Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion

A tasting organized by the Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion turned out to be a striking demonstration of the power of the oenologue. The 64 Grand Cru Classés are the starting level of the classification, below the 18 Premier Grand Cru Classés (according to the reclassification of 2012).  Half of the Grand Cru Classés were represented at the tasting, showing their 2009 and 2010 vintages.

While many of the wines conformed to the general reputation of the vintages – 2009 for lush, more forward fruits, but 2010 more reserved and structured – there were enough where the 2010 was more open than the 2009 to make generalization difficult. The most striking feature of the tasting was not the difference between vintages or variety between chateaux, but the general similarity. If there’s a model for the Grand Cru Classés today, it’s for furry tannins behind soft black fruits: the very model of micro-oxygenation, you might think. (I have no idea how many of these wines actually used micro-oxygenation, but the overall impression from this tasting was that it might be epidemic in St. Emilion.)

On the subject of style, alcohol levels were high, just a touch higher in 2010 (average 14.6%) than in 2009 (average 14.3%). A more revealing comparison is that some wines in 2010 were as high as 15.5%, and almost half were 15% or greater, whereas the highest wines in 2009 were 15%. In all fairness, the alcohol was well integrated and did not stick out, but the level gave me pause for thought about the staying power of the wines. I was also extremely surprised to discover that some wines had levels of residual sugar that were almost detectable (around 3g/l: the level of detection for most people is around 4 g/l, and most red wines usually have only around 1 g/l). Sometimes I got a faint impression of saccharine on the finish, but this seems to have been due to ripeness of fruits, because it never correlated with the level of residual sugar.

The similarities among the wines are less surprising when you realize that more than half were made with the same winemaking philosophy. To be more precise, Michael Rolland was the consulting oenologue for 40% of chateaux, and Jean Philippe Fort of Laboratoire Rolland for another 20%: there was scarcely a single chateau left without a consulting oenologist. (What happened to the old proprietor-winemakers?)

So I thought I would see whether I could detect the hand of the oenologist directly, and I organized my tasting in terms of oenologists, tasting all the chateaux from each oenologue in succession to see whether similarity of style was obvious. I think it is a fair criticism that the style of the wines tends to be a bit “international,” but there did not seem to be enough homogeneity among the wines of any one oenologue to validate the view that they impose a common style. Every oenologue had some wines that were lush, but at least one that showed a more restrained fruit impression, sometimes with an almost savory sensation. It would have been difficult to identify the oenologue in a blind tasting. Perhaps the wines for which Hubert de Boüard was the consulting oenologist tended to be the most refined. If there is a marker for Michel Rolland’s style, perhaps it is the sweetness of the smooth tannins. Rolland’s focus on ripeness is shown also by the fact that in both vintages, the wines on which he was a consultant showed higher alcohol than the average.

There were direct impressions of overripe fruits on only a couple of wines. I did not get much sense of anything but Merlot in most of these wines (the average Merlot is 75%); the dominance of those soft Merlot fruits tended to give a somewhat monotonic impression. Overall I was disappointed: there was too much sameness and not enough character to the wines. They seemed more at a level equivalent to the Cru Bourgeois of the left bank than to the classed growths of the Médoc. Perhaps flavor variety will develop as the wines mature, but my impression is that the wines are more likely to simplify into sweet fruits. Perhaps this is due to the combination of grape variety and the ripeness of the vintages rather than oenologues’ choices. But I was left with the feeling that the monotonic fruit character and high alcohol would make a bottle tire over dinner.

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A Reality Check on Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

It’s become a truism that more powerful, fruit-forward wines in the “international” style may show well at tastings, and in fact make it difficult to appreciate wines in more subtle, restrained styles. No matter how experienced a taster you are, there is always the possibility that the sheer deliciousness of a wine taken in isolation will give a misleading impression of how it will taste with food. So I like to perform a reality check: after seeing how a wine performs at a tasting, to have a bottle for dinner and see how much my impression changes. I should declare my perspective, which is that I’m with Emile Peynaud, who once famously said, “If I want to drink fruit juice, I’ll drink orange juice.” For me, wine should have at least savory intimations; it should not be an alcoholic version of grape juice.

In connection with my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I have been investigating all styles of the variety, and during a visit to Napa last month tasted a range from the more restrained to the most opulent. In the course of the last week, I repeated this exercise on a more restricted basis with wines at dinner. The dinner wines were all from the 2005 vintage, which was relatively lush, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that all the wines seemed more fruit-driven and more overtly aromatic, than the impression that had been gained of each house during vertical tastings in Napa.

