Alcohol and Tannins in St. Emilion: Cheshire Cat Years?

Austerity is not a word that often comes to mind in the context of St. Emilion, but it did at this year’s New York tasting of Grand Cru Classés, which compared the 2010 and 2012 vintages. This gave me much pause for thought by comparison with the tasting two years ago of the 2009 and 2010 vintages (Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion). Last time round, the main impression (driven by 2009 but not that much different in 2010) was the softness of the palate, with fruits supported by furry tannins. This time the impression was of much tighter wines; the 2010s have tightened up, and the 2012s can verge on tough. These were not the lush, approachable wines for which St. Emilion is reputed; words like fleshy or opulent never appeared in my tasting notes.

Alcohol levels were punishing, often around 15% for 2010, and a half percent or percent lower in 2012. Now that the fruits of 2010 have lost their initial youthful enthusiasm, alcohol and tannin are driving the palate. What showed as a structural backbone to the fruits two years ago now seems more skeletal. It’s fair to say that alcohol is not directly obtrusive in many wines, but it has an indirect effect in enhancing the bitterness of tannins on the finish. Some wines have an almost tart quality at the end, which clashes with the fruits rather than refreshing. The traditional generosity of Merlot in St. Emilion is largely missing, and I often get an impression biased more towards Cabernet Franc than the dominant Merlot.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 2012s are starting out where the 2010s leave off, with an almost sharp tannic finish often dominating the fruits. This makes me quite concerned as to how they will show in another two years’ time. I don’t often get the impression that the fruits will really emerge when the tannins resolve. Most chateaux have managed to achieve decent ripeness in the tannins, but occasionally you get suspicions of green. The 2012 wines have less alcohol than the 2010s, but they also have less fruit concentration, so the problem of maintaining balance as the fruits thin out is more or less equivalent. The fruits make them seem like wines for the mid-term, but I’m not sure the tannins will resolve in time; and they don’t have the stuffing for the long term. You might expect the greater fruit concentration to let the 2010s resist better, and I’m not so much worried about whether the fruits will outlast the tannins, which are mostly quite fine, but I have a concern that 2010 may be the year of the Cheshire Cat: what will dominate when the tannins resolve is the grin of the alcohol.

Very few of these wines, from either 2010 or 2012, are ready to drink: most need from two to four years more. Of course, this situation would scarcely be a surprise to any survivors who remember Bordeaux of the pre-1982 era. I will say that I saw more evidence of character in these wines than in the 2009s (and the 2010s two years ago) when there seemed to be a sort of interdenominational quality to them: the present question is whether you can handle the character of a bitter tang at the end. There’s evidently quite a lot of extract in today’s wines, and it’s hard to say whether that will give them the stuffing to develop well as tannins resolve, or whether it will remain awkward. In most cases, I preferred the 2010 to the 2012, but in those instances where I preferred the 2012, it was usually due to lower alcohol letting the fruits speak more freely.

My favorite wines were Chateau Fombrauge and Grand Corbin-Despagne in 2010 and Chateau Yon Figeac in 2012.

Chateau Fombrauge, 2010

Slightly nutty, soft impression from nose. Palate well balanced between black fruits and refreshing acidity; still something of a tannic bite at the end. The structure is there but not obtrusive, and the overall impression is refined, showing precision in the fruits. 91 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Grand Corbin-Despagne, 2010

Some black fruits poking through restrained nose, leading into good balance on palate between refined black fruits and tannins with chocolaty overtones. A little tight at the end but should soften in next year or so. Refined impression avoids the bitter tang at the end of many wines. 90 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Yon Figeac, 2012

More sense of black fruits and spices than in the 2010. Refined palate makes an elegant impression, with a touch of tannin at the end. I like the sense of precision in the fruits and the balance. Fine structure should offer some support for aging. 90 points, drink 2017-2026.

STE

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Southwest Diary part 5 – The Mavens of Madiran

Monday morning: We start with Vignobles Brumont, where Alain Brumont really revitalized the appellation with his wines at Chateaus Montus and Bouscassé. We are supposed to meet at Chateau Montus, but all signposts lead to Bouscassé-Montus so we find ourselves at Chateau Bouscassé, where it turns out we are expected anyway. From there we go to Chateau Montus, about 10 km away (but impossible to find without a guide), where an old property that Alain purchased from the monks has been restored, and a splendid new vinification facility has been built, all gleaming stainless steel, thousands of oak barrels, and granite floors. It looks rather like a cathedral inside, and they call it the Church of Tannat. On the route back to Chateau Bouscassé we make a detour to see Alain’s top vineyard, La Tyre, on a steep, stony slope. At Bouscassé, Alain gestures upstairs and says, “I was born here. I’ve accomplished in thirty years what it took the grand chateaus 200 years to do.” Now he makes wine from 125 ha at Chateau Montus, which with its prestige cuvées is undoubtedly top of the game in Madiran, and from 120 ha at Chateau Bouscassé. In addition there’s the Torus line from Madiran and a range of wines from IGP Côtes de Gascogne. Vignobles Brumont dwarfs everything else in Madiran.

