Alcohol and Tannins in St. Emilion: Cheshire Cat Years?

Austerity is not a word that often comes to mind in the context of St. Emilion, but it did at this year’s New York tasting of Grand Cru Classés, which compared the 2010 and 2012 vintages. This gave me much pause for thought by comparison with the tasting two years ago of the 2009 and 2010 vintages (Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion). Last time round, the main impression (driven by 2009 but not that much different in 2010) was the softness of the palate, with fruits supported by furry tannins. This time the impression was of much tighter wines; the 2010s have tightened up, and the 2012s can verge on tough. These were not the lush, approachable wines for which St. Emilion is reputed; words like fleshy or opulent never appeared in my tasting notes.

Alcohol levels were punishing, often around 15% for 2010, and a half percent or percent lower in 2012. Now that the fruits of 2010 have lost their initial youthful enthusiasm, alcohol and tannin are driving the palate. What showed as a structural backbone to the fruits two years ago now seems more skeletal. It’s fair to say that alcohol is not directly obtrusive in many wines, but it has an indirect effect in enhancing the bitterness of tannins on the finish. Some wines have an almost tart quality at the end, which clashes with the fruits rather than refreshing. The traditional generosity of Merlot in St. Emilion is largely missing, and I often get an impression biased more towards Cabernet Franc than the dominant Merlot.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 2012s are starting out where the 2010s leave off, with an almost sharp tannic finish often dominating the fruits. This makes me quite concerned as to how they will show in another two years’ time. I don’t often get the impression that the fruits will really emerge when the tannins resolve. Most chateaux have managed to achieve decent ripeness in the tannins, but occasionally you get suspicions of green. The 2012 wines have less alcohol than the 2010s, but they also have less fruit concentration, so the problem of maintaining balance as the fruits thin out is more or less equivalent. The fruits make them seem like wines for the mid-term, but I’m not sure the tannins will resolve in time; and they don’t have the stuffing for the long term. You might expect the greater fruit concentration to let the 2010s resist better, and I’m not so much worried about whether the fruits will outlast the tannins, which are mostly quite fine, but I have a concern that 2010 may be the year of the Cheshire Cat: what will dominate when the tannins resolve is the grin of the alcohol.

Very few of these wines, from either 2010 or 2012, are ready to drink: most need from two to four years more. Of course, this situation would scarcely be a surprise to any survivors who remember Bordeaux of the pre-1982 era. I will say that I saw more evidence of character in these wines than in the 2009s (and the 2010s two years ago) when there seemed to be a sort of interdenominational quality to them: the present question is whether you can handle the character of a bitter tang at the end. There’s evidently quite a lot of extract in today’s wines, and it’s hard to say whether that will give them the stuffing to develop well as tannins resolve, or whether it will remain awkward. In most cases, I preferred the 2010 to the 2012, but in those instances where I preferred the 2012, it was usually due to lower alcohol letting the fruits speak more freely.

My favorite wines were Chateau Fombrauge and Grand Corbin-Despagne in 2010 and Chateau Yon Figeac in 2012.

Chateau Fombrauge, 2010

Slightly nutty, soft impression from nose. Palate well balanced between black fruits and refreshing acidity; still something of a tannic bite at the end. The structure is there but not obtrusive, and the overall impression is refined, showing precision in the fruits. 91 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Grand Corbin-Despagne, 2010

Some black fruits poking through restrained nose, leading into good balance on palate between refined black fruits and tannins with chocolaty overtones. A little tight at the end but should soften in next year or so. Refined impression avoids the bitter tang at the end of many wines. 90 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Yon Figeac, 2012

More sense of black fruits and spices than in the 2010. Refined palate makes an elegant impression, with a touch of tannin at the end. I like the sense of precision in the fruits and the balance. Fine structure should offer some support for aging. 90 points, drink 2017-2026.

STE

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Cru Bourgeois Show Strengths and Weaknesses in 2012 Vintage

With prices either stratospheric (in good vintages) or simply unreasonable (in poorer vintages) for most of the Grand Cru Classés or their equivalents, and given the trend towards a richer, more alcoholic, international style, it’s a fair question where to turn if your preferences lie towards the old tradition of Bordeaux, meaning wines that have elegance and freshness.

