Modernism versus Tradition in the Graves

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the classification of the chateaux of the Graves, the Commanderie of New York held a dinner and tasting this week. All the chateaux had their wines from 2009 out for tasting, and there were older wines at dinner. One day after the UGCB tasting of the 2010 vintage at its first showing, there’s a fascinating comparison between the two vintages, and also looking back to the same wines at the UGCB 2009 tasting one year ago. I was especially struck by the comparison between three wines: Domaine de Chevalier, Pape-Clément, and Smith Haut Lafitte.

Domaine de Chevalier provided a textbook illustration of the difference between the vintages. Always the most precise and elegant wine of Pessac, the 2010 showed all the hallmarks of a classic vintage: lots of tension in the wine, with finely edged black fruits supported by taut tannins. No wine at Domaine de Chevalier is ever going to show forward fruits in the modern style, but the ripeness of the 2009 vintage certainly softened the edges; a year ago it was just starting to show some aromatic development, but today it’s closed up a bit, its homage to the luscious quality of 2009 has backed off, and it’s somewhat reverting to type. It looks like the 2010 vintage will be the more classic and longer lived; it’s certainly far more reserved now than the 2009 was a year ago.

At the other extreme, Pape-Clément has been the most modern wine of Pessac-Léognan since Bernard Magrez started to revitalize it. At the 2009 Bordeaux tasting a year ago, it was one of the most overtly modern wines: very powerful and full of fruits in the modern style, giving a full-throttle impression. You might say it took full advantage of the conditions of the vintage. Although when I asked Bernard Magrez whether Pape Clément had changed more than other chateaux, he said, “No, I don’t think so. The typicity is the terroir, that we can’t change, this is what gives character to the wine. One can’t make a wine ‘international’,” it seems to me that Pape-Clément has been getting steadily richer, with warm, deep, black furry fruits showing a character moving towards the right bank. The 2009 vintage has calmed down a lot in the past year: it’s still somewhat oaky, but the fruits now let the powerful structure show more clearly. In an interesting contrast, the 2010 gives a modern impression of bright black fruits backed by vanillin, but not nearly so overtly as the 2009 did at the same stage. The original impressions of both vintages accord closely with the reputations of the years in the context of a modern style.

The surprise came with comparing Smith Haut Lafitte of the two vintages. Smith Haut Lafitte has been moving steadily in a more modern direction, although not so overtly as Pape-Clément. The 2009 was certainly in the modern style on release, but the 2010 makes it look positively restrained. With lots of new oak showing at first impression, followed by soft, black fruits, and furry tannins, this is far more “international” than the 2009 or for that matter than the Pape-Clément 2010. This is a striking move in the direction of modernism. Perhaps this reflects what Daniel Cathiard told me a few months ago: “We have to listen to our consumers (sometimes). The Americans showed what they like, now the Chinese. There is an influence because we want our wine to be referred, we want to make wine that pleases our customers.” A year on from release, today the 2009 tastes like most 2010s: still modern, but with the edges more precisely defined than they were a year ago. In fact, if you tasted the two vintages blind at this point, it would not be difficult to become confused and to conclude that the ripe, forward, fruits of the 2010 were typical of the 2009 vintage, and that the greater precision of the 2009 was typical of the 2010 vintage.

The hit of the evening at dinner was the 2000 Haut Bailly, which has reached a peak of smooth, firm, elegance, with a subtle balance of flavors. It’s close to perfection at this point, with that firm density so typical of Graves, but my one cause for concern is whether it should have got to this stage in only 12 years, and what that may mean for the future. But I would guess it’s good for another decade, at least.

The dinner concluded with a comparison of Haut Brion and Mission Haut Brion 1998. This was one of those split vintages: relatively poor in the Médoc but very good on the right bank. It was also pretty good in the Graves. The Haut Brion and Mission gave the impression of a good or very good rather than top notch vintage, and although they were generally similar in style, in this year the Haut Brion definitely has the advantage over the Mission. A confirmation of the old saying that the first growths show to greatest advantage in years that aren’t absolutely top rated.

The comparison between the 2009s and 2010s was an education in not jumping to conclusions immediately after the vintage. The 2009s have really closed up in the past year; there’s been a more or less continuous loss of lusciousness and increase in structure ever since the en primeurs. This makes you wonder just how accurate the assessments were en primeur.

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.