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.

Is Napa Going Flabby?

I’ve been exploring differences between Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends based on it) from Napa and Bordeaux, and am wondering how much the acidity is a major factor in perception, as opposed to higher alcohol or extraction from the New World. In fact, acidity seems the most immediately obvious difference when I compared recent Napa vintages with the Bordeaux 2009 vintage.

A tasting  precedes the Napa barrel auction each February, and has an interesting format when wines from three successive vintages are presented blind, so that tasting focuses on vintage character and differences. At the end of the tasting, there’s a list of the producers. I tasted all three vintages, 2007, 2008, and 2009 from all fourteen Cabernet Sauvignon producers. (There was also a smaller tasting of Merlots.) The intention of the blind tasting is to indicate the general style of the vintage rather than focus on specific wines.

There’s a fairly clear line between the vintages: 2007 is more concentrated than either of the succeeding vintages. Differences between 2008 and 2009 are less distinct, although in general I’m inclined to agree with the conventional wisdom that 2009 is less intense than 2008, but both 2008 and 2009 tend to give a fairly flat impression, at least at this stage. Every producer in this tasting had a characteristic style that ran through all three vintages, but often the lighter fruits on 2008 and 2009 let the tannic structure show through more clearly, making the wine a little spartan. I felt that few of the wines at this particular tasting would be really long-lived, although the best will drink well in the mid-term (next five years or so).

At barrel tastings the same week, and allowing for the difference in age, the 2010s struck me as generally in line with the previous two vintages of 2009 and 2008. That makes three relatively indifferent vintages in a row. I did not feel, as has sometimes been suggested, that 2010 was a vintage more in line with Bordeaux, that is, lower in alcohol, not so rich, but with more finesse.

The 2009s provided an interesting contrast with a large tasting of Bordeaux 2009 just a couple of weeks earlier, where the wines had that characteristic lift of freshness, in spite of the reputation of the vintage for being unusually rich and alcohol for Bordeaux. Acidity in all three Napa vintages, by contrast, generally seemed a little low. On the best wines this makes the wines quite approachable, with a soft, velvety or furry palate, but in other cases the impression remains a little flat. There was a tendency to hollowness on the mid palate, especially with 100% Cabernet Sauvignons, but also even with wines that were also blended with some Merlot. Many of the wines cry out for some (or for some more) Merlot to fill out the mid palate. Perceptible alcohol was rarely a problem, although the level was often higher than would leave me comfortable after splitting a bottle at dinner. Overall, if I were to choose a wine to drink from these three vintages, 2007 would almost always be my preference, but in most cases I felt 2009 Bordeaux would be a better match for food.

Blending Cabernet: it’s the history, stupid

In Bordeaux they will tell you that Merlot is the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, because the Cabernet doesn’t always ripen reliably on the left bank, and the fleshier tones of Merlot complement it by filling in the mid palate. In Napa they will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon ripens so fully and reliably here that there is no need for Merlot; it makes a complete wine in itself. In Chile they used to follow the Bordeaux model by blending the Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot; but then it turned out that most of the Merlot wasn’t Merlot, it was really Carmenere; they did not throw up their hands with horror, tear out the Carmenere and replace it with real Merlot; now instead they make a point of producing varietal Carmenere or of blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, if they blend Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s usually with Malbec, which is the predominant black variety. In nineteenth century Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was usually blended  with Malbec and Carmenere as well as Cabernet Franc: the Malbec was replaced by Merlot, and the Carmenere disappeared after phylloxera struck. The blend everywhere is as much a matter of historical accident as a deliberate search for what varieties best complement one another. So the question is whether Cabernet Sauvignon still needs to be blended, given that the climate is warmer  in Bordeaux than it used to be, and that the other areas where it is planted are mostly warmer than Bordeaux anyway.  And if it does need to be blended, what other varieti(es) really give the best complexity, and are they necessarily the same in every region.

Even though Bordeaux has experienced warmer temperatures in the past decade, tastings of barrel samples have convinced me that the Cabernet Sauvignon makes a more interesting wine when it is blended. As a single varietal wine, it tends to have very pure, precise, but more linear flavors: it broadens out to become more interesting when blended. I believe the same is actually true in Napa, but not for the conventional reason. Young Napa Cabernets can be so bursting with fruit that you really do not see any need for any other variety to round out and complete the flavor profile. But wait a few years. As those primary fruits drop out, the wine begins to become more linear, more austere, the bare bones of Cabernet show more clearly, and you feel that by ten years of age it would very often be improved by some Merlot, which brings more interesting savory development.

A recent visit to Chile left me wondering about the rationale for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere. If you think you have difficulties ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, try Carmenere – which usually harvests about one month after the Cabernet Sauvignon. That alone shows you why it became untenable in Bordeaux. Even in Chile, where the Cabernet ripens quite reliably, Carmenere can be questionable; it needs to be grown in the warmer sites. When it ripens fully, it develops a smooth, elegant palate, with tannins that seem more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it brings elegance to a blend. When it does not ripen successfully, it has something of the same herbaceousness as Cabernet Sauvignon itself, so it’s something of a double or quits game.

