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.
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.