Grand Cru Bordeaux 2014: A Splendid Restaurant Year

I went to this year’s tasting of the Union of Grand Cru Bordeaux in the slightly surreal surroundings of Miami. Outside people were playing in the pool; inside we were tasting the first showing in the States of the 2014 vintage. Ten or twenty years ago, if I had said this was a restaurant year, it would have been taken as meaning that the wines were relatively light and enjoyable to drink in the mid term without having the potential to age longer term. That is a reasonable description of Bordeaux in 2014 except for a big difference: most of the wines are virtually ready to drink now because of the refinement of the tannins; in the past they would still have needed several years to come around.

Few of the 2014 vintage need more than another year or so, and even for those it’s more a matter of preference than a necessity. Because the wines do not have punishing levels of extract, and the wines are more restrained than usual, this is a great year for seeing the differences between appellations. Typicities are especially clear on the Left Bank, although the restrained style of the vintage makes the Right Bank seem less rich and powerful than usual.

This is not a great year for whites, although there is more variety in the character of Pessac-Léognan than usual, from Domaine de Chevalier’s usual crystalline precision, to Smith Haut Lafite’s crisp Sauvignon edge to a rich palate, and Pape Clément’s exotic opulence. Most others show a tendency to display Sauvignon Blanc’s herbaceous side, sometimes with an exotic overlay.

The relatively light character of the vintage shows through in Pessac-Léognan, where the wines tend to elegant black fruits rather than power. They are well balanced for current drinking; some give the impression that it may be important to enjoy before dilution begins to set in. The extremes of precision versus breadth show as usual in Domaine de Chevalier (one of the few that really does need some time) and Pape Clément (less international than usual). Haut Bailly is definitely top flight Left Bank, but seems more Médocian this year. It’s a relatively crisp vintage in the Graves, some might even say tending towards mineral. I think Malartic-Lagravière have upped their game in recent years, and the 2014 is a very good representation of the vintage in Pessac: sweet ripe black fruits show a smooth palate with refined tannins in the background, and just a faint hint of herbal impressions.

The characteristic velvety core with a sense of lightness of being that marks the Margaux appellation is evident in this vintage. The difference from the more direct structure of St. Julien is clear. Marquis de Terme, Kirwan and Prieuré-Lichine show the velvet, Durfort Vivens and Rauzan-Ségla capture the elegance of Margaux, and Lascombes seems less international than usual. With light, refined tannins, most are almost ready to drink now, will be fully ready in a couple of years, and should improve over a few years. Margaux is more homogeneous than usual in this vintage.

St. Julien shows its usual elegant structure. As so often for me, Léoville Barton is the benchmark of the appellation: elegant palate, refined structure, complexity underneath. Langoa Barton is not so complex; Léoville Poyferré shows signs of its more international style in a faintly chocolaty finish to a smooth palate, as does Lagrange. Chateau Gloria is ironically the quintessence of a grand cru with a very fine sense of structure, while St. Pierre is less subtle and more forceful. Gruaud Larose has that typically tight impression of youth; Beychevelle as always is dryly elegant. Most need another couple of years and should be good for more or less a decade.

Moving from St. Julien to Pauillac, there’s an immediate sense of smooth black fruits, an overlay that is quite velvety and rich. Chateau d’Armailhac is the quintessence of Pauillac this year, with that characteristic plushness of the appellation. As always, Grand Puy Lacoste shows the refined side of Pauillac, with the vintage expressing itself by a slightly overt touch of structure at the end. Lynch Bages is a bit on the tight side, but the structure is just protected by the fruits and should support longevity.

St. Estèphe is always hard to judge at the UGCB because so few chateaux are represented, but my general impression is that the typical hardness of the appellation shows rather obviously on the palate. Yet the approachability of Ormes de Pez is a vivid demonstration of the change in style of Bordeaux over the past twenty years.

Listrac-Moulis and the Haut Médoc generally make a more traditional impression than the great communes, perhaps showing more resemblance to the Cru Bourgeois than to the grand crus. Sometimes the bare bones of the structure shows past the fruits. Showing the lightness of the year, Chasse-Spleen is quite classic, Cantemerle flirts with traditional herbaceousness, La Lagune is a bit fuller than its neighbors in Margaux, and La Tour Carnet shows the 2014 version of the international style.