Malbec is somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: not as fleshy as Merlot, but certainly smoother and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. Under peak conditions, Malbec may be a more interesting blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, because the tannic structure is complementary: the more supple character of Malbec adds smoothness to the tighter structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t fill in on the mid palate in quite the same way, so the wine tends more to elegance than fruit-driven power.

For roughly a hundred years, from its rise following the phylloxera problem in the 1880s until a couple of decades ago, Merlot was the perfect blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. This is not true in the warmer climates of Napa and Chile, where the “Merlot collapse problem” describes the situation in which Merlot goes straight from green, herbaceous character to over-ripe jammy character, with too narrow a chance to catch it at the right point. I sometimes wonder whether Napa’s concentration on varietal Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t due as much to their difficulties with Merlot as to the attractions of the Cabernet. I am inclined to wonder whether Syrah would be a good choice, since it has richer tannins than Cabernet and can add a touch of aromatics that increases complexity, but Napa seems fixated on a bimodal view: it’s either Cabernet or it’s a Bordeaux blend. Syrah  might also do well in Argentina and Chile, but the accidents of history mean that Malbec and Carmenere are well entrenched. Come to that, it may be time for Bordeaux to reconsider, because in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, the Merlot became so ripe and alcoholic that in many cases it was impossible to blend it into the Grand Vin and it was relegated to the second wine. (An amusing paradox here, since that can make the second wine higher in alcohol than the Grand Vin, and the concept that higher alcohol goes with wines at higher appellation levels is well entrenched in the French hierarchy.) How about going back to Malbec or Carmenere in the Medoc – or maybe Syrah.

Bring Back the Merlot

I got to thinking about Merlot when I was tasting Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa last week. Now I have never been much of a fan of Merlot, I’m not an enthusiast for Pomerol, for example, because I find those fat lush fruits less interesting than the more restrained flavors of Cabernet-dominated blends in the Medoc. And even though the last couple of vintages have had their problems in Napa, I think it’s a fair point that the extra ripeness that Cabernet achieves there may make it unnecessary to fill in the mid palate with Merlot the way that has been traditional in Bordeaux. Although at the Napa Premiere tasting of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 vintages, it seemed to me that more than a few of the Cabernets (especially from 2008 and 2009) cried out for some Merlot on the mid palate (or cried out for something closer to 20% than the 10% they actually had). But it wasn’t so much the younger wines that made me think about the virtues of Merlot as the older ones that I tasted during the week, ranging from 1985 through to 1995.

Many of the older wines had a really sparse quality, a sort of Spartan palate, with the bare bones of tannic structure poking through the black fruits of Cabernet. No matter how delicious and full of fruit those wines were when young,  age may not have exactly withered them, but certainly it allowed the full austerity of Cabernet show through. The other striking feature was that although they had certainly matured, with the fruits lightening and changing from primary to secondary aromas and flavors, in very few cases was there much evidence of that delicious savory quality to which Bordeaux turns when old. It seems to me that the development of savory qualities, extending to what the French call sous bois (forest floor) is needed to compensate for the lightening of fruit flavors as the wine ages. I have begin to wonder whether this is something that happens more naturally with Merlot, or with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, than with  Cabernet alone. I discussed a direct example of this previously in The Retarded Development of Cabernet Sauvignon. I think it is more difficult to find examples of pure Cabernet Sauvignon that has aged interestingly than blends.

Not that Merlot is dispensable in young wines; in can add refinement and elegance – but there’s a rub. Merlot is rarely planted on the best terroirs. If you ask in Bordeaux about the match between variety and terroir, the answer is usually that each variety is planted on the terroir that’s best for it. But the fact is that Cabernet is planted on the best terroirs – the gravel mounds – and Merlot is planted on the clay-rich soils where Cabernet won’t ripen. I have found two interesting exceptions to this rule, one in Bordeaux and one in Napa.

Chateau Palmer in Margaux is famous for having Merlot planted on gravel mounds, on terroirs that any other producer would have devoted to Cabernet. This goes back to an enthusiasm of Édouard Miailhe in the 1950s, when Merlot was heavily planted at Palmer, reaching as much as 60% of the vineyards. It was partially reversed at the end of the 1960s, bringing the level down to 47%, although this is still high compared to other producers. Palmer 1961, which represented one of the icon wines of the twentieth century, was only 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. No one knows why Palmer 1961 reached the heights of the first growths, but to my palate it was much in line with the 1959, 1962, and perhaps 1966 vintages – all of which had a very high proportion of Merlot planted on gravel, before it was cut back. Has Palmer ever achieved those heights again? Could this merely be coincidence?

