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.

When did you last confuse Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc?

Confusing things in wine is common. There’s an old story about André Simon—I think it’s been attributed to other famous wine connoisseurs also—that he was once asked: when did you last confuse Burgundy and Bordeaux? He thought for a bit, scratched his head, and said, “Well, not since lunch, anyway.” But surely everyone can tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc? Well maybe not.

I bumped into a curious situation when I was researching Cabernet Sauvignon on the right bank of Bordeaux for my book Claret & Cabs. There’s really not very much at noted châteaux because it’s so difficult to ripen. Merlot of course is the predominant variety, and if there’s Cabernet, it’s usually Cabernet Franc. On the graves of St. Emilion, Château Figeac is the standout example, with 33% each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, and there are also a couple of other châteaux with significant amounts. The area of the plateau where these châteaux are located extends into Pomerol, so I took a look there, and discovered to my surprise that Château Petit Village was reported to have 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. I had not realized anyone in Pomerol had that much.

Then I discovered that in 2010 the reported proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon at Petit Village had dropped to 7%. Ahah, I thought, they must have discovered that it doesn’t work well enough, and pulled it out, it would be interesting to discuss this. So I made an appointment to visit the château. When word of the visit reached AXA (who own Château Petit Village), it was cancelled. “We do have some Cabernet Sauvignon on the estate, however not much (less than 7%), and our main concern there is Merlot, the main grape variety on the estate. We do not feel that speaking about Cabernet Sauvignon here is relevant to the style and personality of the wines from Petit Village,” said Marie-Louise Schÿler of AXA.

This seemed a bit over-sensitive, but I then discovered that in fact there had never been that much Cabernet Sauvignon anyway. A review of current wines mentioned that a plot of old vines that had survived the frost of 1956, and which had been thought for fifty years to be Cabernet Sauvignon, had been discovered really to be Cabernet Franc. My efforts to discuss this with René Matignon from Château Pichon Baron (also owned by AXA), to whom the report about the discovery was attributed, were rebuffed. “I prefer you address your requests to Marie-Louise Schÿler,” he responded.

So I cannot report any details about the character of this Cabernet Franc, but I do think that a plot of Cabernet Franc that could masquerade as Cabernet Sauvignon for over half a century might have something rather interesting to contribute to the future of the right bank, especially given the difficulties created by the warming climate trend. Perhaps AXA will relent and allow me to taste some barrel samples in the future.

Bordeaux 1996: the Throwback Vintage

A tasting of 1996 Bordeaux gave me pause for thought about the quality and longevity of the vintage. Hailed at the time as a great vintage, 1996 had a promising start to the season, but rain around harvest time created problems. The wines have always had high acidity and tannins, but the promise was that they would come around to be classics. Certainly the vintage seemed likely to be throwback to the vintages that preceded the transition to the modern era in 1982, except that one might expect more concentration from improvements in viticulture and vinification (especially the introduction of sorting). But I am inclined to a revisionist view after this tasting, which suggested to me that the wines are better than average, but this is far from a great vintage. It is not the vintage of the century, it is not even the vintage of the decade (that award goes to 1990, which although not completely even is wearing better). Yes, there are some excellent wines, and some that will continue to mature in classic style, but many have already reached the end of the road. The most common problem is a sort of flat flavor profile: the wines have survived and aged, but have not matured.  The fruits have never reached a savory apogee, and the tannins lack generosity, so I expect the fruits to dry out along the lines of 1975 before the tannins resolve.

The awards from this tasting go to:

Grand Puy Lacoste – the most terroir-driven wine, the quintessence of Pauillac.

Palmer – the most overtly delicious wine to drink for dinner tonight.

Margaux – the most elegant, although still yet to reach its apogee.

Latour – the longest lived, life expectancy to be measured in decades rather than years.

