Please Don’t Change La Conseillante, M. Rolland

Perhaps because it is on the area of the graves right at the border with St. Emilion—one third of the vineyards even extend into over the border—La Conseillante has always been one of my favorite Pomerols. While I sometimes find the openly lush quality of Pomerol to be a bit too rich for my palate, La Conseillante strikes a more restrained note, partly due to a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc.

The secret to restraint is not simply a function of the grape varieties, however, because along the same lines, Château Magdelaine was always one of my favorite St. Emilions. Although in its day it actually had one of the highest proportions of Merlot, it always had a beautiful restraint, in fact, in some vintages I found myself thinking more about the left bank than the right bank in terms of comparisons. It was for me a sad day when Moueix decided to stop producing it as an independent château and combined it with Château Belair-Monange. It never achieved great success in the marketplace, perhaps because of its restraint, which brings me back to the theme of La Conseillante.

La Conseillante has had its ups and downs. It had a great reputation in the fifties and sixties, declined in the seventies, and then came back in the eighties. Until the 1990s, the vineyards were planted with 45% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and 10% Malbec. Then in the modern trend, Merlot came to the fore, reaching 65% by the nineties, and 80% by the 2000s. The proportion of Merlot in the grand vin in recent vintages has varied from 81% to 89%.

When I visited La Conseillante a few years ago, winemaker Jean-Michel Laporte summarized the unique character of the property: “La Conseillante is not entirely typical of Pomerol, which is known for power and richness; we are known for elegance and silky tannins. We can mix in one bottle the roundness of Pomerol and Merlot with the elegance of Cabernet Franc. We don’t want to compete for the biggest wine of the vintage, we want to preserve our elegance, and the silky tannins. That’s why we are not considered to be a Parker wine.”

But things are changing. Marielle Cazaux became the estate manager in 2015, and Michel Rolland has been consulting winemaker since 2013. Does this mark a move in a direction of greater plushness to more of an international style? There haven’t been any noticeable changes in winemaking so far, although the tradition at La Conseillante has been to perform malolactic fermentation in the concrete vats, and Michel Rolland is known to be an advocate for MLF in barrique. That would probably bring a softer, lusher impression to reinforce a move to a slightly richer style anyway in recent years, although of course that’s common all over Bordeaux.

At a recent tasting, the 2000 was the standout vintage: just at that tipping point when primary fruits have gone and there are slight signs of development. For me, it is perfection now, partly because it adds intimations of the left bank, with that faintly savory quality, to counterpoise the richness of Pomerol. It’s the perfect moment to see the true character of the wine. The 1990 was an illustration of why I have reservations about hot vintages and rich styles: just a bit too overt for my palate, more of a rustic impression, blurring the palate, compared to the laser-focus of 2000. The 1985 was a bit of a disappointment, with the fruits drying out, leaving a somewhat herbaceous impression with medicinal notes that recalled old Bordeaux. But on a rough count, opinion seemed more or less equally split as to which vintage was preferred, so something for everyone here.

Going back to the previous era, or perhaps more accurately to the beginning of the modern era, the 1982 (tasted later a day later) is very much in the lineage of the 2000, but seems if anything even fresher: that sense of Medocian restraint is there, but the fruits are lusher, smooth and silky, with a fainter herbal counterpoise. To be fair, the 1982 is now a little variable: a previous bottle earlier this year seemed a little tired and would not have compared so favorably with the 2000.

Although somehat ullaged, a bottle of 1966 was something else: incredibly youthful, rich, round, and ripe on opening, and then slowly converging in style with the 1982 and 2000 as a faint herbal counterpoise develops in the glass. I’m not sure that it would be easy to identify as the oldest wine in a blind tasting. Once again, there’s some variation between bottles, as the previous bottle, a few years ago, seemed distinctly more claret-like, where this one seems the most Pomerol-ish of all.

La Conseillante was really doing something absolutely right to produce wines like the 1966, 1982, and 2000: so please don’t change it, M. Rolland.

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Is Bordeaux 2012 the Restaurant Vintage of the Century?

