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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Cru Bourgeois in 2014: Fresh and Lively

A presentation of twenty Cru Bourgeois châteaux in New York gave a view of the 2014 vintage that will be an interesting contrast with the forthcoming tasting of the UGCB (grand crus).

Perhaps I was biased by the first few wines I tasted, but the first single word that came to mind to describe the vintage was “acidity.” This is perhaps a bit unfair, but continuing on it certainly seemed that fresh and lively would be a reasonable description. These wines are a far cry from the exuberant style to which the grand crus have been moving.

The wines are mostly well balanced in the traditional style of Bordeaux, which is to say showing fresh fruits with a lively palate. Traditional may be a bit misleading if you think back to when Bordeaux was bitter when young, as one impressive quality is that virtually all are ready to drink now. Tannins are light and never obtrusive, there isn’t an overt sense of structure, but there’s enough to stop the wines from becoming simple fruits. None will be especially long lived, but most should last well for six to eight years. What does this suggest about the vintage? More classic than modern would be fair comment.

These are definitely food wines. I suspect they wouldn’t show so well at a tasting with wines in a more “international” idiom, because you have to look for flavor variety rather than having it thrust at you, but the restrained quality puts them into a class where they should offer a refreshing counterpoise to a meal.

Alcohol is a surprise: it is not noticeable on any of the wines. Given the impression they offer of traditional Bordeaux, you would expect the level to be around 12.5%, but in fact it is usually 13.5%. It’s the first time I’ve been able to accept that 13.5 is the new 12.5 as the alcohol is not accompanied by an impression that dry extract had to be increased to balance it. I don’t know whether the alcohol is all natural or there has been some chaptalization.

These wines are good value, mostly around the $25 mark, and an interesting contrast with, say, New World Cabernet at that price level, where the wines usually seem to me to be trying too hard to imitate more expensive varietal wines. Here the pattern is more bimodal: I see the Cru Bourgeois as striking a different balance, and having a different objective, rather than running as a continuum into the grand crus.

Three wines that particularly stood out for me were Château Labardi (Haut Médoc), for its delicacy and silkiness, Château Peyrabon (Haut Médoc) for a smooth, spicy balance, and Château Rollan de By (Médoc) for its full, generous black fruit impression.

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.

Bordeaux 2011: The Year of Restaurant Wines

Following the highly successful rich 2009 and more classic 2010, the 2011 vintage was bound to be a bit of a let down. Differences between appellations are especially clear this year, a consequence perhaps of more marginal conditions. There are few great wines, some that will find it difficult to achieve balance, but the best should be appropriate for drinking in restaurants from two to eight years from now if the prices aren’t too unreasonable, which unfortunately may not be the case.

Pauillac may be the most consistent of the appellations, with fruits that are distinctly more concentrated than St. Julien or Margaux, making a classic demonstration of appellation character. Tannins are usually obvious, but refined, and should come into balance over the next two to three years. Some wines seem a palpable throwback to the period when years were needed for tannins to resolve after release, but the fruits are concentrated enough to hold out. Not only the most even appellation, this is the one truest to its reputation. Particularly honorable mention goes to Pichon Baron, which shows as powerful and almost opulent, and to Pichon Lalande, which shows as more elegant and refined.

The style is also relatively even for St. Julien, with better rounded fruits than Margaux, if less concentrated than Pauillac. Acidity is usually balanced and many wines show attractive nutty overtones, with enough fruit concentration to develop nicely for the short to mid term as tannins resolve. Léoville Poyferré showed is round, modern style, Léoville Barton its usual elegance, and Saint Pierre gets an award for its refined, classy impression.

Margaux is by far the most variable appellation. Wines tend to have tight tannins that are emphasized by high acidity. Fruits tend to be light so there may be only a relatively brief period to enjoy the wines between the resolution of the tannins and the drying out of the fruits. The most successful have mastered the acidity and tannins, but are soft and approachable in a modern style that isn’t easy to recognize as Margaux. It seems the choice was between short lived elegance and approachability this year. No single chateau really stands out.

The Haut Médoc is more even than Margaux but the wines are almost uniformly light, although acidity and tannins are rarely obtrusive—but nor are the fruits. They tend to be a bit characterless, although La Lagune and La Tour Carnet stand  out for maintaining their usual styles.

The individual chateaus in Graves have stayed true to their characters, with each showing very much its usual style. The best are Haut Bailly for its combination of fruit and structure true to its classic style, Domaine de Chevalier for its elegance, Smith Haut Lafitte in more modern style but backtracking a bit from the overt modernity of 2010 and 2009, and Pape Clément the most evidently modern of all, but a definite success in this vintage. Tannins are no more of a problem than they should be at this stage.

2011 is not a success in St. Emilion. Although there are not the same problems in managing acidity and tannins as the left bank, the problematic character is a common impression of an edge of saccharine on the finish, a sense of an unbalanced sweetness. Will this become sickly as the wines evolve or disappear as they shed the puppy fat? No St. Emilion really stands out from the crowd this year, although Canon shows its typically precise style.

Pomerol does not have the problems of St. Emilion and is quite consistent—and quite superficial. There’s nothing to excess this year, the wines are approachable, but they offer no sense of the stuffing needed to support further development. You have the impression that already they are as good as they will get, and I am doubtful that they will become more complex with time. The closest to a real success is La Conseillante.

The top whites from Pessac are very fine and should drink well over the next five years. At opposite poles are the freshness of Smith Haut Lafitte, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and the roundness of Pape Clément, half Sémillon; and then Domaine de Chevalier shows its usual elegance. I would be happy to have any of them for dinner.

Sauternes generally seem a little rustic, with fairly viscous bodies lacking the aromatic uplift that’s needed to relieve the sweetness. Notable exceptions are Suduiraut, with a classic impression of botrytic piquancy, and de Fargues, as always the top of the show.

It’s a sign of the times that no wines have overt signs of herbaceousness. They vary somewhat in whether the fruits are forward or reserved, whether the acidity is too high or the tannins too bitter, but the emphasis is very definitely on fruit in a relatively modern idiom. As a rough working rule, the modernists, who have been focusing for years on softening the tannins, came off better than the traditionalists in this particular vintage. However, there is no wine (at least in the UGCB tasting) that I would give more than 90 points, and this is not a vintage to buy for the cellar, but if prices come down, could be  useful for enjoying in the short term, especially at restaurants.

Wines were tasted at the New York visit of the UGCB tour, which presented more than 100 wines from the 2011 vintage.