St Emilion 2016: a Vintage for Left Bank Lovers

“I’m finding it hard to see a lot of love in these wines,” one taster said at the tasting of 2016 St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé in New York. Indeed the wines are quite tight at present, but although elegant is not the first word I usually use to describe St. Emilion, it was often the most appropriate description in my notes.

The general impression of the vintage is fine, structured, and still a little tight. In a blind tasting it might be difficult to identify most of these wines as being predominantly Merlot because their texture has a finesse you might not usually associate with the variety. Most need at least 3-4 years, not so much for the tannins to resolve, as they are generally fine and tend towards silky, but to let flavor variety come out from under. They remind me more of the Left Bank than of the usually plusher character of the Right Bank.

The style of 2016 is a great compromise between the extremities of earlier years. At the same tasting of the 2010 vintage six years ago, my problem was in distinguishing wines from one another  (Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion) because they all showed much the same character of furry tannins behind soft black fruits. And then four years ago at the tasting of the 2012 vintage, the wines were tight and alcoholic, often verging on tough, with quite sharp tannins (Alcohol and Tannins in St. Emilion: Cheshire Cat Years?)

By contrast with the earlier years, 2016 has a great sense of balance between fruits and structure. Of course they vary in their stages of development. A few are really still tight, but in most, flavor variety is just beginning to poke out from the palate, with some wines now moving in a savory direction. They should become increasingly fine as they age over the next couple of years, and then show increasing generosity and delicious refinement for at least the next decade.

I hesitate to project beyond that, but there were a few older wines on display to give some indication of aging potential, among which Dassault 2000 was quite mature and really at its peak with signs of tertiary development, Grand Pontet 1995 was flavorful but quite dry at the end, and Grand Corbin Despagne 1989 is à point although not showing tertiary development. (I had the 1988 at the château a year ago, and it was even better, making the point that Grand Corbin-Despagne really makes 30-year wines.) The best wines of 2016 may therefore well last for two decades or more.

The 2016 Vintage

Bellefont Belcier: Very smooth on palate, with structure just holding the fruits back, but very fine impression promising elegant future.

Chauvin: Very fine impression with smooth, silky tannins, flavor variety just coming out, moving in a savory direction with a tang on the finish. Fine result for vintage.

Clos des Jacobin: Fine elegant impression to nose, elegant structure and fruits on palate against silky background, flavor coming out and moving in savory direction.

Corbin: Firm palate with hints of chocolate on finish, nice flavor variety already beginning to show with the finesse of the vintage. Flavorful palate is moving in a savory direction.

Dassault: Firm palate moving in chocolatey direction, underlying texture with savory flavors, a touch of tannins at end on long finish.

de Pressac: Minty impression to nose, nice solid impression with good flavor variety showing on palate, moving in savory direction, with hints of mint coloring the palate.

Faurie de Souchard: Very smooth indeed, very fine texture to palate, with tannins just showing on dryness of finish, with hints of mint and chocolate. Very fine indeed.

Fonplégade: The most approachable wine in the 2016 tasting. Quite a rich nose tends to buttery impressions, with good structure and elegant balance on palate. Fine silky tannins evident only by faint bitterness on finish. Touch of heat at end but otherwise very sophisticated for St. Emilion. Tannins moving in chocolatey direction.

Fonroque: Restrained nose, fine palate shows rather fresh acidity considering vintage and appellation, quite tight and backward. Might be difficult to identify this as 90% Merlot in blind tasting. Needs time to release flavor variety.

Grand Corbin: Tight and backward, almost fresh acidity, tannins tight on finish with touch of bitterness, somewhat of an old school impression with reflections of the left bank.

Grand Corbin-Despagne: Very faint buttery impressions to nose. Fine texture in background on palate, structure shown by a little bitterness at end but is very fine. Long finish promises goof future development.

Grand Pontet: Elegant impressions to nose, fine and tight, follow to palate. Fine texture should turn silky with age. Flavor variety is just beginning to show. Should mature to real elegance.

Jean Fauré: Very restrained nose, really quite dumb. Palate shows a little more texture than most, but not so lively (yet). Quite structured and a bit uncertain how long it might take for fruit to come out.

