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.

Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion

A tasting organized by the Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion turned out to be a striking demonstration of the power of the oenologue. The 64 Grand Cru Classés are the starting level of the classification, below the 18 Premier Grand Cru Classés (according to the reclassification of 2012).  Half of the Grand Cru Classés were represented at the tasting, showing their 2009 and 2010 vintages.

While many of the wines conformed to the general reputation of the vintages – 2009 for lush, more forward fruits, but 2010 more reserved and structured – there were enough where the 2010 was more open than the 2009 to make generalization difficult. The most striking feature of the tasting was not the difference between vintages or variety between chateaux, but the general similarity. If there’s a model for the Grand Cru Classés today, it’s for furry tannins behind soft black fruits: the very model of micro-oxygenation, you might think. (I have no idea how many of these wines actually used micro-oxygenation, but the overall impression from this tasting was that it might be epidemic in St. Emilion.)

On the subject of style, alcohol levels were high, just a touch higher in 2010 (average 14.6%) than in 2009 (average 14.3%). A more revealing comparison is that some wines in 2010 were as high as 15.5%, and almost half were 15% or greater, whereas the highest wines in 2009 were 15%. In all fairness, the alcohol was well integrated and did not stick out, but the level gave me pause for thought about the staying power of the wines. I was also extremely surprised to discover that some wines had levels of residual sugar that were almost detectable (around 3g/l: the level of detection for most people is around 4 g/l, and most red wines usually have only around 1 g/l). Sometimes I got a faint impression of saccharine on the finish, but this seems to have been due to ripeness of fruits, because it never correlated with the level of residual sugar.

The similarities among the wines are less surprising when you realize that more than half were made with the same winemaking philosophy. To be more precise, Michael Rolland was the consulting oenologue for 40% of chateaux, and Jean Philippe Fort of Laboratoire Rolland for another 20%: there was scarcely a single chateau left without a consulting oenologist. (What happened to the old proprietor-winemakers?)

So I thought I would see whether I could detect the hand of the oenologist directly, and I organized my tasting in terms of oenologists, tasting all the chateaux from each oenologue in succession to see whether similarity of style was obvious. I think it is a fair criticism that the style of the wines tends to be a bit “international,” but there did not seem to be enough homogeneity among the wines of any one oenologue to validate the view that they impose a common style. Every oenologue had some wines that were lush, but at least one that showed a more restrained fruit impression, sometimes with an almost savory sensation. It would have been difficult to identify the oenologue in a blind tasting. Perhaps the wines for which Hubert de Boüard was the consulting oenologist tended to be the most refined. If there is a marker for Michel Rolland’s style, perhaps it is the sweetness of the smooth tannins. Rolland’s focus on ripeness is shown also by the fact that in both vintages, the wines on which he was a consultant showed higher alcohol than the average.

There were direct impressions of overripe fruits on only a couple of wines. I did not get much sense of anything but Merlot in most of these wines (the average Merlot is 75%); the dominance of those soft Merlot fruits tended to give a somewhat monotonic impression. Overall I was disappointed: there was too much sameness and not enough character to the wines. They seemed more at a level equivalent to the Cru Bourgeois of the left bank than to the classed growths of the Médoc. Perhaps flavor variety will develop as the wines mature, but my impression is that the wines are more likely to simplify into sweet fruits. Perhaps this is due to the combination of grape variety and the ripeness of the vintages rather than oenologues’ choices. But I was left with the feeling that the monotonic fruit character and high alcohol would make a bottle tire over dinner.


Mediterranean Cabernet

My reference point for characterizing Cabernet Sauvignon has always been Bordeaux, or more specifically its Left Bank. Even though the wines are blended, and even though only a minority actually contain a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, still the top wines–especially the Grand Cru Classés of the Médoc–track the character of Cabernet Sauvignon, from its herbaceous nature pre-1982 to its overt fruitiness today. Those wines are still my standards for comparison when assessing varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World, even though acknowledging that in some regards Bordeaux now follows the imperatives of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. But the same factors are in play, most especially the balance of fruit to structure.

But this reference point has failed me in looking at Cabernet Sauvignon from the Mediterranean. It’s partially effective in considering the super-Tuscans of Bolgheri; although the tannins there are softer, the structure somehow sunnier, there remains a relationship. I had a much more difficult time applying criteria from Bordeaux to a vertical tasting of Mas de Daumas Gassac. Since 1978, Daumas Gassac has been producing a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend at Aniane. It’s usually around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (although the extremes are as low as 65% or as high as 90%), and the other varieties in the blend have changed somewhat over time. Initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, and Syrah; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties,” which includes a real hodge podge.

