Is 2017 Port the Richest Vintage Since 1945?

“You may be confused why we are sitting here for the second year in a row, says Rupert Symington, as he introduces the tasting of the 2017 Port vintage in New York.” There was a general declaration for 2017, as there was a year earlier for 2016. “A general declaration is a rare event, and according to our records, a general declaration in two successive years hasn’t happened since 1873. We had no qualms in saying we would break with tradition, because when we looked at 2017 and 2016 we had two outstanding but very different vintages.”

David Guimaraens explains the difference. “2016 was a cooler growth season with rain that gave good growth. 2017 was much drier; the season was hot and dry with an early growing cycle right from the start. There were five days over 40 degrees in June, which causes quite a bit of burn, with loss of grapes reducing yield.” 2017 was such a dry year that the source of the Douro—800 miles away—dried up. Charles Symington notes that Grahams had the earliest picking even, August 28 at one vineyard, where harvest finished on September 15, a few days before they would usually start.

António Agrellos, Christian Seely, Dominique Symington, Rupert Symington, Charles Symington, Adrian Bridges, and David Guimaraens presented the wines.

The 2016 vintage, tasted at the same point last year, showed a remarkable uniformity of fruit purity, giving the wines a sense of linearity and precision. The 2017 vintage is richer and broader, with a velvety first impression that hides the underlying structure. Although it is very rich, the sweetness is subservient to an overall sense of texture, and is rarely obtrusive or dominant, especially as many of the wines have a tang of freshness at the end. The vintage is amazingly approachable because the sheer intensity of fruit carries everything before it. There is certainly structure, but the tannins are supple, and the main impression at this stage is the smoothness of the vintage. If 2016 is a cerebral vintage, 2017 is sensual.

“It is no secret that vintage port was made to age, but we have to remember that most people now want to drink the wine much sooner,” Rupert Symington observes. Well, for the second year in a row, those who want to do so can start their Vintage Ports almost immediately.You could drink most 2017s now, at the point of release.

The approach in Port has always been different from other regions. “Unlike other areas, our top wines are blends from several estates, and our second wines come from single estates,” Charles Symington notes. Yet one novel feature this year was that the sixteen wines at the tasting included three new single-vineyard wines, something of a break from the approach of releasing single vineyards only in secondary years. More like other regions, each of them showed an increase in finesse compared with the house brand. Looking at the major brands, among the Big Three, Fonseca is broad and deep, Taylor is the most reserved, and Graham is the most elegant.

With no precedent for more than a century for two general declarations in a row, there may be some nervousness in Porto as to whether the market can absorb the wine. Back to back vintages in Bordeaux or Burgundy don’t seem to encounter any special difficulty, although sometimes the second vintage gets relatively overlooked. (One advantage of the en primeur system for châteaux may be that consumers are forced to make a decision before they know the character of the next vintage.) Port 2016 and 2017 are so different that I suspect most people will have a clear preference for one or the other.

Tasting notes (in order of wines tasted):

Cockburn’s

Quite fragrant perfumed nose is almost floral. Sweet, ripe, raisiny on the finish, giving the impression of very hot conditions. A little spirity at the end. Cassis on nose and palate melds into spice and pepper on the finish. Richness is more obvious than sugar, emphasizing the sense of power.

Croft Port

Smooth, silky, rich on palate with hint of raisins, not quite overwhelming. Lovely elegance shows on palate, which is a touch lighter than most vintage ports this year.

Croft, Roeda Serikons

Smooth and silky, a very fine impression where the silkiness of the tannins is evident on the finish, which has just a touch of raisins.There’s an impressive sense of the finesse of the texture on the palate. Like Croft, the style is (relatively) lighter than most.

Dow’s Port

Complex varied nose makes a floral impression. Palate shows black plums, with those floral notes turning clearly to violets in the glass. Great sense of finesse emphasized by fact that Dow, as always, is not quite as sweet as other vintage Ports, and there is a good sense of freshness on the finish.

Fonseca

Smooth palate with breadth of black fruit flavors cut by faint sense of minerality. Intense sense of berries hides the tannins. A touch spirity on finish, with raisiny notes coming out a bit more in the glass. Reminds me of the 1963.