I have felt for some time that the best of the Cru Bourgeois may be a more interesting alternative than the second wines of the great chateaux, as prices have remained reasonable and styles have not been so influenced by fashion. But I may need to rethink this after the New York tasting of Cru Bourgeois from 2012. Granted this was only a relatively small selection of the (almost) 300 Cru Bourgeois, and the most notable were not present (not to mention the fact that the best known chateaux in this category, which had been at the highest level in the old hierarchy, withdrew from the classification when it became a single tier when the new system was introduced).

Each chateau at this tasting brought the 2012 and one previous vintage from one of the last three years. I was generally a little disappointed in the 2012s. They were all well made wines, but seemed to fall into one of two categories. About half seemed to have made efforts to make the wines more approachable, with an initial softness on the palate. The problem here, to my mind, is that this leaves the wines between two stools: neither showing the lush fruits that are in fashion in New World, nor showing the traditional more savory spectrum of Bordeaux. I don’t think immediate gratification is in the DNA of Bordeaux. The wines are quite nicely rounded, but I was left wondering whether they are competitive in today’s market against varietal competitors from the New World. The other half showed more of Bordeaux’s usual asperity when young; but supposing these wines will peak in, say, three years’ time, the question becomes whether consumers will want to buy them now to hold for the future.

I find it difficult to raise much enthusiasm for the 2011 vintage. Most of the wines are tight, with a certain lack of underlying generosity which makes it seem doubtful whether they will open out. There’s a tendency towards green notes. My impression now is less favorable than it was at the introductory tasting of the 2011 vintage a year ago, when the youthful fruits were more in evidence; in the past year, the fruits seem to have lightened, but the tannins have not. I think you just need better terroir than most of the Cru Bourgeois possess in order to have been able to get to a satisfactory degree of ripeness in 2011. (By contrast, I thought the 2011 Grand Cru Classés often managed to show elegance and could be nice restaurant wines–if they were half the price!)

The 2010 and 2009 vintages showed their character through the prism of Cru Bourgeois, with 2010 tending to precision (which sometimes takes the form of tightness in the Cru Bourgeois at this point) and 2009 often nicely rounded (but somehow mostly lacking follow-through on the palate).

Here are some wines that illustrate the character of the 2012 vintage and appellation at this level. The most elegant wine from the Haut Médoc was Clément Pichon, somewhat in the style of the femininity of Margaux just to its north. In Margaux, Haut Breton Larigaudière is still a bit tight, waiting for the elegant fruits to emerge. Illustrating the disappearance of Cru Bourgeois from top appellations, there weren’t any examples of St. Julien or Pauillac. La Haye shows the typical tightness of young St. Estèphe. To the west, Château Lalaudey is a good representation of Moulis, with a lighter take on the style of the great communes. Château Rollan de By is a good illustration of what can be achieved in the Médoc. There are some nice wines in the 2012 Cru Bourgeois–but you do have to look for them.

Burgundy Diary part 2: Domaine Leflaive – the Quintessence of Puligny & the 2012 Vintage

Domaine Leflaive has become very grand. The first time I visited, twenty years ago, things were casual: I called the domain when I was in Beaune, and made an appointment to visit that afternoon. I met with Anne-Claude Leflaive, who had recently started the experiment with biodynamics, and we had a long tasting, punctuated by discussion about potassium levels in the soil (a sensitive issue in Burgundy at that time, as much of the soil had been poisoned over the previous decades). This time, an email to the contact address on the web site produced an automated response to say that there are no direct sales to new customers, no visits for consumers, and professionals should contact the local importer.

Once you arrive in Puligny, you have to know where to go, as there are no signs to the domain, and no nameplate at the entrance; perhaps to discourage casual visitors, there’s a line with domestic washing hanging up at the entrance to the rather grand courtyard where the domain is located in the Place des Marronniers. But just to complicate matters further, the Place des Marronniers no longer has any chestnut trees and has been renamed the Place du Pasquier de la Fontaine, perhaps to represent its gentrification with a fountain. This is a sad turn of events for an area proud of its history. But the wines of Domaine Leflaive are more splendid than ever.

LeflaiveTW3Domaine Leflaive was one of the first to take up biodynamics, is probably the most ardent biodynamic practitioner in Burgundy, and has been fully biodynamic for almost twenty years. From 1992 to 1997 there were experiments in which some vineyards were organic and some were biodynamic, and the wines were bottled separately. As a result of the trial, Anne-Claude decided in 1997 to go biodynamic. That was a difficult vintage when acidity generally dropped fast, says general manager Antoine Lepetit, but the biodynamic vineyards retained acidity better than others. Better acidity has continued to be one of the main benefits of biodynamics.