I had a similar epiphany at Screaming Eagle when tasting barrel samples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to compare with the blend. Even within this small vineyard, the terroir varies from gravel at the eastern edge to more clay at the west of the vineyard. The Merlot came from a block of vines planted in 1987 on the best – for which read gravel – soils. Although Screaming Eagle has Cabernet on gravel and Merlot on clay, they are not slavishly devoted to the idea that they must follow the old Bordeaux rules, so there is some counter thinking, with Merlot on gravel, as well as some Cabernet on a clay plot that gives good results. The Merlot was elegant and refined, with a very fine grained texture that I don’t usually associate with the variety. But then again, I don’t get to taste much Merlot grown on gravel. I think that Merlot makes a significant contribution to the refined quality of Screaming Eagle.

Palmer and Screaming Eagle are, to my mind, hard examples to argue with. The problem with Merlot may be that, when it’s grown in company with Cabernet, the Cabernet usually gets first choice of terroirs. In Bordeaux, this means it’s never as refined. In Napa, the Merlot is often a bit too coarse – indeed, I wonder whether deficiencies in the Merlot are partly responsible for the focus on pure Cabernet Sauvignon. So bring back the Merlot, I say, plant some on your best terroirs, and make wines that will be truly refined when young but will mature into a gracefully savory old age.

Bordeaux 2009 Redux

The 2009 and 2010 vintages in Bordeaux achieved a reputation en primeur for atypically lush wines, high in alcohol and low in acid: great vintages but pushing even further the trend towards New World styles. The bottled wines made their first appearance this week, when the Union of Grand Crus took the 2009 vintage on its U.S. road show. I am happy to report that the initial reports from the en primeur front are somewhat exaggerated; in fact, this is (yet another) exercise in how misleading it can be to form judgments en primeur. But first a caveat: the road show does not have all of the wines, and what’s missing are largely those at the top end – the super-seconds and first growths – so it gives an impression from the Cru Bourgeois level to the middle of the classified growths. (39 of the 62 Grand Cru Classés were represented.)

The general impression of the vintage is certainly ripe. There was scarcely a taste of herbaceousness in any of the wines. But it is not over ripe. With a handful of exceptions of wines made in an overtly “international” style, the wines all fell within the parameters of traditional Bordeaux: fruits supported by good acidity, a tendency towards the savory rather than the forcefully fruity, some tannic support showing its bones on the finish. The baby fat of the barrique has lessened to reveal refined structures. As many of the wines showed a restrained austerity as showed overt opulence. In no case was high alcohol oppressive, although I did not have the opportunity to perform a reality check by seeing how an entire bottle would drink at dinner as opposed to tasting in a glass. But almost all seemed to be “food wines” in Bordeaux’s traditional pattern: most were well balanced, few were overblown.

Descriptions of the vintage en primeur made it seem that traditional communal differences might be obscured by the rising tide that lifted all fruits to higher and higher levels of ripeness. But not a bit of it. The wines of Pessac-Léognan tend to show a smoky quality of cigar box, very classic for Graves, the Haut-Médoc has firm fruits with acid support, Margaux comes off just a bit more elegant, with refined fruits sometimes showing a faintly herbal impression, and St. Julien shows that precise delineation of tight black fruits. Pauillac was less typical for me, sometimes showing a slightly hard edge that is more what I usually associate with St. Estèphe. There were too few St. Estèphes in the tasting really to get a bead on its typicity this year, but the style seemed quite traditional. Over on the right bank, the best St. Emilions seemed to be displaying more the fine-edged richness of ripe Cabernet Franc than the Merlot, while Pomerol tended to full blown ripe Merlot, the one area that lived up directly to the reputation of the vintage.

In each commune there were wines that typified its classic character and wines that abandoned tradition to go for broke in the modern style. In Pessac-Léognan, Château Carbonnieux showed classically smoky cigar box notes; this is a château that I usually regard as an under performer, and indeed I do not think the 2009 will stand up in the long term, but it’s a textbook illustration of Graves out of the box. Domaine de Chevalier is a much better wine, but at this point is really restrained: when it comes out of this phase, it will be a classic. It is surely one of the most refined wines of the appellation.

In the Haut-Médoc, Château La Lagune seems more traditional than some of its other recent vintages; good acidity supports elegant black fruits, with a touch of vanillin on the finish. My pick for a quintessential Margaux is Château Desmirail: a slightly savory herbal impression brings precise elegance to the black fruits. This may not be an especially long lived wine, but right now it is nicely displaying the delicacy you expect from Margaux. Prieuré-Lichine turned in a classic performance this year also. Rauzan-Ségla’s impression of precise elegance seemed as much to represent St. Julien as Margaux.

