Bordeaux 2017: A Vintage to Pick by Appellation

2017 is a great year for defining differences between appellations on both left and right banks, even if those differences do not always conform to the common historical definitions. The general character of the year is surprisingly classical, although without the herbaceous or bitter background that young Bordeaux used to have: you might call it a modern take on the classical character. Many wines will be ready relatively soon (think about starting mostly about four years from now and drinking for about eight years). This will be a fine year for restaurant wines, with the best retaining their typicity in a more approachable style; there’s  just enough stuffing to support mid-term development without any dilution. Wines that have moved towards an international character are less obvious this year; the effect of vintage has been to damp down the style into a smoothness from which black fruit aromatics just poke out.

The UGCB presents the vintage in London in October, and in the USA in January.

The UGCB tasting held in New York this week showed most of the great chateaux (excepting the first growths). I started with Pessac-Léognan, where most reds are relatively subdued, but show good sense of texture on the palate, although that classic impression is reinforced by bitterness often running ahead of the fruits. They should mature to a smooth elegance for drinking in the mid term. In top châteaux, Pape-Clément just shows its international character with black fruit aromatics poking out through the tannins, while Smith Haut Lafitte shows as one of the most obviously international wines in Bordeaux this year, with a soft, almost opulent impression just cut by the tannins of youth. Haut Bailly shows classicism with structure presently outrunning the fruits but suggesting good aging potential, Domaine de Chevalier is perhaps not quite as smooth as usual but has good aging potential, and Les Carmes Haut-Brion really shows its 55% Cabernet Franc. Whites tend to show a  grassy herbaceous character, sometimes verging on sweaty, but with sweet citrus fruits, as typified by the attractive Carbonnieux. In top wines, Domaine de Chevalier gives a classy impression of subtle citrus, if not quite at its usual level of crystalline brilliance, and Pape-Clément and Smith Haut Lafitte reverse the relationship of their reds, with Pape-Clément full, rich, and almost opulent, while Smith Haut Lafitte is not quite as overt.

Moving from Graves to Margaux, the first impression is the increased finesse of the structure, with tannins still evident, but showing a finer-grained character. In terms of historical comparisons, this is a lighter vintage for Margaux. Going in deeper, Margaux seems to split into two parts: the top wines have the structure and balance to age at least through the mid-term, and may require longer than the wines from Pessac-Léognan; but most wines are somewhat lighter, and fall into the category of what you might call restaurant wines, lovely for the mid-term but without potential for real longevity. The general character should be to age towards delicacy, with the best wines showing a savory character. In the first group, I would place Chateaux du Tertre, Rauzan-Ségla, perhaps Rauzan-Gassies; in the second group come Kirwan, Durfort-Vivens, Desmirail, Cantenac-Brown, Brane-Cantenac, Prieuré-Lichine, Malescot-St.-Exupéry. Dauzac, Ferrière, and Marquis de Terme are rather tight, while Giscours as always is a little on the full side for Margaux, but the vintage makes it a little short. Lascombes is more classical and less international than preceding vintages. I’m less convinced about the potential of Margaux, compared with other appellations, to stay on the right side of the line between delicacy and dilution.

The Crus of the Haut-Médoc more or less follow Margaux, although texture is generally not quite so fine. La Lagune stands out for elegant aromatics; and the smooth aromatics with hints of blackcurrants mark out La Tour Carnet as part of the international movement. In Moulis, Clarke has just a touch more elegance than Fourcas-Hosten, while in Listrac, Poujeaux approaches Margaux in style this vintage.

Graves and Margaux are all black fruits, and red fruits first appear in my notes when I arrived in St. Julien. But the main difference is the contrast between the clarity of the palate in Margaux and a tendency towards a fine chocolaty texture in St. Julien, strong in Beychevelle, just evident in Gruaud Larose, and almost imperceptibly in the background in Branaire-Ducru. Chocolate is the unmistakable mark of St. Julien in this vintage. Its soft, almost furry, tannins may make the wines seem more approachable sooner. As always, Langoa and Léoville Barton are the wines that stay closest to the historical roots of St. Julien, with Langoa very fine and Léoville showing more presence through a translucent palate. Léoville Poyferré and Lagrange show the smoothness of the international style, making them among the softer wines of the appellation. Gloria is elegant but not as fine as St. Pierre, which is moving in a savory direction. Talbot’s round, ripe character is a far cry from the old dry style of the Cordier house, and an indication of the change in Bordeaux.

Pauillac stands out in this vintage for that characteristic combination of finesse and firmness in the tannins, which are more obviously tamed than in St. Julien, Margaux, or Graves. The wines show lovely firm structure, sometimes with the plushness of Pauillac just poking through. Three chateaux in the two Rothschild groups illustrate the range. Armailhac shows the restrained power of Pauillac, but there is something of a reversal of the usual hierarchy with Clerc Milon showing more elegant black fruit aromatics; Duhart Milon is rounder and finer, and moves in the direction of Lafite. Grand Puy Ducasse has increased in refinement and moved closer to Grand Puy Lacoste, both showing a certain roundness and plushness to indicate they are in Pauillac and not St. Julien. Lynch Moussas offers the Pauillac version of a restaurant wine. Lynch Bages is lovely and firm, Pichon Baron is a little brighter than most Pauillacs and seems less dense then usual, while Pichon Lalande is quite typical of itself and the appellation, although again just short of the density of a great year. St. Estèphe is always difficult to assess at the UGCB because few chateaux are represented, but there seems to be a tendency to show the hardness that can characterize the appellation. Phélan Ségur seems more successful than Chateau de Pez or Ormes de Pez.