Graham’s

Typical smoothness and elegance of the house giving sense of precision of black fruits, quit lifted aromatics or plums and blackcurrants, concentrated but elegant, with faint touch of raisins at end, but cut by tang of freshness.

Graham’s, Stone Terraces

Lifted aromatics with savory intimations adding to exotic impressions. Deep and opulent but with good sense of precision. Overall impression is finer rather than broader relative to Graham’s.

Wiese & Krohn

I would not go so far as to call this austere, but there is a mineral impression to the nose that takes the edge of the obvious richness. Reflecting the vintage, the palate seems is relatively soft and aromatic. Only 1,400 cases made.

Quinta do Noval

Elegant nose suggests both richness and finesse. Full, rich, and concentrated on palate, but with tang of freshness, even perhaps a hint of mint, on finish. Very fine representation of vintage. Only 2,500 cases made.

Quinta do Noval, Nacional

More concentrated and tighter than Noval, leading to an almost dry impression on finish. Fine and precise on palate, with that (deceptive) sense of dryness cutting the richness. Seamless layers of flavor disguise the powerful tannins, which give a brooding impression. Only 200 cases made.

Quinta da Romaneira

Very rich impression with tannins evident only by some dryness at very end, but powerful and concentrated, with sense of iron in the soil cutting the ripe softness. The strong finish makes it evident how powerful the structure is. Only 1,100 cases made.

Taylor Fladgate

Rich impression is cut by that sense of iron in the soil, already you can see how grip and structure counter the rich fruits. Faint hints of raisins and slightly spirity impression at end, A classic expression of the Rolls Royce character of Taylor.

Taylor Fladgate, Vargellas Vinha Velha

A finer, more precise impression than Taylor itself, but again with that sense of grip to the palate. Not so overtly voluptuous, greater sense of iron and structure, very firm, very concentrated, with a sense of restraint as it waits to develop layers of flavor.

Quinta do Vesuvio

Fragrant nose with some savory hints cutting the ripe fruits. Very rich on palate, spicy with aromatics moving towards blueberries, and just a touch of raisins at end, but cut by tang of freshness at end to offset the voluptous character.

Quinta do Vesuvio, Capela do Vesuvio

More fragrant than Vesuvio with orange blossom impressions to nose, very fine palate with quite perfumed lifted aromatics. Precise impression, tannins showing notes of black tea on finish, tang of freshness at end.

Warre’s

Fragrant nose leads into sweet palate making very fine impression. You might describe the palate of very fine, precise black fruits as elegant and feminine, with notes of tea leaves at the end adding to the impression of delicacy.

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A Comparison of the Last Four Bordeaux Vintages

An unusual tasting in London offered the chance to compare the four most recent vintages of ten Bordeaux chateaux, scattered across both left and right banks, 2018 from barrel just post-primeur, 2017 close to release, and 2016 and 2015 from the two most recently released vintages.

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The tasting was held in the elegant quarters of Church House in Dean’s Yard of Westminster Abbey

The basic impression is that the move towards more approachable wines has accentuated with the most recent vintages. It remains to be seen whether 2018 is a great vintage, but it’s really surprising how approachable the wines are, even at this early stage. There are moments when you forget you are tasting barrel samples. The best wines are deep, concentrated, rich and black, with chocolaty tannins, but most do not seem as profound as 2016. 2017 is a lighter vintage—restaurant wine is a phrase that often occurs in my notes—and again the wines seem relatively approachable, although fruit concentration is not as great as in 2018, so the tannins are not hidden so effectively. 2016 is coming out of its shell to reveal elegance, and in a reversal of impressions at the time of release, 2015 seems less ready. If there’s a single message, it’s that the art of using new oak has been combined with the taming of the tannins to give a much more refined impression on release.

The other news is that the improvement in second wines continues. Several châteaux showed second wines, often from 2015. Whereas twenty years ago they might have been light and soft compared with the grand vin, now they are often lovely wines in their own right. The other surprise is that many 2015 second wines resemble classic Bordeaux in not really being ready yet. In fact, in those cases where both grand vin and second wine were available, an inexperienced taster might be confused, because the greater fruit concentration in grand vins hides the tannins better, giving the second wine a more superficial impression of structure. A second wine from a great year may now sometimes be as good as the grand vin from a lesser year.

