Cru Bourgeois in 2014: Fresh and Lively

A presentation of twenty Cru Bourgeois châteaux in New York gave a view of the 2014 vintage that will be an interesting contrast with the forthcoming tasting of the UGCB (grand crus).

Perhaps I was biased by the first few wines I tasted, but the first single word that came to mind to describe the vintage was “acidity.” This is perhaps a bit unfair, but continuing on it certainly seemed that fresh and lively would be a reasonable description. These wines are a far cry from the exuberant style to which the grand crus have been moving.

The wines are mostly well balanced in the traditional style of Bordeaux, which is to say showing fresh fruits with a lively palate. Traditional may be a bit misleading if you think back to when Bordeaux was bitter when young, as one impressive quality is that virtually all are ready to drink now. Tannins are light and never obtrusive, there isn’t an overt sense of structure, but there’s enough to stop the wines from becoming simple fruits. None will be especially long lived, but most should last well for six to eight years. What does this suggest about the vintage? More classic than modern would be fair comment.

These are definitely food wines. I suspect they wouldn’t show so well at a tasting with wines in a more “international” idiom, because you have to look for flavor variety rather than having it thrust at you, but the restrained quality puts them into a class where they should offer a refreshing counterpoise to a meal.

Alcohol is a surprise: it is not noticeable on any of the wines. Given the impression they offer of traditional Bordeaux, you would expect the level to be around 12.5%, but in fact it is usually 13.5%. It’s the first time I’ve been able to accept that 13.5 is the new 12.5 as the alcohol is not accompanied by an impression that dry extract had to be increased to balance it. I don’t know whether the alcohol is all natural or there has been some chaptalization.

These wines are good value, mostly around the $25 mark, and an interesting contrast with, say, New World Cabernet at that price level, where the wines usually seem to me to be trying too hard to imitate more expensive varietal wines. Here the pattern is more bimodal: I see the Cru Bourgeois as striking a different balance, and having a different objective, rather than running as a continuum into the grand crus.

Three wines that particularly stood out for me were Château Labardi (Haut Médoc), for its delicacy and silkiness, Château Peyrabon (Haut Médoc) for a smooth, spicy balance, and Château Rollan de By (Médoc) for its full, generous black fruit impression.
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Cru Bourgeois Show Strengths and Weaknesses in 2012 Vintage

With prices either stratospheric (in good vintages) or simply unreasonable (in poorer vintages) for most of the Grand Cru Classés or their equivalents, and given the trend towards a richer, more alcoholic, international style, it’s a fair question where to turn if your preferences lie towards the old tradition of Bordeaux, meaning wines that have elegance and freshness.

I have felt for some time that the best of the Cru Bourgeois may be a more interesting alternative than the second wines of the great chateaux, as prices have remained reasonable and styles have not been so influenced by fashion. But I may need to rethink this after the New York tasting of Cru Bourgeois from 2012. Granted this was only a relatively small selection of the (almost) 300 Cru Bourgeois, and the most notable were not present (not to mention the fact that the best known chateaux in this category, which had been at the highest level in the old hierarchy, withdrew from the classification when it became a single tier when the new system was introduced).

Each chateau at this tasting brought the 2012 and one previous vintage from one of the last three years. I was generally a little disappointed in the 2012s. They were all well made wines, but seemed to fall into one of two categories. About half seemed to have made efforts to make the wines more approachable, with an initial softness on the palate. The problem here, to my mind, is that this leaves the wines between two stools: neither showing the lush fruits that are in fashion in New World, nor showing the traditional more savory spectrum of Bordeaux. I don’t think immediate gratification is in the DNA of Bordeaux. The wines are quite nicely rounded, but I was left wondering whether they are competitive in today’s market against varietal competitors from the New World. The other half showed more of Bordeaux’s usual asperity when young; but supposing these wines will peak in, say, three years’ time, the question becomes whether consumers will want to buy them now to hold for the future.

I find it difficult to raise much enthusiasm for the 2011 vintage. Most of the wines are tight, with a certain lack of underlying generosity which makes it seem doubtful whether they will open out. There’s a tendency towards green notes. My impression now is less favorable than it was at the introductory tasting of the 2011 vintage a year ago, when the youthful fruits were more in evidence; in the past year, the fruits seem to have lightened, but the tannins have not. I think you just need better terroir than most of the Cru Bourgeois possess in order to have been able to get to a satisfactory degree of ripeness in 2011. (By contrast, I thought the 2011 Grand Cru Classés often managed to show elegance and could be nice restaurant wines–if they were half the price!)

The 2010 and 2009 vintages showed their character through the prism of Cru Bourgeois, with 2010 tending to precision (which sometimes takes the form of tightness in the Cru Bourgeois at this point) and 2009 often nicely rounded (but somehow mostly lacking follow-through on the palate).

