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?

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.

Bordeaux 2010 : Musical Chairs at the Communes

At the first showing of the 2010 Bordeaux’s at the UGCB tasting in New York last week, the most common question from producers was “which vintage do you prefer, this year or 2009?” The comparison with the 2009s at the UGCB tasting a year ago is like night and day: those wines were often immediately appealing, with lots of obvious fruit extract, whereas the 2010s have a more precise, structured, impression and are more difficult to assess. Producers seem to feel almost universally that 2010 is the better year. I am not entirely convinced and am becoming worried that my palate may have been corrupted.

Differences between appellations came out more clearly this year, but in a different way from 2009. The appellations seemed to playing musical chairs, with some switches of character. Margaux shows fruit precision more obviously backed by tannins;  St. Julien shows a soft delicacy. In fact, you might say that Margaux shows a touch of the precision of St. Julien, while St. Julien shows a touch of the delicacy of Margaux. Pauillac is quite firm but often shows perfumed violets reminiscent of Margaux,  and tannins are less obvious than usual. St Emilion is unusually aromatic (some wines were too aromatic for me) and Pomerol seems to be sterner. The other turn-up for the book was that those chateaux that have been showing a move to a more modernist style–Pape Clément, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré at the forefront–reverted to more classic character, although Smith Haut Lafitte went full force international.

My concern about the future of this vintage started when I tasted through the wines from Margaux (the appellation best represented at the tasting). Almost all the wines showed classic refinement and elegance, with a very nice balance of black fruits to fine-grained tannins, but for the most part there did not seem to be the sheer concentration for real longevity. My sense is that most of the Margaux will be lovely to drink between five and ten years from now, but they may not continue to hold for another decade beyond that. Of course, if they follow the path of the 2009s, which were very approachable a year ago but many of which have closed up today, this timescale could be extended. Judging from Margaux, this is a very good vintage indeed, but I am uncertain whether it will rise to greatness. The best wines in St. Julien are the Léovilles, which have precision and fruit concentration: others have precision but do not quite seem to have the fruit concentration.

Pauillacs were mostly lovely, but with more elegance than the power you usually find, and some might almost be described as delicate. Most seem lively for the medium term, but few offer the potential for real longevity, Perhaps we should no longer expect real longevity? A word that often appears in my tasting notes from Pauillac is “superficial.” There are rarely enough wines from St. Estèphe at the UGCB to form a definitive judgment, but on a rather limited showing they seem to be somewhat Pauillac-like this year.

St Emilion seemed to show its basic varietal composition more clearly than usual. All the wines were more obviously aromatic than usual, and those with greater proportions of Cabernet Franc tended to show unusually high toned aromatics, tending to black cherries; wines where the Merlot was more obviously dominant gave the slightly sterner impression that is the reputation of the vintage. Canon and Canon La Gaffelière were the most obviously aromatic. Cabernet Franc seems to have been too ripe for any wines to show overt notes of tobacco, but there are occasional sweet hints of it. Most wines will be ready to start in a couple of years and should hold for a decade. Pomerol, with its greater content of Merlot, is usually more obviously lush than St.  Emilion, but this year seemed more subtle.

I did not get the expected impression of greatness from the Sauternes. The best had a beautiful sweetness with overtones of botrytis, but didn’t seem to have quite enough piquancy to maintain freshness in the long run. However, the wines I tasted were mostly from Sauternes, and it’s said that the standouts were in Barsac this year.

Best wines for each appellation (from those represented at the tasting which were most but not all of the top wines) were:

Pessac-Léognan: Domaine de Chevalier

Margaux: Rauzan-Ségla

St. Julien: Léoville Barton

Pauillac: Pichon Lalande

St. Emilion: Figeac

Sauternes: de Fargues

Looking back a year, I was equally surprised at both tastings, but in quite different ways. Based on reports en primeur, I expected the 2009s to be heavy if not brutish: but by the time they had settled down for the 2009 tasting, most had that characteristic acid uplift of Bordeaux to cut the rich fruits. Accustomed to those rich fruits over the past year, the 2010s seemed much tighter, but I’m not sure they’ve really got that much more structure, and in many cases it seems uncertain whether the fruit concentration will really carry them on for years after the 2009s, as conventional wisdom has it. However, in the past year the 2009s have quite tightened up, and now seem more classical; if the 2010s do the same, I may have underestimated their potential for longevity. There’s no doubt that the 2009s are more delicious and will remain so for some time: perhaps my palate has been Parkerized, but I prefer them at the moment and I’m uncertain if and when that will change.