“Lovely restaurant wine” is the phrase that appears most often in my tasting notes from today’s UGCB tasting in London of the 2012 vintage. Although there were no wines that seem to have the longevity I would require to buy for my cellar, there are many wines that I expect to enjoy drinking three to ten years from now. There are clearly significant differences between the appellations, but I do not entirely agree with the view of the vintage that was expressed at the en primeur tastings. Now that the wines are out of barrique and into bottle, it’s evident that it is too simple just to characterize this as a year when Merlot was more successful than Cabernet, although clearly the vintage has been shaped by the fact that there were heavy rains in the Médoc in late September, and October was generally wet. This made it much easier to get ripe Merlot than Cabernet.

Notwithstanding the difficulty with Cabernet, the only appellation in which I get any sense of the overt herbaceousness that used to characterize Bordeaux is Moulis-Listrac, where the wines are light but the best have enough potential flavor interest to suggest an elegant future. However, I have to admit that I do not mind a faint herbaceous edge, although not everyone will like it. Chasse-Spleen stands out for me as the best wine, elegant and taut.

Not surprisingly considering its size, Margaux is the most heterogeneous appellation. Wines range from showing noticeable tannins to having relatively soft palates, but all are distinctly light weight. The key for the short term is the character of the tannins, and the question for the mid term is how the fruits will show as the tannins resolve. In the best cases, the wines will be light and elegant in the feminine tradition of Margaux. I especially like Rauzan-Gassies for its appealing liveliness, with nicely ripe tannins. Just to the south, the glossy sheen of La Lagune gives an elegant impression that is more Margaux-like than usual. At the Cru Bourgeois level, I liked Labegorce, as much St. Julien in its precision as Margaux in its elegant femininity. Some wines may simply not have enough stuffing to withstand the loss of the initial burst of primary fruit, although in the immediate future the soft, furry palates may be quite appealing. The potential problem is that a sense of dilution may turn hollow on the mid palate.

With its compact size, St. Julien is much more homogenous and many wines make a fragrant, almost perfumed, first impression, with a classical sense of precision to the following fruits. Tannins seem riper and in better balance with the fruits than in Margaux. These will be perfect restaurant wines (if the price is right). Gruaud Larose stands out for its fragrant elegance, with tannins already integrating into an elegant palate. Beychevelle makes an impression of classic precision.

Pauillac seems less uniformly successful to me. There’s a more solid impression to the fruits and tannins. I would never use the word rustic in conjunction with Pauillac, but at this stage there is a certain robust impression, which will translate into solid fruits, but without the fragrant uplift that characterizes St Julien. Pichon Baron stands out for showing its usual power with ripe tannins and a fragrance that is unusual for the year. I also very much like Grand Puy Lacoste, which shows as a something of a half way house between Pauillac and St Julien, taut, smooth, and elegant.

It is difficult to assess St. Estèphe from this tasting as the top wines were absent, but the wines generally show a tight character with hints of the hardness you sometimes see in this appellation. As the tannins resolve, the wines should be light but relatively elegant. It is quite successful at the Cru Bourgeois level, and I especially like the light elegance of Phélan Ségur.

You would expect Pessac-Léognan to do better than the Médoc given its higher content of Merlot, and the best wines have smooth black fruit palates (smoothness is the mark of the appellation in this vintage) with nicely tamed tannins, sometimes showing a touch of the classic cigar box, but too many just seem soft without sufficient supporting structure. Smith Haut Lafitte stands out for the depth of its fruits, and Domaine de Chevalier for its sense of elegant liveliness, with a tension that is unusual in this vintage.

Over to the right back, where St. Emilion is a bit of a conundrum, Canon just edges out Canon La Gaffelière as the wine that best exhibits a classic sense of smooth opulence. Other wines seem to be moving in a more savory direction, almost pointing towards the Médoc, such as La Gaffelière and Clos Fourtet, but Troplong Mondot is the standout in the savory direction. Many seem round and soft but without much stuffing.

Pomerol shows an unusual sense of structure, with some wines displaying faint herbal overtones on opening. The ripe black fruits of Beauregard just edge out Bon Pasteur, which however is more structured than opulent, in contrast to Michel Rolland’s reputation for overt lushness. As always, La Conseillante is nicely balanced, with nothing to excess, and more underlying structure than is immediately apparent. Sometimes Pomerol is too opulent for me, but not this year.