La Tour Figeac: Some flavor variety beginning to show against background structure evidenced by almost-phenolic bitterness at end. This needs time to come around. A savory impression on the finish is promising.

Ripeau: Fine structure supports savory notes on palate, somewhat backward in being gripped by acidity, and a little uncertain as to future supply of generosity.

Yon Figeac: Generosity is hiding behind the structure. Smooth palate shows flavor variety just coming out, structure in nice balance with fruits, which will emerge more clearly in next year or so.

Older Wines

Dassault (2000): Mature impression with nose showing some tertiary notes and some high-toned aromatics with oxidative notes. Shows some development on palate with touch of sous bois contrasting with the high-toned aromatics. Around its peak, with the risk of oxidation taking over with further aging.

Grand Pontet (1995): Faintly minty, faintly herbal impressions to nose, following to lovely palate on edge of showing mature development. Quite dry on the finish but good flavor variety. Some people might find this a little dry.

Grand Corbin-Despagne (1989): Surprisingly youthful with no signs of tertiary development. Nose is a little dumb but palate is à point. Smooth palate with tannins almost resolved, moving a little towards minty herbal impressions. May be on verge of fruits beginning to dry out.

 

Bordeaux Diary part 7 – Chateau Lafleur – the Beat of a Different Drum in Pomerol

“The first thing my parents did when they took over here in 1985 was to take down all the signs to Chateau Lafleur,” Baptiste Guinaudeau explained when we turned up for our appointment. The “chateau” is a somewhat obscure farmhouse with a tiny plot of 4.58 ha adjoining the vineyards of Chateau Pétrus. Keeping an appointment at Lafleur is a test of ability to draw deductions from the map.

LafleurTW3

The unassuming chateau at Lafleur carries no identification

“When Henri Greloud bought the property in 1872, his vision was to buy small plots and merge them into larger properties, but he felt Lafleur was special and he decided to keep it separate and not to merge it with Le Gay. He built separate cellars so that Lafleur could be independent. Without that decision Lafleur would have become part of Le Gay,” explains Baptiste, who is his great-great grandson. Both properties remained in the family for many years, but today the family properties are Lafleur and also Grand Village, in neighboring Fronsac.

The focus here is really on the vineyard. “We are farmers, we work daily in the vineyard. Chateau Lafleur has 24,800 plants, and we are looking after them individually. We are in the vineyard and we are making the wine also – this is unusual in Bordeaux, usually there are different teams for the vineyard and the cellar – but this connection between the vineyard and cellar is really important for us… The blend is 85% done in vineyard and 15% in cellar. Selection for Pensées (the second wine) is done in the vineyard at harvest. In 2013 400 plants were deselected (individually) from Lafleur to Pensées.”

LafleurTW6Two horses are used to work the vineyard at Lafleur

Lafleur is usually about 55% Cabernet Franc to 45% Merlot, which gives it a restrained character quite different from the average Pomerol. Pensées de Lafleur started as a second wine in 1987, soon after Jacques Guinaudeau took over, and for the first ten years was based on declassification of lots, assignment of wines from young vines, etc. But since 1995 it’s come 90% from a specific part of the vineyard, a lower strip running along the southwest border. It more or less reverses the proportions of varieties in Lafleur.

The focus in winemaking is to avoid too much extraction. “We don’t use the word extraction, we want to infuse, the best tannins come without intervention in the first days of fermentation. Cuvaison is only 12-15 days, which is short for Bordeaux, because the wine is already well structured.” Élevage sees some restraint. “We love barrels but we hate oak. 80% of Lafleur and Pensées ages in 6-month barrels coming from Grand Village, the rest is new oak.” And alcohol levels are generally moderate. “It’s impossible to be ripe with less than 13% alcohol in Bordeaux now, but you can be completely ripe at 13.6%. People are going to crazy levels of alcohol to impress critics.” This is old fashioned Bordeaux in the best sense – elegant rather than powerful or jammy fruits, moderate alcohol, restrained wood.

Lafleur can display a touch of austerity coming from its high Cabernet Franc content. It definitely needs more time than average to show its full complexity. “Lafleur is closest to Cheval on the Right Bank, but it’s much easier to compare it to Latour (in Pauillac) than to Pétrus, our style is more masculine, more Left Bank,” says Baptiste. It’s fascinating that the two top wines of Pomerol, Pétrus and Lafleur, should be adjacent, yet so very different.