La Mondotte 2016 provided an outstanding example of elegance for St. Emilion, and was my top wine in the tasting from the right bank, while 2018 offered a more powerful impression. In other Neipperg wines, Canon La Gaffelière also shines in 2016, showing its underlying structure more clearly since some of the puppy fat has blown off since release, Clos l’Oratoire shows the house smoothness without so much structure, while Château d’Aiguilhe from Castillon shows structure and minerality with less of the smoothness of St. Emilion. Elsewhere on the right bank, Château Canon shows quintessential elegance in 2016, although 2015 seems to run quite close, and Gazin continues its move to greater elegance, although in weaker vintages at risk of losing the characteristic generosity of Pomerol.

Margaux’s representative at the tasting, Château Rauzan-Ségla, showed quintessential elegance, although I felt these vintages had less pizzazz than before. The second wine, Ségla, really closes in on the grand vin in 2015. From St. Julien, there were somewhat of extremes, with Branaire-Ducru rather on the lighter side through all vintages, but Léoville Poyferré showing its international style, most obvious in the youngest wine, from 2018. The second wine, Pavillon de Léoville Poyferré, has become very good, and as it is less overtly modern, you might even ask if it provides a truer representation of St. Julien.

In Pauillac, the fine combination of elegance and structure in the 2016 illustrates why Pontet Canet has been moving towards the super-seconds. A successful 2015 is only a touch away from the 2016. In St. Estèphe, I was surprised at the approachability of Château Montrose in 2018, and concerned that it may be losing its famous longevity.

It’s getting harder and harder to find holdouts for tradition, but the tasting made it obvious that the standard has never been higher, that the top years have a new elegance, and that the worst that can be said of lesser years now is that they make nice restaurant wines for the mid term.

Has Chapoutier lost its way?

I have been drinking @M_Chapoutier wines for a long time, and have had some splendid tastings when visiting there in the past. The commitment of such a large company to biodynamics speaks to a concern for quality. The tasting room in the old headquarters in Tain l’Hermitage is always thronged with visitors, who seem to appreciate the wines.

ChapoutierI have always admired the series of bottlings from the individual lieu-dits of Hermitage. I have found Chapoutier’s top vineyard in St. Joseph, Les Granits, to produce reds and whites that often rival or exceed Hermitage. Admittedly, it is scarcely reasonable to expect generic wines to reach these heights, but I look for some sense of typicity when tasting a series from, say, Cornas, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Hermitage.

Until five years ago, I got that sense of typicity. Then on a visit to Chapoutier, the wines seemed to show less character, and the single vineyard releases seemed to have less conviction. So I revisited last week, this time going incognito to the tasting room to see what sort of experience a consumer would get.

Michel Chapoutier is known as an advocate for Marsanne. “The structure is the bitterness,” he says. “Marsanne is the only grape variety that can live a long time without much acidity.” So Chapoutier makes monovarietal Marsanne from several appellations.

I often have a problem with the bitter phenolic finish of Marsanne, but this was certainly not the case with Chapoutier’s current vintages of St. Péray or St. Joseph, rather the reverse, where the bitterness has been so tamed that the wines seem to lack typicity. I was concerned that there seems to be a certain sameness to all the whites, even including the Condrieu (which is 100% Viogner), in an emphasis on soft, attractive aromatics without much sense of anything behind.

I have a similar reaction to the current reds. The house style has become forward, fruity, approachable, with tannins really tamed. The Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage (an assemblage from several lieu-dits) has never matched the single vineyard bottlings, but seems to have become lighter and even, dare one say it, a touch more rustic. Certainly it’s a notch up from Crozes-Hermitage or St. Joseph, but I really look for more in Hermitage.

I’m leaving Chapoutier’s cuvées from the southern Rhône out of this account, because I’ve never been so persuaded by them as those from the northern Rhône. (And indeed, I have the same reaction to southern Rhône wines from other negociants in the north.)

I left Chapoutier for the second time feeling slightly confused as to why I felt they might have lost their way.  Whereas previously I found many wines to be interesting, now they seem more to be going through the motions. So far as I can pin down the issue, I expected to see more distinctive differences among the whites, and greater precision and tautness in the reds. Perhaps an attempt to please the market by rounding off the edges has backfired.

