Grand Cru Bordeaux 2014: A Splendid Restaurant Year

I went to this year’s tasting of the Union of Grand Cru Bordeaux in the slightly surreal surroundings of Miami. Outside people were playing in the pool; inside we were tasting the first showing in the States of the 2014 vintage. Ten or twenty years ago, if I had said this was a restaurant year, it would have been taken as meaning that the wines were relatively light and enjoyable to drink in the mid term without having the potential to age longer term. That is a reasonable description of Bordeaux in 2014 except for a big difference: most of the wines are virtually ready to drink now because of the refinement of the tannins; in the past they would still have needed several years to come around.

Few of the 2014 vintage need more than another year or so, and even for those it’s more a matter of preference than a necessity. Because the wines do not have punishing levels of extract, and the wines are more restrained than usual, this is a great year for seeing the differences between appellations. Typicities are especially clear on the Left Bank, although the restrained style of the vintage makes the Right Bank seem less rich and powerful than usual.

This is not a great year for whites, although there is more variety in the character of Pessac-Léognan than usual, from Domaine de Chevalier’s usual crystalline precision, to Smith Haut Lafite’s crisp Sauvignon edge to a rich palate, and Pape Clément’s exotic opulence. Most others show a tendency to display Sauvignon Blanc’s herbaceous side, sometimes with an exotic overlay.

The relatively light character of the vintage shows through in Pessac-Léognan, where the wines tend to elegant black fruits rather than power. They are well balanced for current drinking; some give the impression that it may be important to enjoy before dilution begins to set in. The extremes of precision versus breadth show as usual in Domaine de Chevalier (one of the few that really does need some time) and Pape Clément (less international than usual). Haut Bailly is definitely top flight Left Bank, but seems more Médocian this year. It’s a relatively crisp vintage in the Graves, some might even say tending towards mineral. I think Malartic-Lagravière have upped their game in recent years, and the 2014 is a very good representation of the vintage in Pessac: sweet ripe black fruits show a smooth palate with refined tannins in the background, and just a faint hint of herbal impressions.

The characteristic velvety core with a sense of lightness of being that marks the Margaux appellation is evident in this vintage. The difference from the more direct structure of St. Julien is clear. Marquis de Terme, Kirwan and Prieuré-Lichine show the velvet, Durfort Vivens and Rauzan-Ségla capture the elegance of Margaux, and Lascombes seems less international than usual. With light, refined tannins, most are almost ready to drink now, will be fully ready in a couple of years, and should improve over a few years. Margaux is more homogeneous than usual in this vintage.

St. Julien shows its usual elegant structure. As so often for me, Léoville Barton is the benchmark of the appellation: elegant palate, refined structure, complexity underneath. Langoa Barton is not so complex; Léoville Poyferré shows signs of its more international style in a faintly chocolaty finish to a smooth palate, as does Lagrange. Chateau Gloria is ironically the quintessence of a grand cru with a very fine sense of structure, while St. Pierre is less subtle and more forceful. Gruaud Larose has that typically tight impression of youth; Beychevelle as always is dryly elegant. Most need another couple of years and should be good for more or less a decade.

Moving from St. Julien to Pauillac, there’s an immediate sense of smooth black fruits, an overlay that is quite velvety and rich. Chateau d’Armailhac is the quintessence of Pauillac this year, with that characteristic plushness of the appellation. As always, Grand Puy Lacoste shows the refined side of Pauillac, with the vintage expressing itself by a slightly overt touch of structure at the end. Lynch Bages is a bit on the tight side, but the structure is just protected by the fruits and should support longevity.

St. Estèphe is always hard to judge at the UGCB because so few chateaux are represented, but my general impression is that the typical hardness of the appellation shows rather obviously on the palate. Yet the approachability of Ormes de Pez is a vivid demonstration of the change in style of Bordeaux over the past twenty years.

Listrac-Moulis and the Haut Médoc generally make a more traditional impression than the great communes, perhaps showing more resemblance to the Cru Bourgeois than to the grand crus. Sometimes the bare bones of the structure shows past the fruits. Showing the lightness of the year, Chasse-Spleen is quite classic, Cantemerle flirts with traditional herbaceousness, La Lagune is a bit fuller than its neighbors in Margaux, and La Tour Carnet shows the 2014 version of the international style.