 

Merlot with Elegance

The crystalline purity is reminiscent of Volnay: the sheer elegance reminds me of Margaux or perhaps St. Julien. Fruits are precisely delineated. The dominant grape variety would not be the first to come to mind in a blind tasting, but it is Merlot: in fact this is a blend of 90% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Franc, and it used to be the Premier Grand Cru Classé of St. Emilion with the highest proportion of Merlot.

Every once in a while you have a wine that really makes you rethink your perceptions of typicity, and this Château Magdelaine from 1982 is a perfect example. I have always found Magdelaine to be the most Médocian wine of the right bank, with a pleasing touch of austerity as opposed to the full fleshy opulence of so many wines. At one point, Clive Coates described it as third only after Cheval Blanc and Ausone.

A leading St. Emilion estate for two centuries, Château Magdelaine was acquired by the Moueix family (of Château Pétrus) in 1952. It has been a Premier Grand Classé B ever since St. Emilion was classified, but in 2012 two changes occurred. Magdelaine did not appear in the revised classification; and Moueix announced that it would be merged with Château Bélair-Monange, a neighboring chateau that is their other property in St. Emilion. Cause and effect have never been publicly discussed. The wine from combined properties (from the 2012 vintage) will be under the name of Château Bélair-Monange

The revised St Emilion classification definitely pandered to the internationalization of Bordeaux  by promoting Château Pavie (very controversial for its rich, extracted style since Gérard Pearse took it over) and Château Angelus from Premier Grand Cru Classé B to A. And Valandraud, an archetypal garage wine, was promoted straight from St Emilion to Premier Grand Cru Classé B without ever passing through the intermediate Grand Cru Classé. Château Figeac, the candidate at every prior classification for promotion, but whose one third Cabernet Sauvignon gives it a sterner style than most St. Emilions, was ignored.

Certainly Magdelaine has been falling out of fashion over the past decade or so, failing to get really high points from critics. If this is because it has more of a left bank elegance than right bank plushness, so be it; but it’s a shame for the homogenization of styles to be reinforced by the classification. Isn’t the French system of appellations and classification supposed to help preserve tradition rather than pander to fashion?

All I can say is that the 1982 Magdelaine is a lovely wine, the epitome of what Bordeaux was supposed to be about. It is a shame if this style is to disappear because power displaces finesse.

Bordeaux 2010 : Musical Chairs at the Communes

At the first showing of the 2010 Bordeaux’s at the UGCB tasting in New York last week, the most common question from producers was “which vintage do you prefer, this year or 2009?” The comparison with the 2009s at the UGCB tasting a year ago is like night and day: those wines were often immediately appealing, with lots of obvious fruit extract, whereas the 2010s have a more precise, structured, impression and are more difficult to assess. Producers seem to feel almost universally that 2010 is the better year. I am not entirely convinced and am becoming worried that my palate may have been corrupted.

Differences between appellations came out more clearly this year, but in a different way from 2009. The appellations seemed to playing musical chairs, with some switches of character. Margaux shows fruit precision more obviously backed by tannins;  St. Julien shows a soft delicacy. In fact, you might say that Margaux shows a touch of the precision of St. Julien, while St. Julien shows a touch of the delicacy of Margaux. Pauillac is quite firm but often shows perfumed violets reminiscent of Margaux,  and tannins are less obvious than usual. St Emilion is unusually aromatic (some wines were too aromatic for me) and Pomerol seems to be sterner. The other turn-up for the book was that those chateaux that have been showing a move to a more modernist style–Pape Clément, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré at the forefront–reverted to more classic character, although Smith Haut Lafitte went full force international.

My concern about the future of this vintage started when I tasted through the wines from Margaux (the appellation best represented at the tasting). Almost all the wines showed classic refinement and elegance, with a very nice balance of black fruits to fine-grained tannins, but for the most part there did not seem to be the sheer concentration for real longevity. My sense is that most of the Margaux will be lovely to drink between five and ten years from now, but they may not continue to hold for another decade beyond that. Of course, if they follow the path of the 2009s, which were very approachable a year ago but many of which have closed up today, this timescale could be extended. Judging from Margaux, this is a very good vintage indeed, but I am uncertain whether it will rise to greatness. The best wines in St. Julien are the Léovilles, which have precision and fruit concentration: others have precision but do not quite seem to have the fruit concentration.

