Bordeaux 2015: Taming of the Tannins

Judging from this week’s UGCB tasting of 2015 Bordeaux in New York, the vintage is very good, although lacking the sheer wow factor of 2009 or 2005. I see it as a modern take on classic tradition, by which I mean that the wines tend towards elegance and freshness, but without the heavy tannins or herbaceousness of the past, and are relatively approachable.

After a day tasting around 100 chateaux, I had a 1978 Léoville Lascases for dinner: the difference in style is most marked in the delicious tang of herbaceousness marking the 1978. Needless to say, there was not a trace of herbaceousness in any of the wines of 2015. I miss it.

2015 is a relatively homogeneous vintage: there is more or less even success across the board. It is even true that the difference between modernist and more traditional châteaux is much less marked than in some past vintages. In previous vintages the modernists–among which I include Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafitte, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel–have stood out for forward fruits, very ripe and round, sometimes approaching New World in style: in 2015, modernism takes the form of a smooth sheen to the palate, with tannins tamed and very fine. But it’s a general mark of the vintage that tannins are rarely really obtrusive, and the taming of the tannins is likely to mean that, unless it closes up unexpectedly, the vintage will be ready to start relatively soon,.

Appellation character is clear this year.

  • Margaux is very fine and elegant, although there is a tendency for the lighter fruits of the appellation to let the tannins show more obviously than in other appellations. The appellation generally gives somewhat the impression of a lighter year. Durfort Vivens has really revived, with a fine effort that speaks to Margaux, Kirwan has more finesse due to its new cellar, Lascombes is more elegant and less modern than usual, Rauzan-Ségla is quintessential Margaux, and Siran presents a great view of Margaux from the class of Cru Bourgeois.
  • The same sense of elegance carries to St. Julien, except that here the tannins universally seem exceptionally fine in the background, making many wines more immediately attractive; St. Julien is closer in style to Margaux than to neighboring Pauillac. Beychevelle as a very convincing expression of the appellation, Gruaud Larose is very much on form this year, Lagrange seems lighter compared to its usual modern style, Léoville Barton is stylish and elegant, the quintessential St. Julien, while Léoville Poyferré is distinctly more modern.
  • Moving into Pauillac, there is more power in the background, with wines somewhat rounder, but there’s a range from almost rustic to utterly sophisticated. Tannins are held in check by density of fruits, making wines seem relatively approachable. A fine effort from d’Armailhac is almost plush, it’s a good year for Grand Puy Ducasse but it doesn’t have the breed of Grand Puy Lacoste, which is structured and built to last, Lynch Bages is a solid representation of the appellation, Pichon Baron shows the smoothness of its modern style, but this year Pichon Lalande gives an even more modern impression and seems quite approachable.
  • It’s always hard to get a bead on S. Estèphe at the UGCB because so few châteaux are represented, and the top châteaux are missing, but if I got any sense that the vintage was less successful in any one appellation, it would be here. Tannins are well in front of fruits and less tamed than in other appellations: the classic tightness of St. Estèphe tends to show through. None of the wines can be called generous, although Lafon-Rochet gets half way to Pauillac with a smooth palate, Cos Labory shows the tightness of St. Estèphe, and Phélan Ségur seems on the light side for the appellation.
  • Outside of the great communes, La Lagune will be a classic, La Tour Carnet is more modern but not as obvious than usual, Cantemerle is quite smooth.
  • Cru Bourgeois show in similar style to the grand cru classés, but with less refinement and roundness; there isn’t the difference between the classic approach and the luxury wine approach of rich years such as 2009, although the advantage of the grand cru classés remains obvious.
  • Graves has many lovely restaurant wines, that is, well balanced for drinking immediately.
  • In Pessac-Léognan, I did not get much sense of the classic cigar-box in the reds, but the wines did seem a little more granular than the Médoc. Domaine de Chevalier is lovely with its usual crystalline brilliance, Haut Bailly is more granular, Larrivet-Haut Brion is smooth, Malartic-Lagravière is just a touch more tannic, Pape-Clément is not quite as modern in its aromatics as Smith Haut Lafitte.
  • It’s a very good year in St. Emilion, with wines showing the generosity of the right bank, but nicely restrained rather than lush. In fact, restrained is the phrase that occurs most often in my tasting notes. Beauséjour-Bécot is smooth, Canon is beautifully refined, Canon La Gaffelière is a top result for the appellation with layers of flavor, La Gaffelière is true to the structured tradition of the château. Making its first appearance at the UGCB, Valandraud no longer makes the outrageous impression of a garage wine, but seems in the mainstream.
  • Pomerol does not show full force lushness, and is only a little more fruit-forward than St. Emilion, with many wines showing more obvious evidence of structure than usual. The restrained black fruits of Clinet tend to elegance, even Michel Rolland’s Bon Pasteur shows evident structure.
  • Whites are decent but nothing really stood out for me: Graves produced lovely restaurant wines in whites as in red. Pessac-Léognan seems less concentrated than usual, and wines tend to be soft and attractive. Particular successes: Châteaux de France, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafittte.
  • Sauternes are delicious, with Château de Fargues as a standout. A sense of purity makes the wines refreshing.