As for St. Julien, Château Léoville Barton typifies the commune. There’s a very fine impression on the palate with fine-grained tannins supporting the elegant, precisely delineated, black fruits. The underlying support promises long aging. Gruaud Larose in a richer style that separates it from the old vintages under Cordier, brings St. Julien into the modern era without losing communal character. The fascinating comparison in Pauillac was between Pichon Baron, to which I give the nod as typifying the commune, and Pichon Lalande, which is more typical of the reputation of the vintage. Pichon Baron shows full force as a super-second, with intensity and depth of fruits, yet held back and constrained by its firm structure, very much the iron fist in the velvet glove. Pichon Lalande is softer.

In St. Emilion, Château Canon La Gaffelière edged out my perennial favorite, Château Figeac. The profile of the Canon La Gaffelière seemed to be driven more by Cabernet Franc than Merlot, with faint savory notes bringing complexity to layers of precise black fruits. (There was also some Cabernet Sauvignon in this vintage.) This will become a finely nuanced wine with age. Figeac is more overtly restrained than usual, but with a fine balance that should support longevity. The standout in Pomerol is La Conseillante, which is opulent and rich, yet with enough structure for aging.

Some wines defy easy localization. Made in the modern style, they are excellent wines in their own right, likely to appeal to consumers who also enjoy top-end New World wines, but for me they no longer represent their communes. Château Pape Clément is a top notch wine in this vintage, with deep, smoky, black fruits leading into chocolaty tannins on the finish: but does it have the character of Graves? Château Smith Haut Lafitte seems also to have moved a bit in this direction in this vintage. In the Haut-Médoc, Château La Tour Carnet is edging in this direction, as is Château Cantenac Brown in Margaux. In St. Julien, Château Léoville Poyferré shows restraint on the nose, but then chocolaty black fruits display a very modern palate: no one could quarrel with the quality, but how does it typify the elegance and precision usually associated with the commune?

The overall impression of the vintage is far more traditional than would be expected from the en primeur reports. The wines are unmistakably Bordeaux in their freshness and aromatic profile. In a word, they have a lovely balance. Quite often the ripeness of the fruits does hide the tannic support, and the vintage is not as obviously destined for very long aging­ as some others – I would be inclined to think more in terms of 15 years than 20 or 30 years. Most of the wines will be ready to start drinking in about three years. Bordeaux has a surprising capacity to recover its character from warmer vintages; the 1982s, so lush and opulent when they first appeared, reverted to type after two decades and now often show a lovely, savory balance with that slightly herbaceous delicious edge. Will the 2009s behave in the same way? It’s a great vintage, but stylistically  in line with the precedents of 2000 or 2005, not totally off the charts as many reports would have suggested.  The Vintage of the Decade – perhaps? But not, I suspect, the Vintage of the Century.

Tradition and Modernism in Bordeaux

One glance at the label will show how much Bordeaux has changed: alcohol levels in 1982 were under 12.5%; in 2010 they will be around 14%. And this underestimates the extent of change, since roughly 1% of the alcohol was produced by adding sugar in the vintages prior to the 1990s. It’s not the alcohol I’m going on about, though; this is simply an indication of a change in style associated with much greater ripeness that has taken the wine from a vaguely herbaceous style (well, overtly herbaceous in cooler vintages) to a rich, ripe, black-fruit driven style.

Several different forces have come together to drive Bordeaux towards greater ripeness. There’s certainly a conscious determination to avoid wines with overt herbaceousness; warmer growing seasons and better viticulture are allowing the berries to become more mature before it’s necessary to harvest. But in spite of denials from châteaux proprietors – they do not go so far as the Burgundians who are prone to say that they make wine exactly as their fathers and grandfathers made it, but they tend to deny any deliberate change in style – market forces may be the most important factor.

In some other regions there has been a direct clash between tradition and modernity. Fathers and sons stopped speaking to one another in Barolo over the clash between modernists and traditionalists, and Brunello di Montalcino suffered from the same divide, although without such personal animosity. In Rioja some producers solved the problem by making two wines: one in the traditional style, and another under a new label in the modern style. In Bordeaux it is rarely so clear cut. Forming a view of the trend is complicated by the fact that in most cases a transition from traditional to modernist is associated with the sale of a château that was under-performing anyway. I am not sure there are any cases of a succesfull château changing from traditional to modern style.

When a château changes hands, there’s a common trend: to move to a new, more intense, more extracted, more “modern” style. This has been seen most dramatically outside the Médoc, with Château Pavie in St. Emilion¾famously converted after Gérard Perse bought it in 1998 to a wine loved by Robert Parker and loathed by Jancis Robinson­ in the 2003 vintage ¾and with Château Pape Clément in Pessac, which Bernard Magrez added to his portfolio (by inheritance) in 1985, and which subsequently became much richer and more extracted than was common in Pessac-Léognan. The verdict of the market has been quite clear: after the change in style, both have increased significantly in price relative to others that were formerly at the same level. This sets a clear enough precedent for others to emulate.

