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?

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Bordeaux Diary Part 2: Insiders in St. Emilion – The Stately Pleasure Domes of Xanadu

The 2012 reclassification in St. Emilion was a sea change in promoting Angelus and Pavie to join Cheval Blanc and Ausone in the hallowed ranks of Premier Grand Cru Classé A. While the wines are admired, there are many reservations about procedures and criteria in the classification. Certainly this might be regarded as a Parker classification that has rewarded the rich and opulent style, while ignoring that long time contender for promotion, Chateau Figeac, which with a high Cabernet content has a more reserved style.

Monday: the first palace. After lunch to Chateau Angelus, with its massive new building crowned by a modern bell tower. They played the national anthems of both the U.K. and U.S. on the bells when we arrived. The entrance goes into what looks like a modern take on a massive mediaeval banqueting hall with a vaulted wooden roof that must be a contender for the longest in France. Offices are squeezed in along the side. The atmosphere screams nouveau riche, but there is no dispute about the quality of the wine. This is very much a family-run operation as we meet Hubert de Bouard as well as his daughter and cousin, all involved in the business. This is one of the largest estates in St. Emilion, with 39 ha used for Angelus, and another 12 ha used for the second wine, Carillon d’Angelus. Hubert consults for 60 chateaus as well as managing his own properties—which include Fleur de Bouard in Lalande de Pomerol—so he’s an influential fellow in the region.AngelusTW

The bells of Angelus can be seen (and heard) for miles around

Thursday: modernism in St. Emilion. Managed to take the back road to Pavie, so instead of coming in to the grand entrance at the front like a civilized person, followed a tortuous path down from the hills, winding up in the parking lot. But it really showed what the limestone plateau above is like and how the terroir differs from lower down. Pavie had better keep its promotion into Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” because the “A” is engraved in stone above the entrance to the new limestone palace.

There’s no mistaking the level of investment here. When Chateau Pavie and adjacent Pavie Decesse came on the market in 1997, supermarket magnate Gérard Perse, who had previously bought Chateau Monbousquet, acquired Pavie Decesse. When Pavie had not sold a year later, “he decided to change his life, he sold the supermarkets and left Paris to build up Chateau Pavie,” says Gerard’s son in law, Henrique da Costa. Since then, it’s been a steady upward path, with high praise from Parker, culminating in the promotion.

PavieTWChateau Pavie is constructed from local limestone

Tasted the 2006, which isn’t at all the popular image of an overblown wine. It’s only 70% Merlot and includes some Cabernet. “We love the Cabernet Sauvignon, when it’s ripe you produce fantastic wine,” says Henrique. “We are working to increase the Cabernet.” In addition to Pavie and its second wine, Arômes de Pavie, there is Esprit de Pavie, a generic Bordeaux that comes largely from Castillon. “Esprit de Pavie was introduced in 2008. We have three properties in Castillon, but Castillon isn’t well known, we decided to make it a generic Bordeaux,” says Henrique.

With the massive palaces of Angelus and Pavie dominating their neighborhoods, St. Emilion, known previously for its modest chateaus and small vineyards, can look the grand chateaux of the Medoc in the face.

A Visit to Jean Luc Thunevin: the Bad Boy of St. Emilion Explains his Philosophy

My visit to Jean Luc got off to an interesting start when I explained that I was writing a book called The Wines of Modern France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers. He looked slightly quizzical. “You don’t believe that France can be modern,” I asked, as that’s a wry response that has been made by other producers in France. “The title of your book seems curious to me because even the classic are modern now,” he explained. “I give you an example,” he continued. “Le Pin: is it a modern wine or a classic? It’s not a garage wine but it inspired me.” Then another example: “It’s not so easy to find a classic wine: Léoville Barton? But it’s also a modern wine.” Then a little more argumentative: “the image of modern wine is new oak. But then Mouton 1947 was a modern wine.”

True to the French tradition, Jean Luc then asked what is the philosophy of modernity. “The success of modernity is to be able to have a product that pleases the clients,” he concluded. “What’s a wine that’s a has-been? It’s one that doesn’t please the clients.” I argued that Valandraud was a modern wine that altered the paradigm by introducing changes that many others followed, first in St. Emilion and then elsewhere. Jean Luc agreed at least that he is a modernist. “I’m modern, I was the first garagiste. We protected the fruits, took precautions against oxidation, introduced green harvest, leaf pulling. Everyone does it now.”

