About Benjamin Lewin

One of 300 Masters of Wine, Benjamin Lewin has published many books, including What Price Bordeaux?, Wine Myths and Reality, In Search of Pinot Noir, Claret & Cabs: the Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Wines of France. He is the author of many volumes in the series on classic wine regions, Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards. He also writes the myths and realities column for the World of Fine Wine and has written for Decanter magazine. His books have been shortlisted for the prestigious Andre Simon and Roederer wine book awards. The blog records interesting wines, people, and experiences encountered while writing his books.

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Port 2016: a Glorious Vintage

The vintage marks a sea change from the tradition that Vintage Port is undrinkable when young. Tasted just before release, virtually all Ports of this Vintage are amazingly approachable and can be drunk even now, except for Quinta do Noval Nacional, which shows its structure more obviously, and perhaps Taylor, which is very firm. “Young Port can take a bit of getting into,” says David Guimaraens, chief winemaker at Taylor Fladgate, “what’s so remarkable about 2016 is how attractive they are now.” There’s a remarkable uniformity of purity in the fruit expression. “The character of the vintage is the purity of fruits and the linear backbone and precision,” says Charles Symington. Whether the new approachability is due to better viticulture, better control of tannins, or improvement in the quality of brandy added to stop fermentation, the result is unmistakable, a case of having your Port and drinking it, as the wines have both immediacy and longevity.

Making Port is not for the fainthearted given the mountainous nature of the vineyards

  • Cockburn comes from one of the warmest spots in the Douro and made back-to-back declarations in 2015 and 2016. Perfumed aromatics on the nose lead into a fresh palate with some almost malic impressions, and just a faint touch of raisins on the finish. It is almost ready! 93
  • Croft shows taut mountain fruit, emphasized by a strong concentration of secondary varieties. Made traditionally in granite lagares, it is silky, sweet, and refined, with a good sense of precision. 93
  • Dow’s is typically fermented a little drier than the average Port, and it’s obviously not quite as sweet as the other Ports of the 2016 vintage, giving a slightly restrained first impression. Light and elegant rather than powerful, with faint acid lift at the end, very pure on the palate with chocolaty impressions on the nose. 92
  • Fonseca has a sense of minerality and precision offsetting the richness of the fruits in this vintage. Elegant yet showing the usual weight of Fonseca, this is a great success for the vintage. 95
  • Graham’s shows a sense of precision and lightness of being, you might almost say airy, but there is a sense of iron in the backbone. “Tannins are so integrated at first impression, you ask, ‘where are the tannins?’, says Charles Symington. This is a classic demonstration of Graham’s elegant style. 95
  • Quinta do Noval opens with a fresh, complex nose, with herbal impressions. Very refined, almost tight, on the palate, with a great sense of precision and an impression that it’s a fraction less sweet than average. 95
  • Quinta do Noval Nacional made only 170 cases in 2016. The nose is sweet and tight, The palate is deeper than Noval, with more sense of tannic structure on the finish, giving very much an impression of old vines. Richness coats the palate and hides the structure, but the tannins show as dryness at the very end. This needs time but will last for ever. 96
  • Quinta da Romaneira has a very lively expression on the nose. Very sweet and rich on the palate, it is more obvious than Noval. The sweetness shows in front of the structure, and it’s weightier, but not as precise as Noval, reflecting its warmer microclimate. 92
  • Quinta do Vesuvio shows a sweet style, in fact its sweetness is perhaps the most evident among all the Vintage Ports. The palate is faintly raisined and faintly malic, with lifted aromatics. 92
  • Taylor’s has a discrete nose verging on austerity. The palate gives a firm impression of iron in the backbone, although the tannic structure is pushed into the background by the fruits. You can see the Vargellas vineyard in that austerity and structure, balanced by the voluptuous fruits from the rest of the blend. This must be one of the wines of the vintage. 95
  • Warre shows its more feminine side, without the weight of the heavy-hitters, but is typically elegant and fresh, and almost ready. 92

The wines were tasted at an event when the major Port Houses in the Taylor Fladgate and Symington groups, together with Quinta do Noval, presented their entire range of 2016 Vintage Ports in New York this week.

 

 

 

Bordeaux 2015: Taming of the Tannins

Judging from this week’s UGCB tasting of 2015 Bordeaux in New York, the vintage is very good, although lacking the sheer wow factor of 2009 or 2005. I see it as a modern take on classic tradition, by which I mean that the wines tend towards elegance and freshness, but without the heavy tannins or herbaceousness of the past, and are relatively approachable.

After a day tasting around 100 chateaux, I had a 1978 Léoville Lascases for dinner: the difference in style is most marked in the delicious tang of herbaceousness marking the 1978. Needless to say, there was not a trace of herbaceousness in any of the wines of 2015. I miss it.