Examples within the Médoc are more ambiguous. In most cases, the impetus for the sale was that the old proprietor had lost interest (or lacked resources) and the château was palpably under-performing. Even if you regret the passing of the traditional style, it’s hard not to feel conflicted about the change when the wine was had problems before the transition and was so clearly technically improved afterward. Take Châteaux Prieuré Lichine and Lascombes in the Médoc, purchased by American investors in 1999 and 2001, where the style went from rather faded, perhaps one might say run down, to modern and bright. Others that might be put in the same category are Château La Tour Carnet (another Magrez property, acquired in 1999), La Lagune ( acquired by the Frey family in 2000), perhaps Pichon Baron (purchased by AXA in 1987). One counter example of a change in style by existing ownership is Léoville Poyferré, where Michel Rolland was brought in as a consultant in 1995. Everywhere it’s a one way street to modernity.

The contrast between before and after is so striking that it’s hard to assess whether it was necessary to go so far. And indeed, have the new owners gone further in their change of style than those châteaux whose styles have quietly evolved over the years: no one could quarrel with the quality of Léoville Lascases, Ducru Beaucaillou, or Pichon Lalande, but the wines of today are certainly richer than those of the past.

Some change is inevitable even where there is a conscious attempt to maintain traditional values. I’ve always viewed Château Montrose as one of the most traditional châteaux: its wines can take a decade or so to come around, but my goodness, do they justify the wait. They go from a real tough hardness in the early years to a savory elegance after twenty or thirty years that absolutely typifies St. Estèphe for me. The 1970 came around in the past few years and now puts most other wines of the vintage to shame.  I thought perhaps this era had come to an end when the Bouygues brothers purchased the château from the Charmolües in 2006, but was reassured when they hired  Jean Delmas, recently retired as winemaker from Château Haut Brion, to consult.

The question “has the style of Montrose changed in the past twenty years?” produced an emphatic NO! from general manager Nicolas Glumineau when I visited Montrose recently. However, they are making better balanced wines, less austere than earlier vintages, which perhaps were too masculine, he thinks. Nicolas sees the tannins as the key feature in the character of Montrose (and indeed Cabernet Sauvignon in general). “We can get more precision and earlier integration of tannins,” he says. Being more approachable now does not mean the vintage will not last as well. “In the seventies and up to the eighties, it needed fifteen years before the tannins integrated into the wine; the difference today is that the tannins are riper and integrate better and sooner. Tannin integration is a permanent question with Cabernet Sauvignon, but much less so with Merlot. The characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon are its tannins, and quality is about getting them riper and well integrated into the wine.”

Has Bordeaux in general changed? “Probably more so on the right bank than the left bank, because Merlot is more flexible and responds to changes in the cuverie, but Cabernet Sauvignon is a more powerful variety. Also in the Médoc we are more attached to the personality of the growths. We [at Montrose] are very attached to Bordeaux wine, we do not want to make the sort of wine that you cannot place on a map,” Nicolas says. But he comments ruefully that if you want to adapt your wine to the global demand, to make international wine in a more jammy style, it is better to plant some Merlot, which adapts to a variety of soils.

I’ve often been tempted to join the lament that Bordeaux is losing its way, that it has succumbed to an international style that emphasizes fruit rather than savory character. Part of my concern was alleviated when I discovered that the 1982s – so rich and lush and un-Bordeaux like when first released – are now reverting to a more classic flavor spectrum. If 2000 and 2005 do the same, I shall be happy. And it is hard to characterize vintages such as 2001, 2004, or 2006 as overly international. So it comes down to how 2009 and 2010, with their intense extraction and high alcohol, will perform as they age in bottle. I admit I find it hard to see how a wine at over 14% alcohol can mature like classic Bordeaux, but there have been surprises before.

Where Has All the Cabernet Gone?

Bordeaux is the world’s largest producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, with 28,000 hectares planted. Only a small part – perhaps 15% – goes into wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon; the rest is blended into wines where the dominant component is Merlot. Generally unknown, but running a fairly close second in plantings, is the south of France, with 22,000 hectares altogether in Languedoc and Provence (mostly in Languedoc). But how many interesting Cabernet-driven do you know from the south? What are they doing with all that Cabernet?

I spent a week in the Languedoc last month looking for Cabernet as part of the research for my book Claret & Cabs. I found half a dozen interesting producers and obtained a renewed respect for the practice of blending, whether with Bordeaux varieties or others. I wanted to know whether Cabernet Sauvignon in the south retained a typicity like Bordeaux or more resembled the warmer climates where it is grown in the New World.

I started my tour at Finca Narraza in Roussillon, not far from Perpignan just north of the Pyrenees, where Corinne and Gérard le Jan have a twenty year old vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, there’s just as much vintage variation here as in Bordeaux. Cabernet does well when the climate is Atlantic, but can be difficult to handle when it rains and the wind comes from the mountains or when the weather is too hot and it ripens too quickly. The main cuvée is an equal blend of Cabernet and Syrah, and the dominant influence seems to vary with the year. In either case, it’s fair to say that the wine shows more the aromatic influence of the south than of Bordeaux.