Bordeaux 1970 versus California 1974

As part of the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to determine whether the stereotypes about aging of Bordeaux versus California Cabernet are true, so  I compared wines from the classic 1970 vintage in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1974 vintage in California, really the first vintage that put California on the map as a potential competitor to Bordeaux. Is it true that California Cabernet has more limited aging potential compared with Bordeaux?

The two top wines in the tasting absolutely typify the character and quality of Bordeaux versus Napa. The Pichon Lalande had that delicious balance of fruits and herbaceousness; as it gets older it turns more savory. The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon (which comes from an old plot of ungrafted wines on Santa Cruz Mountain) has that warm impression of sweet, ripe red fruits; age has brought a faint impression of piquancy that adds complexity. Ultimately it will become sweeter and simpler.

The California wines are aging well, but they are staying ripe and sweet and warm and showing impressions of ripe strawberries rather than going savory. The best are absolutely delicious, but it’s not obvious what further evolution will occur if they are kept longer. To what extent is this because most are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon or simply a consequence of the warmer climate? The California wines that made great reputations in their day remain the leaders. Heitz Martha’s vineyard has lost some of its density, and is less evidently in a European style. Ridge Montebello shows more evident savory notes. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is every drop a mountain Cabernet, just a touch behind the Mayacamas (from Mount Veeder).

Bordeaux was more surprising with some reversals of reputation. From Margaux, Châteaux Giscours and Brane Cantenac, generally considered to be slightly rustic and slightly overcropped in the era, showed better than more classic wines from Pauillac or St. Julien. The issue with the Bordeaux as they age is just how savory you like your wine, as ultimately they can turn herbaceous and medicinal. On this showing, typical or not, the best showed  more complexity than California, but usually were less delicious.

The difference is not so much that California Cabernet doesn’t age so well as Bordeaux, as that it ages differently.

Tasting Notes

Wine were tasted blind in one flight by a panel including Joel Butler MW, Bill Blatch (Bordeaux negociant), Peter Sichel (former château owner), and Josh Greene (Editor, Wine & Spirits magazine).

 Château Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly cedary, spicy nose, a touch of Brett lending a leathery complexity: classic Bordeaux. Sturdy on the palate, giving a rather St Estèphe-like impression.  Classic herb-driven palate with almost medicinal after finish. Absolutely classic Bordeaux in the tradition of the sixties and seventies with that delicious mingling of fruits and herbaceous influences. If there was a wine in the tasting that typifies Bordeaux of the sixties and seventies, this was it. 91 Drink to 2018.

Mount Eden, Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Spicy with faint suggestions of cereal, then warm ripe suggestions of sweet, ripe fruits suggesting California. Still lovely and ripe on the palate, the generosity of the warm fruits is evident, but relatively slight development in the direction of savory evolution. Alcohol is a little higher than average. Complex array of flavors on the palate, albeit a touch rustic. and a faint impression of herbaceousness coming through. Delicious balance. 13.9% 91 Drink to  2018.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Faintly savory intimations of roasted meats, then reverting to a faint spiciness, even a hint of perfume. Sweet and ripe on the palate although there is a touch of volatile acidity. Warm impression with nice flavor variety. There’s a touch of iron that resembles Pauillac. 13.0% 90 Drink to 2017.

Freemark Abbey, Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 1971

Quite youthful on the nose with slightly floral perfumed mixing with impressions of spices. Palate follows the nose, nice balance, elegant and flora; a touch of that sweet strawberry impression identifies the origin with California. There seems to be very little development in a savory direction, but good acidity pushes this a little towards a Bordeaux spectrum. 12.4% 90 Drink to  2018.