There is something of a reversal between St. Emilion and Pomerol, with the top wines of St. Emilion showing an opulence and richness driven by Merlot, while Pomerol tends to show something of the relatively greater restraint of St. Emilion. But the range here extends from overtly lush wines to those where the dryness of the finish attests to an underlying structure needing time to resolve, to those that verge on herbaceous, giving the impression that the grapes may not have been uniformly ripe. At the lush end of St. Emilion come Beau-Séjour Bécot, where soft, opulent fruits bury the tannins and give an impression half way to Pomerol, Canon-La-Gaffelière with a chocolaty impression, and the even finer Canon with its hints of blueberries, raisins, and chocolate. There’s more impression of Cabernet Franc in La Couspade and La Dominique, while Clos Fourtet, La Gaffelière, Larcis Ducasse, and Pavie Macquin are relatively restrained. Perhaps the surprise is Valandraud, which in a turn-up for the book shows this year as the most classical representation of St. Emilion, slightly nutty, nicely ripe, but not too overtly Merlot-driven.

In Pomerol, the finesse of Bon Pasteur gives the lie to Michel Rolland’s reputation as the architect of excess, Beauregard is clearly driven by Merlot but stops a touch short of opulence, and Clinet gives an impression almost of belonging to St. Emilion rather than Pomerol. The general impression is more restrained than usual.

Conditions late in October favored botrytis, but in a limited tasting—some of the Sauternes ran out before I got to them at the end—the wines seemed more inclined towards elegance than towards the luscious power some reports have suggested. Again showing the capacity of the vintage to reverse historical trends, Chateau de Fargues is elegant and subtle as always, but not as evidently botrytized as usual, Rieussec has good density with impressions of botrytis, and Suduiraut has the greatest botrytic influence.

Pricing so far often seems too close to the great 2016 vintage for comfort, but wines that could be found at, say, under two-thirds of the price of the 2016, would offer a good opportunity to appreciate the styles of many chateaux in the relatively short term.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cru Bourgeois Show Strengths and Weaknesses in 2012 Vintage

With prices either stratospheric (in good vintages) or simply unreasonable (in poorer vintages) for most of the Grand Cru Classés or their equivalents, and given the trend towards a richer, more alcoholic, international style, it’s a fair question where to turn if your preferences lie towards the old tradition of Bordeaux, meaning wines that have elegance and freshness.

I have felt for some time that the best of the Cru Bourgeois may be a more interesting alternative than the second wines of the great chateaux, as prices have remained reasonable and styles have not been so influenced by fashion. But I may need to rethink this after the New York tasting of Cru Bourgeois from 2012. Granted this was only a relatively small selection of the (almost) 300 Cru Bourgeois, and the most notable were not present (not to mention the fact that the best known chateaux in this category, which had been at the highest level in the old hierarchy, withdrew from the classification when it became a single tier when the new system was introduced).

Each chateau at this tasting brought the 2012 and one previous vintage from one of the last three years. I was generally a little disappointed in the 2012s. They were all well made wines, but seemed to fall into one of two categories. About half seemed to have made efforts to make the wines more approachable, with an initial softness on the palate. The problem here, to my mind, is that this leaves the wines between two stools: neither showing the lush fruits that are in fashion in New World, nor showing the traditional more savory spectrum of Bordeaux. I don’t think immediate gratification is in the DNA of Bordeaux. The wines are quite nicely rounded, but I was left wondering whether they are competitive in today’s market against varietal competitors from the New World. The other half showed more of Bordeaux’s usual asperity when young; but supposing these wines will peak in, say, three years’ time, the question becomes whether consumers will want to buy them now to hold for the future.

I find it difficult to raise much enthusiasm for the 2011 vintage. Most of the wines are tight, with a certain lack of underlying generosity which makes it seem doubtful whether they will open out. There’s a tendency towards green notes. My impression now is less favorable than it was at the introductory tasting of the 2011 vintage a year ago, when the youthful fruits were more in evidence; in the past year, the fruits seem to have lightened, but the tannins have not. I think you just need better terroir than most of the Cru Bourgeois possess in order to have been able to get to a satisfactory degree of ripeness in 2011. (By contrast, I thought the 2011 Grand Cru Classés often managed to show elegance and could be nice restaurant wines–if they were half the price!)

The 2010 and 2009 vintages showed their character through the prism of Cru Bourgeois, with 2010 tending to precision (which sometimes takes the form of tightness in the Cru Bourgeois at this point) and 2009 often nicely rounded (but somehow mostly lacking follow-through on the palate).

Here are some wines that illustrate the character of the 2012 vintage and appellation at this level. The most elegant wine from the Haut Médoc was Clément Pichon, somewhat in the style of the femininity of Margaux just to its north. In Margaux, Haut Breton Larigaudière is still a bit tight, waiting for the elegant fruits to emerge. Illustrating the disappearance of Cru Bourgeois from top appellations, there weren’t any examples of St. Julien or Pauillac. La Haye shows the typical tightness of young St. Estèphe. To the west, Château Lalaudey is a good representation of Moulis, with a lighter take on the style of the great communes. Château Rollan de By is a good illustration of what can be achieved in the Médoc. There are some nice wines in the 2012 Cru Bourgeois–but you do have to look for them.

Two Decades of Ducru Beaucaillou Show Supreme Elegance But With Surprises

The Wine Society’s tasting of wines from Ducru Beaucaillou with Bruno Borie was an eye opener into the changing nature of Bordeaux, although the grand vin of Ducru continued to demonstrate its supreme elegance.

Croix de Beaucaillou was introduced as a second wine in 1995 (displacing Lalande Borie to the position of third wine). It’s now not so much a second wine as a separate brand, Bruno explained, coming from vineyards plots farther from the Gironde. This may explain why I could not see much of an obvious relationship between La Croix de Beaucaillou and Ducru Beaucaillou itself. Both come only from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but La Croix tends to have 10-20% more Merlot, and its style is more superficial. It’s round and attractive, but it’s the grand vin of Ducru Beaucaillou that shows the precision that typifies St. Julien. I was surprised by the closeness of style of the 2010 and 2009 La Croix; the difference seems due more to the extra year’s age of the 2009 than to vintage character, as both show fruits before structure.