I don’t think that’s the determinative issue anyway, which is more a reflection of two or perhaps three things. The Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in the  mid seventies with a selection that the nursery told them had come from Bordeaux in the first part of the twentieth century. “It looks quite different from modern Cabernet Sauvignon; in fact the Bordelais sometimes have difficulty in recognizing the variety,” Samuel Guibert told me. It forms long thin bunches with very loose grapes, and a crocodile skin, and gives low yields. The interplay of climate and terroir is also distinctive, since the vineyard is in a small valley with a pronounced microclimate that gives extreme diurnal variation. And there’s a determination to make a traditional wine. “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,” says Samuel.

Although the avowed intention is to produce a Grand Cru of the Languedoc, I was not easily able to relate the wines to traditional claret (by which I suppose I mean Médoc pre-1982). I felt that the wines fell into two series: those dominated by perfume rather than herbs, very soft and gentle on the palate; and those with a more savory bent. Aniane is right on the edge of the Languedoc, close to the point at which there are said to be Atlantic as well as Mediterranean climatic influences–indeed the small AOCs of Malepère and Cabardès not far away are allowed to plant the Atlantic grape varieties–and I’ve been wondering if what we might be seeing here are the differences between years in which Mediterranean influence or Atlantic influence dominated the weather pattern. In the Mediterranean camp come the vintages of 2001, 1990, 1985, and 1983; in the Atlantic camp come 2005, 1996, 1988, 1982. The Atlantic vintages are more obviously Cabernet-based; it can be more difficult to perceive Cabernet in some Mediterranean vintages. The extremes were 2005, which showed a pretty clear Cabernet rasp; and 1985, which I might have mistaken for Grenache. It’s especially interesting when successive years show quite opposing characters: 1983 versus 1982, and possibly 1986 versus 1985, although it was difficult to tell because the 1986 was slightly corked. The Atlantic years showed something of that lacy, delicate, structure of claret of years gone by; I would find it harder to relate them to the Médoc wines of today. The Mediterranean years seemed to have as much in common with wines of the south as with Bordeaux.

The most impressive wine, in the proper sense of the word, was the Cuvée Emile Peynaud from 2001. Every year, the wine from a plot of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon is vinified separately. The decision is made only just prior to assemblage whether to include it in the regular bottling or to make a special cuvée. The first vintage was 2001; subsequent vintages have been 2002, 2007, and 2008. The wine was darker than any of the regular bottlings, almost inky, redolent with aromas of new oak, and intensely fruit driven on the palate. In a blind tasting it would give a top Napa Cabernet a run for the money. I’d expected a more intense version of the regular wine, but this was almost its antithesis. I feel about it somehow the same as I do about Petit Verdot; fantastic to taste, you can see at once what a few of barriques of this quality would do to lift the blend, but do you want to drink it by itself? I think if I were to split a bottle over dinner, I’d rather have the Daumas Gassac 2001.

The killer vintage of Daumas Gassac was the 1988. I was with a group of contemporaries, who remember when claret was claret, and as the 1988 was tasted, there were appreciate murmurs praising the delicious herbaceousness. This could easily have been a Grand Cru Classé in the style of a good vintage from around the seventies, with that lovely balance of fruit to savory elements, so poised you have to hesitate as to whether fruit or savory is the dominant influence, with complexity added by that very subtle suggestion of herbaceousness. No one would dare use the word herbaceous in modern Bordeaux, but in turning herbaceousness into a pejorative description of wine, we’ve definitely lost something.

Tasting notes

Wines were tasted in June 2012 except for 1983 and 1982 which were tasted in November 2011.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2005

Still youthful in appearance. A rush of perfume when the glass was filled, then some savory undertones. The sense of perfume carries over to the palate, with a faint aromaticity identifying its southern origins, but quite fresh on the palate, although different from Bordeaux’s savory tang. Then a Cabernet rasp shows itself on the finish. which shows more dryness as time passes in the glass, making the wine seem a little rustic. Tertiary development seems about to begin. Moderate alcohol emphasizes the lightness of the style – no heavy handed modern extraction here. The wine certainly rounds up in the glass, so perhaps that initial rustic impression will ameliorate with time.   12.5%  88 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2001