Tasting Notes

Château Pape Clément, 1996

“It’s the quality of Merlot that makes Pape-Clément what it is, so why is it that all the great vintages are Cabernet years? It’s the Cabernet tannins that give the real quality when they are ripe,” according to Bill Blatch. Although 1996 was a Cabernet year, however, I’ve had equivocal experiences with Pape-Clement from this vintage. In this case, the wine showed a bright garnet color with an orange rim. The Cabernet nose is quite restrained, with just a touch of cedar in typical Graves fashion. This shows as an elegant wine with a nice balance, the fruits on the finish on the verge of austerity, with good supporting acidity, and tannins drying the finish. But it seems to be aging rather than maturing, and  the Cabernet is not as dominant on the palate as you might expect from this year; the wine is not developing flavor variety or tertiary notes and seems somewhat four square;  88 Drink-2016.

Château Palmer, 1996

Medium garnet color still with some ruby hues. Restrained nose with suggestion of black fruits, soft and perfumed. Developing slowly, this is elegant and soft on the palate, with just a faint herbaceous touch coming out on the finish where there is an impression of a slight tannic bite. Perhaps the concentration falls off a bit on the finish; the wine may be at its peak right now. It is one of the most openly delicious of the vintage.  90 Drink-2019.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou, 1996

This wine showed such a surprising aroma and flavor spectrum that I wondered whether it was in fact the 96 vintage, but that was what the label said. The first oddity was the curious character of the nose, which showed a touch of over ripe, even rotten fruit. This followed through to the rich and soft palate, which seemed more like the 95 than 96 vintage or a right bank rather than left bank. Average acidity supports the fruits and makes this a pleasant enough wine in its own right, but I just could not find the typicity of St. Julien or the usual elegance of Ducru. Judgment reserved until I taste another bottle.  86 Drink-2014.

Château Léoville-Poyferré, 1996

Although Michel Rolland started consulting at Léoville Poyferré in 1994, this wine gives the impression that he hadn’t yet had time to make much impression. It still shows some of the quality that used to cause the wine to be called Léoville Voie-ferré (after the railway, and referring to a somewhat metallic tinge to the tannins). It’s a medium garnet color but still has some ruby hues. There just a faint touch of perfume on the nose with a touch of cedar, and a faintly herbaceous hint, but not much evident fruit. The palate is rather dumb, there’s an absence of concentration on the mid palate, the fruits seem a bit monotonic and lifeless, and the finish is a bit short. Evidently Michel Rolland had his work cut out to turn this around.  87 Drink-2015.

Château Léoville-Barton, 1996

Medium garnet color. The nose hints more of red fruits than black, with a faintly herbaceous note, but is somewhat subdued. The ripe quality of the fruits on the palate is evident, but even so, there is a slightly hard touch to the finish, characteristic of the vintage, with bell peppers slowly developing on the finish. This was a lovely wine, but the fruits now seem to be beginning to fade, and it is time to drink up.  87 Drink-2014.

Château Léoville Lascases, 1996

Medium garnet color. Restrained nose but gives impression of a wall of fruit, with a touch of herbaceousness. Classic palate, but seems more Pauillac than St. Julien (not that unusual for this chateau), with savory black fruits showing a herbaceous edge. Good concentration, but developing slowly. Even though it softens a bit in the glass, the overall solidity of the structure is what comes through. Tannins dry the finish, a bit ungiving in Lascases’ usual style. Should mature for many years yet.  90 Drink-2017.

Château Pichon Baron, 1996

Medium ruby color with orange at rim. Restrained nose has a touch of perfume with the faintly nutty black fruits. Ripe rich fruits show on the palate, a full style in characteristic Pauillac fashion, with just a slight tannic bite to the finish, which seems to come up a fraction short. Development here is much slower than many others in this vintage, hard to assess the future, but the overall impression is a bit chunky, and the wine is more likely to continue in that vein than to become elegant.  89 Drink-2021.

