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.

Restaurant Review: Grand Vigne at Sources de Caudalie

In the middle of the vineyards of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, the Caudalie hotel and spa has become my watering hole for visiting chateaux in the Graves. Since my last visit, a new chef has been engaged and the restaurant has achieved a Michelin star, so I was curious to see what changes I would find.

The restaurant offers three choices: a rather restricted three course Plaisir Gourmand, à la carte, and a tasting menu (based on selections from the à la carte). One note of warning: if you stay at the hotel on a demi pension basis, the meal at Grand Vigne includes only the Plaisir Gourmand. Personally, there wasn’t a single item on this menu that appealed to me, and it did not look as thought it had either the ingredients or the interest for a one star level. This would make for a disappointing evening, although in defense of the hotel, you can take the à la carte instead (for an extra charge, bien sûr).

Even on the à la carte, menu choices are a bit restricted for a one star rating (does Michelin take the variety on the menu into account when awarding stars?) One starter of crab with vegetables was good; giant prawns wrapped in pasta were better, although accompanied by citrus fruits that clashed with wine. (But in the interests of full disclosure, I rarely like mixtures of savory with fruits.) A mark against the restaurant was that both starters came with the same base of tomato jelly. This seemed a lazy design. One curiosity was that one night the prawn starter had two prawns; another night it had only one prawn. It seems an odd practice to halve the size of the starter from one night to the next.

Main courses were the best elements. Pigeon with rhubarb profiteroles was simply excellent, everything in perfect balance. This was the killer dish for me. Turbot was the most imaginative offering, on a base of girolles, with a clever spiral of carrot spaghetti. Desserts were good, the most interesting being a trompe l’oeil of strawberries, apparently presented in a glass, but actually with “glass” consisting of an edible sugar molding. I would give the restaurant its star (just).

Especially for a restaurant asociated with a chateau, the wine list was disappointing. On previous visits I have been very pleased with the wine list, which included, as you might expect, older vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, both red and white, at very reasonable prices. This was a good opportunity to showcase their wines. There also used to be a good selection of wines from other regions, including Coche Dury Meursault at fair prices. All that has gone. There are a couple of current vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, a routine run through the regions of Bordeaux, and some small offerings from elsewhere, but I was hard put to find wines I thought would be interesting at reasonable prices. In the end I was satisfied with neither of my choices. Domaine de Chevalier, which has always been a favorite, disappointed with its 2004 red; and Malartic Lagravière’s white 2006 made me wonder how on earth it was ever classified as a Grand Cru. Wine service fell a bit short: I had to wander over to the ice bucket to retrieve my bottle from time to time.

Domaine de Chevalier, 2004 (red)

Deep ruby color still with some purple edges. Very restrained nose with faint hints of Cabernet austerity. There’s a rich initial impression, but cut by a rather dry finish (characteristic of the year, perhaps, but exacerbated here). This feels like a Cabernet-driven wine. How much will that dryness soften with time and will this happen before the fruits dry out? Although I like wines in the classic style, this is a little too dry even for my taste. 86 Drink – 2016.

Malartic Lagravière, 2006 (white)

A bit characterless: not a lot happening on the nose, perhaps a whiff of citrus and a touch of minerality. The same spectrum follows through to the palate, where the lack of fruit concentration allows a sort of faintly metallic minerality to come through to the finish. This seems  enormously over cropped. I am left wondering what this wine offers that Muscadet hasn’t got, except for price. 84 Drink now if at all.