The youngest Ducru was the 2009, smooth and silky, and just about drinkable now as the tannins are coming into balance with the fruits. “The drinkability of 2009 is evident,” Bruno says. Young Bordeaux from great vintages no longer has punishing tannins, but all the same, the tannins still have grip, and to drink it now is to miss the point, as those subtle, elegant, flavors won’t come out from under for several years. Judging from comments around me about deliciousness, and seeing the empty glasses, it strikes me that there is a willingness on the part of the consumer to accept wines with more tannins and extract then used to be the case. Yes, it’s a plumper version of Ducru’s usual style, but please don’t drink it yet.

I almost never like 2006 left bank wines as I find it hard to get past the flat character of the year, but both La Croix and Ducru showed more aromatics than I usually see in this vintage. Very good results for the year, but all the same, hard to see that they are going anywhere.

The biggest surprise of the tasting for me was the 1999: traditional claret with a light fruit impression that’s as much red as black. It’s very drinkable, what I would call a luncheon claret, and it strikes me that it’s very much what claret used to be, before the grand cru classés started going for more extraction and a deeper, richer, international style.

The next surprise was the 1996 which is simply glorious. I’ve always regarded this as one of the standouts of the vintage, but the last time I tasted it, a delicious counterbalance of herbaceousness was developing to offset the fruits. This bottle (fresh from the Ducru cellars) by contrast did not have any trace of herbaceousness, but tended more to chocolate and sweet tobacco and cedar overtones. It’s not often that I see Bordeaux losing herbaceousness with age and showing clearer fruit character.

Ducru remains the quintessential St. Julien for me, with a terrific ability to pinpoint the character of each vintage, although I tend to prefer “classic” vintages to more “modern” ones..

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.

Cru Bourgeois: a Work in Progress

A tasting of Cru Bourgeois from the 2010 vintage showed some remarkable similarities and remarkable differences with a tasting earlier this month of Grand Cru Classés from St. Emilion.

Both groups come from classification systems whose attempts to modernize foundered in legal challenges, and the classification had to be withdrawn, before compromises were found to restore a system. The final systems are almost at opposite poles. In St. Emilion, reclassification every ten years takes account of the terroir of the chateau, the price of its wine, and quality (as assessed by tasting). For Cru Bourgeois, the classification is now done every year, which makes it completely different from all the other classification systems where history (very distant in the case of Médoc Grand Cru Classé, more recent in the case of St. Emilion) counts for something.

Once a château has received the agrément that is required for its wine to be included in the AOP each year, it can apply for the Cru Bourgeois label. The wine is assessed by a tasting panel. “We are not assessing style, everyone is free to define their own style, but we are really concerned with quality. Typicity is really more a matter for the AOC. There are eight appellations and even within each there is variety,” says Frédérique Dutheiller de Lamothe, Directrice of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois. So in effect, putting Cru Bourgeois on the label is an imprimatur of quality. There are also some arcane rules about timing of sales, which actually excluded Chateau Caronne Ste Gemme from the 2011 classification, although its proprietor François Nony is President of the Alliance.

The difficulty with this system, it seems to me, that it lacks practicality for the consumer. Surely a consumer expects a classification to place a producer at a certain level, that it establishes a general reputation: are they really going to look at the label each year and ask whether the wine got the sticker for that vintage? What does it say if a chateau gets the classification some years and not others? Isn’t this really rating current vintages rather than classifying the producer? And what about vintage variation—will allowance for vintage mean that the classification is awarded in a poor year for wines that wouldn’t get it in a better year?

In spite of these reservations, what sort of standard was established for 2010? Just like St Emilion there seem to be a certain similarity to the wines, and it seemed to override the appellations as we tasted through the 2010 vintage from Médoc, Haut Médoc, Listrac, and Moulis. Somewhat tight fruits were supported by a strong acidity; these wines seemed more backward than the Grand Cru Classé last time I tasted them, not so much because of tannins but because the acidity was so pressing you couldn’t really see the fruits, which seem somewhat one dimensional. This seemed like a throwback to traditional Bordeaux, and these wines need time, the antithesis of the St. Emilion tasting, where the wines all had the same soft, over fruity taste (Triumph of the Oenologue in St. Emilion). But when we got to Margaux and Pauillac, communal typicity seemed to reappear in a certain finesse for Margaux and roundness for Pauillac. However, I thought the best Cru Bourgeois I tasted was Chateau Serilhan, from St Estèphe, whose refinement belied the reputation of the appellation.

Whether it’s the character of the appellation or the individual château, it did seem to me that the Cru Bourgeois from Margaux, Pauillac, and St. Estèphe were better than those from other appellations. But Cru Bourgeois, at least for the present, is a single level of classification (as opposed to the old system, which had multiple tiers. It would be interesting, and perhaps useful for the consumer, to restore the hierarchy, but it’s not obvious how that would be done in the context of the new system, as this would really put the Alliance into competition with the critics for rating the wines. But it’s a work in progress, so wait to see what happens next.

The Improvement in Second Wines

When I investigated the second wines of Bordeaux in detail about five years ago for my book What Price Bordeaux?, I was not very impressed. The impression given by the chateaux was that the second wines provided an opportunity to experience their expertise in the form of wines that were ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, in the same general style, but of course at lower cost. Declassified from the grand vin, these wines would come from vines that in another year might have gone into the grand vin. But this did not entirely accord with reality. Only a minority of second wines were in fact principally derived by declassification (usually from vines that were considered too young to contribute to the grand vin); most had become separate products coming from vineyards that rarely contributed to the grand vin. And most second wines on the left bank had a much greater proportion of Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, certainly making them ready to drink sooner, but also much reducing the resemblance with the style of the grand vin. When I held some tastings specifically to compare second wines with other wines available at similar price points, the consensus of both professional and amateur tasters was that they preferred the other wines. Rather than representing special value because of economies of scale or expertise coming from the grand vin, the second wines seemed to have prices that were inflated by the reputation of the grand vin.