Château Pichon Lalande, 1996

Medium to deep garnet color. Restrained nose with faint black fruits, just a touch of herbaceousness coming out slowly on the finish. Ripe fruits show that herbaceous edge on the palate, with bell peppers strengthening on the finish, the sweetness of the fruits is evident, but the tannic touch strengthens on the finish, giving the impression that tannins may overtake the fruits.  89 Drink-2018.

Château Pontet-Canet, 1996

Medium garnet color. Restrained nose with subdued black fruits, just a faint hint of Cabernet Sauvignon followed by a suggestion of perfume. Sweet ripe fruits on the palate show the high proportion of Merlot (almost 40%), but the overall impression is a bit four square. There’s a touch of heat on the finish and the tannins don’t seem very generous. Medium fruit concentration, but not much development; in fact this bottle seems a fraction less developed than the last tasting, two years ago. It’s not obvious what will provide the basis for further development.  88 Drink-2017.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, 1996

A very upright and proper claret, a great success for Grand Puy Lacoste and for the vintage. Appearance shows almost deep garnet color. Some savory and tertiary development comes on the nose, with a faint touch of bell peppers and sous bois. Black savory fruits follow on the palate, accompanied by a touch of bell peppers and cedar, with good flavor variety and development. Elegant in style, it should become more tertiary over the next decade. This is quintessential Pauillac. and shows every sign of continuing to develop along classic claret lines.  90 Drink-2021.

Château Lynch Bages, 1996

Medium garnet color. restrained nose shows faint black fruits and a barely detectable herbaceous touch. Nice solid black fruits are slowly developing on the palate, cut by faint herbaceous notes on the finish, with a touch of chocolate. There is (just) enough flavor variety to be interesting. This is very characteristic of the chateau and a good result for the vintage: it should continue to develop but a touch of bitterness on the finish needs to soften to make this completely successful.  90 Drink-2019.

Château Calon Ségur, 1996

This wine peaked about three years ago, when it showed its characteristic absolutely traditional lines of savory fruits balanced by a herbaceous finish. But now it seems to be in decline. It shows a medium to dark garnet color. There is still a classic Cabernet nose (the wine included 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc this year), savory to herbaceous, with bell peppers evident. It comes over as a fairly tough wine on the palate, a little hard on the mid palate, with herbaceousness dominating the finish. The overall flavor profile seems a little flat as the fruits perhaps are beginning to dry out, and I get the impression that now the tannins will take over and outlive the fruits.  87 Drink-2016.

Château Cos d’Estournel, 1996

This wine has been up and down in tastings, perhaps due to condition problems. This was one of the better bottles. Appearance shows medium garnet color. Attractive nose has a touch of exotic perfume, turning to nutty black fruits. The palate has rich, ripe fruits cut by a touch of bell peppers. The nature of the vintage shows itself in the tannins, which bring a bitter touch to the finish. But the rich opulent style of the chateau served the wine well in this vintage by countering what became a medicinal quality in some wines. Overall impression is rich and spicy, relatively soft for St. Estèphe, as Cos now so often is, but cut by a touch of bell peppers to give complexity.  90 Drink-2019.

Château Margaux, 1996

Medium garnet color. The nose gives up a faint impression of black fruits with a tertiary edge. First growth quality is unmistakable on the palate, with that smooth, seamless elegance of black fruits, Cabernet-driven, beautifully cut by a faint touch of herbaceous bell peppers and some notes of chocolate. Aging seems quite slow, with flavor variety and complexity emerging gradually, but expect savory and tertiary development over the next decade. Still too young really.  92 Drink-2025.

Château Latour, 1996

Dark garnet color. Fairly closed nose of black fruits with some bell peppers just showing its Cabernet Sauvignon origins. Dense black fruits on the palate are developing extremely slowly, just cut by a touch of bell peppers on the finish, but what strikes one above all else is the sheer density of the fruits. A touch of the typical acidity of the vintage shows on the finish, This is one of those massive Latours that takes decades rather than years to develop.  92 Drink-2030.