The one word that describes this vintage in St. Emilion is unusual in the context of the appellation: restrained. The wines show their usual flavor spectrum, but are toned down from their customary exuberance. Canon and Canon la Gaffelière show great purity of fruits, Beauséjour Bécot is a marker for the appellation in this vintage, Clos Fourtet and La Gaffelière are attractive but without a great deal of complexity.

Pomerol also merits an unusual description: elegant. Most wines display their usual flavor spectrum, without enough stuffing for longevity, but with the restrained nature of the vintage letting purity of fruits show through. Perhaps the succulence of Beauregard is the most Pomerol-ish, Bon Pasteur is the most elegant, and Clinet, La Pointe, and La Cabanne really represent the character of Pomerol in this vintage with a balance between softness and freshness.

This is not a great vintage for Sauternes. Even so, “I’ve stopped spitting,” announced my companion, the Anima Figure, when we reached Sauternes. The wines are sweet and citric, a little honeyed and piquant, but mostly without the intensity of botrytis. Chateau de Fargues stood out for me for its higher level of botrytis and classic balance.

While this is a lesser vintage, there are some lovely wines, with the style representing a move back to classicism in its freshness, yet staying in the modern idiom by its approachability. There is much less difference in approachability than usual between the Left and Right Banks: St Emilion and Pomerol are absolutely ready, and the Left Bank is virtually ready. If nothing stood out as superlative, none failed to represent their appellation. They will give a taste of the authentic Bordeaux for the next few years.

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Is Bordeaux 2012 the Restaurant Vintage of the Century?

“Lovely restaurant wine” is the phrase that appears most often in my tasting notes from today’s UGCB tasting in London of the 2012 vintage. Although there were no wines that seem to have the longevity I would require to buy for my cellar, there are many wines that I expect to enjoy drinking three to ten years from now. There are clearly significant differences between the appellations, but I do not entirely agree with the view of the vintage that was expressed at the en primeur tastings. Now that the wines are out of barrique and into bottle, it’s evident that it is too simple just to characterize this as a year when Merlot was more successful than Cabernet, although clearly the vintage has been shaped by the fact that there were heavy rains in the Médoc in late September, and October was generally wet. This made it much easier to get ripe Merlot than Cabernet.

Notwithstanding the difficulty with Cabernet, the only appellation in which I get any sense of the overt herbaceousness that used to characterize Bordeaux is Moulis-Listrac, where the wines are light but the best have enough potential flavor interest to suggest an elegant future. However, I have to admit that I do not mind a faint herbaceous edge, although not everyone will like it. Chasse-Spleen stands out for me as the best wine, elegant and taut.

Not surprisingly considering its size, Margaux is the most heterogeneous appellation. Wines range from showing noticeable tannins to having relatively soft palates, but all are distinctly light weight. The key for the short term is the character of the tannins, and the question for the mid term is how the fruits will show as the tannins resolve. In the best cases, the wines will be light and elegant in the feminine tradition of Margaux. I especially like Rauzan-Gassies for its appealing liveliness, with nicely ripe tannins. Just to the south, the glossy sheen of La Lagune gives an elegant impression that is more Margaux-like than usual. At the Cru Bourgeois level, I liked Labegorce, as much St. Julien in its precision as Margaux in its elegant femininity. Some wines may simply not have enough stuffing to withstand the loss of the initial burst of primary fruit, although in the immediate future the soft, furry palates may be quite appealing. The potential problem is that a sense of dilution may turn hollow on the mid palate.

With its compact size, St. Julien is much more homogenous and many wines make a fragrant, almost perfumed, first impression, with a classical sense of precision to the following fruits. Tannins seem riper and in better balance with the fruits than in Margaux. These will be perfect restaurant wines (if the price is right). Gruaud Larose stands out for its fragrant elegance, with tannins already integrating into an elegant palate. Beychevelle makes an impression of classic precision.

Pauillac seems less uniformly successful to me. There’s a more solid impression to the fruits and tannins. I would never use the word rustic in conjunction with Pauillac, but at this stage there is a certain robust impression, which will translate into solid fruits, but without the fragrant uplift that characterizes St Julien. Pichon Baron stands out for showing its usual power with ripe tannins and a fragrance that is unusual for the year. I also very much like Grand Puy Lacoste, which shows as a something of a half way house between Pauillac and St Julien, taut, smooth, and elegant.