Pauillacs were mostly lovely, but with more elegance than the power you usually find, and some might almost be described as delicate. Most seem lively for the medium term, but few offer the potential for real longevity, Perhaps we should no longer expect real longevity? A word that often appears in my tasting notes from Pauillac is “superficial.” There are rarely enough wines from St. Estèphe at the UGCB to form a definitive judgment, but on a rather limited showing they seem to be somewhat Pauillac-like this year.

St Emilion seemed to show its basic varietal composition more clearly than usual. All the wines were more obviously aromatic than usual, and those with greater proportions of Cabernet Franc tended to show unusually high toned aromatics, tending to black cherries; wines where the Merlot was more obviously dominant gave the slightly sterner impression that is the reputation of the vintage. Canon and Canon La Gaffelière were the most obviously aromatic. Cabernet Franc seems to have been too ripe for any wines to show overt notes of tobacco, but there are occasional sweet hints of it. Most wines will be ready to start in a couple of years and should hold for a decade. Pomerol, with its greater content of Merlot, is usually more obviously lush than St.  Emilion, but this year seemed more subtle.

I did not get the expected impression of greatness from the Sauternes. The best had a beautiful sweetness with overtones of botrytis, but didn’t seem to have quite enough piquancy to maintain freshness in the long run. However, the wines I tasted were mostly from Sauternes, and it’s said that the standouts were in Barsac this year.

Best wines for each appellation (from those represented at the tasting which were most but not all of the top wines) were:

Pessac-Léognan: Domaine de Chevalier

Margaux: Rauzan-Ségla

St. Julien: Léoville Barton

Pauillac: Pichon Lalande

St. Emilion: Figeac

Sauternes: de Fargues

Looking back a year, I was equally surprised at both tastings, but in quite different ways. Based on reports en primeur, I expected the 2009s to be heavy if not brutish: but by the time they had settled down for the 2009 tasting, most had that characteristic acid uplift of Bordeaux to cut the rich fruits. Accustomed to those rich fruits over the past year, the 2010s seemed much tighter, but I’m not sure they’ve really got that much more structure, and in many cases it seems uncertain whether the fruit concentration will really carry them on for years after the 2009s, as conventional wisdom has it. However, in the past year the 2009s have quite tightened up, and now seem more classical; if the 2010s do the same, I may have underestimated their potential for longevity. There’s no doubt that the 2009s are more delicious and will remain so for some time: perhaps my palate has been Parkerized, but I prefer them at the moment and I’m uncertain if and when that will change.

A Ripe Vintage in Margaret River

At the end of a week visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Margaret River, I wound up with a horizontal tasting of the 2007 vintage with producers of fourteen wines.

The 2007 vintage was warmer than usual and Cabernet got ripe everywhere. Given the general reputation of the vintage, I was expecting a fair number of over-ripe wines, but in fact they are rather rare.

Margaret River is a large region, with the heart of Cabernet production focused in the (unofficial) Willyabrup subregion, with wines that tend to be more robust made in Yallingup to the north, and wines that are tighter coming from Wallcliffe farther south. The vintage showed a very wide range of styles, from wines with black fruits classically cut by a herbaceous touch of pyrazines, to lighter wines dominated by red fruits, and in one case with the warm, earthy impression more usually associated with Pinot Noir. Some wines are sourced from more than one subregion, so it’s not always obvious how to relate wines to individual origins (which are not often stated on the label).

Acidity was usually in balance, and in spite of the hot year does not appear to have been over compensated (one of the problems with Cabernet generally in Australia being that winemakers are so fanatically determined to avoid contamination with Brettanomyces that they acidify to a higher level than might be strictly justified by the demands of taste).

This is certainly a very good vintage, but the succeeding vintage in 2008 was more “classical,” and I found I generally gave those wines higher scores in vertical tastings. But 2007 is delicious to drink in the next few years.