Château Giscours, Margaux, 1970

Fresh, intriguing nose, hints of spices, a touch of perfume, hints of fruits, quite complex.  Elegant and ripe and the palate, refined red fruits, but lacking a touch in the complexity you expect at this age. Very good, but a little rustic. This fooled almost everyone into thinking it came from Napa; it’s definitely much fuller than you usually find from Margaux, but that’s Giscours. 89 Drink to 2017.

Mayacamas, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Perfumed and floral with suggestions of roses and violets on the nose. A lovely balance on the palate here, firm ripe fruits yet with an impression of delicacy, and just a faint herbal underlying hint. But oxidation is beginning to creep in. Touch of  Brett adds complexity. 89 Drink to  2018.

Ridge, Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz, 1974

Some impressions of cinnamon and other spices on the nose, a surprisingly youthful impression, developing savory overtones of roasted meats in the glass. If you ignore the increasing acidity on the palate, there’s an impression of ripe, sweet, warm fruits from California, presently ripe and nutty retronasally (with a faint impression of American oak), but developing in a savory direction, even a hint of herbaceousness (more Bordelais than most California wines in this tasting). 89 Drink to 2016.

Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, 1970

A very faint leathery suggestion of Brett on the nose, turning a little flat, but the palate is still lively. Solid fruits, firm, but subject to attack by the acidity. This is a very solid wine, developing some flavor complexity, with a warm impression reminiscent of California (not seen on previous bottles, which were more clearly in the herbaceous spectrum). 89 Drink to 2017.

Chateau Brane Cantenac, Margaux, 1970

Controversial between those who loved it and those who thought it had dried out. Classic Bordeaux nose of cedar, spices, and leather, identifying some Brett (more distinct than on the Pichon Lalande, which also showed a touch). Although acidity is threatening to take over the palate, there is still complexity to the savory fruits counterpoised against the leathery overtones, still delicious. 12.0%, 89 Drink to 2016.

Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 1975

Amazingly dark. youthful color. Fragrant, perfumed impression on the nose, a really clean impression compared with all the other wines. The only wine not to have some Brett, said Joel Butler MW. Ripe, sweet, warm, acidity is lifting up of course, but nice fruits underneath, with a touch of tobacco. The initial soft warmth of the fruits identifies California, but in the glass they become more evidently taut, reflecting the mountain site. 12.0% 89 Drink to 2018.

Château Léoville Lascases, St. Julien, 1970

Restrained nose, in fact completely closed. Piercing acidity on the palate as the fruits dry out. May have been elegant, but too old now. Slowly picks up a bit in the glass to reveal some flavor complexity in a savory Bordelais style, and then (after a couple of hours! reverts to a warmer, softer, richer impression, although the finish remains dry and a little tart. 12.0% 87 Drink up.

Château Pontet Canet, Pauillac, 1970

Herbal and savory intimations, barely perceptible hints of raisins, a little tired on the nose, faintly musty. Tight fruits on the palate, originally elegant, but the acidity is beginning to take over, disguising its origins. Elegant fruits but tiring now. 86 Drink up.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly acid nose, some herbaceous intimations, but seems old. Nice fruits on the palate, elegant style, but a touch of volatile acidity. Fruits are lightening and drying out but have not become savory. 86 Drink up

Beaulieu Private Reserve, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

You never know what you are getting with this wine, because there were two bottlings, one of which was evidently much better than the other. In this bottle, you can see the original spices and fruits , but some oxidized notes of raisins are threatening to take over: the general warmth of the impression identifies California as the origin. Volatile acidity is taking over, turning to raisins in the glass. 13.5%  85 Drink up.

Mondavi, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

This was a great bottle in its time, and one of the wines that put the 1974 vintage on the map, but this example did not seem to be the best condition. Mature nose with mixture of acid, fruits that aren’t quite tertiary, but giving an impression that the fruits are drying out. Palate shows better than nose although spoiled by a must, moldy impression. This was delicious before the spoilage took it over. Possibly corked at sub threshold. 13.0% 85 Drink up.

