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 Global Warming Changing the Hierarchy of Premier and Grand Crus?

With premox and other problems shortening the longevity of white Burgundy, I have been drinking up my last 2005s, a bit earlier than I would have done previously, and in the past year I have noticed a surprising change in the relationship between premier and grand crus in Chablis.

Take the example of Louis Michel’s grand cru Les Clos and premier cru Montée de Tonnerre. As Louis Michel is the benchmark for Chablis matured in stainless steel, the difference is a pure view of the effect of terroir on fruits, with no complications from different regimes of oak exposure.

Les Clos is always magnificent. For every producer it is the most reserved, steely, and mineral of any of his premier and grand crus. Just beyond Les Clos, separated from the band of grand crus by a small hollow, comes Montée de Tonnerre, always the best of the premier crus, and for some producers often pretty much up to grand cru standard.

I started drinking Louis Michel’s 2005s in 2009. Les Clos showed the house’s typical deeply textured structure, reflecting long maturation on the lees. Reflecting the warm vintage, it was a little richer than usual from the start, with stone fruits mingling with citrus.

Montée de Tonnerre was also a little richer than usual, but with the balance more in the direction of citrus, nicely textured under the fruits, with layers of flavor. Absolutely top notch for premier cru, but less depth than the grand cru.

Today things are different. Les Clos has become quite phenolic in the past year, and the sense of minerality has declined; it’s beginning to seem a little tired, and in a blind tasting I might place it farther south than Chablis. By contrast, Montée de Tonnerre is the absolute quintessence of Chablis: one sniff, and that cool, steely minerality shows that you are in Chablis. Fruits remain in the citrus spectrum, and there’s still some reserve on the finish. In a blind tasting I would place this as grand cru Chablis, and its steeliness might even make me think about Les Clos.

While the relationship between Les Clos and Montée de Tonnerre may have reversed, another grand cru, Vaudésir, has stayed truer to type. The textbook spiciness is overlaid by Louis Michel’s granular texture, stony rather than mineral, but with age the fruit spectrum is turning towards peaches and cream; phenolic hints intensify in the glass, following the path of Les Clos more slowly.

When the Crus were defined, the main distinction between them was reliability of ripening. But this was in a much cooler era: what ripened best in the 1930s may go over the top sooner in warm vintages in the new millenium. I suppose it all depends on what you mean by Chablis. If you want a rich white Burgundy, grand crus from warm vintages may fit the bill. If you want the historic saline minerality, premier crus may show more typicity.

The hierarchy of crus has always been defined, I think, in terms of wines tasted shortly after the vintage; it happens that the best age longer. That also may be changing with warmer vintages, with some of the grand crus richer and more delicious at first, but more likely to decline into blowsiness before the premier crus. How will the market react to this change, and will it be necessary to revise the classification of premier and grand crus?

LouisMichelThe best cru of 2005?

Alsace Diary part 5: Are They Making Another Big Mistake with Classification in Alsace?

The classification system in Alsace is a shambles. With only two official levels to distinguish everything from the plain to the mountain slopes (not to mention the problem with unpredictable sweetness) the label on a bottle of wine from Alsace gives almost no significant information to the consumer, except the name of the producer and the variety. Producers are keenly feeling the lack of any real hierarchy of classification, and the most common theme during a week of visits was that Alsace should follow the Burgundian model. In fact, producers are anticipating the introduction of a hierarchy by labeling single vineyard wines with the names of lieu dits, and some are also introducing village wines. A proposal before INAO would formalize a hierarchy, but will it solve Alsace’s problem of declining sales?

The hierarchy was clearest with Riesling, as everything is in Alsace, when producers present a horizontal tasting of an Alsace AOP, village wine, lieu-dit(s), and grand cru(s), although often somewhat muddied by an increase in sweetness ascending the hierarchy. This was more of a problem with Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, which is perhaps why I’m not so convinced the premier crus will be so effective with these varieties. All the same, the de facto hierarchy does resemble Burgundy in showing increase in quality, although it’s more difficult to get a comparable sense of the different characteristics of each terroir. One reason for this is that with the grand crus, there’s often a single wine from one producer that really marks the grand cru, so impressions are biased by producer style. “It’s important that a lieu dit or premier cru should be represented by multiple producers so it doesn’t just have one style,” says Jean-Christophe Bott of Domaine Bott Geyl.

Of course, the major problem with grand crus is extreme variation in quality. Trimbach, Hugel, and Léon Beyer regard the whole system as do sevalued that they refuse to use it. As they are major holders in some of the most significant grand crus, this is another reason why the typicities are not generally recognized. “It’s not the number of grand crus that’s the issue but the delimitation. Some of the tops and bottoms of hills should perhaps be premier cru,” says Felix Meyer at Meyer-Fonné. This goes back to their original definition, when Johnny Hugel’s original proposal to delineate just the best terroir was transmogrified into giving every village its own grand cru and expanding its area to satisfy local demand. The first grand cru, Schlossberg, was expanded from 25 ha to 80 ha. This is unlikely to be revised. “There is no willingness to open the grand cru box. The system is not perfect but it exists. It’s much more important to organize a classification of the intermediate levels,” says Etienne Sipp at Domaine Louis Sipp.