Here are some wines that illustrate the character of the 2012 vintage and appellation at this level. The most elegant wine from the Haut Médoc was Clément Pichon, somewhat in the style of the femininity of Margaux just to its north. In Margaux, Haut Breton Larigaudière is still a bit tight, waiting for the elegant fruits to emerge. Illustrating the disappearance of Cru Bourgeois from top appellations, there weren’t any examples of St. Julien or Pauillac. La Haye shows the typical tightness of young St. Estèphe. To the west, Château Lalaudey is a good representation of Moulis, with a lighter take on the style of the great communes. Château Rollan de By is a good illustration of what can be achieved in the Médoc. There are some nice wines in the 2012 Cru Bourgeois–but you do have to look for them.

Cru Bourgeois and Snobs

The annual tasting of the Union of Grand Crus of Bordeaux is always a crowded event in New York; in good vintages you positively have to elbow your way to the tasting tables. By contrast, this week’s tasting of Cru Bourgeois from the Médoc was somewhat sparsely attended. Chateaux showed two wines, mostly the 2009 and 2010, but there were some from 2008 and 2001 as well.

The difference in the atmospheres of the tastings might be taken as a metaphor for the difference in the wines themselves. The Grand Crus have become increasingly showy, luxury goods to knock your eyes out; but although they are technically better than ever before, full of ripe fruits with herbaceousness banished to history, sometimes you wonder whether they haven’t abandoned the traditional role of complementing food and aren’t, in fact, more likely to clash with it by bringing increasingly intense and concentrated flavors to the table. The Cru Bourgeois are simply not in that market: these are wines in a more traditional mold, designed to fit into the background against the food.

There is variation among the chateaux, to be sure, from wines that don’t quite make it because of lack of fruit flavor or variety to those that really typify the appellation. (Almost 200 of the 250 Cru Bourgeois are in the Médoc or Haut Médoc, leaving very few in the top communes, but those few can be good illustrations of appellation typicity.) Margaux is the appellation where I find the clearest expression of typicity, as seen in the smoothness of Paveil de Luze 2010, the typical perfume of Chateau d’Arsac 2010, and the restraint of Chateau Mongravey 2010. Chateau La Fleur Peyrabon 2009 stands out for the plush power of Pauillac, and Chateau Lilian Ladouys 2010 for expressing the slightly firmer quality of St Estèphe. Chateau Greysac 2010 captures a classic the playoff of fruits against structure in the Médoc, and Chateau Peyrabon 2010 seems more complete than the 2009 in reprising the style of Chateau Fleur Peyrabon, but at the level of Haut Médoc rather than Pauillac.

Whereas at Grand Cru tastings I usually prefer the 2009s to the 2010s, because the sheer fruit expression of the earlier vintage makes them so attractive, while the tannic reserve of 2010s makes then unready, at the Cru Bourgeois tasting I more often preferred the 2010s for their classic balance: many of the 2009s seemed to be trying too hard. If I have any generic criticism it is that there is sometimes a bit too much new oak for the fruit, but perhaps that will calm down in time. I did not generally like either the 2008s, which seem to be lacking in the flavor variety that should have begin to develop by now, or the 2011s, which seem to have too much acidity, often showing a citric edge.

My general reaction to this tastings—where around 50 of the Cru Bourgeois were represented—is that it’s a mistake to take the snobbish attitude of focusing exclusively on the grand crus. In terms of enjoyment in the shorter term, good match for food, and above all, reasonable price, the very best Cru Bourgeois have a lot to offer as dinner companions. Sometimes I wonder whether in fact they are more true to the spirit and tradition of Bordeaux than the Grand Crus are today.

Cru Bourgeois: a Work in Progress

A tasting of Cru Bourgeois from the 2010 vintage showed some remarkable similarities and remarkable differences with a tasting earlier this month of Grand Cru Classés from St. Emilion.

Both groups come from classification systems whose attempts to modernize foundered in legal challenges, and the classification had to be withdrawn, before compromises were found to restore a system. The final systems are almost at opposite poles. In St. Emilion, reclassification every ten years takes account of the terroir of the chateau, the price of its wine, and quality (as assessed by tasting). For Cru Bourgeois, the classification is now done every year, which makes it completely different from all the other classification systems where history (very distant in the case of Médoc Grand Cru Classé, more recent in the case of St. Emilion) counts for something.