Now that they are bottled, the whites do not seem as impressive as reports from en primeur suggested they would be. The standout for me is Domaine de Chevalier, with a beautiful balance between grassy impressions of Sauvignon on the nose and waxy impressions of fat Sémillon on the palate. This is very fine indeed, with classic elegance. Some of the wines I usually like seem to be showing a crowd-pleasing softness, quite attractive in a Burgundian sort of way, but with insufficient freshness to last.

This is not a year for Sauternes, but two wines stand out. Coutet is classically botrytized, rich and deep, and totally delicious. Climens is much lighter, really elegant and fresh, and with a beautifully balanced flavor spectrum: it may not be so long nived, but it is lovely now.

The range for me runs from wines I would enjoy in a restaurant from, say, a year or so from now, to those that I would hold for three or four years before starting. The best will offer a classic representation of their appellation in a relatively lighter style; few will be really interesting more than a decade from now. I just hope that, after the restaurant markups, they will seem as appealing economically as gustatorially.

Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion

A tasting organized by the Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion turned out to be a striking demonstration of the power of the oenologue. The 64 Grand Cru Classés are the starting level of the classification, below the 18 Premier Grand Cru Classés (according to the reclassification of 2012).  Half of the Grand Cru Classés were represented at the tasting, showing their 2009 and 2010 vintages.

While many of the wines conformed to the general reputation of the vintages – 2009 for lush, more forward fruits, but 2010 more reserved and structured – there were enough where the 2010 was more open than the 2009 to make generalization difficult. The most striking feature of the tasting was not the difference between vintages or variety between chateaux, but the general similarity. If there’s a model for the Grand Cru Classés today, it’s for furry tannins behind soft black fruits: the very model of micro-oxygenation, you might think. (I have no idea how many of these wines actually used micro-oxygenation, but the overall impression from this tasting was that it might be epidemic in St. Emilion.)

On the subject of style, alcohol levels were high, just a touch higher in 2010 (average 14.6%) than in 2009 (average 14.3%). A more revealing comparison is that some wines in 2010 were as high as 15.5%, and almost half were 15% or greater, whereas the highest wines in 2009 were 15%. In all fairness, the alcohol was well integrated and did not stick out, but the level gave me pause for thought about the staying power of the wines. I was also extremely surprised to discover that some wines had levels of residual sugar that were almost detectable (around 3g/l: the level of detection for most people is around 4 g/l, and most red wines usually have only around 1 g/l). Sometimes I got a faint impression of saccharine on the finish, but this seems to have been due to ripeness of fruits, because it never correlated with the level of residual sugar.

The similarities among the wines are less surprising when you realize that more than half were made with the same winemaking philosophy. To be more precise, Michael Rolland was the consulting oenologue for 40% of chateaux, and Jean Philippe Fort of Laboratoire Rolland for another 20%: there was scarcely a single chateau left without a consulting oenologist. (What happened to the old proprietor-winemakers?)

So I thought I would see whether I could detect the hand of the oenologist directly, and I organized my tasting in terms of oenologists, tasting all the chateaux from each oenologue in succession to see whether similarity of style was obvious. I think it is a fair criticism that the style of the wines tends to be a bit “international,” but there did not seem to be enough homogeneity among the wines of any one oenologue to validate the view that they impose a common style. Every oenologue had some wines that were lush, but at least one that showed a more restrained fruit impression, sometimes with an almost savory sensation. It would have been difficult to identify the oenologue in a blind tasting. Perhaps the wines for which Hubert de Boüard was the consulting oenologist tended to be the most refined. If there is a marker for Michel Rolland’s style, perhaps it is the sweetness of the smooth tannins. Rolland’s focus on ripeness is shown also by the fact that in both vintages, the wines on which he was a consultant showed higher alcohol than the average.

There were direct impressions of overripe fruits on only a couple of wines. I did not get much sense of anything but Merlot in most of these wines (the average Merlot is 75%); the dominance of those soft Merlot fruits tended to give a somewhat monotonic impression. Overall I was disappointed: there was too much sameness and not enough character to the wines. They seemed more at a level equivalent to the Cru Bourgeois of the left bank than to the classed growths of the Médoc. Perhaps flavor variety will develop as the wines mature, but my impression is that the wines are more likely to simplify into sweet fruits. Perhaps this is due to the combination of grape variety and the ripeness of the vintages rather than oenologues’ choices. But I was left with the feeling that the monotonic fruit character and high alcohol would make a bottle tire over dinner.