Tasting Notes

Fraser Gallop Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant black fruit nose changing in the glass to more herbal overtones. Fine, elegant black fruits, real finesse here, black cherries and plums with subtle aromatic overtones, silky tannins giving a fine-grained texture. This gives a classical impression of pure Cabernet fruits poised on the perfection of ripeness. The very faint herbal overtones on the finish should develop in the next few years to bring complexity to the finish. 14.5% 91 Drink to 2022.

Juniper Estate, Cabernet Sauvigno

Slightly austere black fruit nose tending to savory herbal impressions of sage. Precisely delineated black cherry fruits dominate palate, round and elegant, very much the pure varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon. Firm tannins dry the finish where there is a very faint sensation of herbaceousness. A classic example of the firm style of Willyabrup. More approachable than usual from this estate. Still needs another year, but should age well for a decade. 14.0% 90 Drink 2013-2022.

Voyager Estate, Cabernet-Merlot
Herbaceous opening to the nose with black fruits hiding behind, giving a cool climate impression. Classic impression on palate of black fruits, softer than the nose would suggest, with soft, ripe chocolaty tannins, those notes of pyrazines coming back on the finish, which shows a touch of heat, but overall a fine elegant impression. 14.2%  90 Drink to 2020.

Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon

Nose of fresh red and black berries, opening out into fragrant, perfumed nose with hints of roses and violets. Sweet, ripe, elegant, well rounded fruits of black cherries and black plums, with reserved tannins holding back the fruits on the finish. Flavor variety is developing in an elegant style reminiscent of Margaux, but another year is required to let the tannins resolve. There’s some heat on the finish. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Leeuwin Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Warm nose with vanillin and nuts hiding black fruit character and giving an impression of new oak, and then some herbaceous notes of pyrazines developing and strengthening in glass. Sweet, ripe, rounded, firm style on palate, with ripeness of fruits evident but cut by herbaceous touch coming back on finish accompanied by nutty notes from new oak. Impression at this point is a little rustic from the new oak. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Woodlands Wines, Nicolas Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly austere nose with impressions of cherry fruits. Fine, elegant palate of red and black cherry fruits with refined impression from silky, fine-grained tannins. Just a touch of nuts on finish. Nice balance, needs another year to let the tannins resolve and fruit flavor emerge to show a wine some real finesse in a lighter style. 13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon

Fresh nose holding back red fruits, with some sweet herbal elements including thyme  developing in glass, making a cool climate impression. Showing nice flavor variety on palate with strawberry and cherry fruits coming out, against a light tannic support. Give this another year to let the dryness of the tannins on the finish resolve, and it should begin to develop a nice savory balance to the red and black fruits. Some heat on finish. 14.0% 89 Drink to 2020.

Moss Wood, Cabernet Sauvignon

Light elegant fresh nose of red fruits, opening out into a spicy and floral nose showing cinnamon and nutmeg. The height of elegance on the palate, but with a flavor profile more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon, with fragrant red fruits pointing towards raspberries and strawberries. The elegance and warmth remind me of Sassicaia in a lighter vintage. This is ready to drink but I suspect that may be deceptive and it will last longer than might be evident at first blush. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2020.

Lenton Brae, Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant red fruit impression on nose, leading into soft palate of ripe red fruits of raspberries and cherries. Tannins are fine and silky bringing an elegant impression of fine texture to the finish. As the tannins resolve this will become soft and elegant in a style driven by red fruits. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2019.

Stella Bella, Serie Luminosa Cabernet Sauvignon

Stewed fruit character on nose suggests ripeness, and then pyrazines develop in the glass. More classical on palate than might be suggested by nose, with smooth, ripe, elegant black fruits cut by that touch of herbaceousness that is typical of Wallcliffe (which accounts for a major part of the wine).  Light tannins dry the finish, which shows some heat. This is a light, elegant style, but does it have the stuffing for longevity? 14.0% 88 Drink to 2018.

Ashbrook Estate, Cabernet Merlot

Fresh nose with black fruits behind and slightly nutty cereal overtones (reflecting new oak). Sturdy, ripe, well rounded impression of Willyabrup, blackberry fruits cut on finish by drying effect of tannins, with some faintly herbal impressions on finish. Not a wine for instant gratification but should develop in elegant style over next five years, although there is a slight impression of hollowness on mid palate. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Vasse Felix, Cabernet Sauvignon

Ripe vegetal impression, with mix of ripe, stewed, fruits and green overtones, leading into a palate that mixes ripe and green impressions. Fruits tend to blackberries and blackcurrants, tannins are firm, there is a fairly robust impression on the palate, but some flavor variety is developing. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2019.