Some tasting notes:

Crozes-Hermitage, Les Meysonniers 2017. This comes mostly from the granite villages. Faintly buttery nose. Soft and attrative, nicely rounded on palate, a little nutty, perhaps a touch too nutty on finish. Crowd pleasing rather than profound.   88 Drink now-2023.

Condrieu, Invitare 2017. Faint sense of asperity to nose. Quite stylish and refined, aromatics coming back on finish. Very pleasant.     89 Drink now-2021.

St. Péray, 2017. Soft, a little aromatic, not much stuffing,     88 Drink now-2021.

Cornas, Les Arènes, 2016. Very smooth and silky, very much a modern Cornas, really plays to fruity character. Attractive and pleasant, but is this the soul of Cornas?     88 Drink now-2023.

St. Joseph, Les Granilites, 2016. Soft, pleasing and only a little aromatic. Some aromatics come back on finish, but general impression is somewhat. Elegant rather than powerful. 89 Drink now-2022.

Hermitage, (Monier de la Sizeranne) 2014. Some mature impressions, very approachable, attractive, more stuffing than Crozes-Hermitage or Cornas, but seems awfully approachable for young Hermitage.    90 Drink now-2025.

Here for comparison are notes on the Monier de la Sizeranne tasted on previous visits to Chapoutier:

 2010 (tasted April 2013). Warm red fruits, slightly nutty and tarry, turning to a touch of ffreshness. In fact, the freshness picks up on the palate, givving almost the same quasi-sour impression as the Cote Rotie. Seems a little on the thin side for Hermitage: tannins are light in the background.   14.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

2000 (tasted July 2003). The color is a medium/deep purple/pink with a narrow pink/purple rim. The nose shows black peppers, green olives, and a hint of barnyard. The wine is supple on the palate, well rounded, with the long finish marked by dry tannins. There is a good body and balanced acidity. Hints of blackcurrants develop. There is an interesting combination of power and elegance.

1989 (tasted October 2008). Still quite dark in color. Typical nose of Syrah from the northern Rhône: dense black fruits, but cut by some faint barnyard notes. Following through to the palate there are black plums, cherries, blackcurrants, again all cut by a faintly astringent barnyard quality and slight rasp to the finish that brings real complexity. Now at its peak but there is no rush to drink.   91 Drink now-2016.

A Fascinating Visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa

A visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa was a revelation about the movement to finesse in St. Joseph, as much for whites as for reds. Gripa is one of the old-line domains in Mauves, in the heart of the St. Joseph appellation. “I’m Fabrice, Bernard’s son,” says Fabrice Gripa when I arrive, “I took over the domain in 1993, now I’m the winemaker and manager (and owner). My family has been in France since the seventeenth century, and involved in wine since then; my grandfather made some wine, but mostly sold in bulk, as glass was expensive and he bottled wine only on special demand. My father started bottling in 1974 and since then we have bottled everything.” The address of the domain is in the main street through Mauves, but in fact the premises–an old building and caves–are round the back and quite extensive.

The domain is just behind the main street through Mauves.

Vineyards are half red and half white, all in St. Joseph except for 5 ha of white in St. Péray. “All our St. Joseph plots are in the “berceau” (the heart of St. Joseph),” Fabrice says, “divided between Mauves and Tournon.” Winemaking is traditional. “We are quite classical, there’s really no innovation here.” In each appellation, there are two cuvées, a general blend, and a selection from the best plots (called Le Berceau for St. Joseph in both red and white). The first new cuvée was introduced in 2016, Le Paradis from St. Joseph. “I planted the vineyard 20 years ago and now it’s good enough to be made alone,” Fabrice says.

Whites are an unusually high proportion of production here. Fabrice is interesting about them. “White is a novelty in this area, until recently it was 99% red. The whites used to be powerful. People here like whites that are quite massive, they don’t like acidity. Even now if you try to use a northern vineyard for whites, people don’t like it, they think it has too much acidity. The difficulty with Marsanne is that it needs oxidation, but it becomes over-oaked quite easily. There was no experience with Roussanne until the recent replanting. Then it was trial by mistake.”