My first impression was that none of these wines is ready to drink with dinner. None of them would seem unready at a tasting in the sense that the fruits come through clearly, and are not obscured by the weight of tannins; indeed, I think these wines all come into the category of seeming delicious at a tasting. The big question is what will happen with time? All have a strong sense of a powerful underlying structure, but this is hidden by the intensity of the fruit concentration. That of course is what makes them approachable now. As the fruits (and tannins) lighten, I expect they will come into a balance that is more suitable to accompany food; the aromatics will become less intense, and the fruits will begin to turn towards savory rather than jammy. That will take at least another five years.

All the wines have high alcohol (over 14%), but this was not the main determinant of their suitability to accompany food. The wine with the highest alcohol (14.8%) was Araujo’s Eisele Vineyard, which seemed the best accompaniment to food. The wine with the lowest alcohol (14%), Shafer’s Hillside Select, seemed the least suitable. The main criterion for me was either the intense aromatics or the very high level of extraction. In the case of the Spottswoode, the aromatics seemed too intense against food, and the Shafer Hillside Select was simply so powerful that I tired of it before we could finish the bottle. I’m sure that in every case the high alcohol was a factor, in that it enhanced the sense of aromatics or extraction, but it was not the sole determining factor.

Of course it’s unfair to put these wines down because they are not ready to drink now. You would not necessarily expect Bordeaux to be ready to drink after six years; indeed, I have not started to drink any Bordeaux of the 2005 vintage. I would normally expect to start on the vintage after about a decade. It’s curious that the point at which the wines become ready to drink (as opposed to tasting) may be similar for both Bordeaux and Napa, but for very different reasons. Typically the tannins need to resolve to allow the fruits to show in Bordeaux, while it seems to me that the fruits need to lighten (especially to become less aromatic) in Napa. It’s premature to make a judgment now: just as you would no more have criticized a great Bordeaux vintage in the past for having too much tannin to drink when young, so it may be unfair to put down a great Napa vintage because it has too much fruit when young. (Some people feel that wines with too much extract and fruit will never age gracefully, but I am prepared to reserve judgment for the moment.) So for my money, a fair test to compare Bordeaux and Napa of the 2005 vintage would be to wait another five years or so.

Tasting Notes in order of suitability to accompany a meal

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele, Araujo Vineyard, 2005 (14.8%)

The nose gives a suggestion of balanced restraint, with a mix of red and black fruits and a touch of coconut and vanillin showing, turning to coffee in the glass. The palate shows the coconut and vanillin more distinctly than the nose, with the overt black fruits cut by a faintly austere herbal note of anise. This gives a fine-grained textured impression to the palate, with coconut and vanillin overtones coming back on the finish. This is still too young, but the herbal touch that takes the edge off the exuberance of the fruits promises that this will become a finely balanced wine in a more savory spectrum over the next decade. 91 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Spottswoode, 2005 (14.1%)

The initial impression is that this has a European nose but an American palate. There’s a hint of development in a faint touch of barnyard on the nose as it opens, than later this clears to show aromatic black fruits, before returning again. The palate is distinctly Napa, with bursting fruits overlaid by notes of vanillin and coconut. Some intense blackcurrant aromatics stop just short of cassis and make a forceful impression on the palate and finish. This vintage seems less restrained than others from Spottswoode. The underlying tannins take a while to show directly, but finally appear in the form of some bitterness on the finish. It’s not so much the power as the force of the aromatics that make the wine too forceful to accompany food; perhaps another couple of years will make a difference. 89 Drink 2013-2019.

Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Hillside Select, Shafer, 2005 (14.0%)

The first impression is very Californian, in the form of strong notes of coconut and vanillin on the nose, turning to coffee and chocolate, but then accompanying savory notes, with a faint tinge of barnyard, suggest there may be some development. The palate, however, reflects more the initial impression than the follow up, with a rather aromatic impression of black fruits, blackcurrants with overtones of cassis, and then those notes of coconut and vanillin coming back on the finish. It’s intense and chewy on the finish, colored by those strong aromatics. No one could quarrel with the quality and intensity, but sometimes I think this style is more food in itself than wine to accompany food. The label claims that the Hillside Select is typical of the Stags Leap District, but I think it is more typical of itself. The big question in my mind is how long it will take for those aromatics to come into a calmer balance, and whether that will be paralleled by an extension of those faint suggestions of development to the palate. My guess is at least a decade before the wine will cease to be so assertive that it overpowers any accompaniment. 90 Drink-2021.