The one word that describes this vintage in St. Emilion is unusual in the context of the appellation: restrained. The wines show their usual flavor spectrum, but are toned down from their customary exuberance. Canon and Canon la Gaffelière show great purity of fruits, Beauséjour Bécot is a marker for the appellation in this vintage, Clos Fourtet and La Gaffelière are attractive but without a great deal of complexity.

Pomerol also merits an unusual description: elegant. Most wines display their usual flavor spectrum, without enough stuffing for longevity, but with the restrained nature of the vintage letting purity of fruits show through. Perhaps the succulence of Beauregard is the most Pomerol-ish, Bon Pasteur is the most elegant, and Clinet, La Pointe, and La Cabanne really represent the character of Pomerol in this vintage with a balance between softness and freshness.

This is not a great vintage for Sauternes. Even so, “I’ve stopped spitting,” announced my companion, the Anima Figure, when we reached Sauternes. The wines are sweet and citric, a little honeyed and piquant, but mostly without the intensity of botrytis. Chateau de Fargues stood out for me for its higher level of botrytis and classic balance.

While this is a lesser vintage, there are some lovely wines, with the style representing a move back to classicism in its freshness, yet staying in the modern idiom by its approachability. There is much less difference in approachability than usual between the Left and Right Banks: St Emilion and Pomerol are absolutely ready, and the Left Bank is virtually ready. If nothing stood out as superlative, none failed to represent their appellation. They will give a taste of the authentic Bordeaux for the next few years.

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.

Bordeaux Diary part 5 – Crème de la Crème of Sauternes: Visits to Yquem, Climens, Coutet, Suduiraut, de Fargues

Tuesday morning: Visit to Sauternes starts with Yquem, looking as grand as ever and visible at a distance on the dizzy heights of 80 m elevation overlooking Sauternes. I’ve visited Yquem twice before, once when I had the fortune to follow the Japanese ambassador, so many extra wines had been opened and were available to taste, and once with an MW group. Both of these visits were conducted by the winemaker, but with LVMH now in charge, there’s a more corporate feel to professionally managed visits with a guide. But Yquem remains at the top of its game with only the Grand Vin (no second wine: anything not used is sold off in bulk for generic Sauternes) and the dry white Ygrec (about 10,000 bottles per year). Production of Yquem varies wildly from year to year: none in 2012 and about 100,000 bottles in an average year. It was available en primeur from 2004 to 2009, but it seems that this may now have been stopped.

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On the highest point in Sauternes, d’Yquem is still the grandest chateau of all.

Lunchtime: The connection with the Lur Saluces family, who owned Yquem until it was sold to LVMH, continues, as we go for lunch at Chateau Coutet, which was owned by the Lur Saluces family until the 1920s. Aline Baly, whose grandfather bought Chateau Coutet in 1977, tells us there used to be stories about a tunnel between Yquem and Coutet. From Coutet in Barsac you can just make out Yquem at a point of elevation on the horizon, but that would be some tunnel!

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The old vertical presses at Chateau Coutet, made by a former owner, are still used for making the super Cuvée Madame

Over lunch we try Opalie de Coutet, the dry white wine that was introduced in 2010. “It’s not made by making a general first pass of the vineyard,” Aline explains, “but from specific rows in certain parcels on the best terroirs which are now dedicated to making a high quality white wine.” Coming from an equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, it shows quite a rich style. “Opalie is a great way to explain that sweet wine isn’t just sugar, there is terroir here,” says Aline. It’s an interesting introduction to the wines of Coutet, but I’m not sure how much impact it will make on the market as production is very small, only 3-4,000 bottles. The Coutet 1998 and 2003 make an interesting contrast, the first with a nice savory counterpoise to the sweet fruits, the second overtly decadent from the very hot vintage.