An interesting opportunity to see what a Bordeaux blend achieves in the south came from Verena Wyss, near Pezenas.  In the Belcanto cuvée, the structure of the Cabernet comes through quite clearly, but the aromatics are more those of the south, fruity and perfumed, than of the more savory tradition of Bordeaux. “There is no problem ripening here; it  is warmer and drier than Bordeaux. The training system needs to protect the fruit against excess heat, the opposite of tradition in Bordeaux where it needs to ensure good sun exposure. The problem here is not getting good maturity, it is avoiding over-maturity; the only answer is to harvest when the grapes are ready and not wait too long,” says Verena.

Another interesting insight came from the ability of Petit Verdot to ripen reliably in this climate,  which enables Verena to produce the La Tonga blend of 60% Cabernet to 40% Petit Verdot. Her I felt that the spiciness of Petit Verdot dominated the palate, making an attractive young wine, but I wondered whether it would age well. I received a partial answer when I visited Marc Benin at the Domaine de Ravanès, just a little farther west, where there is both a 100% Petit Verdot and a 50:50 blend of Petit Verdot with Merlot. “I don’t want to make a Bordeaux, I want to make a wine of the Languedoc, but with the Bordelais varieties. Here the Petit Verdot achieves the same maturity as the Cabernet Sauvignon and gives an interesting, structured wine,” Marc told me. Tasting these wines from 2002 and 2000 showed that Petit Verdot really matures very slowly indeed; I was left uncertain whether it would ultimately develop the same interest with age as Cabernet Sauvignon. But a vertical tasting of monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007 back to 1995 showed some difficulty in getting a complete structural balance. The youngest vintage showed nicely concentrated fruits, but still a good way to go to maturity. “The Cabernet can be too strong. It’s not ready to drink straight away, you need to wait 3-4 years,” Marc said, explaining why he now blends the Cabernet with Merlot. Older vintages showed nice development, much along the lines of traditional Bordeaux, with savory and even herbaceous elements coming out. I was left with the impression that, just as in Bordeaux itself, blending produces a more complete and complex wine. A similar classic impression came from the Cabernet-Merlot blends at Domaine de Perdiguier, close by, where I revisited the question as to the typicity of Cabernet Sauvignon in the south. These wines sufficiently resembled Bordeaux AOC as to provoke me into realizing that by now I had made the transition into looking for something different in the south.

The pioneer for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc is Mas de Daumas Gassac, where the blend has now settled down at around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remaining 20% consisting of a wide range of varieties, including the traditional Bordeaux varieties. The other varieties vary somewhat: initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, and Merlot; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties.” Daumas Gassac is not looking for the modern jammy fruity style. “We belong more to the Bordeaux 1961 attitude—wine with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity. Only 15% new oak is used to get finesse. The wine is no more typical of Bordeaux than it is Languedoc,” says Samuel Guibert, the current winemaker.

Almost adjacent, however, is the Domaine de la  Grange des Pères, where the attitude is almost the antithesis of Daumas Gassac but the wines are equally interesting. Daumas Gassac today, albeit way off the beaten track, is a modern facility with a snazzy tasting room, and constant trek of visitors.  Grange des Pères has a utilitarian appearance, it’s not especially easy to make an appointment with Laurent Vaillé who is nothing if not reticent, but the rendezvous, if successful, takes place in the working cave, where samples can be tasted from barriques. The wine is a blend of roughly equal proportions of Syrah and Mourvèdre with a minor component of 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Minor, but essential. “The Cabernet Sauvignon is like salt in food. I do not want Cabernet Sauvignon to dominate my assemblage. Grange des Pères should have a southern character, but with freshness and that’s what the Cabernet Sauvignon brings,” says Laurent. Tasting barrel samples, you can see what each variety brings to the blend. All are rich and powerful with a good level of tannins, the Syrah full of rich, deep back fruits, the Mourvèdre distinctly spicy, and the Cabernet herbal and fresh. It’s not so much the acidity of the Cabernet as such, but the tightness of its structure that freshens the blend. Without it, the wine would have more of that jammy fruit character of warm climates. So here the Cabernet in effect is playing a moderating role on the sheer fruit character of the other varieties: almost exactly the opposite of the role it plays elsewhere as a “cépage ameliorateur” in strengthening weak varieties.