“The first wine that I loved was Pétrus. Then Le Pin was my inspiration,” he explained, “I wanted to make a wine like Le Pin, hedonistic and sexy, soft and chic.” This seemed to be an argument for instant gratification, so I asked about the importance of ageability. “Ageability is a big obligation of Bordeaux,” he agreed, “everyone wants wine that can age because of Bordeaux. But happily we can now make wines that are good now and age well. When I started people said Valandraud would not last more than ten years, but now it has lasted thirty years.” Later he proved his point by pulling out a 2002 Valandraud for tasting. “I give you this because it’s easy to make a sexy wine in a good year, but this was a difficult year.” The wine was delicious, just on the tipping point into tertiary development. I asked how long Jean Luc thinks it will last. “It’s a baby, it’s just beginning to develop,” he said. “The 1992 is still good and we didn’t have the same techniques then, for example, sorting,” he explained.

I thought I might provoke an interesting response by asking whether garage wines are finished. “As a phenomenon, that’s sure. But not as a niche. And there are garagistes in other places, Spain for example. But anyway, it’s not the phenomenon of garage wines, it’s the phenomenon of expensive wines.” Of course, Valandraud has now come a long way from its origins as a garage wine: it’s now a St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. Doesn’t the latest reclassification in St. Emilion show a big change in attitude, I asked. “You have a point,” Jean Luc agreed. “It’s hard for people to accept that success can depend on a person and (just) on the terroir. But it’s only fifty years since the first classification. At that time it was incredible to believe that St. Emilion would be ready for reclassification in ten years…Angelus’s promotion is due to Hubert de Bouard’s talent… If Cheval Blanc hadn’t had good proprietors, it wouldn’t have become a Premier Grand Cru Classé.”

As you might expect from the first garagiste, Jen Luc has some reservations about terroir. “People don’t understand what is good terroir. They confuse aesthetics with reality. I give you the example of Chateau Rayas—the soil is sandy… It’s (only) necessary that the soil isn’t bad, not too dry, not too wet. You have to have good berries.”

Jean Luc has a strong sense of independence, but for all his success, no pretension. We met above the l’Essential wine shop in his tiny office, where Jean Luc has a desk at one end and his assistants are grouped at the other end. “There’s a glass ceiling in the Médoc, he said, “I could get nowhere, but in St. Emilion the door was open. I sell my wine in my boutique, I don’t need negociants, I don’t need to export, I have autonomy.” Then we went down to the wine shop and tasted the 2011 Valandraud—“this was an austere year in Bordeaux, the problem for me was to make a sexy wine”—followed by the 2002. Jean Luc sent the shop manager up to the office to collect the staff, who came down to try the 2002. It was a good end to the day, with appreciative murmurs all round.

St. Emilion Proprietors are Revolutionizing The Satellite Areas: Bargains from Castillon and Lalande de Pomerol

Today I visited three Premier Grand Cru Classés in St. Emilion: Chateaux Angelus, Beauséjour Bécot, and Canon la Gaffelière. The feel of the visits could not be more different, the wines all have their own distinct styles, but all three share the fact that they have expanded out of St. Emilion into neighboring areas, the first into Lalande de Pomerol to the west, the other two into Côtes de Castillon, just on the northeast border of St. Emilion.

Don’t be put off by the name. Côtes de Quelquechose almost always indicates an appellation of secondary importance to Quelquechose. “It would have been much better simply to call the appellation Castillon,” argues Stephan von Neipperg at Chateau Canon La Gaffelière. But the best part of the Côtes de Castillon, at St. Philippe d’Aiguille, has a limestone plateau that isn’t dissimilar to the far more famous limestone plateau where most of the Premier Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion are located. Granted this doesn’t extend all over Côtes de Castillon—but the famous limestone plateau doesn’t extend over all St. Emilion either.

The cost of land in St. Emilion is now prohibitive: proprietors say that it’s but impossible to extend their vineyards. That’s part of the driving force for going out to Côtes de Castillon. Stephan von Neipperg was one of the first. “When I took over Chateau d’Aiguilhe in 1999,” he recollects, “we preserved 27 ha of old vines, and we replaced 15 ha of poor plantings of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The problem was economics, people went for quantity, but now they are recognizing the potential of the limestone plateau.” It’s no coincidence that the best wines in Castillon are made by people from St. Emilion: with a keen eye based on their experience in St. Emilion, they have bought vineyards on the best terroir. Juliette Bécot is extremely conscious of running a family estate—“it used to be very common, but now it’s more and more rare” —she says, but felt when she started out that she wanted to have her own voice, so established Joanin Bécot in Castillon in 2001.