It is difficult to assess St. Estèphe from this tasting as the top wines were absent, but the wines generally show a tight character with hints of the hardness you sometimes see in this appellation. As the tannins resolve, the wines should be light but relatively elegant. It is quite successful at the Cru Bourgeois level, and I especially like the light elegance of Phélan Ségur.

You would expect Pessac-Léognan to do better than the Médoc given its higher content of Merlot, and the best wines have smooth black fruit palates (smoothness is the mark of the appellation in this vintage) with nicely tamed tannins, sometimes showing a touch of the classic cigar box, but too many just seem soft without sufficient supporting structure. Smith Haut Lafitte stands out for the depth of its fruits, and Domaine de Chevalier for its sense of elegant liveliness, with a tension that is unusual in this vintage.

Over to the right back, where St. Emilion is a bit of a conundrum, Canon just edges out Canon La Gaffelière as the wine that best exhibits a classic sense of smooth opulence. Other wines seem to be moving in a more savory direction, almost pointing towards the Médoc, such as La Gaffelière and Clos Fourtet, but Troplong Mondot is the standout in the savory direction. Many seem round and soft but without much stuffing.

Pomerol shows an unusual sense of structure, with some wines displaying faint herbal overtones on opening. The ripe black fruits of Beauregard just edge out Bon Pasteur, which however is more structured than opulent, in contrast to Michel Rolland’s reputation for overt lushness. As always, La Conseillante is nicely balanced, with nothing to excess, and more underlying structure than is immediately apparent. Sometimes Pomerol is too opulent for me, but not this year.

Now that they are bottled, the whites do not seem as impressive as reports from en primeur suggested they would be. The standout for me is Domaine de Chevalier, with a beautiful balance between grassy impressions of Sauvignon on the nose and waxy impressions of fat Sémillon on the palate. This is very fine indeed, with classic elegance. Some of the wines I usually like seem to be showing a crowd-pleasing softness, quite attractive in a Burgundian sort of way, but with insufficient freshness to last.

This is not a year for Sauternes, but two wines stand out. Coutet is classically botrytized, rich and deep, and totally delicious. Climens is much lighter, really elegant and fresh, and with a beautifully balanced flavor spectrum: it may not be so long nived, but it is lovely now.

The range for me runs from wines I would enjoy in a restaurant from, say, a year or so from now, to those that I would hold for three or four years before starting. The best will offer a classic representation of their appellation in a relatively lighter style; few will be really interesting more than a decade from now. I just hope that, after the restaurant markups, they will seem as appealing economically as gustatorially.

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.

Modernism versus Tradition in the Graves

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the classification of the chateaux of the Graves, the Commanderie of New York held a dinner and tasting this week. All the chateaux had their wines from 2009 out for tasting, and there were older wines at dinner. One day after the UGCB tasting of the 2010 vintage at its first showing, there’s a fascinating comparison between the two vintages, and also looking back to the same wines at the UGCB 2009 tasting one year ago. I was especially struck by the comparison between three wines: Domaine de Chevalier, Pape-Clément, and Smith Haut Lafitte.

Domaine de Chevalier provided a textbook illustration of the difference between the vintages. Always the most precise and elegant wine of Pessac, the 2010 showed all the hallmarks of a classic vintage: lots of tension in the wine, with finely edged black fruits supported by taut tannins. No wine at Domaine de Chevalier is ever going to show forward fruits in the modern style, but the ripeness of the 2009 vintage certainly softened the edges; a year ago it was just starting to show some aromatic development, but today it’s closed up a bit, its homage to the luscious quality of 2009 has backed off, and it’s somewhat reverting to type. It looks like the 2010 vintage will be the more classic and longer lived; it’s certainly far more reserved now than the 2009 was a year ago.

At the other extreme, Pape-Clément has been the most modern wine of Pessac-Léognan since Bernard Magrez started to revitalize it. At the 2009 Bordeaux tasting a year ago, it was one of the most overtly modern wines: very powerful and full of fruits in the modern style, giving a full-throttle impression. You might say it took full advantage of the conditions of the vintage. Although when I asked Bernard Magrez whether Pape Clément had changed more than other chateaux, he said, “No, I don’t think so. The typicity is the terroir, that we can’t change, this is what gives character to the wine. One can’t make a wine ‘international’,” it seems to me that Pape-Clément has been getting steadily richer, with warm, deep, black furry fruits showing a character moving towards the right bank. The 2009 vintage has calmed down a lot in the past year: it’s still somewhat oaky, but the fruits now let the powerful structure show more clearly. In an interesting contrast, the 2010 gives a modern impression of bright black fruits backed by vanillin, but not nearly so overtly as the 2009 did at the same stage. The original impressions of both vintages accord closely with the reputations of the years in the context of a modern style.