“In the 1990s, the most important thing for reds was to be big and concentrated. Everyone was taking grapes off to get down to 35 hl/ha. They made the whites the same way, so the whites were very strong and powerful. It works in Hermitage because the terroir compensates, but in St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, the wines were heavy. When I grew up, whites were heavy and bitter, and made for aging. It’s very easy to put wine into new barrels for two years and then to sell it, but to find the right balance of oak and aging is more difficult.” Gripa’s whites age in barriques or demi-muids with 10-15% new oak.

“The big difference between St. Péray and St. Joseph is of course the soils, the climate is similar, but there’s granite in St. Joseph,” Fabrice explains. The white St. Joseph is 70% Marsanne with 30% Roussanne and is quite aromatic. The Berceau cuvée comes from a single vineyard of 100% Marsanne and is correspondingly more powerful. If you drink the whites young, open a few hours ahead. In St. Péray, Les Pins is 70% Marsanne and 30% Roussanne, while Les Figuiers is 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne, and includes old vines. Usually at 3-5 years the fruits become less obvious, and savory almost herbal notes appear, a bit sooner for a hot vintage, a bit later for a cool vintage. “4-5 years is the best time to drink the white,” Fabrice says, but then he pulls out some older vintages. After ten years, the aromatics have changed completely, from fruity to savory. The revelation is a 20-year old St. Péray, all full of savory flavors. It is fair to say that Les Figuiers is the most elegant wine I have had from St. Péray.

By contrast with the whites, Fabrice prefers the reds younger. “The Syrah with Hermitage has a stage when it goes down quite low, but then it comes back. St. Joseph stays down. I prefer the St. Joseph between 4 and 5 years, I find Syrah less interesting after 10 years than earlier.” The St. Joseph red can be quite stern and tannic on release, but after 3-4 years becomes more fragrant, mineral, and precise. Le Berceau comes from a plot of vines first planted in 1920 in the St. Joseph lieu-dit. Its richer, deeper, more concentrated fruits make the tannins less obvious even though the wine is more intense. It can veer from overtly powerful in hot vintages to relatively fresh in cool vintages.

Le Paradis is a selection from a 2 ha plot­–the rest goes into the St. Joseph blend–and there are only 2,000 bottles. It spends a year in demi-muids with 25% new oak, followed by a year in 4-5-year barriques, and is very fine, with a great sense of precision and tension. Its silky tannins show all the tautness of granite. “Most of the reds of Tournon are powerful,” Fabrice says, “and I wanted to change tradition with this terroir, which is really different.”

Hearing Fabrice’s thoughtful analysis of the reds and whites, not to mention tasting the range through both young and old vintages, made this one of my most interesting visits to the Northern Rhône last week.

Impressive Range of Northern Rhone Wines at Cave de Tain

I don’t visit cooperatives very often, but sometimes they can give an insight into a region that’s otherwise hard to obtain, especially when they produce wines from all the appellations that can be compared directly. One great cooperative is La Chablisienne, another is the Cave de Tain, which I visited last week.

Founded in 1933, this is the most important cooperative in the Northern Rhône. All the appellations are included (as well as varietal wines from IGP Collines Rhodaniennes). Most of the grapes come from members of the cooperative, of course, but the Cave owns some vineyards, including 21 ha of Hermitage (which came from the estate of Louis Gambert de Loche, who founded the cooperative). This makes them one of the major owners of Hermitage (the others being Chapoutier and Jaboulet). The Cave de Tain is a modern building located just next to the hill of Hermitage.

The introductory range is called Grand Classique, and offers an unusual opportunity to compare all the appellations of the Northern Rhone with similar vinification. In whites, Crozes-Hermitage has more character than St. Joseph, while Hermitage is distinctly richer and deeper. In reds, Crozes-Hermitage is immediately pleasing, but St. Joseph has more grip and character, and Cornas presents a smooth modern impression, yet retains a sense of earthiness in the background. Hermitage is smooth and moves more in the direction of elegance than power.

Each appellation also has an organic cuvée, marked bio, and in each case the fruits are just a touch rounder, riper, and smoother than Grand Classique. (If the only difference is in viticulture, the comparison makes an effective argument for the advantages of organic culture.)