This raises the prospect, as Céline Meyer of Domaine Josmeyer says, that “some premier cru wines may sell at high prices than some grand cru wines.” The premier crus are likely to be more tightly defined than the grand crus, but the hierarchy will never have any real meaning so long as there are bloated grand crus with some parts that don’t merit the description. So long as yield limits are so relaxed that poor wines can be made in grand crus and sold at rock-bottom prices, creating premier crus with any degree of integrity will simply muddle up the system further. The key to defining the premier crus is to put the grand crus in order. Almost every producer I visited acknowledged that the variable state of the grand crus is a major impediment to establishing a reputation for high quality wine from Alsace, but said ruefully that reform is impossible. If I were in charge of the dossier at INAO, I would make it a condition of classifying premier crus that the grand crus were redefined on the basis of geology and microclimate rather than politics.

Alsace Diary part 4: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Grand Crus

Sweetness is the issue that absolutely bedevils Alsace. Should wine be dry or be sweet? And should it be the same every year or should it be allowed to vary with the vintage? There are two schools of thought. Sometimes epitomized by other producers as “the Trimbach way,” one school holds that wine – especially Riesling – should be dry. “Our wine is bone dry and therefore suitable to accompany food,” says Hubert Trimbach. Other notable houses in this camp are Hugel and Josmeyer. The majority of producers, however, follow a mixed model, mostly trying to make dry wine, but admitting defeat and allowing some residual sugar when they feel this produces a better balance. Let me explain why I think this is usually a mistake and why it is destroying the grand cru system.

The issue of sweetness is all tied up with the grand cru system. In a marginal climate, the best sites are those that most reliably achieve ripeness. These became the grand crus in Alsace. In a typical vintage, the difference between vineyards might be that an appellation vineyard needed chaptalization, whereas a grand cru reached an acceptable level of alcohol quite naturally. So the wines would have the same (dry) style, but the grand cru would display the extra character that goes with greater ripeness. In the present era of warmer vintages, however, the appellation vineyard may reach an acceptable level of potential alcohol, and the grand cru may go above it. This explains why at many producers the entry level wine is always fermented to dryness, but the grand crus show some residual sugar.

So is residual sugar part of the terroir? “The idea with the Vins de Terroir (wines from single vineyards or grand crus) is to represent the vineyard, so the wines are not necessarily fermented dry. They are intended to be coups do coeur, where people care about the character not the technical specs,” says Philippe Blanck at Domaine Paul Blanck. Jean-Christophe Bott takes a similar view at Domaine Bott-Geyl ” I don’t believe the wine has to be absolutely dry – we are vignerons not chemists – it has to be balanced. In one vintage the balance may be 5 g sugar, in another it may be 12 g.”

The argument is basically that something has to give: either alcohol will be too high or there will be residual sugar. This might not be so much of a problem if the style was consistent for any given producer and between vintages (and if the consumer can tell from the label). Vintage variation is a killer in the sense that you cannot buy a wine sight unseen if it is dry in one vintage and sweet in another. And it’s equally confusing when a producer changes style from appellation Alsace to grand cru. “The problem is not with the entry level, it’s more with the grand crus, where the Riesling may be picked at 14% potential alcohol. It’s more difficult to achieve dry Riesling and we can find grand crus with 7-8 g sugar or more; it’s totally stupid for the grand crus to have residual sugar,” says Pierre Trimbach. In my view, this is spot on as a criticism, because how am I to understand the difference between, say, an appellation Riesling and a grand cru Riesling if the first is dry and the second is sweet? Marc Hugel puts the issues in even more direct terms: “When I started 35 years ago, almost all wines had less than 3 g residual sugar. Now most wines have more, grand cru Rieslings often have 7-8 g or more, and Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have 20-30g: this is a dessert wine.”

And even to compare two grand crus, they need to be in the same style. It’s all very well to say that Schlossberg has granite, Rosacker is calcareous, and Rangen is volcanic, but whatever effects the terroir has on the style of wine are (at least for me) muddied by residual sugar. Whenever I have been able to compare terroirs from producers who have multiple grand crus all in completely dry style, the results have been enlightening, every bit as interesting as a comparison between Crus in Burgundy. It’s a great lost opportunity if the comparison is muddied by variable sweetness. In fact, I would go further and say it’s a great disappointment to spoil what should be the ultimate expression of terroir by confusing the palate with sugar.