The surprise came with comparing Smith Haut Lafitte of the two vintages. Smith Haut Lafitte has been moving steadily in a more modern direction, although not so overtly as Pape-Clément. The 2009 was certainly in the modern style on release, but the 2010 makes it look positively restrained. With lots of new oak showing at first impression, followed by soft, black fruits, and furry tannins, this is far more “international” than the 2009 or for that matter than the Pape-Clément 2010. This is a striking move in the direction of modernism. Perhaps this reflects what Daniel Cathiard told me a few months ago: “We have to listen to our consumers (sometimes). The Americans showed what they like, now the Chinese. There is an influence because we want our wine to be referred, we want to make wine that pleases our customers.” A year on from release, today the 2009 tastes like most 2010s: still modern, but with the edges more precisely defined than they were a year ago. In fact, if you tasted the two vintages blind at this point, it would not be difficult to become confused and to conclude that the ripe, forward, fruits of the 2010 were typical of the 2009 vintage, and that the greater precision of the 2009 was typical of the 2010 vintage.

The hit of the evening at dinner was the 2000 Haut Bailly, which has reached a peak of smooth, firm, elegance, with a subtle balance of flavors. It’s close to perfection at this point, with that firm density so typical of Graves, but my one cause for concern is whether it should have got to this stage in only 12 years, and what that may mean for the future. But I would guess it’s good for another decade, at least.

The dinner concluded with a comparison of Haut Brion and Mission Haut Brion 1998. This was one of those split vintages: relatively poor in the Médoc but very good on the right bank. It was also pretty good in the Graves. The Haut Brion and Mission gave the impression of a good or very good rather than top notch vintage, and although they were generally similar in style, in this year the Haut Brion definitely has the advantage over the Mission. A confirmation of the old saying that the first growths show to greatest advantage in years that aren’t absolutely top rated.

The comparison between the 2009s and 2010s was an education in not jumping to conclusions immediately after the vintage. The 2009s have really closed up in the past year; there’s been a more or less continuous loss of lusciousness and increase in structure ever since the en primeurs. This makes you wonder just how accurate the assessments were en primeur.

Designer Oak Labels

It used to be so simple. Wine would complete its alcoholic fermentation and be transferred into barrels, more or less new according to the strength of the year. The source of the oak would most likely be the nearest forest; you might worry a little bit about how much the oak had been toasted.

Today the degree of toast is tightly controlled, sometimes using infrared rather than mere simple fire, and is reproducible. “We at Taransaud know what medium toast is, we measure it by time and temperature, but some people still use color, which is very variable,” says Jean-Pierre Giraud. Toast was the elephant in the room at the afternoon session of Taransaud’s seminar for the Institute of Masters of Wine: it was rarely mentioned directly, but I suspect that it was the main determinative factor in barrels that had been designed for very specific purposes.

I was fascinated by the concept that a barrel could be designed directly to handle higher alcohol wines. I’ve had the view for some time that the problem with high alcohol wines is not just the higher alcohol, but a generally higher level of extraction, which makes them fatiguing to drink (although sometimes apparently performing better at tastings). I hadn’t followed through to ask the corollary question: when and where does the higher extraction take place and could it be changed?

Alcohol is a solvent, and perhaps its most obvious effect is on maceration: different tannins are extracted by pre-fermentation maceration (when there is no alcohol) from post-fermentation maceration (when alcohol is present). But the question implicit in Taransaud’s design of a barrel for higher alcohol wines is whether there will be differences in extraction during élevage of a 15% alcohol wine from a 13% alcohol wine, and whether the barrel can be adjusted to equalize the effects.