 

Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.

The Improvement in Second Wines

When I investigated the second wines of Bordeaux in detail about five years ago for my book What Price Bordeaux?, I was not very impressed. The impression given by the chateaux was that the second wines provided an opportunity to experience their expertise in the form of wines that were ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, in the same general style, but of course at lower cost. Declassified from the grand vin, these wines would come from vines that in another year might have gone into the grand vin. But this did not entirely accord with reality. Only a minority of second wines were in fact principally derived by declassification (usually from vines that were considered too young to contribute to the grand vin); most had become separate products coming from vineyards that rarely contributed to the grand vin. And most second wines on the left bank had a much greater proportion of Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, certainly making them ready to drink sooner, but also much reducing the resemblance with the style of the grand vin. When I held some tastings specifically to compare second wines with other wines available at similar price points, the consensus of both professional and amateur tasters was that they preferred the other wines. Rather than representing special value because of economies of scale or expertise coming from the grand vin, the second wines seemed to have prices that were inflated by the reputation of the grand vin.

On a recent visit to Bordeaux, I gained an entirely different impression and it seemed generally that there had been a great improvement in the quality of second wines. Possibly a contributory factor was that many of the wines I tasted were from the recent excellent 2009 vintage, but beyond quality per se, it seemed that the second wines showed better representations of communal typicity and genuine resemblance with the styles of the grand vins. As I was tasting at chateaux, I did not have the opportunity to compare second wines with other wines at similar price points; perhaps they too have improved equally. One factor that may have contributed to an improvement in the relative quality of the second wines is that now they too are subject to selection; the rejected lots may go into a third wine or be sold off. “The second wine used to be a dumping ground – everything was put in it – but now it’s much more an independent brand, and there is selection for it,” says Bruno Eynard at Chateau Lagrange. John Kolasa at Chateau Rauzan Ségla sees it also as a spin-off from the recent swingeing increase in prices. “The improvement in second wines is due to the increase in pricing, which drove people away from the grand vins to the second wines.”

My tastings may also have been biased by the fact that they included some of what are always the very best second wines, those of the Premier Grand Cru Classés, which usually sell at prices around those of second growths. Although their second wines will be ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, I’m not sure there’s going to be so much difference as to justify the old description of second wines: certainly these at least are not for instant gratification. It remains true that most second wines still have more Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, but the reasons may have shifted a bit. Problems with Merlot becoming too ripe limited the amount that could be used in some grand vins in 2009 and 2010. An incidental consequence is that some second wines have higher alcohol levels than the grand vins, a real inverse of the traditional situation that the best wines came from the ripest grapes.

Are second wines good value? That’s the crux of the matter and I’m not sure I have a clear answer yet. When they did not seem to represent the style of the chateau, I felt that they could never be good value, no matter how much less in price than the grand vin, because they could not aspire to be the real thing. Now it seems that the quality and style are there; but lifted up by the huge increase in prices in 2009 and 2010, and the failure to reduce prices sufficiently in 2011, the wines seem expensive.

Tasting notes

Carruades de Lafite, 2011

Dark purple color. Fresh black fruits on nose with just a whiff of blackcurrants. Quite tight and constrained on the palate, showing elegant but tight fruits with firm tannins. At this moment it gives an impression of coming from somewhere between Pauillac and St. Julien, with the tautness of St. Julien but also the power of Pauillac. Slowly fruits of red and black cherries release in the glass. There’s a touch of heat on the finish. Very fine.   12.7% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2011

Dark purple color, almost inky. Sight impression of nuts as well as black fruits on the nose. Fruits are more rounded, deeper, concentrated than on the Carruades, in fact more Pauillac-ish. Tight and reserved with fine tannins evident on finish. A very fine, classic structure for aging.   12.7% 92 Drink 2017-2032.

Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, 2011

Rather stern, brooding, black impression on nose. Dense fruits on palate with slightly nutty aftertaste. Insofar as you can tell at this early stage, this is more approachable than the grand vin because the structure isn’t so apparent, but it is pretty dense for a second wine. The style is somewhat similar to the grand vin, but with less roundness.   13.0% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Margaux, 2011

Even sterner and more brooding than the Pavillon Rouge. Great fruit density hides the structure more than in the second wine, but then the austerity kicks in on the finish. Very dense and backward with the highest IPT (measure of tannins) ever recorded at Chateau Margaux. The vanillin or new oak is evident, but the nuttiness and perfume comes up the glass, suggesting a fragrant future.  92 Drink 2018-2030.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly, 2011

Fresh nose of youthful red berry fruits; the fresh, light, palate follows with a slight bite on the finish, perfectly pleasant, but – at least not at this stage – showing much character. It’s quite a fine, elegant, style, and slowly some more chocolaty notes emerge on the finish, suggesting that the wine may round out as it develops, but I have some question as to how far this vintage really reflects the style of the chateau.

Château Haut Bailly, 2011

There’s an impression of sweet, ripe, black fruits on the nose. It’s ripe and round on the palate with nice freshness, with a touch of chocolate coating from smooth, supple, tannins. Overall a light, elegant, impression with a faint suggestion of the classic cigar box, in fact a very characteristic Pessac. Not a great vintage, but certainly a good one that should show well for the mid term. The step up in quality from Le Parde is really obvious.   12.8%

La Croix de Beaucaillou, 2009

A darker color than the Lalande Borie (which is effectively regarded as the third wine), this shows more classic sternness to the nose, and a lot more weight and roundness on the palate. Now we turn to black fruits, showing as blackberries tinged with blackcurrants, and you can see something of the style of the grand vin – second wines are certainly coming on. There’s a good sense of refined structure on the mid palate with the fruits showing restrained elegance in a style characteristic of St. Julien.   13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2022.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou  2009

Not so much darker than Croix de Beaucaillou as more purple in hue. Restrained nose gives impression of tight black fruits. Lots of concentration here, with the deep, black, fruits matched by tight tannins, but closed at the moment. Typical of the top level of St. Julien vis à vis Pauillac, the restrained elegance shows a fine texture of taut tannins. promising long life in the classic style. Fruits are certainly full, but not overbearing; reports of excess exuberance were exaggerated.   13.6% 93 Drink 2016-2031.

Carruades de Lafite, 2009

Slightly nutty nose yet with some savory undertones. Round, elegant, soft, yet there is that underlying sense of the power of Pauillac. Although the tannins are supple, the wine is very restrained; the Cabernet seems more dominant than its proportion of 50%. The palate softens a little in the glass but the nose remains muted. The tannins need to resolve to release the elegance of the fruits. Even as a second wine, this is not for instant gratification, but needs time.   13.6% 90 Drink 2016-2031.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2009

Restrained nose with faintly nutty tones of blackcurrants. Softer and rounder, yet more concentrated, than Carruades. Tight grained tannins create a very fine texture, but show as dry on the finish. That hallmark core of elegance, of precision to the fruits, runs through the wine.  Even after only a few months, the initial exuberance has calmed down. “The wine has had good evolution, the exuberance we had at the beginning is no longer there; at the en primeur I was not sure we were in Bordeaux, now we are coming back into Bordeaux,” says Director Charles Chevalier. It’s that smooth roundness on the palate and the long velvety finish that tells us this is Lafite, that quality of seamless layers of flavor is already beginning to show.   13.6% 94 Drink 2018-2038.

Les Forts de Latour, 2009

The nose offers spicy sensations with cinnamon at the forefront. Fruits on the palate are intensely black, with blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums at the forefront. The underlying structure is tight, with firm tannins leaving a bite on the finish – but it’s a sense of grip rather than bitterness. The great fruit is partly hidden by the density of the tight supporting structure. This is going to need some time, but it should age for a very long time.   13.6% 92 Drink 2017-2029.

