Bordeaux 2015: Taming of the Tannins

Judging from this week’s UGCB tasting of 2015 Bordeaux in New York, the vintage is very good, although lacking the sheer wow factor of 2009 or 2005. I see it as a modern take on classic tradition, by which I mean that the wines tend towards elegance and freshness, but without the heavy tannins or herbaceousness of the past, and are relatively approachable.

After a day tasting around 100 chateaux, I had a 1978 Léoville Lascases for dinner: the difference in style is most marked in the delicious tang of herbaceousness marking the 1978. Needless to say, there was not a trace of herbaceousness in any of the wines of 2015. I miss it.

2015 is a relatively homogeneous vintage: there is more or less even success across the board. It is even true that the difference between modernist and more traditional châteaux is much less marked than in some past vintages. In previous vintages the modernists–among which I include Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafitte, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel–have stood out for forward fruits, very ripe and round, sometimes approaching New World in style: in 2015, modernism takes the form of a smooth sheen to the palate, with tannins tamed and very fine. But it’s a general mark of the vintage that tannins are rarely really obtrusive, and the taming of the tannins is likely to mean that, unless it closes up unexpectedly, the vintage will be ready to start relatively soon,.

Appellation character is clear this year.

  • Margaux is very fine and elegant, although there is a tendency for the lighter fruits of the appellation to let the tannins show more obviously than in other appellations. The appellation generally gives somewhat the impression of a lighter year. Durfort Vivens has really revived, with a fine effort that speaks to Margaux, Kirwan has more finesse due to its new cellar, Lascombes is more elegant and less modern than usual, Rauzan-Ségla is quintessential Margaux, and Siran presents a great view of Margaux from the class of Cru Bourgeois.
  • The same sense of elegance carries to St. Julien, except that here the tannins universally seem exceptionally fine in the background, making many wines more immediately attractive; St. Julien is closer in style to Margaux than to neighboring Pauillac. Beychevelle as a very convincing expression of the appellation, Gruaud Larose is very much on form this year, Lagrange seems lighter compared to its usual modern style, Léoville Barton is stylish and elegant, the quintessential St. Julien, while Léoville Poyferré is distinctly more modern.
  • Moving into Pauillac, there is more power in the background, with wines somewhat rounder, but there’s a range from almost rustic to utterly sophisticated. Tannins are held in check by density of fruits, making wines seem relatively approachable. A fine effort from d’Armailhac is almost plush, it’s a good year for Grand Puy Ducasse but it doesn’t have the breed of Grand Puy Lacoste, which is structured and built to last, Lynch Bages is a solid representation of the appellation, Pichon Baron shows the smoothness of its modern style, but this year Pichon Lalande gives an even more modern impression and seems quite approachable.
  • It’s always hard to get a bead on S. Estèphe at the UGCB because so few châteaux are represented, and the top châteaux are missing, but if I got any sense that the vintage was less successful in any one appellation, it would be here. Tannins are well in front of fruits and less tamed than in other appellations: the classic tightness of St. Estèphe tends to show through. None of the wines can be called generous, although Lafon-Rochet gets half way to Pauillac with a smooth palate, Cos Labory shows the tightness of St. Estèphe, and Phélan Ségur seems on the light side for the appellation.
  • Outside of the great communes, La Lagune will be a classic, La Tour Carnet is more modern but not as obvious than usual, Cantemerle is quite smooth.
  • Cru Bourgeois show in similar style to the grand cru classés, but with less refinement and roundness; there isn’t the difference between the classic approach and the luxury wine approach of rich years such as 2009, although the advantage of the grand cru classés remains obvious.
  • Graves has many lovely restaurant wines, that is, well balanced for drinking immediately.
  • In Pessac-Léognan, I did not get much sense of the classic cigar-box in the reds, but the wines did seem a little more granular than the Médoc. Domaine de Chevalier is lovely with its usual crystalline brilliance, Haut Bailly is more granular, Larrivet-Haut Brion is smooth, Malartic-Lagravière is just a touch more tannic, Pape-Clément is not quite as modern in its aromatics as Smith Haut Lafitte.
  • It’s a very good year in St. Emilion, with wines showing the generosity of the right bank, but nicely restrained rather than lush. In fact, restrained is the phrase that occurs most often in my tasting notes. Beauséjour-Bécot is smooth, Canon is beautifully refined, Canon La Gaffelière is a top result for the appellation with layers of flavor, La Gaffelière is true to the structured tradition of the château. Making its first appearance at the UGCB, Valandraud no longer makes the outrageous impression of a garage wine, but seems in the mainstream.
  • Pomerol does not show full force lushness, and is only a little more fruit-forward than St. Emilion, with many wines showing more obvious evidence of structure than usual. The restrained black fruits of Clinet tend to elegance, even Michel Rolland’s Bon Pasteur shows evident structure.
  • Whites are decent but nothing really stood out for me: Graves produced lovely restaurant wines in whites as in red. Pessac-Léognan seems less concentrated than usual, and wines tend to be soft and attractive. Particular successes: Châteaux de France, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafittte.
  • Sauternes are delicious, with Château de Fargues as a standout. A sense of purity makes the wines refreshing.

Overall a very good year, with wines tending to be restrained rather than obvious, most needing only a few years before starting, and probably best enjoyed in the decade after that.