Now famous for the renovation of Chateau Angelus, with its famous modern bell tower—both God Save the Queen and The Star Spangled Banner were played on the bells when we arrived, as I am British but came from New York—Hubert de Boüard consults for around 60 chateaux as well as running Angelus. He also created Fleur de Boüard, in Lalande de Pomerol, where in addition to the eponymous wine he produces a super-cuvée, Le Plus de Boüard, by selection of the best lots. Even from a single trie in the vineyard, some grapes are selected for Plus rather than Fleur. Plus spends 33 months maturing in oak—longer even than Angelus.

The common feature of all these—let’s call them the satellite wines—is that they are made with the same care and attention as the grand vin in St. Emilion, relying on similar expertise, but are available at lower price. Sound familiar? That’s the old argument for second wines. But whereas the second wines are always marked by that feeling that they weren’t good enough to make it into the grand vin, the satellite wines represent the best their terroir can produce. It’s an interesting trade off, that can pay off handsomely when the terroir is right.

The satellite wines come from different chateaus from their proprietors’ main chateaus, but show an interesting stylistic relationship with the grand chateaus.  Fleur de Bouard is the plushest; Chateau d’Aiguilhes is the most structured (Domaine de l’A, from oenologist Stéphane Derenoncourt, where I have a visit planned for later in the week, shows similar character but is more aggressive), Joanin Becot is the lightest and most approachable. In a blind tasting, they would be difficult to distinguish from St. Emilion at the level of the Grand Cru Classé. Perhaps Fleur de Boüard has more of the richness of Pomerol. These are all very good wines by any measure, and by and large, I prefer them to the second wines from the corresponding chateau in St. Emilion. The only thing these wines can’t compete on with St. Emilion is price.

Merlot with Elegance

The crystalline purity is reminiscent of Volnay: the sheer elegance reminds me of Margaux or perhaps St. Julien. Fruits are precisely delineated. The dominant grape variety would not be the first to come to mind in a blind tasting, but it is Merlot: in fact this is a blend of 90% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Franc, and it used to be the Premier Grand Cru Classé of St. Emilion with the highest proportion of Merlot.

Every once in a while you have a wine that really makes you rethink your perceptions of typicity, and this Château Magdelaine from 1982 is a perfect example. I have always found Magdelaine to be the most Médocian wine of the right bank, with a pleasing touch of austerity as opposed to the full fleshy opulence of so many wines. At one point, Clive Coates described it as third only after Cheval Blanc and Ausone.

A leading St. Emilion estate for two centuries, Château Magdelaine was acquired by the Moueix family (of Château Pétrus) in 1952. It has been a Premier Grand Classé B ever since St. Emilion was classified, but in 2012 two changes occurred. Magdelaine did not appear in the revised classification; and Moueix announced that it would be merged with Château Bélair-Monange, a neighboring chateau that is their other property in St. Emilion. Cause and effect have never been publicly discussed. The wine from combined properties (from the 2012 vintage) will be under the name of Château Bélair-Monange

The revised St Emilion classification definitely pandered to the internationalization of Bordeaux  by promoting Château Pavie (very controversial for its rich, extracted style since Gérard Pearse took it over) and Château Angelus from Premier Grand Cru Classé B to A. And Valandraud, an archetypal garage wine, was promoted straight from St Emilion to Premier Grand Cru Classé B without ever passing through the intermediate Grand Cru Classé. Château Figeac, the candidate at every prior classification for promotion, but whose one third Cabernet Sauvignon gives it a sterner style than most St. Emilions, was ignored.

Certainly Magdelaine has been falling out of fashion over the past decade or so, failing to get really high points from critics. If this is because it has more of a left bank elegance than right bank plushness, so be it; but it’s a shame for the homogenization of styles to be reinforced by the classification. Isn’t the French system of appellations and classification supposed to help preserve tradition rather than pander to fashion?

All I can say is that the 1982 Magdelaine is a lovely wine, the epitome of what Bordeaux was supposed to be about. It is a shame if this style is to disappear because power displaces finesse.