. I thought the Bordeaux Réserve Spéciale from Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) was trading on the name of Chateau Lafite; it was a little riper and more rounded than most from Bordeaux, but there were wines from Languedoc at half the price level that seemed to offer a similar flavor spectrum. Château Larose Trintaudon, a rather large Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Médoc offered the most classic impression of Bordeaux in this tasting, which is to say that the fruits gave a savory rather than aromatic impression.

One moral from the tasting is that it’s hard at this level if you expect Cabernet Sauvignon to mean more than a marketing term on the label. It leaves me wondering whether there is really any point to varietal wines at the entry level, since they rarely offer any pointer to the character of wines at higher levels.

Two from Baron Philippe de Rothschild

Bordeaux, Mouton Cadet, 2009

Initial impressions are quite round and fruity, with black fruits of cherries and plums, and sweet ripe aromatics giving an impression that’s more of the south than Bordeaux; until a characteristic dryness kicks in the finish, this does not seem particular representative of Cabernet (it has 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc to the 65% Merlot). There isn’t really quite enough fruit density or flavor interest to counteract the dryness of the finish.   13.5% 85 Drink now-2015.

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 2009

Fairly restrained on the nose with some hints of spicy black fruits, which follow through to the palate. This has a touch of high toned aromatics suggestive of black cherries or plums, and there are some firm tannins drying the finish. Well made, with the edges of Cabernet distinctly softened in the southern style, but retaining enough tannic backbone to justify its varietal label.   13.5% 86 Drink now-2016.

Best entry level Cabernet Sauvignon

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve Spéciale, Gérard Bertrand, 2008

Slightly spicy suggestions to the black fruits of the nose. Some sense of character to the palate, with those spices showing against the black fruits, and an impression of ripe tannins on the finish. The tannins are ripe enough to complement rather than detract from the fruits This is one of the few entry level wines from Languedoc which seem to speak of Cabernet: perhaps it’s more overtly aromatic than you usually, find in Bordeaux, but it conforms more closely to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should offer in the modern climate than most wines from Bordeaux actually offer.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.

The most classic Cabernet Sauvignon

Château Larose Trintaudon, Haut-Médoc, 2006

The nose offers some slightly spicy red and black fruits with a suggestion of character, which follows through to the palate. This wasn’t a very generous vintage, and that’s reflected in the wine, but there is a good balance with the fruits showing some flavor variety; the finish is a bit flattened with some dryness showing from tannins, but this is unmistakably a wine from the Médoc that is true to its origins. However, I would not place this very high up the hierarchy of Cru Bourgeois.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.