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?

Bordeaux Diary part 6 – Vive La Difference – The Triumph of Cabernet Franc at Cheval Blanc, Ausone, and Canon

The first and last visits of the day were to properties that could scarcely differ more superficially. Cheval Blanc has a fantastic new winery with the appearance of a breaking wave on the shore. Ausone has a nineteenth century belle epoque chateau that is being restored in the original style. Cheval is owned by Bernard Arnault of LVMH; Ausone remains in the hands of the Vauthier family. Cheval Blanc has 36 ha on the area of graves adjacent to Pomerol; Ausone has only 7 ha, partly on the limestone plateau just outside the town of St. Emilion, partly on the descending slopes. The production of Cheval’s second wine is larger than the production of Ausone’s grand vin. Yet these are the two original Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” chateaux—and in spite of the promotion of Angelus and Pavie to that category, neither has been admitted to the Club of Eight that represents the Premier Grand Cru Classés of both left and right banks. Both Cheval and Ausone have a strong commitment to Cabernet Franc, indeed these are the two greatest wines in the world based on a Cabernet Franc blend.

Thursday morning: Technical director Pierre Clouet shows us round the new cuverie at Cheval Blanc. “It took the new owners ten years to decide what they wanted,” he says, “but then it was done very fast. We wanted to respect the nineteenth century history but to have something modern.” It’s a green building with a living roof, containing a garden and terrace. Inside are 45 cuves to allow each of the plots in the vineyard to be vinified separately. “We produce exceptional wine by miracles in the vineyard and no mistakes in the cellar,” Pierre says. “We don’t want to change the style of Cheval, that was decided two centuries ago, but we want to have more precision, more resolution, more pixels.” The decision on whether to include lots in Cheval Bland or in the second wine, Petit Cheval, is taken on a plot by plot basis: each of the 45 cuvees must be good enough to include in Cheval Blanc, or it is declassified to Petit Cheval. There is also a third wine to keep up the quality of Petit Cheval.

ChevalTWThe architect wants the biomorphic form of the new winery to have the sense of simplicity and light of a cathedral.

There’s an interesting difference in the vineyard. “People who think that Merlot is for clay and Cabernet Franc is for gravel don’t understand Cheval Blanc; it is exactly the opposite here, Merlot is on gravel and Cabernet Franc is on clay. The Merlot is picked early, al dente, in order to preserve freshness. Cabernet Franc is not Sauvignon, it does very well on clay. This is what gives the wine its texture. The Cabernet Franc that is on gravel works best when the gravel is on a subsoil of clay, the tannins are too hard from Cabernet Franc on full gravel and there’s always some green pepper, so you would have to harvest late, and then you would get a mixture of over-ripe and under-ripe flavors.” We taste the 2006, which is round and elegant, a very good result for a year where I find most Bordeaux to have a rather flat flavor profile.

Afternoon: At Chateau Ausone, Alain Vauthier also believes that the Cabernet Franc is the essence of the style. “We’ve only been planting Cabernet Franc recently, and the proportion has increased,” he says. “We make very good Merlot, but I prefer the Cabernet.” I asked if there was a difference in terroirs for Merlot and Cabernet. “In theory, yes, but at Ausone there is the same effect as at Cheval Blanc and Pétrus: the terroir dominates the cépage.” We see round the facility, which is modest, with a fermentation facility using small wooden vats, and a barrel room cut deep into the rock. We taste the 2012, which is about to be bottled, and there is that characteristic combination of power with finesse.

AusoneTWThe Chateau at Ausone is being restored.

In between: Coming out of St. Emilion into the one way system at the top of the town, we pass a bewildering number of entrances with gateposts saying Chateau Canon. Most lead into the vineyard or towards the chateau which is plastered with signs saying, Keep Out, work in progress. Eventually we find an entrance that winds round the back to the bureau, separated from the chateau which is undergoing a massive renovation. John Kolasa arrives from Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, also owned by Chanel. Things had gone badly downhill when Chanel bought the property in 1996, and it’s taken twenty years to get things back to where he would like them. The cellars have been entirely rebuilt and 75% of the vineyard has been replanted. Croix de Canon is used for the wine from the young vines, but as they become older these lots will begin to go into Chateau Canon, and Croix de Canon will come from the vineyards of the former Chateau Matras, adjacent to Canon, that were recently purchased.

The style here is distinctive. Once again, Cabernet Franc is key. At one point, Merlot reached 80% of the vineyards, but the replanting program has brought it back down to 65%. “Canon can’t make sexy wine because the vines up here on plateau get stressed, down below on the plain” (with a slightly disdainful gesture) “the wines are ripe and round when young, but they will be flabby after 40 years. Up here there is more minerality, the wines will last for years.” Bordeaux is coming back towards a fresher style, John believes. We taste a sample of the 2013, followed by the 2011 and 2001. The same purity of style is evident; if I had these wines blind I would predict a higher content of Cabernet Franc than is actually the case, as for me they have that mineral purity I always associate with the variety. The lineage back to the wines of the 1960s is clear. Canon is right back on form.

Talking about vintages, I ask both Pierre Clouet and John Kolasa what they feel about the highly rated 2000 vintage versus the 2001 vintage that it somewhat overshadowed. They have the same view: 2001 really represents the style of the chateau, it has not yet entirely come into its own and will last for a very long time, 2000 is delicious now but is (at the risk of putting words in their mouths) more opulent than the style they truly desire, and it will not last as long as 2001. Cabernet Franc über alles.