An Exercise in Bottle Variation in Less Than Twenty Years

An evening of 1998 Pomerol was as much a demonstration in the difficulty of judging wines at this age due to individual variation as an opportunity to get a bead on this unusual vintage, where the right bank performed well but the left bank was miserable.sunset24

Sunset over Pomerol. The church at the center of the village is on the right

We started with La Conseillante. The first bottle was corked, okay that’s an occupational hazard. The second bottle was slightly corked. Bad luck. The third bottle was brilliant, typical La Conseillante, giving that impression of iron in the soil you get from the edge of Pomerol, fully on form from what has always been one of my favorite chateaux.

A bottle of L’Eglise Clinet was rather restrained for Pomerol, with a fresh sense of acidity to the palate, almost at the edge of piquancy. But then a second bottle showed clear, pure fruits with more spice, and a greater sense of Cabernet Franc, perhaps more in line with expectations from St. Emilion, but very fine. Presumably the second represents the real l’Eglise Clinet, but without any obvious flaw in the first bottle, it would have been easy to dismiss the chateau.

Clinet showed as softer than Eglise Clinet, more Merlot-ish but again quite restrained. Fresh, pure, good structure but not obtrusive. Ah, but a second bottle showed greater fruit purity, more sense of spice, gorgeous. I would not buy Clinet based on the first bottle, but I would definitely buy it based on the second.

No problems with Trotanoy: spicy, full, pure, very refined impressions of Merlot. Then Vieux Chateau Certan, which some people described as sexy, and which for me seemed more typical Pomerol, which is perhaps why Trotanoy, with more restraint, was my favorite.

Then back to bottle problems. The first bottle of Le Gay was quite undeveloped, somewhere between rich and structured, with good acidity, but no very distinct character. This is just not a very good wine, said my neighbor. Then a second bottle showed greater fruit and precision, with distinctly more purity.

So out of six wines, only two were unequivocally in peak condition. (And, of course, it might be that because they were so good we did not ask to try another bottle, but there could have been less successful bottles at other tables.) In the four cases where the first bottle presented a problem, only the La Conseillante was obviously corked. If a second bottle had not been available, it would have been easy to put all the other cases down to poor winemaking. This is a real killer for the chateaux.

There was no question of provenance here, each wine had been bought as a lot in good conditions, usually en primeur, and stored properly. So what can it be but the corks? This is woefully unacceptable. If an appliance, say a refrigerator, performed with such variability, its manufacturer would go out of business.

I’ve never really liked the idea of screwcaps for red wines destined for aging, because I worry about problems of reduction, but when I’ve had the opportunity to compare the same wines bottled under cork and screwcap (specifically in New Zealand and Australia, where the wines were about ten years old), the screwcap wine was always fresher and younger. Whether it would ultimately age in the same way as a wine under cork is the big question in my mind. I think it is time for the chateaux in Bordeaux to do some experiments and find out.

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.