Xanadu, Cabernet Sauvignon

Black fruit nose with some faintly over ripe impressions clearing to a faintly herbal impression.Elegant balance on the palate, with blackberry fruits showing a touch of reserve as the tight tannins of the finish cut in. Overall the impression is tight rather than generous and there’s a risk the favor profile will narrow down with age. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Thompson Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Soft black fruit nose, with some cereal impressions, turning to riper stewed fruits in the glass giving a warmer climate impression. Warm, sweet, ripe red cherry and strawberry impression on palate, with a lingering sweetness on the finish, and slightly nutty notes coming back. Some heat on the finish. A warm, forward, delicious style – already approachable – but does it have Cabernet typicity? 14.5% 87 Drink to 2018.

 

 

Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.

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.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Bordeaux versus Languedoc

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape that conjures up immediate impressions of stern black fruits, austere if not herbaceous when young, slowly giving way to more varied and savory impressions as the tannins resolve and the fruits lighten up. It’s not a grape where there are violent feelings about yields, as there are with Pinot Noir, and there is a far wider range of wines, from entry levels to cults. I thought it might be interesting to see how much typicity Cabernet Sauvignon displays in entry level wines, and whether Bordeaux remains competitive with the Languedoc, where there have been significant plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, presently amounting to 18,000 hectares compared to Bordeaux’s 28,000 hectares. The mandate for comparison was that all wines should come in bottles and should be priced under $15 (£10).

My first impression was of the similarities of the wines rather than their differences. Whether they were exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon or blends where Cabernet Sauvignon was as little as half the total (the rest usually being Merlot, but sometimes in Bordeaux including Cabernet Franc), the general style for entry level wines was for soft, red fruits with a sweet impression on the palate. No, I’m not accusing the producers of leaving residual sugar, but there was a soft, glycerin-like impression on many of the wines, which was reinforced by a slightly aromatic impression that to me conflicts with the character of Cabernet. The only consistent difference between Bordeaux and Languedoc is that the wines of the Languedoc tended to just slightly more evident aromatics, and most of the Bordeaux had a slightly greater impression of tannic dryness on the finish. None of the wines had any trace of herbaceousness: this has now completely disappeared from the lexicon of descriptors for Cabernet Sauvignon irrespective of origin or vintage. If there is indeed a common stylistic objective based on suppleness of fruits and minimal tannins, the Languedoc’s warmer climate gives it an advantage.

The main difference between the regions is price: the Languedoc wines are on average around two thirds of the price of the Bordeaux. This bangs home the difficulty of Bordeaux in surviving at the AOC level: it’s not competitive with the Languedoc, let alone with the New World (although admittedly there’s more difference of style when you compare with the New World). Part of that difference is due to the restrictions of the Appellation Contrôlée in Bordeaux, compared to the greater freedom in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc. One major place for this effect is the higher yields allowed in the Vin de Pays, from which I was expecting the wines to be less concentrated. However, virtually all the wines struck me as not exactly over cropped, but certainly liable to benefit from any increase in concentration. I really could not see what benefit came from the yield limits around 50 hl/ha in the AOC compared with potentially higher yields in the Vin de Pays. The Languedoc wines have a marketing advantage that they all state Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, whereas almost all the Bordeaux require detailed examination of the back label to determine the character of the blend.

The wine that actually most conformed to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should taste like these days did not come from Bordeaux: it was Gerard Bertrand’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pays d’Oc, which unusually for the region retained some typicity of Cabernet in the form of a restraint to the black fruits. The most interesting comparison was between Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Mouton Cadet, for many years the archetypal Bordeaux blend, and his Cadet d’Oc. The Cadet d’Oc was my runner-up from the Languedoc, with some impressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Mouton Cadet gave more of a interdenominational impression, with soft fruits, pleasant enough, but no sense of constituent varieties or place of origin.