On a recent visit to Bordeaux, I gained an entirely different impression and it seemed generally that there had been a great improvement in the quality of second wines. Possibly a contributory factor was that many of the wines I tasted were from the recent excellent 2009 vintage, but beyond quality per se, it seemed that the second wines showed better representations of communal typicity and genuine resemblance with the styles of the grand vins. As I was tasting at chateaux, I did not have the opportunity to compare second wines with other wines at similar price points; perhaps they too have improved equally. One factor that may have contributed to an improvement in the relative quality of the second wines is that now they too are subject to selection; the rejected lots may go into a third wine or be sold off. “The second wine used to be a dumping ground – everything was put in it – but now it’s much more an independent brand, and there is selection for it,” says Bruno Eynard at Chateau Lagrange. John Kolasa at Chateau Rauzan Ségla sees it also as a spin-off from the recent swingeing increase in prices. “The improvement in second wines is due to the increase in pricing, which drove people away from the grand vins to the second wines.”

My tastings may also have been biased by the fact that they included some of what are always the very best second wines, those of the Premier Grand Cru Classés, which usually sell at prices around those of second growths. Although their second wines will be ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, I’m not sure there’s going to be so much difference as to justify the old description of second wines: certainly these at least are not for instant gratification. It remains true that most second wines still have more Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, but the reasons may have shifted a bit. Problems with Merlot becoming too ripe limited the amount that could be used in some grand vins in 2009 and 2010. An incidental consequence is that some second wines have higher alcohol levels than the grand vins, a real inverse of the traditional situation that the best wines came from the ripest grapes.

Are second wines good value? That’s the crux of the matter and I’m not sure I have a clear answer yet. When they did not seem to represent the style of the chateau, I felt that they could never be good value, no matter how much less in price than the grand vin, because they could not aspire to be the real thing. Now it seems that the quality and style are there; but lifted up by the huge increase in prices in 2009 and 2010, and the failure to reduce prices sufficiently in 2011, the wines seem expensive.

Tasting notes

Carruades de Lafite, 2011

Dark purple color. Fresh black fruits on nose with just a whiff of blackcurrants. Quite tight and constrained on the palate, showing elegant but tight fruits with firm tannins. At this moment it gives an impression of coming from somewhere between Pauillac and St. Julien, with the tautness of St. Julien but also the power of Pauillac. Slowly fruits of red and black cherries release in the glass. There’s a touch of heat on the finish. Very fine.   12.7% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2011

Dark purple color, almost inky. Sight impression of nuts as well as black fruits on the nose. Fruits are more rounded, deeper, concentrated than on the Carruades, in fact more Pauillac-ish. Tight and reserved with fine tannins evident on finish. A very fine, classic structure for aging.   12.7% 92 Drink 2017-2032.

Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, 2011

Rather stern, brooding, black impression on nose. Dense fruits on palate with slightly nutty aftertaste. Insofar as you can tell at this early stage, this is more approachable than the grand vin because the structure isn’t so apparent, but it is pretty dense for a second wine. The style is somewhat similar to the grand vin, but with less roundness.   13.0% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Margaux, 2011

Even sterner and more brooding than the Pavillon Rouge. Great fruit density hides the structure more than in the second wine, but then the austerity kicks in on the finish. Very dense and backward with the highest IPT (measure of tannins) ever recorded at Chateau Margaux. The vanillin or new oak is evident, but the nuttiness and perfume comes up the glass, suggesting a fragrant future.  92 Drink 2018-2030.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly, 2011

Fresh nose of youthful red berry fruits; the fresh, light, palate follows with a slight bite on the finish, perfectly pleasant, but – at least not at this stage – showing much character. It’s quite a fine, elegant, style, and slowly some more chocolaty notes emerge on the finish, suggesting that the wine may round out as it develops, but I have some question as to how far this vintage really reflects the style of the chateau.

Château Haut Bailly, 2011

There’s an impression of sweet, ripe, black fruits on the nose. It’s ripe and round on the palate with nice freshness, with a touch of chocolate coating from smooth, supple, tannins. Overall a light, elegant, impression with a faint suggestion of the classic cigar box, in fact a very characteristic Pessac. Not a great vintage, but certainly a good one that should show well for the mid term. The step up in quality from Le Parde is really obvious.   12.8%

La Croix de Beaucaillou, 2009

A darker color than the Lalande Borie (which is effectively regarded as the third wine), this shows more classic sternness to the nose, and a lot more weight and roundness on the palate. Now we turn to black fruits, showing as blackberries tinged with blackcurrants, and you can see something of the style of the grand vin – second wines are certainly coming on. There’s a good sense of refined structure on the mid palate with the fruits showing restrained elegance in a style characteristic of St. Julien.   13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2022.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou  2009

Not so much darker than Croix de Beaucaillou as more purple in hue. Restrained nose gives impression of tight black fruits. Lots of concentration here, with the deep, black, fruits matched by tight tannins, but closed at the moment. Typical of the top level of St. Julien vis à vis Pauillac, the restrained elegance shows a fine texture of taut tannins. promising long life in the classic style. Fruits are certainly full, but not overbearing; reports of excess exuberance were exaggerated.   13.6% 93 Drink 2016-2031.