Château Latour, 2009

I asked M. Engerer, the Gérant at Latour, when he thought this wine would be ready to start drinking. “Well it depends on your taste,” he said, “if you are new and young to wine, perhaps five years, but we might prefer to wait longer.” Personally I think it would be infanticide before a decade is up. The intensity is indicated by the inky appearance. The nose is quite restrained. The palate is more subtle than the Forts de Latour in that its components are less obvious, principally because of the balance of fruits and structure. There’s great fruit density, but it’s held back by the structure; on the other hand, the structure is less obtrusive than in the Forts de Latour because of the fruit density. The main impression here is of the reserve of the wine, of a sense of power holding back, so massively constructed that it will take a decade to come around. This will no doubt become a classic like great Latours of the past.   13.7% 94 Drink 2022-2040.

Château Beychevelle, 2009

More fruit evident than the Amiral, but still with classic mineral freshness of St. Julien. More generous on the palate, but also more evident depth and supporting structure. Very much in the character of St. Julien, elegant rather than powerful, with supple tannins giving a furry finish with chocolate overtones. Oak is evident in the soft impression of vanillin and nuts on the finish. Fine, but will be finer yet when the planned increase in Cabernet Sauvignon occurs.   13.85% 89 Drink 2015-2025.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2009

Typical Cabernet impression of fresh black fruits, following through to a light, elegant, palate, but with chocolate undertones. The Amiral is lighter than the Beychevelle but also a little more austere (perhaps because it has 58% Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Beychevelle’s 48%). The light underlying structure is a  good balance to the fruits, with unusually classic representation for a second wine. This should age nicely for the mid term; drink over the next decade.   13.6% 87 Drink 2013-2022.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2005

Touch of garnet at rim shows start of development. Black fruit impressions have hints of spices. Very nicely balanced, developing well in the elegant style of St. Julien. Given the softness on the palate you would not think this was three quarters Cabernet Sauvignon, although there is a nicely defined structure. This gives a slightly fresher impression than the grand vin, almost you might say a tighter impression on the palate, because the fruits are not so well rounded.   13.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

Château Beychevelle, 2005

Rather restrained on the nose. First palate impression is of furry, chocolaty, tannins coating soft fruits – softer than the Amiral – and then the structure kicks in on the finish and you see the underlying strength of the wine for aging. Beautifully balanced, elegant, black fruits have lost the initial fat, but not yet started into middle development. The quality of the grand vin shows in a roundness that’s not on the Amiral.   13.0% Beychevelle 90 Drink now-2027.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Bordeaux versus Languedoc

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape that conjures up immediate impressions of stern black fruits, austere if not herbaceous when young, slowly giving way to more varied and savory impressions as the tannins resolve and the fruits lighten up. It’s not a grape where there are violent feelings about yields, as there are with Pinot Noir, and there is a far wider range of wines, from entry levels to cults. I thought it might be interesting to see how much typicity Cabernet Sauvignon displays in entry level wines, and whether Bordeaux remains competitive with the Languedoc, where there have been significant plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, presently amounting to 18,000 hectares compared to Bordeaux’s 28,000 hectares. The mandate for comparison was that all wines should come in bottles and should be priced under $15 (£10).

My first impression was of the similarities of the wines rather than their differences. Whether they were exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon or blends where Cabernet Sauvignon was as little as half the total (the rest usually being Merlot, but sometimes in Bordeaux including Cabernet Franc), the general style for entry level wines was for soft, red fruits with a sweet impression on the palate. No, I’m not accusing the producers of leaving residual sugar, but there was a soft, glycerin-like impression on many of the wines, which was reinforced by a slightly aromatic impression that to me conflicts with the character of Cabernet. The only consistent difference between Bordeaux and Languedoc is that the wines of the Languedoc tended to just slightly more evident aromatics, and most of the Bordeaux had a slightly greater impression of tannic dryness on the finish. None of the wines had any trace of herbaceousness: this has now completely disappeared from the lexicon of descriptors for Cabernet Sauvignon irrespective of origin or vintage. If there is indeed a common stylistic objective based on suppleness of fruits and minimal tannins, the Languedoc’s warmer climate gives it an advantage.