The two most expensive wines offered an interesting contrast. I thought the Bordeaux Réserve Spéciale from Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) was trading on the name of Chateau Lafite; it was a little riper and more rounded than most from Bordeaux, but there were wines from Languedoc at half the price level that seemed to offer a similar flavor spectrum. Château Larose Trintaudon, a rather large Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Médoc offered the most classic impression of Bordeaux in this tasting, which is to say that the fruits gave a savory rather than aromatic impression.

One moral from the tasting is that it’s hard at this level if you expect Cabernet Sauvignon to mean more than a marketing term on the label. It leaves me wondering whether there is really any point to varietal wines at the entry level, since they rarely offer any pointer to the character of wines at higher levels.

Two from Baron Philippe de Rothschild

Bordeaux, Mouton Cadet, 2009

Initial impressions are quite round and fruity, with black fruits of cherries and plums, and sweet ripe aromatics giving an impression that’s more of the south than Bordeaux; until a characteristic dryness kicks in the finish, this does not seem particular representative of Cabernet (it has 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc to the 65% Merlot). There isn’t really quite enough fruit density or flavor interest to counteract the dryness of the finish.   13.5% 85 Drink now-2015.

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 2009

Fairly restrained on the nose with some hints of spicy black fruits, which follow through to the palate. This has a touch of high toned aromatics suggestive of black cherries or plums, and there are some firm tannins drying the finish. Well made, with the edges of Cabernet distinctly softened in the southern style, but retaining enough tannic backbone to justify its varietal label.   13.5% 86 Drink now-2016.

Best entry level Cabernet Sauvignon

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve Spéciale, Gérard Bertrand, 2008

Slightly spicy suggestions to the black fruits of the nose. Some sense of character to the palate, with those spices showing against the black fruits, and an impression of ripe tannins on the finish. The tannins are ripe enough to complement rather than detract from the fruits This is one of the few entry level wines from Languedoc which seem to speak of Cabernet: perhaps it’s more overtly aromatic than you usually, find in Bordeaux, but it conforms more closely to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should offer in the modern climate than most wines from Bordeaux actually offer.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.

The most classic Cabernet Sauvignon

Château Larose Trintaudon, Haut-Médoc, 2006

The nose offers some slightly spicy red and black fruits with a suggestion of character, which follows through to the palate. This wasn’t a very generous vintage, and that’s reflected in the wine, but there is a good balance with the fruits showing some flavor variety; the finish is a bit flattened with some dryness showing from tannins, but this is unmistakably a wine from the Médoc that is true to its origins. However, I would not place this very high up the hierarchy of Cru Bourgeois.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.

Traditional Winemaking in Mendoza

Visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Argentina and Chile last month, I spent some time trying to define regional and sub regional typicities. In Chile there’s a certain sense of restraint, perhaps making a halfway house between old Europe and the more forceful fruits associated with the New World style.  Maipo Valley was elegant, Colchagua more obviously structured, and Apalta the most silky. In Mendoza, well really in Luján de Cuyo since that’s where the serious Cabernet is to be found, the fruits are a bit more forward, but not nearly so obvious as, say, Napa. Both countries have a tendency towards varietal wines at entry level and blends at top level, although the blends are different: with Carmenere in Chile and with Malbec in Mendoza. In spite of that, I found the same difference between the varietal wines and the blends; where direct comparisons were possible, the varietal Cabernet has more of a linear purity, the blend smoother and broader and (to my mind) often more interesting with age.

But my attempts to define the wines in terms of terroir and climate were brought up short by a visit to Bodega Weinert in Mendoza, where winemaker Hubert Weber marches to the beat of a different drum. “The new style of winemaking is not very friendly for aging; if you concentrate on blackcurrant aromas and intensity, aging potential is reduced. Bodega Weinert is classic winemaking -I am not looking for intensity of young aromas, I am looking for complexity of flavor.  The wine spends up to five years in 2000 liter casks of old wood. Gran Reserva is the model,” he says. The lead wine is the Cavas de Weinert, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. The blend stays constant in varietal composition, and is not produced unless all three varieties are of sufficient quality. It was declassified in 1995 because Hubert didn’t like the Cabernet, and in 1998, 2001, and 2005 because of problems with the Merlot. In some years, when one variety is exceptional, there may be a varietal bottling under the Estrella label.