Special cuvées from each appellation come from selections of the best parcels. In whites, Les Hauts d’Eole Crozes-Hermitage is 60% Marsanne, 40% Roussanne, compared with the 100% Marsanne of Grand Classique, and gives a classier impression with greater concentration. The Grand Classique Hermitage is 100% Roussanne and in another league; Au Coeur des Siècles, the special selection Hermitage from select parcels, is 100% Marsanne, giving a richer impression, but also is a touch more rustic, so this is a rare case where I prefer the “regular” cuvée to the special selection.

The red special cuvées are generally worth the small extra cost compared with Grand Classique or Bio. Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts de Fief is a more serious wine than the other Crozes-Hermitage cuvées. St. Joseph Esprit de Granit is from a selection of parcels, and shows the extra tautness of granite compared with the other cuvées. While the Cornas Les Arènes Sauvages is not at all savage, it has greater grip than the other Cornas cuvées. The smooth, sleek character of the Cornas cuvées clearly show the inclination of the Cave de Tain towards modernism. In Hermitage, the special cuvée Gambert de Loche (named for the founder of the coop) has the most sense of structure, and more grip than the other Hermitage cuvées.

The coop maintains an impressive quality across the entire range, and is certainly well in touch with modern trends. It has a huge modern building in Tain l’Hermitage, with a boutique and tasting room that is always busy. Just round the corner is the Cité du Chocolate, where Valrhona has created a museum of the history of chocolate, so this is an interesting neck of the woods.The museum of chocolate is a major attraction in Tain l’Hermitage.

Playing Russian Roulette with the First Growths

At a wine dinner with Bordeaux first growths from 1985 to 1996, the big surprise was not the quality of the wines, but the huge variation between different bottles of the same wine. Although in each case the wines had been acquired from the same source and stored together, there was not a single instance in which two bottles of the same wine tasted the same.

The 1985 Haut Brion was the greatest puzzle. The first bottle showed a funky, quasi-medicinal nose, which seemed to suggest the possibility of Brett (unlikely though that might seem for this château), although the palate cleared a bit in the glass. It was actually subtle enough that I quite liked it. The second bottle went completely in the opposite direction, showing elegant fruits, but a squeaky-clean character with  that came close to eviscerating the character of Haut Brion.

Next came Angelus 2003. (Yes, I know this was not a first growth at the time, but the organizers evidently took a broad view of the term. Anyway, you wouldn’t balk at including Mouton Rothschild pre-1973 in a first growth tasting.) First bottle was fairly restrained, with rather flat aromatics, and the character of Cabernet Franc pushed a bit into the background. It never came to life. A second bottle showed more aromatic lift with a greater sense of structure at the end. A third bottle showed a more exotic impression, more sense of the precision of Cabernet Franc, with heightened sense of elegance; the very antithesis of any thought that the heat of 2003 might have given a jammy wine, it was one of the more elegant wines of the evening, while the first bottle was one of the most disappointing.On to Mission Haut Brion 1990, where the first bottle was absolutely true to the typicity of the chateau and appellation, with elegant fruits and faint sense of cigar box in the background. The next bottle showed flattened aromatics to the point at which all the life seemed to go out of the wine. While the first bottle was fabulous, the second was merely ordinary.

We went into high gear with Ausone 1996, where the aromatics of the first bottle seemed to point more to the elegance of the left bank than the richness of the right bank. Beautifully integrated, with a sense of seamless layers of flavor, the wine showed something of the ethereal quality of a great vintage of Lafite. A second bottle had a slightly sweaty nose, a faint sense of gunflint, and gave an overall impression of reduction. A third bottle was between the first two, with a flattened profile but not obviously reduced, and a fourth was almost as good as the first.

The first bottle of Lafite 1986 was a bit flat aromatically; although showing the precision and elegance of Lafite, a sense of austerity on the finish made it seem almost stern. I took the sense of a somewhat hard edge to the wine to be the character of the vintage and was uncertain whether it would dissipate with further aging. But a second example showed that this was the character of the bottle rather than the vintage: it really sung, with that ethereal quality of Lafite showing as a seamless impression of precise, elegant fruits, all lightness of being.