Winemaking is fairly traditional, with everything going into oak, a delay of about 6 days before indigenous yeast start fermentation, and then a delay of some months before malolactic fermentation happens. (Because Puligny has a high water table, cellars are above ground, so temperature responds to external conditions and it’s too cold for malolactic fermentation over the winter.) After a year in barrique, there is assemblage, and then the wine rests on full lees in small stainless steel tanks for most of another year. “We keep barrels for up to five years so we buy 20% of new oak each year. Bourgogne has 10% new oak, village has 15%, there’s 20-25% for premier crus, and 30% for grand cru (apart from Montrachet which is often one barrel). It’s been the same for the past twenty years. What’s important for us is to give the wine no more oak than it can take,” says Antoine.

We tasted all the premier crus from 2012, and the grand crus from 2011. “2012 is not the easiest vintage to taste now, it has high dry extract,” Antoine warns me. Indeed, the wines are pretty reserved at the moment. The Puligny has faintly smoky notes emphasizing a mineral impression, but hasn’t yet developed that steely backbone of minerality that is the hallmark of Domaine Leflaive. Clavoillons (for which Leflaive has almost a monopole as the domain owns almost all of the Cru) shows some steel but is relatively muted, Folatières is dumb on the nose but more rounded on the palate than Clavoillons, Combettes (where there is only a tiny plot) has a more forward impression of stone fruits, and Pucelles is the knockout of the vintage, showing a delicate nose, smoky palate, and silkiness on the finish. The vines of Bienvenues Bâtard are the oldest in the domain, and the wine shows lovely citrus with notes of oak showing at the end, Bâtard Montrachet has more depth on the palate, and Chevalier Montrachet takes the prize for the most subtle mélange of citrus versus stone fruits, smoke versus minerality, fruits versus steel. It would be vinicide to drink any of these wines now, but if forced to choose one for dinner, I would have the Pucelles.

Even the Bad Times are Good: Mastering Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre and Bordeaux

Visiting France in the Spring of 2013, it seemed likely it would be a difficult year: it was cold everywhere and bud break was substantially delayed. Things never really caught up during the growing season. Harvest was small and just about achieved ripeness.

The previous year had been difficult in many places: conditions in the Loire and in Bordeaux were somewhat similar overall, with rain in July, dry conditions in August and September, and then rain again. Harvested earlier, the whites may have come off better than the reds in Bordeaux. At the eastern edge of the Loire, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume produced quite rich 2012s, better than 2011 where there had been problems with rot.

At tastings of the 2012 and 2013 vintages in Sancerre and Pessac-Léognan, I was struck by the comparison between the regions and the vintages. The whites from Pessac offer a fascinating contrast with Sancerre. They range from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, which should be more or less directly comparable, to wines with up to 50% Sémillon. The more common use of oak in Bordeaux tends to soften the wines; and where new oak is used the flavor profile is quite distinct at this young age. Where Sémillon is high there is more of a nutty texture.

But Sancerre is no longer as distinct from Bordeaux as it used to be: the consequence of greater ripeness is that there are Sancerres where the fruits point more to peaches and apricots than citrus. Today, effectively Bordeaux and Sancerre each show a range of styles, with quite a bit of overlap. The old image of grassy herbaceousness has definitely gone.

Bordeaux tends to be citrus driven when there is 100% (or close to it) Sauvignon, with only occasional notes of grassiness. With Semillon the fruits become rounder and more stone-driven. But Sancerre is achieving a similar effect through greater ripeness. The richest Sancerre might be confused with Bordeaux; and some of the 100% Sauvignons in Bordeaux might be confused with Sancerre.

There seems, at this stage anyway, to be more of a distinct difference between 2012 and 2013 in Pessac than in Sancerre. In Pessac, acidity is noticeably more pressing in 2013, with fruits tending towards lemon and grapefruit, whereas 2012 gives more of a stone fruit impression.

In Sancerre, I noticed a great difference as to whether the current wine on offer was the 2013 or 2012 vintage. The difference was not so much in the intrinsic quality of the vintages (barrel samples show that 2013 was actually quite successful in Sancerre) or even the fact that the 2012 had had a year’s extra aging. The real point was that producers whose current vintage was 2013 had bottled it after no more than about four months on the lees; whereas producers who had not yet bottled 2013 and whose current vintage was 2012 had usually given the wine around eight months on the lees. The extra complexity from longer exposure to the lees was really evident. Is this the major difference between the artisanal and commercial approach?