Afternoon: Chateau Climens is almost adjacent so we actually make our first afternoon appointment almost on time. Technical Director Frédéric Nivelle explains that he and proprietor Berenice Lurton have been converting to biodynamics. This is no mean feat in a climate as humid as Bordeaux. “The vines show improvement very quickly, but it’s slower to show in the wines,” Frédéric says. They make their own preparations to spray on the vines, and there’s a loft full of dried herbs. The intensity of the chamomile puts most chamomile tea entirely to shame.

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Dried flowers and leaves in the loft at Chateau Climens are used for making biodynamic preparations

Chateau Climens is committed entirely to Sémillon. When M. Lurton bought the chateau in 1971, there was only a little Sauvignon Blanc, and it never gave good enough results to include in the Grand Vin, so it was uprooted. Since then, Climens has been 100% Semillon. There’s only the Grand Vin and the second wine, Cypress de Climens. “Some second wines come from young vines, inferior plots, mechanical harvesting, and have shorter aging, but it’s not like here,” Frédéric explains. The second wine comes entirely from tasting barrels to decide which should go into the Grand Vin and which into the second wine, so it isn’t a question of level of botrytis, but one of style.

Late afternoon: Final visit of the day is back over to Sauternes, to Chateau Suduiraut, now owned by insurance company AXA. Technical director Pierre Montégut sees his job as making wine that will make people want to drink more than one. “I hate the half bottle in Sauternes,” he says, “I would like to bottle everything in full bottles. I want people to be able to drink more than a glass, they should be able to finish the bottle.” The tactic here is to have a range of wines in different styles. “Castelnau de Suduiraut was created in 1992 as a second wine when there was no Grand Vin, and was a classic second wine, resulting from declassification, until 2001 when we decided to make it separately,” explains Pierre. Then in 2009 the half of production that was Castelnau was split again, with half going to Lion de Sauternes, a lighter fresher style intended to appeal to younger consumers. For all that, my favorite at the tasting was the 2001—full force in the botrytized style.

Wednesday afternoon: We close the circle with a final visit to Chateau de Fargues, which Alexandre Lur Saluces has been restoring to glory since he left Chateau d’Yquem in 2004. The chateau is a true medieval fortress, built in 1306, destroyed in 1687, and now being rebuilt. Alexandre shows us over the fortress. “I restored everything at Yquem, and then I started again when I came here in 2004,” he says. This is a massive undertaking: at one end the walls have been rebuilt, stone by stone, but still have a derelict appearance, open to the sky; at the other end there is a roof and the interior has been rebuilt and refurbished. Expected completion date is year 2050.

FarguesTWAlexandre Lur Saluces is restoring the original chateau de Fargues

A modern chai has been built besides the chateau, where the production of this jewel of a property is vinified—yields are about 1000 bottles for each of the 15 ha in a good vintage. In 2012 there was no Chateau de Fargues as it wasn’t considered good enough. “It’s expensive not to make a vintage but it’s even more expensive to lose your reputation,” Alexandre says. We taste the 2006 vintage, which is sublime: subtle is not a word I often use to describe Sauternes, but it’s all lightness of being, balancing botrytis, sweetness, acidity, fruits. De Fargues was not classified in 1855 as the property was making only red wine at the time–the production of Sauternes started here in 1943—but it would be right at the top in any current classification. There is no second wine, some experiments with dry white wine have stopped, so there is only one wine: Chateau de Fargues. “I want to continue the family tradition of making top quality Sauternes,” is Alexandre’s position.

Conclusions: For all the talk about declining worldwide interest in sweet wines, the top chateaus of Sauternes remain pretty committed to their traditional styles. There’s a broadening of many the range at most chateaus, but the much touted move to more production of dry white wine doesn’t seem to be a major factor yet. The fact that it has to be labeled as AOP Bordeaux isn’t really seen as a problem, as the brand name of the Chateau is seen as more important. The move to allow it to be labeled as Graves is seen as somewhat irrelevant. “We are in the middle of Graves, it’s just a French stupidity (to have to use Bordeaux AOP), but it takes a long time to change things here,” says Pierre Montégut. It’s a historic accident resulting from a squabble about appellation definitions in the 1930s. But nothing can detract from the unique style that is Sauternes.