Carruades de Lafite, 2009

Slightly nutty nose yet with some savory undertones. Round, elegant, soft, yet there is that underlying sense of the power of Pauillac. Although the tannins are supple, the wine is very restrained; the Cabernet seems more dominant than its proportion of 50%. The palate softens a little in the glass but the nose remains muted. The tannins need to resolve to release the elegance of the fruits. Even as a second wine, this is not for instant gratification, but needs time.   13.6% 90 Drink 2016-2031.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2009

Restrained nose with faintly nutty tones of blackcurrants. Softer and rounder, yet more concentrated, than Carruades. Tight grained tannins create a very fine texture, but show as dry on the finish. That hallmark core of elegance, of precision to the fruits, runs through the wine.  Even after only a few months, the initial exuberance has calmed down. “The wine has had good evolution, the exuberance we had at the beginning is no longer there; at the en primeur I was not sure we were in Bordeaux, now we are coming back into Bordeaux,” says Director Charles Chevalier. It’s that smooth roundness on the palate and the long velvety finish that tells us this is Lafite, that quality of seamless layers of flavor is already beginning to show.   13.6% 94 Drink 2018-2038.

Les Forts de Latour, 2009

The nose offers spicy sensations with cinnamon at the forefront. Fruits on the palate are intensely black, with blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums at the forefront. The underlying structure is tight, with firm tannins leaving a bite on the finish – but it’s a sense of grip rather than bitterness. The great fruit is partly hidden by the density of the tight supporting structure. This is going to need some time, but it should age for a very long time.   13.6% 92 Drink 2017-2029.

Château Latour, 2009

I asked M. Engerer, the Gérant at Latour, when he thought this wine would be ready to start drinking. “Well it depends on your taste,” he said, “if you are new and young to wine, perhaps five years, but we might prefer to wait longer.” Personally I think it would be infanticide before a decade is up. The intensity is indicated by the inky appearance. The nose is quite restrained. The palate is more subtle than the Forts de Latour in that its components are less obvious, principally because of the balance of fruits and structure. There’s great fruit density, but it’s held back by the structure; on the other hand, the structure is less obtrusive than in the Forts de Latour because of the fruit density. The main impression here is of the reserve of the wine, of a sense of power holding back, so massively constructed that it will take a decade to come around. This will no doubt become a classic like great Latours of the past.   13.7% 94 Drink 2022-2040.

Château Beychevelle, 2009

More fruit evident than the Amiral, but still with classic mineral freshness of St. Julien. More generous on the palate, but also more evident depth and supporting structure. Very much in the character of St. Julien, elegant rather than powerful, with supple tannins giving a furry finish with chocolate overtones. Oak is evident in the soft impression of vanillin and nuts on the finish. Fine, but will be finer yet when the planned increase in Cabernet Sauvignon occurs.   13.85% 89 Drink 2015-2025.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2009

Typical Cabernet impression of fresh black fruits, following through to a light, elegant, palate, but with chocolate undertones. The Amiral is lighter than the Beychevelle but also a little more austere (perhaps because it has 58% Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Beychevelle’s 48%). The light underlying structure is a  good balance to the fruits, with unusually classic representation for a second wine. This should age nicely for the mid term; drink over the next decade.   13.6% 87 Drink 2013-2022.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2005

Touch of garnet at rim shows start of development. Black fruit impressions have hints of spices. Very nicely balanced, developing well in the elegant style of St. Julien. Given the softness on the palate you would not think this was three quarters Cabernet Sauvignon, although there is a nicely defined structure. This gives a slightly fresher impression than the grand vin, almost you might say a tighter impression on the palate, because the fruits are not so well rounded.   13.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

Château Beychevelle, 2005

Rather restrained on the nose. First palate impression is of furry, chocolaty, tannins coating soft fruits – softer than the Amiral – and then the structure kicks in on the finish and you see the underlying strength of the wine for aging. Beautifully balanced, elegant, black fruits have lost the initial fat, but not yet started into middle development. The quality of the grand vin shows in a roundness that’s not on the Amiral.   13.0% Beychevelle 90 Drink now-2027.

Mediterranean Cabernet

My reference point for characterizing Cabernet Sauvignon has always been Bordeaux, or more specifically its Left Bank. Even though the wines are blended, and even though only a minority actually contain a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, still the top wines–especially the Grand Cru Classés of the Médoc–track the character of Cabernet Sauvignon, from its herbaceous nature pre-1982 to its overt fruitiness today. Those wines are still my standards for comparison when assessing varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World, even though acknowledging that in some regards Bordeaux now follows the imperatives of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. But the same factors are in play, most especially the balance of fruit to structure.

But this reference point has failed me in looking at Cabernet Sauvignon from the Mediterranean. It’s partially effective in considering the super-Tuscans of Bolgheri; although the tannins there are softer, the structure somehow sunnier, there remains a relationship. I had a much more difficult time applying criteria from Bordeaux to a vertical tasting of Mas de Daumas Gassac. Since 1978, Daumas Gassac has been producing a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend at Aniane. It’s usually around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (although the extremes are as low as 65% or as high as 90%), and the other varieties in the blend have changed somewhat over time. Initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, and Syrah; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties,” which includes a real hodge podge.

I don’t think that’s the determinative issue anyway, which is more a reflection of two or perhaps three things. The Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in the  mid seventies with a selection that the nursery told them had come from Bordeaux in the first part of the twentieth century. “It looks quite different from modern Cabernet Sauvignon; in fact the Bordelais sometimes have difficulty in recognizing the variety,” Samuel Guibert told me. It forms long thin bunches with very loose grapes, and a crocodile skin, and gives low yields. The interplay of climate and terroir is also distinctive, since the vineyard is in a small valley with a pronounced microclimate that gives extreme diurnal variation. And there’s a determination to make a traditional wine. “We belong more to the Bordeaux 1961 attitude – wine with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity. Only 15% new oak is used to get finesse,” says Samuel.

