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.

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.

Restaurant Review: Grand Vigne at Sources de Caudalie

In the middle of the vineyards of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, the Caudalie hotel and spa has become my watering hole for visiting chateaux in the Graves. Since my last visit, a new chef has been engaged and the restaurant has achieved a Michelin star, so I was curious to see what changes I would find.

The restaurant offers three choices: a rather restricted three course Plaisir Gourmand, à la carte, and a tasting menu (based on selections from the à la carte). One note of warning: if you stay at the hotel on a demi pension basis, the meal at Grand Vigne includes only the Plaisir Gourmand. Personally, there wasn’t a single item on this menu that appealed to me, and it did not look as thought it had either the ingredients or the interest for a one star level. This would make for a disappointing evening, although in defense of the hotel, you can take the à la carte instead (for an extra charge, bien sûr).

Even on the à la carte, menu choices are a bit restricted for a one star rating (does Michelin take the variety on the menu into account when awarding stars?) One starter of crab with vegetables was good; giant prawns wrapped in pasta were better, although accompanied by citrus fruits that clashed with wine. (But in the interests of full disclosure, I rarely like mixtures of savory with fruits.) A mark against the restaurant was that both starters came with the same base of tomato jelly. This seemed a lazy design. One curiosity was that one night the prawn starter had two prawns; another night it had only one prawn. It seems an odd practice to halve the size of the starter from one night to the next.

Main courses were the best elements. Pigeon with rhubarb profiteroles was simply excellent, everything in perfect balance. This was the killer dish for me. Turbot was the most imaginative offering, on a base of girolles, with a clever spiral of carrot spaghetti. Desserts were good, the most interesting being a trompe l’oeil of strawberries, apparently presented in a glass, but actually with “glass” consisting of an edible sugar molding. I would give the restaurant its star (just).

Especially for a restaurant asociated with a chateau, the wine list was disappointing. On previous visits I have been very pleased with the wine list, which included, as you might expect, older vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, both red and white, at very reasonable prices. This was a good opportunity to showcase their wines. There also used to be a good selection of wines from other regions, including Coche Dury Meursault at fair prices. All that has gone. There are a couple of current vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, a routine run through the regions of Bordeaux, and some small offerings from elsewhere, but I was hard put to find wines I thought would be interesting at reasonable prices. In the end I was satisfied with neither of my choices. Domaine de Chevalier, which has always been a favorite, disappointed with its 2004 red; and Malartic Lagravière’s white 2006 made me wonder how on earth it was ever classified as a Grand Cru. Wine service fell a bit short: I had to wander over to the ice bucket to retrieve my bottle from time to time.

Domaine de Chevalier, 2004 (red)

Deep ruby color still with some purple edges. Very restrained nose with faint hints of Cabernet austerity. There’s a rich initial impression, but cut by a rather dry finish (characteristic of the year, perhaps, but exacerbated here). This feels like a Cabernet-driven wine. How much will that dryness soften with time and will this happen before the fruits dry out? Although I like wines in the classic style, this is a little too dry even for my taste. 86 Drink – 2016.

Malartic Lagravière, 2006 (white)

A bit characterless: not a lot happening on the nose, perhaps a whiff of citrus and a touch of minerality. The same spectrum follows through to the palate, where the lack of fruit concentration allows a sort of faintly metallic minerality to come through to the finish. This seems  enormously over cropped. I am left wondering what this wine offers that Muscadet hasn’t got, except for price. 84 Drink now if at all.