Over in Provence, the pioneer for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah was Eloi Dürrbach, who planted the vineyards at Domaine de Trévallon, near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just south of Avignon, in 1973. In the (relatively) cool microclimate at Trévallon, the two cépages play the traditional complementary roles: Cabernet Sauvignon can be austere, but Syrah softens it (without acquiring the jammy notes of the southern Rhône). Barrel samples of the two varieties before assemblage (which takes place only just before bottling) show more similarities than differences: in the 2010 vintage, both cépages showed dense black fruits with good tannic support, with the Syrah just a touch more aromatic and the Cabernet just a touch sterner. The interesting comparison was with a pre-assemblage blend, made because there wasn’t enough of either separate cépage to fill another foudre.  The increase of complexity was obvious, combining roundness with precision, sternness with aromatics. Usually the Syrah is a little more evident as an influence than the Cabernet, says Antoine Dürrbach, but it varies from year to year. There is no attempt here at instant gratification: usually the wine does not open up for ten years, he told me, but then it will last another decade. Indeed, the 2001 vintage was just beginning to open up in October 2011. I would be inclined to say that it has something of the aromatics of the south combined with the texture of Bordeaux. The whole is certainly greater than you might expect from the sum of the parts tasting the individual varieties.

My last stop to investigate blends of Cabernet with southern varieties was at Domaine Richeaume, farther east in Provence, located just underneath Mont Sainte Victoire. The backdrop to the vineyards could be a painting by Cézanne. There’s a small production of monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon, the Columelle cuvée of Cabernet and Syrah, with a small component of Merlot, and the Tradition cuvée which is equal Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The Cabernet gives the impression that seems to prevail with a monovarietal all the way from Bordeaux to Provence: more precision and elegance than the other varieties or even than the blends, but less completeness, just not quite filling in entirely on the mid palate. Syrah by itself goes the other way: lovely aromatics to the fore. Columelle is a good compromise: Syrah aromatics with that structure of Cabernet underneath. I wasn’t quite sure with the Tradition whether Grenache was filling in the fleshiness the Cabernet lacks by itself, or whether the Cabernet was giving structure to an amorphous Grenache, but it did not seem to me that the marriage was a complementary as Cabernet and Merlot.

They are quite disdainful in Bordeaux about growing Cabernet in the south. “It’s a big mistake,” the Directeur at one second growth blurted out when I asked what he thought about growing Cabernet there. “There isn’t any Cabernet in Languedoc,” one senior figure on the Bordeaux wine scene said, when I mentioned that I was visiting Cabernet producers there. But there are certainly interesting wines, based on Cabernet Sauvignon or containing a significant proportion of it, in Languedoc and Provence. They are no challenge to Bordeaux, not because they are necessarily inferior to it, but because their overall flavor spectrum is different: whether the Cabernet is a monovarietal, blended with Bordeaux varieties, or blended with other varieties, it takes on at least a partial tinge of the aromatics of the south. But none of the top wines fit into the rules for AOC, and they have not been imitated to any significant extent by others. So they create no halo effect to lift up the region. And in terms of the total production of Cabernet Sauvignon in Languedoc and Provence, my attempts to identify wines of character might account perhaps for a couple of hundred of the twenty thousand hectares. What are they doing with the rest?

The vast majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc goes into relatively inexpensive brands, produced on a relatively large scale for France. In fact, the Languedoc is France’s largest source for varietal-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon.  (The authorities would not give me any official figures for production of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc, but I calculate there must be around 10 million cases of Cabernet Sauvignon or wines based on Cabernet. This compares with a total production for generic AOC Bordeaux of around 25 million cases, most of which has Cabernet Sauvignon only as a minor component.) Should the Bordelais be quite so disdainful of the varietal-labeled brands under the Vin de Pays labels? Given the inroads that have been made into the market at the level of Bordeaux AOC by varietal-labeled New World wines, isn’t the Languedoc more a threat by fifth column since it combines the mystique of being French with the varietal-labeling that appeals at this level of the market, and a more forward, fruit-driven style?

Finca Narraza, Vin de France, 2008

This equal blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon shows an impenetrable black color. A touch of reduction on the nose rapidly blows off. The black fruits of cherries and plums show an impressive density on the palate, supported by fresh acidity and firm tannins that are integrating nicely. The impression in this vintage is dominated more by Syrah than Cabernet, as indicated by the rich, plummy aromatics. It’s a more powerful wine than the 2009, albeit just a touch rustic in its overall impression. It will no doubt show greater smoothness in a year or so and should drink well for up to a decade. 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Finca Narraza, Vin de France, Cuvée Raoul Blondin, 2008

An impenetrable black color with a stern nose, although this is 80% Syrah and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Some savage notes to the nose resemble Syrahs of the northern Rhone. The dense black fruits on the palate are ripe and unctuous, deep and long, with a chocolaty texture. The Cabernet Sauvignon gives extra backbone to this basically Syrah-dominated wine. The structure is somewhat buried under the density of fruits but should support aging for a decade. A very fine effort. 90 Drink 2013-2021.

Verena Wyss, IGP d’Oc, La Tonga, 2007

This wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot.  Spicy nose has intense aromatics. The classic notes of Petit Verdot are really evident, with a peppery spiciness on the nose showing as all-spice on the palate, which is full of flavor and character. The deep fruits show as blackcurrants and plums, with ripe tannins in the background. The Petit Verdot gives that Rolls Royce sense of power, but does it make the flavor spectrum just a touch monotonic? 90 Drink-2020.