Although the avowed intention is to produce a Grand Cru of the Languedoc, I was not easily able to relate the wines to traditional claret (by which I suppose I mean Médoc pre-1982). I felt that the wines fell into two series: those dominated by perfume rather than herbs, very soft and gentle on the palate; and those with a more savory bent. Aniane is right on the edge of the Languedoc, close to the point at which there are said to be Atlantic as well as Mediterranean climatic influences–indeed the small AOCs of Malepère and Cabardès not far away are allowed to plant the Atlantic grape varieties–and I’ve been wondering if what we might be seeing here are the differences between years in which Mediterranean influence or Atlantic influence dominated the weather pattern. In the Mediterranean camp come the vintages of 2001, 1990, 1985, and 1983; in the Atlantic camp come 2005, 1996, 1988, 1982. The Atlantic vintages are more obviously Cabernet-based; it can be more difficult to perceive Cabernet in some Mediterranean vintages. The extremes were 2005, which showed a pretty clear Cabernet rasp; and 1985, which I might have mistaken for Grenache. It’s especially interesting when successive years show quite opposing characters: 1983 versus 1982, and possibly 1986 versus 1985, although it was difficult to tell because the 1986 was slightly corked. The Atlantic years showed something of that lacy, delicate, structure of claret of years gone by; I would find it harder to relate them to the Médoc wines of today. The Mediterranean years seemed to have as much in common with wines of the south as with Bordeaux.

The most impressive wine, in the proper sense of the word, was the Cuvée Emile Peynaud from 2001. Every year, the wine from a plot of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon is vinified separately. The decision is made only just prior to assemblage whether to include it in the regular bottling or to make a special cuvée. The first vintage was 2001; subsequent vintages have been 2002, 2007, and 2008. The wine was darker than any of the regular bottlings, almost inky, redolent with aromas of new oak, and intensely fruit driven on the palate. In a blind tasting it would give a top Napa Cabernet a run for the money. I’d expected a more intense version of the regular wine, but this was almost its antithesis. I feel about it somehow the same as I do about Petit Verdot; fantastic to taste, you can see at once what a few of barriques of this quality would do to lift the blend, but do you want to drink it by itself? I think if I were to split a bottle over dinner, I’d rather have the Daumas Gassac 2001.

The killer vintage of Daumas Gassac was the 1988. I was with a group of contemporaries, who remember when claret was claret, and as the 1988 was tasted, there were appreciate murmurs praising the delicious herbaceousness. This could easily have been a Grand Cru Classé in the style of a good vintage from around the seventies, with that lovely balance of fruit to savory elements, so poised you have to hesitate as to whether fruit or savory is the dominant influence, with complexity added by that very subtle suggestion of herbaceousness. No one would dare use the word herbaceous in modern Bordeaux, but in turning herbaceousness into a pejorative description of wine, we’ve definitely lost something.

Tasting notes

Wines were tasted in June 2012 except for 1983 and 1982 which were tasted in November 2011.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2005

Still youthful in appearance. A rush of perfume when the glass was filled, then some savory undertones. The sense of perfume carries over to the palate, with a faint aromaticity identifying its southern origins, but quite fresh on the palate, although different from Bordeaux’s savory tang. Then a Cabernet rasp shows itself on the finish. which shows more dryness as time passes in the glass, making the wine seem a little rustic. Tertiary development seems about to begin. Moderate alcohol emphasizes the lightness of the style – no heavy handed modern extraction here. The wine certainly rounds up in the glass, so perhaps that initial rustic impression will ameliorate with time.   12.5%  88 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2001

Maturing now to a garnet appearance and giving an immediate impression on the nose of some development with a whiff of tertiary aromas replacing an initial, more perfumed impression. The palate makes a more savory impression, although with still with the soft edge of the south. This now presents quite an elegant balance, indeed, delicate would be a fair description. It’s certainly much lighter than Bordeaux would be from the same vintage. Character is a bit amorphous, the wine somehow fails to declare itself, although it’s very appealing for current drinking.   13.0%  89 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1996

Restrained nose somewhere between perfumed and savory. Smooth palate, but with a faint rasp of Cabernet on the finish. At first the tannins seem just a touch rustic, but then the wine reverts to elegance as the fruits take over. That rasp disappears with time in the glass, although the fruits show a nicely rounded Cabernet character, which is to say just a suspicion of savory development. This is an Atlantic vintage.   13.0%  91 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1990

Delicate and refined, with just a touch of structure showing on the finish, but a sense of dilution as the fruits begin to lighten, slightly nutty and delicate, with a faintly glyceriny impression on the finish. The fruits are soft and appealing, but does it have enough character? It’s superficially delicious, but without any determined structure may not improve any further, and may lose its interest as there isn’t really enough flavor variety to withstand much further lightening of the fruits.  This is clearly a Mediterranean vintage. 12.6%  88 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1988

There’s an immediate impression of Bordeaux here with a faint but delicious herbaceous touch showing: the wine immediately produced appreciative noises all round. It’s right at the tipping point from fruity to savory with just a faint touch of perfume adding to the herbs to show that you’re in the south. There’s still enough structural support for a few years as the wine continues to develop in the savory direction. You might think here in terms of a Grand Cru Classé from Bordeaux, except that the structure is a bit softer. This takes you back to the time when you could use herbaceous as a description in the context of delicious, and when cabernet was elegant rather than powerful. This is the most classically “Atlantic” of the vintages.  12.7% 92 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1985

Following the path of Mediterranean vintages, this is now turning somewhat nutty on the palate, and this is a bit too noticeable on the finish for comfort. Certainly it’s soft and appealing, in an overtly southern way, with nice fruits – but not a lot of structure behind. This might be difficult to place as Cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting; I think you’d be more inclined to think in terms of warmer climate varieties. No doubt this reflects the brutal summer with very hot conditions through September and October.  87  Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1983