With Mouton Rothschild 1989 there was another sort of surprise. The first pour (from a decanter) showed the plush power of Pauillac, very much Cabernet-driven, with black, plumy fruits. A second pour (from another decanter) showed just a little more aromatic lift. The difference between these two was much slighter than between any of the preceding pairs. Here’s the rub: the Mouton came from a single Imperial. The fact that there was any difference at all is surprising, although I have had this experience before, when some pours from an Imperial seemed to be corked while others were pure (I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial). Interestingly this was also from a Mouton 1989.

The notion there can be differences within a single (large) bottle is disturbing. I think this warrants a proper investigation. I will undertake a thorough experiment if given a supply of Imperials of first growth claret (Mouton from 1989 would be preferred). We will extract the cork and take samples from the top and bottom using a very long pipette, without stirring up the wine at all. Then we will know if proximity to the cork and oxygen on the one hand, or to the sediment on the other, makes any difference within the bottle.

It is not so surprising there should be differences between bottles. After all, if you buy a case of wine and store it for ten or twenty years, you can see at a glance that every bottle has a different level. Differences in ullage imply differences in exposure to oxygen that might well affect the flavor spectrum. But the comparisons in this tasting went well beyond minor differences, to the point at which in each flight there was one bottle that was unquestionably first growth, and one bottle that was disappointing enough to cast doubt on that status.

One moral is that if you are at a tasting where there are second pours from a different bottle, always get a fresh glass for the second pour. Another is to ask whether there is really any point at all in tasting notes, projections of aging, or recommendations, if every single bottle is going to be different. Certainly this is not what the punter expects when he buys a bottle. The culprit must be the cork (inter alia, the sommelier reported that he had never rejected so many corked bottles in preparing for a tasting, so the worst cases had already been removed).

Is there any alternative? Experience with New World wines suggests that using screwcaps might cause the wines to age more slowly and a little differently, but with greater consistency. I’m sure the argument in Bordeaux would be that it’s a bad idea to risk damaging the product of one of the most successful wine regions in the world, but is it so successful if there is no predictability after twenty years?

Vintage Report: Bordeaux 2016

I must start with a confession: I did not taste all of the 150 wines on offer at the UGCB tasting of the newly released 2016 Bordeaux. One afternoon was not long enough. But from tasting all except a few of the lesser château (lesser being a relative term when the tasting is restricted to “grand crus”), this is a great vintage.  Virtually all châteaux show ripe tannins fading into the background behind the fruits. The wines are beautifully balanced, with the underlying structure overt only in a few cases of lighter fruit density. Yet the wines are well structured, with the density of tannins evidenced by greater palate fatigue compared, for example, with last year’s tasting of the 2015 vintage.

The word that appears most often in my tasting notes is “elegant.” This is not an exuberant vintage; even the modernists are quite restrained, and should show classic elegance as they mature. It’s a less obvious vintage than, say, 2009 or 2010, with a certain sense of restraint. Alcohol is not at all evident.

Margaux shows the usual variability expected from the large size of the appellation. Some wines display that classic feature of Bordeaux: fresh acidity, which in conjunction with good fruit density should ensure longevity. For châteaux where acidity is less evident, the beautifully rounded smoothness of the fruits is more evident. Rauzan-Ségla is the height of silky elegance, Rauzan-Gassies shows a step-up in refinement, Giscours is not as robust as usual, Durfort Vivens has moved towards modernism, Lascombes has backed off a bit, Prieuré Lichine is the most overt modernist, while Brane Cantenac, Ferrière, Kirwan, Marquis de Terme are on the lighter side.

St. Julien gives a lovely impression of precision on this vintage. Palates don’t seem quite as round as those of Margaux, but acidity is always balanced, and tannins are nicely supple in the background. The overall impression is perhaps a touch lighter than in Margaux, but more refined. The vintage is more even here, not surprising given the small size of the appellation. Beychevelle shows its traditional dryness, Gruaud Larose is elegant but perhaps lighter than usual, while Talbot is smoother than its old dry style. Lagrange seems to have lightened up from its usual modernism, Langoa Barton is elegant and a touch less weighty than Léoville Barton, which as always shows the quintessential elegance of the AOC, Léoville Poyferré shows its adherence to modernism in a faintly nutty palate, and Gloria this vintage outshines St. Pierre with greater sense of precision.