Verena Wyss, IGP d’Oc, Belcanto, 2007

Belcanto is a Bordeaux-like blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. It shows a medium to deep ruby color with a touch of garnet indicating the first development. The restrained nose gives an impression of black fruit with some floral notes. The underlying structure shows the influence of Cabernet Sauvignon quite clearly, with smooth black fruits supported by ripe tannins. At first the tannins hide behind the fruits, but then they come through to show as dryness on the finish. This elegant wine is certainly Old World not New World, but shows a touch more overt aromatics than would be found in Bordeaux. 90 Drink now-2021.

Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murveil VDP, Petit Verdot, 2008

Petit Verdot matures well in the Languedoc, offering the opportunity to make a varietal wine. Actually, the Petit Verdot at Ravanès is usually kept for blending into the top wines, but in this year it was interesting enough to make a monovarietal, without wood exposure. The year had a dilute character overall, but the wine shows the purity of the Petit Verdot fruits. The spicy nose might easily lead you to believe there had been oak exposure. Dense fruits show purity of line similar to varietal Cabernet. This shows very well as a young wine, but there is a certain direct focus that suggests aging won’t bring out real flavor complexity. You can certainly see what Petit Verdot brings to a blend. 88 Drink now-2016.

Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murveil VDP, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

This was the last year a monovarietal Cabernet was produced. It is still a dark ruby purple, showing very much a Cabernet nose with austere black fruits. Ripe and rich fruits dominate the palate, supported by ripe tannins. Very good extract but still not quite ready. Nice texture: there’s no exposure to wood so the forcefulness of the Cabernet fruits comes right through from this good year. 88 Drink 2013-2018.

Château de Perdiguier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune, Cuvee d’en Auger, 2007

This blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot spends a year in new oak. It has more evident concentration and roundness than the regular bottling. This vintage is still a deep ruby color with little sign of development. Black fruits on the nose have an austere edge with a touch of smoke and chocolate. The palate of ripe black fruits shows a touch of classic herbaceousness on the finish, but accompanied by a chocolaty texture. Tannic support shows as dryness on the finish. 88 Drink now-2017.

Château de Perdiguier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune, Cuvee d’en Auger, 2001

Dark color with only a slight touch of garnet developing. Restrained but classic nose with those herbaceous hints of bell peppers. Nicely rounded on the palate with good freshness and attack; the bell peppers come back on the finish. This gives a rather classic impression of a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wine, although it’s half Cabernet and half Merlot. 87 Drink now-2014.

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2008

This is an elegant wine with Cabernet Sauvignon represented in a lighter style. Fresh on the nose and palate with a slight spiciness and some aromatic complexity. The Cabernet is identified by notes of cedar, with  lively fruits on the palate which show a faint savory touch of the garrigue. For the south this is a restrained style. Good variety of flavor across the palate supported by an unobtrusive structure with tannins well in the background.  88 Drink-2017

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2006

Nose shows fresh red fruits and a touch of nuts with intimations of complexity. Elegant fruits on the palate, following the red spectrum of the nose. There’s a touch of savory influence from the garrigue. Opening up in the glass, the wine shows its delicacy, yet with the fine structure and tannic support of Cabernet. It brings back memories of some of the more delicate older vintages of Bordeaux.  90 Drink-2016

Domaine de Trévallon, 2001

This vintage is just beginning to start its evolution. It’s a medium density color with some garnet on the rim. The nose is quite developed, and shows gunflint with a touch of some tertiary barnyard aromas. The palate is less developed than the nose, showing ripe blackcurrants and plums, but the tertiary notes come back on the finish. Tannins show as dryness on the finish. Personally I’d wait another couple of years for the peak, after which the wine should hold for some time.  91 Drink now-2020.

Domaine Richeaume, Vin de France, Columelle, 2009

Black fruits drive the nose. Freshness on the palate cuts the ripeness of the fruits, which show the typical aromatics of Syrah. Although the Syrah dominates the palate, there’s a sense of restraint and finesse, which is perhaps due to the Cabernet. The overall impression is fine grained and elegant. 30% of American oak was used here. 90 Drink 2012-2020.

Domaine Richeaume, Vin de France, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

Some evolution on the nose has occurred in the last year. It’s a touch reduced, with some hints of gunflint and a touch of barnyard. The black fruits are quite stern on the palate. This is less open, less overtly fruity than the Cabernet blends. The good fruit concentration comes back on the finish where ripe tannins are evident. The developed notes of barnyard certainly cut the fruits: it’s an interesting question whether they will become complex enough to offset the lightening of concentration as further maturation occurs. This wine was matured exclusively in French oak. 88  Drink 2012-2018.