The starting point is that alcohol affects the perception of other components in the wine, reports Dominique de Beauregard of Taransaud. It masks some components, especially fruit aromas, and exacerbates others, in particular herbaceous elements. Higher alcohol extracts more toast aromas, making the wine seem heavier and more tannic. (From this I would guess that some of the adjustment to higher alcohol involves reducing the toast.) So Taransaud have developed a barrel – the working name is the A+ – which is intended to enhance fruit to compensate for the effect of higher alcohol.

I thought the blind tasting of Izquierdo 2010 from Ribera del Duero, matured in either a regular barrel or an A+ barrel, was inconclusive. In the regular barrel, the wine was tinged with savage, even animal, notes, and the finish seemed harsh and bitter. These problems were ameliorated by an impression of more fruit and a softer palate with the A+ barrel, but the wine was still pretty biting with a burning finish. I am sorry, but once you have reached 15.5% alcohol, I’m not convinced that any change in the élevage is going to bring the wine back to a reasonable balance.

The next special effect was a barrel intended to “reveal Chardonnay’s typicity and quality.” I think an issue’s going begging here, however. What is the typicity of Chardonnay? I think of it as the chameleon grape, capable of flinty minerality in Chablis, nutty overtones in Meursault, steeliness in Puligny, butter and vanillin in Napa, tropical fruits in South America. If ever there was a grape that responds to the winemaker, this is it!

Be that as it may, it seems that Taransaud, firmly centered in France, sees minerality and tension as the objective for Chardonnay. (So do I.) They wouldn’t say what is special or different about the PFC barrel that is their prototype for Chardonnay, except that the wood was carefully selected for grain, seasoning, and toasting. (This is somewhat along the lines of a phrase often found in scientific papers to which I take strong exception. “We performed the experiment carefully.” Well, yes, how else would you perform it?) Anyway, I certainly see the merit of the notion that perhaps oak should be different for Chardonnay from Pinot Noir or from Cabernet Sauvignon. However, I wasn’t persuaded by the results of this particular experiment. A Domaine François Lumpp 2011 Givry in a traditional barrel had a nose and palate showing a nice combination of citrus fruits and oak overtones, smooth and well integrated. The PFC barrel seemed to give a more muted impression and I thought I got a fugitive touch of high toned aromatics on the nose, with the acidity standing out to make the palate seem a bit disjointed. This is clearly a work in progress.

Egg-shaped fermenters are all the rage at biodynamic producers, who feel that the shape encourages a natural fluid movement that reduces the need for intervention. This is something that could presumably be measured, although I haven’t yet seen any attempt at objective judgment. Egg-shaped fermenters come in cement and now Taransaud have introduced one in wood, called the Ovum. The blind tasting was a comparison of Domaine de Chevalier 2011, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, given six months in conventional 225 liter barrels, 400 liter barrels, or a 2000 liter Ovum.

Now the problem here from my point of view is that we are not comparing like with like. The main effect is surely going to be the different ratio of surface area to volume, which is greatest in the 225 liter barrel, about 20% less in the 400 liter barrel, and only about half in the 2000 liter container. (And a further complication is that in barrels the inside is usually toasted but the heads are not.) For this to be a significant test of shape, we would need to compare a barrel or a cylinder of 2000 liters with the Ovum.

Anyway, the blind tasting to my mind validated the idea that they have learned something in the past couple of hundred years about the best containers for maturing white wine. The traditional barrel gave a classic impression, with a typical citrus fruit spectrum tinged with oak, becoming soft and ripe in the glass. The 400 liter barrel gave a much less oaky impression, with the citrus fruits coming to the fore. The Ovum gave a grassier wine with more zest, fresher and purer, but less interesting. When the audience was asked to vote for their preference, the choice was interestingly for the 400 liter, but I think that did not make sufficient allowance for the fact that the wine is very young and normally would have many more months to mature before tasting. Allowing for that, my preference was for the traditional barrique.

The final tasting was a test of Taransaud’s T5 barrel. All we could learn about this was that the wood is seasoned for five years, it comes from French oak with a very tight grain, and there is a special toasting procedure on an open fire at low intensity. Oh, and a barrel costs about €1200 compared to the usual €700. It’s intended to bring refinement to the wine. The test tasting was of Château Beauregard (Pomerol) 2009 matured in either a standard barrel or a T5 barrel. There was definitely a difference. The classic barrel produced a wine that was rich and fruity with oak that was relatively subdued on the nose but more evident on the palate, in fact it was quite dominant. Slowly emerging fruit gave a youthful impression of needing quite a bit more time. The T5 sample was more subdued, almost closed on the nose, with the fruits initially seeming sweeter and riper, and better integrated, on the palate. It gave the impression that it will be ready to drink a year or two sooner than the wine from the classic barrique. All of the winemakers – some of whom are using T5 barrels – said they preferred it. But this tasting was not done blind. I hate to spoil the party, but I wonder whether this is like malolactic fermentation in barrel: the question is whether it is a short-term effect or will persist? Will the two wines be any different in five or ten years’ time?