Overall a very good year, with wines tending to be restrained rather than obvious, most needing only a few years before starting, and probably best enjoyed in the decade after that.

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Bordeaux Diary part 5 – Crème de la Crème of Sauternes: Visits to Yquem, Climens, Coutet, Suduiraut, de Fargues

Tuesday morning: Visit to Sauternes starts with Yquem, looking as grand as ever and visible at a distance on the dizzy heights of 80 m elevation overlooking Sauternes. I’ve visited Yquem twice before, once when I had the fortune to follow the Japanese ambassador, so many extra wines had been opened and were available to taste, and once with an MW group. Both of these visits were conducted by the winemaker, but with LVMH now in charge, there’s a more corporate feel to professionally managed visits with a guide. But Yquem remains at the top of its game with only the Grand Vin (no second wine: anything not used is sold off in bulk for generic Sauternes) and the dry white Ygrec (about 10,000 bottles per year). Production of Yquem varies wildly from year to year: none in 2012 and about 100,000 bottles in an average year. It was available en primeur from 2004 to 2009, but it seems that this may now have been stopped.

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On the highest point in Sauternes, d’Yquem is still the grandest chateau of all.

Lunchtime: The connection with the Lur Saluces family, who owned Yquem until it was sold to LVMH, continues, as we go for lunch at Chateau Coutet, which was owned by the Lur Saluces family until the 1920s. Aline Baly, whose grandfather bought Chateau Coutet in 1977, tells us there used to be stories about a tunnel between Yquem and Coutet. From Coutet in Barsac you can just make out Yquem at a point of elevation on the horizon, but that would be some tunnel!

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The old vertical presses at Chateau Coutet, made by a former owner, are still used for making the super Cuvée Madame

Over lunch we try Opalie de Coutet, the dry white wine that was introduced in 2010. “It’s not made by making a general first pass of the vineyard,” Aline explains, “but from specific rows in certain parcels on the best terroirs which are now dedicated to making a high quality white wine.” Coming from an equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, it shows quite a rich style. “Opalie is a great way to explain that sweet wine isn’t just sugar, there is terroir here,” says Aline. It’s an interesting introduction to the wines of Coutet, but I’m not sure how much impact it will make on the market as production is very small, only 3-4,000 bottles. The Coutet 1998 and 2003 make an interesting contrast, the first with a nice savory counterpoise to the sweet fruits, the second overtly decadent from the very hot vintage.

Afternoon: Chateau Climens is almost adjacent so we actually make our first afternoon appointment almost on time. Technical Director Frédéric Nivelle explains that he and proprietor Berenice Lurton have been converting to biodynamics. This is no mean feat in a climate as humid as Bordeaux. “The vines show improvement very quickly, but it’s slower to show in the wines,” Frédéric says. They make their own preparations to spray on the vines, and there’s a loft full of dried herbs. The intensity of the chamomile puts most chamomile tea entirely to shame.