2015 is a relatively homogeneous vintage: there is more or less even success across the board. It is even true that the difference between modernist and more traditional châteaux is much less marked than in some past vintages. In previous vintages the modernists–among which I include Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafitte, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel–have stood out for forward fruits, very ripe and round, sometimes approaching New World in style: in 2015, modernism takes the form of a smooth sheen to the palate, with tannins tamed and very fine. But it’s a general mark of the vintage that tannins are rarely really obtrusive, and the taming of the tannins is likely to mean that, unless it closes up unexpectedly, the vintage will be ready to start relatively soon,.

Appellation character is clear this year.

  • Margaux is very fine and elegant, although there is a tendency for the lighter fruits of the appellation to let the tannins show more obviously than in other appellations. The appellation generally gives somewhat the impression of a lighter year. Durfort Vivens has really revived, with a fine effort that speaks to Margaux, Kirwan has more finesse due to its new cellar, Lascombes is more elegant and less modern than usual, Rauzan-Ségla is quintessential Margaux, and Siran presents a great view of Margaux from the class of Cru Bourgeois.
  • The same sense of elegance carries to St. Julien, except that here the tannins universally seem exceptionally fine in the background, making many wines more immediately attractive; St. Julien is closer in style to Margaux than to neighboring Pauillac. Beychevelle as a very convincing expression of the appellation, Gruaud Larose is very much on form this year, Lagrange seems lighter compared to its usual modern style, Léoville Barton is stylish and elegant, the quintessential St. Julien, while Léoville Poyferré is distinctly more modern.
  • Moving into Pauillac, there is more power in the background, with wines somewhat rounder, but there’s a range from almost rustic to utterly sophisticated. Tannins are held in check by density of fruits, making wines seem relatively approachable. A fine effort from d’Armailhac is almost plush, it’s a good year for Grand Puy Ducasse but it doesn’t have the breed of Grand Puy Lacoste, which is structured and built to last, Lynch Bages is a solid representation of the appellation, Pichon Baron shows the smoothness of its modern style, but this year Pichon Lalande gives an even more modern impression and seems quite approachable.
  • It’s always hard to get a bead on S. Estèphe at the UGCB because so few châteaux are represented, and the top châteaux are missing, but if I got any sense that the vintage was less successful in any one appellation, it would be here. Tannins are well in front of fruits and less tamed than in other appellations: the classic tightness of St. Estèphe tends to show through. None of the wines can be called generous, although Lafon-Rochet gets half way to Pauillac with a smooth palate, Cos Labory shows the tightness of St. Estèphe, and Phélan Ségur seems on the light side for the appellation.
  • Outside of the great communes, La Lagune will be a classic, La Tour Carnet is more modern but not as obvious than usual, Cantemerle is quite smooth.
  • Cru Bourgeois show in similar style to the grand cru classés, but with less refinement and roundness; there isn’t the difference between the classic approach and the luxury wine approach of rich years such as 2009, although the advantage of the grand cru classés remains obvious.
  • Graves has many lovely restaurant wines, that is, well balanced for drinking immediately.
  • In Pessac-Léognan, I did not get much sense of the classic cigar-box in the reds, but the wines did seem a little more granular than the Médoc. Domaine de Chevalier is lovely with its usual crystalline brilliance, Haut Bailly is more granular, Larrivet-Haut Brion is smooth, Malartic-Lagravière is just a touch more tannic, Pape-Clément is not quite as modern in its aromatics as Smith Haut Lafitte.
  • It’s a very good year in St. Emilion, with wines showing the generosity of the right bank, but nicely restrained rather than lush. In fact, restrained is the phrase that occurs most often in my tasting notes. Beauséjour-Bécot is smooth, Canon is beautifully refined, Canon La Gaffelière is a top result for the appellation with layers of flavor, La Gaffelière is true to the structured tradition of the château. Making its first appearance at the UGCB, Valandraud no longer makes the outrageous impression of a garage wine, but seems in the mainstream.
  • Pomerol does not show full force lushness, and is only a little more fruit-forward than St. Emilion, with many wines showing more obvious evidence of structure than usual. The restrained black fruits of Clinet tend to elegance, even Michel Rolland’s Bon Pasteur shows evident structure.
  • Whites are decent but nothing really stood out for me: Graves produced lovely restaurant wines in whites as in red. Pessac-Léognan seems less concentrated than usual, and wines tend to be soft and attractive. Particular successes: Châteaux de France, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafittte.
  • Sauternes are delicious, with Château de Fargues as a standout. A sense of purity makes the wines refreshing.

Overall a very good year, with wines tending to be restrained rather than obvious, most needing only a few years before starting, and probably best enjoyed in the decade after that.