The Taming of the Tannins

You know something dramatic has happened when you are in Bordeaux and your tasting notes of barrel samples mention ‘silky tannins.’ Admittedly the most recent Bordeaux vintages of 2021-2018 showcased at a tasting of Grand Cru Classés in London are all on the lighter side, but ‘silky’ recurs in my tasting notes in wines from St. Emilion to St. Estèphe. Historically, ‘bitter’ would have been more likely to dominate the description of young Bordeaux, but now you sometimes feel the tannins are resolving even before the wine leaves the barrel. Make no mistake, this is a sea change in Bordeaux.

The Grand Cru Classé 2021-2018 tasting was held in the splendid quarters of Church House, Westminster.

I was actually a little disappointed in the wines from Pessac-Léognan (Smith Haut Lafitte), Margaux (Rauzan-Sègla), and St. Julien (Branaire-Ducru). Reflecting the vintages, the wines are relatively lightweight, reflecting their youth they are a little dry on the finish, and reflecting high Cabernet Sauvignon they are a little lacking in generosity. Dry whites were represented only by Smith Haut-Lafitte, where the second wine, Petit Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2020 showed its Sauvignon Blanc (80% of the blend)  less evidently than the grand vin (90% of the blend), which had more pizzazz. In reds,

the 2019 Smith Haut Lafitte offers the liveliest aromatics across the vintages; 2020 Rauzan-Sègla really brings out the silkiness and elegance of Margaux, and Branaire-Ducru 2018 is just beginning to come out, with a style between the softness of Margaux and precision of its home in St. Julien.

Virtually all these wines, across all four vintages, could be enjoyed for dinner now–even the youngest samples. Attractive as they are as potential restaurant wines for short- and mid-term drinking, my disappointment stemmed from the thought that they are unlikely to develop the complexity of the great old vintages. Some of the grand vins of these appellations seemed more like second wines in their approachability, to the point of undercutting the concept that second wines offer the advantage you don’t need to wait as long to drink them as for the grand vins.

Moving into Pauillac and St. Estèphe, I became more optimistic. Pontet-Canet is attractively poised between classicism and modernism; in classic style, none of the vintages are quite ready, although in modern style you do see the plush black fruits of Pauillac before you sense the structure that’s holding them back. Punching well above Cru Bourgeois level, Tronquoy-Lalande (owned by the Bouygues brothers of Montrose) shows only a trace of the hard edge that used to mark St. Estèphe. Dame de Montrose varies from distinctly second-ish in 2020 to rather stylish in 2019. I knew the world had changed when I found the 2019 Montrose to show a silky structure. 2020 is still more evidently structured; 2018 has a great sense of finesse. I remember only too well when Montrose never took less than two decades to soften from its initial toughness. If the wines aren’t quite ready yet, it’s not so much that they need to resolve tannins, but that they need a bit more time to develop flavor variety.

St. Emilion was the star of the show. Second wine Croix Canon shows the elegance and reserve that I always find in the grand vin from Château Canon, and the words ‘silky’ and ‘finesse’ appear in my tasting notes of Château Canon from all four vintages. A dazzling array of four châteaux from Comtes von Neipperg showed what a bargain Castillon is, as Château d’Aiguilhe showed very attractively compared with Clos l’Oratoire; if I were pushed to define a difference, I would say that Aiguilhe is more mineral, Oratoire more fruit-driven, but they share a tendency to move in a more savory direction as they age. With Canon La Gaffelière, tannins vary from silky to supple, depending on the vintage, but are never obtrusive. It was fascinating to compare Canon La Gaffelière (35-55% Merlot, 30-45% Cabernet Franc, 12-20% Cabernet Sauvignon across four vintages) with the small cuvée of La Mondotte (farther east on the limestone plateau, with 75-90% Merlot and 20-25% Cabernet Franc) vintage by vintage. The granular texture of Canon La Gaffelière in 2021 compares with a less obviously fruity Mondotte, whereas in 2020 Canon La Gaffelière is smooth and supple and Mondotte is even smoother but more firmly structured. In 2019, La Mondotte has greater weight and body than Canon La Gaffelière, but is not (at least at this stage, to my mind) as elegant. Yet in 2018, although Canon La Gaffelière is tighter and more precise than 2019, La Mondotte is the standout with very fine structure to support its complex, savory, black fruits.

St. Emilion was so fine that Pomerol, represented by Château Gazin, was eclipsed almost to the point of appearing rustic, or at least more obvious in the relatively straightforward focus on Merlot. In the era of climate change on the right bank, more Cabernet Franc, and even Cabernet Sauvignon, more be the order of the day. Indeed, I wonder whether the over-performance of St. Emilion at this tasting was partly due to the fact that Châteaux Canon and Canon La Gaffelière both have less Merlot and more Cabernet than average for the appellation.

Sauternes was represented by Château Guiraud, showing a typical comparison between 2020, where botrytis came late and the wines are half botrytized, half passerillé, and 2019, where botrytis is more intense all round.

The overall impression left by the four vintages from 2018 to 2021 is that they complete Bordeaux’s transition into the post-Parker modern era, where the tannins are tamed and extraction is not excessive.


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