Casks at Bodeha Weinert

Old casks are used to age the wines at Bodega Weinert

With no exposure to new oak, the wines make a distinctive impression: the primal quality of the fruits to come through, showing a savory, almost savage, impression with  age. And the wines certainly age: vintages were lively back to 1977 in a vertical tasting. Younger vintages seemed more dominated by Cabernet, older vintages more by Malbec. I also tasted two of the Estrella wines. A Cabernet Sauvignon from 1994 was still intense and barely showing the austerity of the variety; a Merlot from 1999 showed refinement, and seemed to be aging scarcely any more rapidly than Cabernet Sauvignon. As you go up the scale at Weinert, the wines start out more fruity with faintly savory overtones, and then at the top of the scale the fruits are still there of course (in fact they are more intense) but the savory and even animal notes become predominant. You might say that the wines show an increasingly traditional European flavor spectrum.

So what price terroir and climate as the defining features for common qualities in the wine? I decided my conclusions about different regions were all valid, just so long as the winemakers stayed within the bounds of a certain commonality of approach.  But once the consensus is broken, it’s the winemaker’s hand that shows.

Tasting Notes

Estrella Cabernet Sauvignon, 1994

The immediate impression is savory and developed, with notes of barnyard and gunflint, all integrated with the underlying sweet ripe fruits. There’s still a lot of intensity. This is a powerful wine with an interesting blend of savory and fruity elements, supported by balanced acidity and smooth, firm tannins. Notes of gunflint on the finish really bring the wine to life, with the savory to fruit balance at its peak, almost salty in its overall impression. Only at the very end do you see the austerity of pure Cabernet Sauvignon beginning to take over. No one could call this wine elegant – it has too much intensity for that – but the balance should allow it to continue to age for another decade at least. 14.5% 92 Drink to 2024.

Estrella Merlot, 1999

This Merlot bucks the trend for clay terroir by coming from relatively sandier soils. It spent three years in cask and ten years in concrete before bottling. Initially this seems full and ripe, showing Merlot’s characteristic presence on the mid palate, with the typical barnyard notes of developed Merlot and just a touch of pungent gunflint. But there’s a finer impression than comes from Merlot grown on its more traditional clay, with an impression of refinement that’s unusual for the variety, and there isn’t much impression this will be much shorter lived than the Estrella Cabernet. 91 Drink to 2027.

Cavas de Weinert 2004

This is the current release. The immediate impression are those characteristic savory, almost pungent, almost piquant, notes. Smooth and ripe on the palate, there’s a sensation of coated black fruits. Tannins underneath the fruits dry the finish, but overall the impression is quite glyceriny. There’s an openly delicious quality. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2022.

Cavas de Weinert 1994

Development has taken a slightly different path here, in fact the nearest parallel would be the 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon, as there are only some hints of savory notes and more of a delicate, almost perfumed impression. Apparently this wine has gone up and down, and appeared oxidized a year or so ago, when it was taken off the market for a while, but then it recovered. There’s a slight sense that the smooth fruits are beginning to dry out, allowing the tannins to show more as a dryness on the finish, which is a little nutty. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2016.

Cavas de Weinert 1983

Savory and animal with pungent overtones of gunflint, overall contributing to a slightly sweaty impression (perhaps a touch of Brett). The smooth palate tends to opulence but is beautifully cut by the savory overtones. This is at a perfect tipping point from fruity to savory (although it’s probably been here for a while). Hubert sees this wine as having become more dominated by Malbec over the past five years; indeed, it shows more Malbec as it develops in the glass, becoming smoother, more elegant, more perfumed, less animal. 93 Drink to 2019.

Cavas de Weinert 1977

We compared two bottles. Around 2004 one lot of wines was recorked for an importer who insisted on having fresh corks. The rest remain under original corks. The difference was like night and day. The wine under new corks showed slightly oxidized fresh fruits with hints of raisins; otherwise the wine remains youthful, with the evident fruits lacking savory overtones, and a little restricted in flavor variety. By contrast the wine with the original corks has more of that classic savory impression, with rather restrained fruits, kept lively by an acidic uplift. Matching the greater tertiary development, the color is also a little more garnet. Compared with the varietal Cabernet Sauvignon of the same year, the wine is a little more developed and a little less obvious. 92 Drink to 2019.

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.