I really admire the efforts to go behind simply turning out high quality barrels into examining all the factors that influence the effects of wood on the wine, and asking how and which changes should be made for different situations. Just as Riedel has created a perception that we should no longer use the same glasses to taste all wines, it makes me wonder whether in years to come, we will look back and wonder at the primitive nature of the idea that oak barrels might be generic for all wines.

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.

Restaurant Review: Grand Vigne at Sources de Caudalie

In the middle of the vineyards of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, the Caudalie hotel and spa has become my watering hole for visiting chateaux in the Graves. Since my last visit, a new chef has been engaged and the restaurant has achieved a Michelin star, so I was curious to see what changes I would find.

The restaurant offers three choices: a rather restricted three course Plaisir Gourmand, à la carte, and a tasting menu (based on selections from the à la carte). One note of warning: if you stay at the hotel on a demi pension basis, the meal at Grand Vigne includes only the Plaisir Gourmand. Personally, there wasn’t a single item on this menu that appealed to me, and it did not look as thought it had either the ingredients or the interest for a one star level. This would make for a disappointing evening, although in defense of the hotel, you can take the à la carte instead (for an extra charge, bien sûr).

Even on the à la carte, menu choices are a bit restricted for a one star rating (does Michelin take the variety on the menu into account when awarding stars?) One starter of crab with vegetables was good; giant prawns wrapped in pasta were better, although accompanied by citrus fruits that clashed with wine. (But in the interests of full disclosure, I rarely like mixtures of savory with fruits.) A mark against the restaurant was that both starters came with the same base of tomato jelly. This seemed a lazy design. One curiosity was that one night the prawn starter had two prawns; another night it had only one prawn. It seems an odd practice to halve the size of the starter from one night to the next.

Main courses were the best elements. Pigeon with rhubarb profiteroles was simply excellent, everything in perfect balance. This was the killer dish for me. Turbot was the most imaginative offering, on a base of girolles, with a clever spiral of carrot spaghetti. Desserts were good, the most interesting being a trompe l’oeil of strawberries, apparently presented in a glass, but actually with “glass” consisting of an edible sugar molding. I would give the restaurant its star (just).

Especially for a restaurant asociated with a chateau, the wine list was disappointing. On previous visits I have been very pleased with the wine list, which included, as you might expect, older vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, both red and white, at very reasonable prices. This was a good opportunity to showcase their wines. There also used to be a good selection of wines from other regions, including Coche Dury Meursault at fair prices. All that has gone. There are a couple of current vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, a routine run through the regions of Bordeaux, and some small offerings from elsewhere, but I was hard put to find wines I thought would be interesting at reasonable prices. In the end I was satisfied with neither of my choices. Domaine de Chevalier, which has always been a favorite, disappointed with its 2004 red; and Malartic Lagravière’s white 2006 made me wonder how on earth it was ever classified as a Grand Cru. Wine service fell a bit short: I had to wander over to the ice bucket to retrieve my bottle from time to time.

Domaine de Chevalier, 2004 (red)

Deep ruby color still with some purple edges. Very restrained nose with faint hints of Cabernet austerity. There’s a rich initial impression, but cut by a rather dry finish (characteristic of the year, perhaps, but exacerbated here). This feels like a Cabernet-driven wine. How much will that dryness soften with time and will this happen before the fruits dry out? Although I like wines in the classic style, this is a little too dry even for my taste. 86 Drink – 2016.

Malartic Lagravière, 2006 (white)

A bit characterless: not a lot happening on the nose, perhaps a whiff of citrus and a touch of minerality. The same spectrum follows through to the palate, where the lack of fruit concentration allows a sort of faintly metallic minerality to come through to the finish. This seems  enormously over cropped. I am left wondering what this wine offers that Muscadet hasn’t got, except for price. 84 Drink now if at all.