Still a fairly dark color. An intriguing slightly floral note on the nose, almost a whiff of violets à la Margaux, conveying a vague sense of garrigue but one that is more floral than herbal. The ripeness of the fruits is evident on the palate, giving a kick of sweetness to the finish. Black fruits on the palate show more as blackberries than blackcurrants, but with a fleshiness on the midpalate, presumably from the Merlot and Syrah. Still youthfully vibrant, and I’m struck by the warm tones of the palate with chocolaty hints on the finish. Age has brought a definite softness rather than the savory development that’s common in Bordeaux; in fact, the wine shows surprisingly little tertiary development. 13.0% 92 Drink to 2017.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1982

The immediate impression on nose and palate is that this wine more shows Atlantic influence with a resemblance to the savory development of old Bordeaux. The nose is relatively savory compared to the gentle, soft, perfumed fruits of the 1983, and there’s a very slight touch of herbaceousness. This spectrum follows through to the palate, which makes a more classical food wine than the 1983. There is lovely flavor variety right across the palate. A faint impression of cedar develops on the finish, giving a Graves-like impression. There are the first signs of the fruits beginning to dry out, as the wine becomes dumb in the glass to show an austere finish of residual tannins, then reversing itself to let the fruits hang out again. At peak moments there’s a lovely balance and classic impression of Cabernet, but it is getting close to time to drink up. 13.0% 93 Drink to 2015.

Cuvee Emile Peynaud, 2001

I do wonder what Emile Peynaud would have thought of this wine, which comes at you in a full knock-your-eyes-out international style. Much darker in color than the Daumas Gassac of the vintage, with an intense nose of pure Cabernet­ – sweet, ripe, dense, rich, nutty, a touch of vanillin­­ – loaded with new oak. This is a lovely wine: no one could complain about the quality. But it’s not simply a more intense version of the Daumas Gassac bottling, it’s altogether in a different style, modern where the Gassac is traditional, oaky where the Gassac relies on fruits It doesn’t seem even to have started to age. 13.0%  91 Drink now to 2022.

The Noblesse of Cabernet Sauvignon

Visiting chateaux in the Médoc as research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I spent a morning at Chateau Latour. The visit did not get off to a very promising start. We were met by Gérant (general manager), Frédéric Engerer. He started by asking me if I had seen an article in a recent issue of the World of Fine Wine, about blending Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought for a moment and realized this must be the article I wrote in which I asked whether Cabernet grown in Bordeaux or in the south of France could make a complete wine or whether it needs to be blended. I concluded that there is something intrinsic about Cabernet Sauvignon, at least as grown in France, that requires a blending partner (although not necessarily always the classic partners of Bordeaux). “Ah,” I said, “I wrote that.” “Ahah,” said M. Engerer, pouncing, “I disagree with everything you said, it is all wrong, it is complete nonsense.” We had what you might call an interesting discussion.

I should let M. Engerer speak in his own words. He is passionate about Cabernet Sauvignon. “You look at single varieties, you look at the blend, you say the blend is better, so Cabernet needs Merlot. This is absolute nonsense. It’s all a matter of Cabernet Sauvignon—it’s the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon alone that determines the quality. The only reason that we put in some Merlot is that it’s old, it’s located on gravelly soil, it behaves like Cabernet Sauvignon; the Merlot is as masculine as the Cabernet Sauvignon (the vines are 80 year old Merlot on relatively sandy soil.)  It’s not that we need Merlot, you need to add it when the Cabernet Sauvignon is not up to the standard. I am happy with Cabernet Sauvignon alone, it is not the Merlot that makes a difference. You see huge differences in the Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots, in the flesh around the tannins, in some plots it is missing, and in these the Merlot may be necessary.”

M. Engerer sees Cabernet Sauvignon through the prism of Chateau Latour. “The character of Latour depends on the terroir. Maybe we should plant some Syrah but it is a bit complicated. You would see the same effect. The nobility of the whole thing is just the terroir. I know your feelings for Cabernet Sauvignon, I don’t want to diminish its importance, but it needs the terroir. The Cabernet Sauvignon is just the instrument, it is just the tool to express differences between terroirs.”

“So you feel the character of Latour would show in the same way with a different variety?” I asked. “I don’t know. With the same variety I measure huge differences in quality between the different parts of the appellation. I would think this would be true with another grape variety. The question (you are asking) is whether Cabernet Sauvignon is neutral enough as a variety to express the terroir better (than another variety).”

I followed up by asking, “In that case, do you regard Latour more as blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots rather than a blend of varieties?” “Well, Latour is a single vineyard, only a limited number of plots make the Grand Vin. I want to plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Merlot in some areas. First growth terroir maybe allows Cabernet Sauvignon (alone) to make great wine. Should we go to Cabernet Sauvignon alone in all the best areas? That’s a very good question. The [increasing] maturity of Cabernet Sauvignon, especially the flesh around the tannins, makes Merlot more and more unnecessary. The main cause is better viticulture and canopy management. When Merlot is planted in the best areas, they would probably make an even greater Cabernet Sauvignon.”

This prompted me to wonder, “Well the real question is what will you do when you replant, will Merlot be replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon?” The answer was partly historical and partly pragmatic. “The Grand Enclos originally was Cabernet Sauvignon with some complantation with Cabernet Franc. This was replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon alone.  But the decision may be to put in Merlot in some places. All the bottom slopes are harvested separately – we call this the Cabernet d’Argile (Cabernet from clay). It may be better to plant Merlot in these areas, so there may be a few rows of Merlot in the lower, wetter, areas. Otherwise the question is what to do when you could make either good Merlot or Cabernet?”