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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.

The Oakiness of It All

We’ve come a long way since oak was merely a storage and maturation medium for wine. Judging from an all day seminar that Taransaud organized in London for the Institute of Masters of Wine, its role today is second only to the grapes themselves. The seminar was divided into two parts: a morning that considered individually many of the parameters that determine the effects of oak; and an afternoon looking at innovations to respond to changes in modern winemaking. Here’s a report on the morning; the afternoon will follow.

The background according to Henri de Pracomtal, Chairman of Taransaud, is that use of new oak is declining, down to 85% instead of a mandatory 100% when the vintage isn’t up to it in Bordeaux, although typically staying more or less around a third new, a third one year, and a third two year in Burgundy. The use of 200% oak (successive use of new barrels) is “dead.” There’s been significant backing off from new oak in the New World. The focus here was all on oak barrels,  although Taransaud also own Canton in Kentucky, where other formats are used. When they bought Canton, Henri was horrified to see oak chips, and wanted to stop their production, but “look at the profit margin” they told him. “Oak chips are for short term aromatics rather than long term élevage,” he says. The seminar was entirely about the effects of different barrel regimes on wine quality and style.

A long list of aroma and flavor compounds that are extracted from oak made it clear in a talk from Taransaud’s oenologist, Nicolas Tiquet-Lavandier, that the effects are profound. Considering how long oak has been used, it seems surprising that new compounds are still being discovered. I was also surprised that the role of oxygen loomed so large, with discussion about the porosity of the oak, entry between the staves, and through the bung. I thought it had now been established that basically all oxygen enters through the bung (which should mean there’s much less since the change to the new silicon bungs).

The heart of the seminar was a series of comparative tastings with wines that had been specially vinified under different conditions. The results of comparing French, Hungarian and American oak were fairly predictable, with a strong contrast between the toasty vanillin of Château Puygueraud (Côtes de Francs) 2011 in French oak and the stronger aromas of coconut from American oak. Since French and American oak are different species of trees this was not surprising, but the difference between French and Hungarian, which are the same species, was pronounced: the French oak gave a refined impression to the wine, the Hungarian was somewhat coarse. This emphasizes the effect of growth conditions on the oak: it’s colder in the Hungarian forests and the trees tend to be smaller. This links in to a change in the way tonneliers in France handle their sources – there is much less emphasis on individual forests, and more on the grain of the individual wood. “Within a forest is not a unique location. This is why we at Taransaud have gone our of the forest, we blend forests, the grain is very important, the tighter the grain, the more slowly the wine matures,” says Henri.

I was quite fooled by the blind tasting to test the effects of duration of seasoning. The wood at Taransaud is air dried by exposing staves in the open. A critical element is the need for rain and humidity in the first six months, which is becoming a concern in view of reduced rainfall in some years. The seasoning at first extracts compounds from the oak – this is crucial for reducing bitterness – and then adds other compounds as fungal infections occur; Henri likened this to maturation of cheese. I placed the three samples of Château Phélan Ségur 2010 in order on the assumption that more seasoning gives more subtle results, but this turned out to be too simple. Certainly the sample from 12 month seasoned French oak seemed a bit harsh compared to the others, but the 30 month seasoning seemed to produce a better balanced and more subtle wine than the 55 month seasoning, which had stronger wood spices. A similar test of American oak with the Swanson Vineyards 2010 from Napa Valley gave an overwhelming impression of coconut and dill on the 24 month seasoned sample, still pretty powerful and pungent with 36 months, but finally damped down a little with 48 months. Here longer is better. I was reminded that Paul Draper at Ridge, who uses American oak for the Montebello Cabernet, told me that American oak has a bad reputation not because of its intrinsic properties but because it’s not treated in the same way as French oak (it’s usually sawn instead of split and not air dried).

Blind tasting to test the effects of time spent in barrels also fooled me, as I was working on the assumption that impression of oakiness would be in direct proportion to time in oak (especially allowing for the fact that shorter time in oak would be followed by time in bottle). But Phélan Ségur 2010 showed the most vanillin, and even a touch of coconut, after 8 months in oak, still a touch of vanillin after 16 months in oak, but the cleanest and purest expression of fruits after an intermediate 12 months. However, the 16  months showed overall the most classic and best balance. Clearly this is not a simple matter of absorption into the wine with time, but of more complex interactions. For example, ellagitannins increase with up to 250 days in barrels and then decline.

The percentage of new oak at least was predictable: new oak was quite evident on the nose and palate of a Château Branaire-Ducru example from 2010, with an example that had been matured in second year oak showing more direct and purer fruits; but the blend had more weight, and was softer, rounder, and more complex. An interesting demonstration of classic balance obtained by not going to extremes.

Along the way, a panel of four winemakers commented on their impressions. With a range of different backgrounds (Sandrine Garbay from Yquem, Edouard Labruyère from Jacques Prieur, Peter Sisseck from Dominio de Pingus, and Stephan von Neipperg from Château Canon-la-Gaffelière), it was not surprising that their opinions differed. In a demonstration of how individual palates can agree or disagree, I was interested to see that there was one winemaker with whom I agreed on everything, one with whom I disagreed on everything, and two who were in between. I know whose wine I’m buying in the future.