When I tasted the first Pauillacs, they seemed to have more weight than St. Julien, but to follow the same general style of precision, without the usual plushness. Batailley is quite assertive and faintly medicinal, Grand Puy Ducasse has classic reserve, Grand Puy Lacoste is classy but in a lighter style, Cleric Milon shows restrained power. Then I came to the great trio of Lynch Bages, Pichon Baron, and Pichon Lalande, all showing smooth, round, plushness , and great finesse. They will surely become classics, with d’Armailhac only a touch behind.

St. Estèphe really shows the strength of the vintage. Even the lesser wines (a relative term in this context) show well rounded fruits and convey an impression of elegance. There is no sign of the hardness that the AOC sometimes develops. Phélan Ségur is on the lighter side, Ormes de Pez and de Pez are rounder and riper than usual, Lafon Rochet is a little tight but elegant, and Cos Labory shows a movement in the direction of Pauillac.

Pessac-Léognan did not seem so plush, but there is a great sense of elegance, with most châteaux showing an attractive balance between black fruits and barely perceptible tannins and acidity. Domaine de Chevalier is a standout for its precision; Smith Haut Lafitte has overtaken Pape Clément in the modernism stakes; Haut Bailly is quite tight and elegant rather than plush; Haut Bergey is dry and fine; Carbonnieux is slightly spicy and more supple than usual; Carmes Haut Brion is quite reserved; the structure shows through at de Fieuzal; Latour Martillac is on the lighter side; Larrivet Haut Brion impresses with the elegance to come; and La Louvière, Olivier, Malartic Lagravière are attractive already.

St. Emilion shows a richer character with the warmth of Merlot coming through, but the wines show restraint rather than the almost overwhelming sense of richness of some earlier vintages. Canon and Canon La Gaffelière are the trumps, with a great sense of finesse and elegance. Larcis Ducasse, La Gaffelière, and Pavie Macquin have more structure than most, making them less approachable now, but promising longevity. Beauséjour Bécot is warm and attractive, La Dominique shows a step-up in refinement, Dassault is attractively nutty, Figeac is very restrained and more backward than most, Troplong Mondot promises elegance, Trottevielle is finer than usual, and Valandraud continues its move towards classicism.

Pomerol does not seem as opulent as usual, but shows a finer, more elegant style in this vintage. The warmth of Merlot is still evident, but the best wines show a real grip and potential for longevity. The gap between Pomerol and St. Emilion seems less than usual. Beauregard makes a modern impression, Bon Pasteur is fine and silky (with a nod of obeisance to the Médoc in its structure, this quite refutes the notion that Michel Rolland is all about opulence and power), Clinet is less generous than usual, La Conseillante shows the iron in its soul, Gazin is less obvious than usual and more elegant, Petit Village is fine, restrained, and elegant, while la Pointe and Rouget show more the traditional opulence.

The whites from Pessac Léognan tend to a silky elegance. Carbonnieux has more concentration than usual, Domaine de Chevalier is very fine and more obviously Sauvignon Blanc than usual, de Fieuzal, La Louvière, Malartic Lagravière, Olivier all show sweet citrus fruits with a grassy overlay. As with the reds, Pape Clément is tight but promises elegance, while Smith Haut Lafitte goes full force modern with lots of new oak showing.

Lots of botrytis shows on the Sauternes and Barsac, but I was generally a bit disappointed by wines that seemed a little heavy on the palate, without the delicious piquancy that lifts up the great vintages. Bastor Lamontagne is quite elegant, Doisy Daëne, Doisy Vedrines, Lafaurie Peyraguey, and Clos Haut Peyraguey are more unctuous than elegant, Coutet is rich, Guiraud is a step-up in elegance from usual, de Fargues seems less subtle than usual.

The vintage is less variable than usual for reds and dry whites, and gives a sense that this year you can have your wine and drink it. Many wines seem attractive even on release, yet have a fine underlying structure promising an elegant longevity. It’s classic in the sense of balance, yet modern in its approachability.