Here is the case for accepting a natural balance, as put by Marc Tempé: “My aim is to make a dry wine because it goes best with food. But with our climate and cépages it’s difficult to make a dry wine from mature berries. There are years that are completely dry like 2010, there are wines that have 5 g left, but they are naturally in balance. Wines with 5 or 7 g may taste dry if they have the right structure. Wines with a little residual sugar may be perfectly suited to many foods, although many people express horror at the idea of wines that aren’t bone dry.”

Even the most committed producers admit that it’s mostly impossible (and maybe undesirable) to get completely dry Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer from grand crus. “Pinot Gris ripens very rapidly. Sometimes you say you harvest in the morning and it’s dry, you harvest in the afternoon and it’s sweet,” says Etienne Sipp. “Gewurztraminer will reach 13-14% when Riesling gets to 11%,” Marc Hugel says, concluding,” It’s better to have 14% alcohol and 7 g sugar than 15% alcohol and bone dry.” And Celine Meyer at Domaine Josmeyer points out that “If Gewurztraminer is completely dry it’s not agreeable because it’s too bitter”. So the consensus is clear that, faute de mieux, Gewürztraminer (and Pinot Gris) are going to have some sugar. “I prefer to make dry wines and for Riesling it’s easy to be dry, but with the grand crus for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer we cannot produce dry wines. To follow what the terroir has to give you, the wine would not be balanced if you picked early enough to make dry wine,” says Jean-Christophe Bott. But he adds ruefully, “Of course the market is looking for dry wine.”

Here is a heretical thought. If it is impossible to make a dry wine with under 14% alcohol from the grapes planted in a particular vineyard, are you sure you have the right variety? Instead of relying on historical precedent, should the criterion in choosing the variety be that it will achieve ripeness (but not over ripeness) at a level that allows dry wine to be made at reasonable alcohol levels in most years? In Alsace, if Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer give you the choice between 16% alcohol or residual sugar, perhaps you should switch to Riesling. In Bordeaux. if Merlot gives you 15% sugar, perhaps you should switch to Cabernet Franc or even Carmenère. Or maybe – quelle horreur – you should think about Syrah.

And for that matter, perhaps the whole concept of grand crus should be rethought. The climate was cooler when they were being defined.(It’s a sign of just how outdated the grand cru definitions are that the regulations specify the need to reach 10% alcohol!) Should spots that used to give reliable ripeness but that now give over-ripeness still be grand crus? As Alsace is even now proposing to classify a large number of lieu dits as premier crus, perhaps the level of desired ripeness should be an issue. And if the trend goes any further, maybe they will need to reconsider the hierarchy of premier and grand crus in Burgundy. In the era of global warming, should we start by asking which sites best give the desired style of wine, rather than simply looking by reflex reaction for the places that give the most ripeness?

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.

Chablis Diary part 7: a Visit to Domaine Laroche and the Question of Screwcaps

Any visit to Domaine Laroche that starts by seeking guidance from your GPS is doomed to failure: you go round and round a square with no apparent way out that will lead to Laroche. In fact, Laroche headquarters are in an old monastery built between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to which access requires driving through an archway that doesn’t seem wide enough for the car. The best way to get there is actually to park at the Laroche boutique in town, and then someone will show the way though a couple of narrow passage ways to the winery.

LarocheTW With 90 ha, Laroche is one of the largest producers in Chablis. There are 60 ha Chablis, 25 ha premier crus, and three grand crus. The Chablis St. Martin under Domaine Laroche comes from their own 60 ha and is a selection of the best lots. It’s about 70% of total. The other 30% is blended with purchased grapes and named just as Laroche (because it’s not just the domaine) and called only Chablis. You have to look carefully at the labels to distinguish.

The Chablis is all stainless steel with no battonage; premier and grand crus come from assemblage of lots matured in cuve with lots matured in barrique. There’s steady graduation of intensity and power going up the hierarchy. The top wine is the Réserve de l’Obédience, which is based on blind tasting to blend the best lots of Blanchots. My experience in the past has been that this carries a lot more oak than Blanchots or the other premier crus, but sales manager Sandrine Audegond says this it varies according to the vintage. “In the last five years, the oak level has varied from 30 % to 100 % (majority of used oak, however), as a result of the blind tasting.”

I ask whether the style of Chablis in general and Laroche in particular has changed with global warming? “No, not really, if there’s been any change it’s due more to viticulture. If the grapes are ripe, if you have thick skins, you will always have minerality. In Chablis, to be absolutely frank, we have an awful climate, summer can be quite unsettled. The blessing of the place is that we have a long dry period in September,” says Sandrine.

What about Laroche’s much vaunted move to bottling under screwcap? “Michel Laroche was dark red when he saw cork manufacturers because he was fed up with quality,” Sandrine explains. Petit Chablis and Chablis are now under screwcap; premier and grand cru are done under either screwcap or cork, and the buyer can choose. What difference do you see in the development of the wines, I ask. “If you want to keep freshness, keep the screwcap, but you will lose some complexity. If you want to develop very complex character, stay with cork.”