“The style of Latour, this incredible length, backbone, refinement, is better expressed by Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. When the Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe, it’s always a step up above the best Merlot. When we look at the ideal Merlots in Pomerol, we think that the natural playground of Merlot is not in the Médoc. Our Merlots, even the oldest, are always a little lower, with the exception perhaps of one or two vats. If only we could have a vat or two of Merlot from Pétrus…” M. Engerer concluded wistfully.

I thought I would pursue the key question. “You’ve never made a wine that is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon?” “No, but we’ve tried. Every year we taste the final blend without the two vats of Merlot, and honestly, I always prefer the ones with the Merlot because there’s a little essential touch from the old Merlot vines that adds interest in the blend. But among individual vats, Cabernet Sauvignon is always top… There’s a noblesse to Cabernet, you know, it has everything, freshness, purity of line, fruit, when we have ripe Cabernet Sauvignon it’s at 13%, and inevitably the Merlot is at 14%—I’m not at all a fan of high alcohol wines.”

The logical extension of M. Engerer’s position, it seems to me, is to argue that if you took only your very best Cabernet lots, you would not need a blending partner, and you could make a complete wine. But if only the very best lots could do this, the collateral question becomes what proportion of your Cabernet is good enough to make a complete wine. This is more a matter of intellectual curiosity than a practical question, of course. In places other than Bordeaux, perhaps they’d be more tempted to take out some top lots of Cabernet Sauvignon for a monovarietal special cuvée—but of course then you come back to the question of what that does to your Grand Vin. All of this is interesting food for thought, but practically speaking, my view remains that you get better wines by blending in Bordeaux. But I’m going to give M. Engerer the last word. “The world is full of intellectual rubbish.”

Blending Cabernet: it’s the history, stupid

In Bordeaux they will tell you that Merlot is the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, because the Cabernet doesn’t always ripen reliably on the left bank, and the fleshier tones of Merlot complement it by filling in the mid palate. In Napa they will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon ripens so fully and reliably here that there is no need for Merlot; it makes a complete wine in itself. In Chile they used to follow the Bordeaux model by blending the Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot; but then it turned out that most of the Merlot wasn’t Merlot, it was really Carmenere; they did not throw up their hands with horror, tear out the Carmenere and replace it with real Merlot; now instead they make a point of producing varietal Carmenere or of blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, if they blend Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s usually with Malbec, which is the predominant black variety. In nineteenth century Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was usually blended  with Malbec and Carmenere as well as Cabernet Franc: the Malbec was replaced by Merlot, and the Carmenere disappeared after phylloxera struck. The blend everywhere is as much a matter of historical accident as a deliberate search for what varieties best complement one another. So the question is whether Cabernet Sauvignon still needs to be blended, given that the climate is warmer  in Bordeaux than it used to be, and that the other areas where it is planted are mostly warmer than Bordeaux anyway.  And if it does need to be blended, what other varieti(es) really give the best complexity, and are they necessarily the same in every region.

Even though Bordeaux has experienced warmer temperatures in the past decade, tastings of barrel samples have convinced me that the Cabernet Sauvignon makes a more interesting wine when it is blended. As a single varietal wine, it tends to have very pure, precise, but more linear flavors: it broadens out to become more interesting when blended. I believe the same is actually true in Napa, but not for the conventional reason. Young Napa Cabernets can be so bursting with fruit that you really do not see any need for any other variety to round out and complete the flavor profile. But wait a few years. As those primary fruits drop out, the wine begins to become more linear, more austere, the bare bones of Cabernet show more clearly, and you feel that by ten years of age it would very often be improved by some Merlot, which brings more interesting savory development.

A recent visit to Chile left me wondering about the rationale for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere. If you think you have difficulties ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, try Carmenere – which usually harvests about one month after the Cabernet Sauvignon. That alone shows you why it became untenable in Bordeaux. Even in Chile, where the Cabernet ripens quite reliably, Carmenere can be questionable; it needs to be grown in the warmer sites. When it ripens fully, it develops a smooth, elegant palate, with tannins that seem more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it brings elegance to a blend. When it does not ripen successfully, it has something of the same herbaceousness as Cabernet Sauvignon itself, so it’s something of a double or quits game.

Malbec is somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: not as fleshy as Merlot, but certainly smoother and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. Under peak conditions, Malbec may be a more interesting blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, because the tannic structure is complementary: the more supple character of Malbec adds smoothness to the tighter structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t fill in on the mid palate in quite the same way, so the wine tends more to elegance than fruit-driven power.

For roughly a hundred years, from its rise following the phylloxera problem in the 1880s until a couple of decades ago, Merlot was the perfect blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. This is not true in the warmer climates of Napa and Chile, where the “Merlot collapse problem” describes the situation in which Merlot goes straight from green, herbaceous character to over-ripe jammy character, with too narrow a chance to catch it at the right point. I sometimes wonder whether Napa’s concentration on varietal Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t due as much to their difficulties with Merlot as to the attractions of the Cabernet. I am inclined to wonder whether Syrah would be a good choice, since it has richer tannins than Cabernet and can add a touch of aromatics that increases complexity, but Napa seems fixated on a bimodal view: it’s either Cabernet or it’s a Bordeaux blend. Syrah  might also do well in Argentina and Chile, but the accidents of history mean that Malbec and Carmenere are well entrenched. Come to that, it may be time for Bordeaux to reconsider, because in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, the Merlot became so ripe and alcoholic that in many cases it was impossible to blend it into the Grand Vin and it was relegated to the second wine. (An amusing paradox here, since that can make the second wine higher in alcohol than the Grand Vin, and the concept that higher alcohol goes with wines at higher appellation levels is well entrenched in the French hierarchy.) How about going back to Malbec or Carmenere in the Medoc – or maybe Syrah.

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.