Once a château has received the agrément that is required for its wine to be included in the AOP each year, it can apply for the Cru Bourgeois label. The wine is assessed by a tasting panel. “We are not assessing style, everyone is free to define their own style, but we are really concerned with quality. Typicity is really more a matter for the AOC. There are eight appellations and even within each there is variety,” says Frédérique Dutheiller de Lamothe, Directrice of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois. So in effect, putting Cru Bourgeois on the label is an imprimatur of quality. There are also some arcane rules about timing of sales, which actually excluded Chateau Caronne Ste Gemme from the 2011 classification, although its proprietor François Nony is President of the Alliance.

The difficulty with this system, it seems to me, that it lacks practicality for the consumer. Surely a consumer expects a classification to place a producer at a certain level, that it establishes a general reputation: are they really going to look at the label each year and ask whether the wine got the sticker for that vintage? What does it say if a chateau gets the classification some years and not others? Isn’t this really rating current vintages rather than classifying the producer? And what about vintage variation—will allowance for vintage mean that the classification is awarded in a poor year for wines that wouldn’t get it in a better year?

In spite of these reservations, what sort of standard was established for 2010? Just like St Emilion there seem to be a certain similarity to the wines, and it seemed to override the appellations as we tasted through the 2010 vintage from Médoc, Haut Médoc, Listrac, and Moulis. Somewhat tight fruits were supported by a strong acidity; these wines seemed more backward than the Grand Cru Classé last time I tasted them, not so much because of tannins but because the acidity was so pressing you couldn’t really see the fruits, which seem somewhat one dimensional. This seemed like a throwback to traditional Bordeaux, and these wines need time, the antithesis of the St. Emilion tasting, where the wines all had the same soft, over fruity taste (Triumph of the Oenologue in St. Emilion). But when we got to Margaux and Pauillac, communal typicity seemed to reappear in a certain finesse for Margaux and roundness for Pauillac. However, I thought the best Cru Bourgeois I tasted was Chateau Serilhan, from St Estèphe, whose refinement belied the reputation of the appellation.

Whether it’s the character of the appellation or the individual château, it did seem to me that the Cru Bourgeois from Margaux, Pauillac, and St. Estèphe were better than those from other appellations. But Cru Bourgeois, at least for the present, is a single level of classification (as opposed to the old system, which had multiple tiers. It would be interesting, and perhaps useful for the consumer, to restore the hierarchy, but it’s not obvious how that would be done in the context of the new system, as this would really put the Alliance into competition with the critics for rating the wines. But it’s a work in progress, so wait to see what happens next.

The Heart of Bordeaux

Where is the heart of Bordeaux? Most people would probably argue that it lies with the famous 61 chateaux of the Grand Cru Classés, but I was led to wonder by a recent bottle if tradition might now be maintained more by the Cru Bourgeois.

In Bordeaux to start the research for my book on Claret, I arrived late on Sunday and found my way to Prieuré-Lichine in Cantenac where I am staying for a few days. It’s an interesting experience to stay in a chateau, surrounded by vineyards and workers, rather than in a hotel surrounded by tourists. You get more sense of the working life of the operation.

The Médoc is rather sleepy on Sunday night, and there are not a lot of choices for dinner. After the rigors of travel, we did not feel in the mood for a really grand meal, so eschewed the delighted of Michelin-starred Cordeillan Bages for the local brasserie in Margaux. One of the pleasures of being here is that even modest restaurants have reasonable wine lists, including choices of half bottles.

We tried a half of Chateau Labégorce, a well regarded Cru Bourgeois in Margaux (recently reunited with Labégorce Zedé to reform a single chateau, thus recreating one of the larger Cru Bourgeois. But this bottle came from 1995, well before the reunion. In anticipation I was a little uncertain as to whether a Cru Bourgeois would have held up for fifteen years, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

The slightly herbaceous nose spoke to me immediately of traditional Bordeaux, yet there was no evidence of lack of ripeness in the black fruits, which seemed full and sweet on the palate to counterpoise the savory finish. Certainly this wine might not please people brought up on the forward, bright fruits of the New World, but to me it spoke eloquently of Bordeaux in general, and indeed specifically of Margaux.

No doubt it did not have the power and concentration of the top wines, and it will not age to reach their level of complexity, but many of the Grand Cru Classés have now adopted the international style of late-harvested, extremely ripe, fruits, so I was left wondering whether it’s at the level of Cru Bourgeois that the old traditions are now being perpetuated. And if so, is this because it is too difficult to achieve super-ripeness at the level of Cru Bourgeois or a conscious decision to maintain tradition?

Chateau Labégorce, 1995

Still a dark color without much sign of aging in its appearance. Classic nose is cedary and slightly herbaceous with notes of bell peppers. Black fruits on the palate have a sweet ripeness overlaying the classic savory flavor spectrum. This is a traditional style with the light touch of Margaux and very appropriate for the top tier of Cru Bourgeois. The balance is harmonious and the wine is aging gracefully.