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.

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 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.