Madiran is famous, of course, for the Tannat grape, whose aggressive tannins used to make the wine undrinkable for years if not decades. It’s a measure of the situation, that at most producers, the entry level wines come from assemblage of Tannat with Cabernet (either Sauvignon or Franc), because this makes them more approachable; monocépage Tannat is usually reserved for the top wines. It’s a fine thing when Cabernet has a calming effect! Tannat was tamed by the invention of micro-oxygenation by Patrick Ducournau, but when I ask Alain about this, he says that he doesn’t use it, that his success with Chateau Montus is due entirely to his introduction of barrique aging (which was revolutionary when he started it in 1980). “The barriques give quite enough oxygen to the wine,” he says. Certainly whenever I am able to compare a wine matured solely in cuve with one aged in barriques, irrespective of the producer, it is clear that wood-aging is to the way take off those sharp edges.

Lunchtime: We are running a bit late after a chat with Alain about his history, but arrive just in time for a delicious lunch at Chateau Barréjat with Denis Capmartin and his wife, and export manager Robert Tiessen. We start in traditional manner with foie gras accompanied by sweet wine, in this case from Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, which geographically overlaps with Madiran but is the appellation for white wine, either dry or sweet. Mostly from Petit Manseng, the wines are a direct comparison with Jurançon but have a different flavor spectrum, more peaches and cream than apricots, sometimes slightly herbal, and if they turn savory, showing white truffles rather than black. We go on to compare the Tradition and Seduction reds from Madiran, the first matured in cuve and the second in wood, and then wind up with the prestige cuvées, Vieux Ceps and l’Extreme.

These special cuvées come from very old vines, some perhaps as old as 200 years, but certainly preceding phylloxera. When phylloxera arrived, Denis’s great grandfather replanted most of the vineyards, but two small plots—about 4 ha in all—survived. About three quarters of the vines in these plots are still growing on their own roots; when a vine dies, it’s replaced by selection massale from an existing vine, but of course is planted on rootstock. The wines certainly have an extra level of concentration and intensity, but more than that, what makes them special is the broader flavor spectrum compared with production from younger vines. Denis has truly mastered the tannins of Tannat; the special cuvées are well worth trying.

PhylloxeraTW2A prephylloxera vine at Chateau Barréjat

Afternoon: We wind up at Chateau d’Aydie, which is the headquarters of Vignobles Laplace. The chateau appears to be under reconstruction, but next door are the chais, much vaster than you might expect, as Laplace use the facility to produce red, white, and rosé from the Côtes de Gascogne. From Chateau d’Aydie itself we taste a dry white (Pacherenc Sec), the range of reds from Madiran, and then the sweet whites from Pacherenc. We wind up with a really unusual wine, a VDN (sweet fortified wine) made from Tannat. “It’s intended to show the versatility of Tannat,” says François Laplace. Perhaps not surprisingly given Tannat’s character, it’s distinctly more like Port than any VDN I have had from anywhere else in France. Chateau d’Aydie has vineyards in three separate locations in Madiran, and each of the three red cuvées comes from assemblage from lots from all three locations. “We believe it’s always more interesting to make an assemblage,” François says.

Conclusions: Tannat is not an easy grape. Vinification veers between the Scylla of softening it so much that varietal typicity is lost, and the Charybdis of keeping its character, but showing so much tannin that it can’t be drunk for years. I can see why they add Cabernet, because 100% Tannat can easily slip over into a fruit profile that’s flattened by the tannins: the Cabernet gives aromatic lift as well as freshness. Yet the top wines at Chateau d’Aydie show a taut quality that will mature to elegance when the tannins resolve, but I think that really needs most of a decade: the 2006 (a very good result for a difficult year) is just coming round. The oldest wine I tasted, the Chateau Montus Cuvée Prestige 2002, is just beginning to get flavor variety, but you still have to get past the tannins. Mastering the tannins is really the first step: I suspect you have to get Tannat pretty ripe for it show interesting aromatic complexity.