Maturing now to a garnet appearance and giving an immediate impression on the nose of some development with a whiff of tertiary aromas replacing an initial, more perfumed impression. The palate makes a more savory impression, although with still with the soft edge of the south. This now presents quite an elegant balance, indeed, delicate would be a fair description. It’s certainly much lighter than Bordeaux would be from the same vintage. Character is a bit amorphous, the wine somehow fails to declare itself, although it’s very appealing for current drinking.   13.0%  89 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1996

Restrained nose somewhere between perfumed and savory. Smooth palate, but with a faint rasp of Cabernet on the finish. At first the tannins seem just a touch rustic, but then the wine reverts to elegance as the fruits take over. That rasp disappears with time in the glass, although the fruits show a nicely rounded Cabernet character, which is to say just a suspicion of savory development. This is an Atlantic vintage.   13.0%  91 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1990

Delicate and refined, with just a touch of structure showing on the finish, but a sense of dilution as the fruits begin to lighten, slightly nutty and delicate, with a faintly glyceriny impression on the finish. The fruits are soft and appealing, but does it have enough character? It’s superficially delicious, but without any determined structure may not improve any further, and may lose its interest as there isn’t really enough flavor variety to withstand much further lightening of the fruits.  This is clearly a Mediterranean vintage. 12.6%  88 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1988

There’s an immediate impression of Bordeaux here with a faint but delicious herbaceous touch showing: the wine immediately produced appreciative noises all round. It’s right at the tipping point from fruity to savory with just a faint touch of perfume adding to the herbs to show that you’re in the south. There’s still enough structural support for a few years as the wine continues to develop in the savory direction. You might think here in terms of a Grand Cru Classé from Bordeaux, except that the structure is a bit softer. This takes you back to the time when you could use herbaceous as a description in the context of delicious, and when cabernet was elegant rather than powerful. This is the most classically “Atlantic” of the vintages.  12.7% 92 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1985

Following the path of Mediterranean vintages, this is now turning somewhat nutty on the palate, and this is a bit too noticeable on the finish for comfort. Certainly it’s soft and appealing, in an overtly southern way, with nice fruits – but not a lot of structure behind. This might be difficult to place as Cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting; I think you’d be more inclined to think in terms of warmer climate varieties. No doubt this reflects the brutal summer with very hot conditions through September and October.  87  Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1983

Still a fairly dark color. An intriguing slightly floral note on the nose, almost a whiff of violets à la Margaux, conveying a vague sense of garrigue but one that is more floral than herbal. The ripeness of the fruits is evident on the palate, giving a kick of sweetness to the finish. Black fruits on the palate show more as blackberries than blackcurrants, but with a fleshiness on the midpalate, presumably from the Merlot and Syrah. Still youthfully vibrant, and I’m struck by the warm tones of the palate with chocolaty hints on the finish. Age has brought a definite softness rather than the savory development that’s common in Bordeaux; in fact, the wine shows surprisingly little tertiary development. 13.0% 92 Drink to 2017.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1982

The immediate impression on nose and palate is that this wine more shows Atlantic influence with a resemblance to the savory development of old Bordeaux. The nose is relatively savory compared to the gentle, soft, perfumed fruits of the 1983, and there’s a very slight touch of herbaceousness. This spectrum follows through to the palate, which makes a more classical food wine than the 1983. There is lovely flavor variety right across the palate. A faint impression of cedar develops on the finish, giving a Graves-like impression. There are the first signs of the fruits beginning to dry out, as the wine becomes dumb in the glass to show an austere finish of residual tannins, then reversing itself to let the fruits hang out again. At peak moments there’s a lovely balance and classic impression of Cabernet, but it is getting close to time to drink up. 13.0% 93 Drink to 2015.

Cuvee Emile Peynaud, 2001

I do wonder what Emile Peynaud would have thought of this wine, which comes at you in a full knock-your-eyes-out international style. Much darker in color than the Daumas Gassac of the vintage, with an intense nose of pure Cabernet­ – sweet, ripe, dense, rich, nutty, a touch of vanillin­­ – loaded with new oak. This is a lovely wine: no one could complain about the quality. But it’s not simply a more intense version of the Daumas Gassac bottling, it’s altogether in a different style, modern where the Gassac is traditional, oaky where the Gassac relies on fruits It doesn’t seem even to have started to age. 13.0%  91 Drink now to 2022.