The main difference between the regions is price: the Languedoc wines are on average around two thirds of the price of the Bordeaux. This bangs home the difficulty of Bordeaux in surviving at the AOC level: it’s not competitive with the Languedoc, let alone with the New World (although admittedly there’s more difference of style when you compare with the New World). Part of that difference is due to the restrictions of the Appellation Contrôlée in Bordeaux, compared to the greater freedom in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc. One major place for this effect is the higher yields allowed in the Vin de Pays, from which I was expecting the wines to be less concentrated. However, virtually all the wines struck me as not exactly over cropped, but certainly liable to benefit from any increase in concentration. I really could not see what benefit came from the yield limits around 50 hl/ha in the AOC compared with potentially higher yields in the Vin de Pays. The Languedoc wines have a marketing advantage that they all state Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, whereas almost all the Bordeaux require detailed examination of the back label to determine the character of the blend.

The wine that actually most conformed to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should taste like these days did not come from Bordeaux: it was Gerard Bertrand’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pays d’Oc, which unusually for the region retained some typicity of Cabernet in the form of a restraint to the black fruits. The most interesting comparison was between Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Mouton Cadet, for many years the archetypal Bordeaux blend, and his Cadet d’Oc. The Cadet d’Oc was my runner-up from the Languedoc, with some impressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Mouton Cadet gave more of a interdenominational impression, with soft fruits, pleasant enough, but no sense of constituent varieties or place of origin.

The two most expensive wines offered an interesting contrast. I thought the Bordeaux Réserve Spéciale from Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) was trading on the name of Chateau Lafite; it was a little riper and more rounded than most from Bordeaux, but there were wines from Languedoc at half the price level that seemed to offer a similar flavor spectrum. Château Larose Trintaudon, a rather large Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Médoc offered the most classic impression of Bordeaux in this tasting, which is to say that the fruits gave a savory rather than aromatic impression.

One moral from the tasting is that it’s hard at this level if you expect Cabernet Sauvignon to mean more than a marketing term on the label. It leaves me wondering whether there is really any point to varietal wines at the entry level, since they rarely offer any pointer to the character of wines at higher levels.

Two from Baron Philippe de Rothschild

Bordeaux, Mouton Cadet, 2009

Initial impressions are quite round and fruity, with black fruits of cherries and plums, and sweet ripe aromatics giving an impression that’s more of the south than Bordeaux; until a characteristic dryness kicks in the finish, this does not seem particular representative of Cabernet (it has 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc to the 65% Merlot). There isn’t really quite enough fruit density or flavor interest to counteract the dryness of the finish.   13.5% 85 Drink now-2015.

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 2009

Fairly restrained on the nose with some hints of spicy black fruits, which follow through to the palate. This has a touch of high toned aromatics suggestive of black cherries or plums, and there are some firm tannins drying the finish. Well made, with the edges of Cabernet distinctly softened in the southern style, but retaining enough tannic backbone to justify its varietal label.   13.5% 86 Drink now-2016.

Best entry level Cabernet Sauvignon

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve Spéciale, Gérard Bertrand, 2008

Slightly spicy suggestions to the black fruits of the nose. Some sense of character to the palate, with those spices showing against the black fruits, and an impression of ripe tannins on the finish. The tannins are ripe enough to complement rather than detract from the fruits This is one of the few entry level wines from Languedoc which seem to speak of Cabernet: perhaps it’s more overtly aromatic than you usually, find in Bordeaux, but it conforms more closely to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should offer in the modern climate than most wines from Bordeaux actually offer.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.

The most classic Cabernet Sauvignon

Château Larose Trintaudon, Haut-Médoc, 2006

The nose offers some slightly spicy red and black fruits with a suggestion of character, which follows through to the palate. This wasn’t a very generous vintage, and that’s reflected in the wine, but there is a good balance with the fruits showing some flavor variety; the finish is a bit flattened with some dryness showing from tannins, but this is unmistakably a wine from the Médoc that is true to its origins. However, I would not place this very high up the hierarchy of Cru Bourgeois.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.