Bordeaux 2011: The Year of Restaurant Wines

Following the highly successful rich 2009 and more classic 2010, the 2011 vintage was bound to be a bit of a let down. Differences between appellations are especially clear this year, a consequence perhaps of more marginal conditions. There are few great wines, some that will find it difficult to achieve balance, but the best should be appropriate for drinking in restaurants from two to eight years from now if the prices aren’t too unreasonable, which unfortunately may not be the case.

Pauillac may be the most consistent of the appellations, with fruits that are distinctly more concentrated than St. Julien or Margaux, making a classic demonstration of appellation character. Tannins are usually obvious, but refined, and should come into balance over the next two to three years. Some wines seem a palpable throwback to the period when years were needed for tannins to resolve after release, but the fruits are concentrated enough to hold out. Not only the most even appellation, this is the one truest to its reputation. Particularly honorable mention goes to Pichon Baron, which shows as powerful and almost opulent, and to Pichon Lalande, which shows as more elegant and refined.

The style is also relatively even for St. Julien, with better rounded fruits than Margaux, if less concentrated than Pauillac. Acidity is usually balanced and many wines show attractive nutty overtones, with enough fruit concentration to develop nicely for the short to mid term as tannins resolve. Léoville Poyferré showed is round, modern style, Léoville Barton its usual elegance, and Saint Pierre gets an award for its refined, classy impression.

Margaux is by far the most variable appellation. Wines tend to have tight tannins that are emphasized by high acidity. Fruits tend to be light so there may be only a relatively brief period to enjoy the wines between the resolution of the tannins and the drying out of the fruits. The most successful have mastered the acidity and tannins, but are soft and approachable in a modern style that isn’t easy to recognize as Margaux. It seems the choice was between short lived elegance and approachability this year. No single chateau really stands out.

The Haut Médoc is more even than Margaux but the wines are almost uniformly light, although acidity and tannins are rarely obtrusive—but nor are the fruits. They tend to be a bit characterless, although La Lagune and La Tour Carnet stand  out for maintaining their usual styles.

The individual chateaus in Graves have stayed true to their characters, with each showing very much its usual style. The best are Haut Bailly for its combination of fruit and structure true to its classic style, Domaine de Chevalier for its elegance, Smith Haut Lafitte in more modern style but backtracking a bit from the overt modernity of 2010 and 2009, and Pape Clément the most evidently modern of all, but a definite success in this vintage. Tannins are no more of a problem than they should be at this stage.

2011 is not a success in St. Emilion. Although there are not the same problems in managing acidity and tannins as the left bank, the problematic character is a common impression of an edge of saccharine on the finish, a sense of an unbalanced sweetness. Will this become sickly as the wines evolve or disappear as they shed the puppy fat? No St. Emilion really stands out from the crowd this year, although Canon shows its typically precise style.

Pomerol does not have the problems of St. Emilion and is quite consistent—and quite superficial. There’s nothing to excess this year, the wines are approachable, but they offer no sense of the stuffing needed to support further development. You have the impression that already they are as good as they will get, and I am doubtful that they will become more complex with time. The closest to a real success is La Conseillante.

The top whites from Pessac are very fine and should drink well over the next five years. At opposite poles are the freshness of Smith Haut Lafitte, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and the roundness of Pape Clément, half Sémillon; and then Domaine de Chevalier shows its usual elegance. I would be happy to have any of them for dinner.

Sauternes generally seem a little rustic, with fairly viscous bodies lacking the aromatic uplift that’s needed to relieve the sweetness. Notable exceptions are Suduiraut, with a classic impression of botrytic piquancy, and de Fargues, as always the top of the show.

It’s a sign of the times that no wines have overt signs of herbaceousness. They vary somewhat in whether the fruits are forward or reserved, whether the acidity is too high or the tannins too bitter, but the emphasis is very definitely on fruit in a relatively modern idiom. As a rough working rule, the modernists, who have been focusing for years on softening the tannins, came off better than the traditionalists in this particular vintage. However, there is no wine (at least in the UGCB tasting) that I would give more than 90 points, and this is not a vintage to buy for the cellar, but if prices come down, could be  useful for enjoying in the short term, especially at restaurants.

Wines were tasted at the New York visit of the UGCB tour, which presented more than 100 wines from the 2011 vintage.