Modernism versus Tradition in the Graves

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the classification of the chateaux of the Graves, the Commanderie of New York held a dinner and tasting this week. All the chateaux had their wines from 2009 out for tasting, and there were older wines at dinner. One day after the UGCB tasting of the 2010 vintage at its first showing, there’s a fascinating comparison between the two vintages, and also looking back to the same wines at the UGCB 2009 tasting one year ago. I was especially struck by the comparison between three wines: Domaine de Chevalier, Pape-Clément, and Smith Haut Lafitte.

Domaine de Chevalier provided a textbook illustration of the difference between the vintages. Always the most precise and elegant wine of Pessac, the 2010 showed all the hallmarks of a classic vintage: lots of tension in the wine, with finely edged black fruits supported by taut tannins. No wine at Domaine de Chevalier is ever going to show forward fruits in the modern style, but the ripeness of the 2009 vintage certainly softened the edges; a year ago it was just starting to show some aromatic development, but today it’s closed up a bit, its homage to the luscious quality of 2009 has backed off, and it’s somewhat reverting to type. It looks like the 2010 vintage will be the more classic and longer lived; it’s certainly far more reserved now than the 2009 was a year ago.

At the other extreme, Pape-Clément has been the most modern wine of Pessac-Léognan since Bernard Magrez started to revitalize it. At the 2009 Bordeaux tasting a year ago, it was one of the most overtly modern wines: very powerful and full of fruits in the modern style, giving a full-throttle impression. You might say it took full advantage of the conditions of the vintage. Although when I asked Bernard Magrez whether Pape Clément had changed more than other chateaux, he said, “No, I don’t think so. The typicity is the terroir, that we can’t change, this is what gives character to the wine. One can’t make a wine ‘international’,” it seems to me that Pape-Clément has been getting steadily richer, with warm, deep, black furry fruits showing a character moving towards the right bank. The 2009 vintage has calmed down a lot in the past year: it’s still somewhat oaky, but the fruits now let the powerful structure show more clearly. In an interesting contrast, the 2010 gives a modern impression of bright black fruits backed by vanillin, but not nearly so overtly as the 2009 did at the same stage. The original impressions of both vintages accord closely with the reputations of the years in the context of a modern style.

The surprise came with comparing Smith Haut Lafitte of the two vintages. Smith Haut Lafitte has been moving steadily in a more modern direction, although not so overtly as Pape-Clément. The 2009 was certainly in the modern style on release, but the 2010 makes it look positively restrained. With lots of new oak showing at first impression, followed by soft, black fruits, and furry tannins, this is far more “international” than the 2009 or for that matter than the Pape-Clément 2010. This is a striking move in the direction of modernism. Perhaps this reflects what Daniel Cathiard told me a few months ago: “We have to listen to our consumers (sometimes). The Americans showed what they like, now the Chinese. There is an influence because we want our wine to be referred, we want to make wine that pleases our customers.” A year on from release, today the 2009 tastes like most 2010s: still modern, but with the edges more precisely defined than they were a year ago. In fact, if you tasted the two vintages blind at this point, it would not be difficult to become confused and to conclude that the ripe, forward, fruits of the 2010 were typical of the 2009 vintage, and that the greater precision of the 2009 was typical of the 2010 vintage.

The hit of the evening at dinner was the 2000 Haut Bailly, which has reached a peak of smooth, firm, elegance, with a subtle balance of flavors. It’s close to perfection at this point, with that firm density so typical of Graves, but my one cause for concern is whether it should have got to this stage in only 12 years, and what that may mean for the future. But I would guess it’s good for another decade, at least.

The dinner concluded with a comparison of Haut Brion and Mission Haut Brion 1998. This was one of those split vintages: relatively poor in the Médoc but very good on the right bank. It was also pretty good in the Graves. The Haut Brion and Mission gave the impression of a good or very good rather than top notch vintage, and although they were generally similar in style, in this year the Haut Brion definitely has the advantage over the Mission. A confirmation of the old saying that the first growths show to greatest advantage in years that aren’t absolutely top rated.

The comparison between the 2009s and 2010s was an education in not jumping to conclusions immediately after the vintage. The 2009s have really closed up in the past year; there’s been a more or less continuous loss of lusciousness and increase in structure ever since the en primeurs. This makes you wonder just how accurate the assessments were en primeur.

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