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Dried flowers and leaves in the loft at Chateau Climens are used for making biodynamic preparations

Chateau Climens is committed entirely to Sémillon. When M. Lurton bought the chateau in 1971, there was only a little Sauvignon Blanc, and it never gave good enough results to include in the Grand Vin, so it was uprooted. Since then, Climens has been 100% Semillon. There’s only the Grand Vin and the second wine, Cypress de Climens. “Some second wines come from young vines, inferior plots, mechanical harvesting, and have shorter aging, but it’s not like here,” Frédéric explains. The second wine comes entirely from tasting barrels to decide which should go into the Grand Vin and which into the second wine, so it isn’t a question of level of botrytis, but one of style.

Late afternoon: Final visit of the day is back over to Sauternes, to Chateau Suduiraut, now owned by insurance company AXA. Technical director Pierre Montégut sees his job as making wine that will make people want to drink more than one. “I hate the half bottle in Sauternes,” he says, “I would like to bottle everything in full bottles. I want people to be able to drink more than a glass, they should be able to finish the bottle.” The tactic here is to have a range of wines in different styles. “Castelnau de Suduiraut was created in 1992 as a second wine when there was no Grand Vin, and was a classic second wine, resulting from declassification, until 2001 when we decided to make it separately,” explains Pierre. Then in 2009 the half of production that was Castelnau was split again, with half going to Lion de Sauternes, a lighter fresher style intended to appeal to younger consumers. For all that, my favorite at the tasting was the 2001—full force in the botrytized style.

Wednesday afternoon: We close the circle with a final visit to Chateau de Fargues, which Alexandre Lur Saluces has been restoring to glory since he left Chateau d’Yquem in 2004. The chateau is a true medieval fortress, built in 1306, destroyed in 1687, and now being rebuilt. Alexandre shows us over the fortress. “I restored everything at Yquem, and then I started again when I came here in 2004,” he says. This is a massive undertaking: at one end the walls have been rebuilt, stone by stone, but still have a derelict appearance, open to the sky; at the other end there is a roof and the interior has been rebuilt and refurbished. Expected completion date is year 2050.

FarguesTWAlexandre Lur Saluces is restoring the original chateau de Fargues

A modern chai has been built besides the chateau, where the production of this jewel of a property is vinified—yields are about 1000 bottles for each of the 15 ha in a good vintage. In 2012 there was no Chateau de Fargues as it wasn’t considered good enough. “It’s expensive not to make a vintage but it’s even more expensive to lose your reputation,” Alexandre says. We taste the 2006 vintage, which is sublime: subtle is not a word I often use to describe Sauternes, but it’s all lightness of being, balancing botrytis, sweetness, acidity, fruits. De Fargues was not classified in 1855 as the property was making only red wine at the time–the production of Sauternes started here in 1943—but it would be right at the top in any current classification. There is no second wine, some experiments with dry white wine have stopped, so there is only one wine: Chateau de Fargues. “I want to continue the family tradition of making top quality Sauternes,” is Alexandre’s position.

Conclusions: For all the talk about declining worldwide interest in sweet wines, the top chateaus of Sauternes remain pretty committed to their traditional styles. There’s a broadening of many the range at most chateaus, but the much touted move to more production of dry white wine doesn’t seem to be a major factor yet. The fact that it has to be labeled as AOP Bordeaux isn’t really seen as a problem, as the brand name of the Chateau is seen as more important. The move to allow it to be labeled as Graves is seen as somewhat irrelevant. “We are in the middle of Graves, it’s just a French stupidity (to have to use Bordeaux AOP), but it takes a long time to change things here,” says Pierre Montégut. It’s a historic accident resulting from a squabble about appellation definitions in the 1930s. But nothing can detract from the unique style that is Sauternes.

Bordeaux 2010 : Musical Chairs at the Communes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pessac-Léognan: Domaine de Chevalier

Margaux: Rauzan-Ségla

St. Julien: Léoville Barton

Pauillac: Pichon Lalande

St. Emilion: Figeac

Sauternes: de Fargues

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