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.

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Will L’If Become the Le Pin of St. Emilion: Jacques Thienpont Strikes Again?

When Jacques Thienpont started Le Pin in 1979, he had no idea it was going to become one of the most famous—and at one time the most expensive—wine of Pomerol. Owned by the Laubie family since 1924, this tiny vineyard of 1.2 ha was located between Vieux Chateau Certan (also owned by the Thienpont family) and Trotanoy (one of Moueix’s leading properties). The Thienponts knew it was special terroir, and the original plan was to buy it to add to Vieux Chateau Certan, but the family did not want to pay the price, so Jacques bought it himself, paying a million francs for it (equivalent to 150,000 euros or $200,000).

The small scale of production, high price, character of 100% Merlot, and concentrated character of the wine led it to be grouped with the garage wines, although this has never really been an appropriate description, since it comes from prime terroir, and winemaking does not use any extreme methods. Subsequently some more small plots, contiguous with the original holding, were added to bring the total size up to 2.7 ha. There is no second wine at Le Pin, but there is another label called Trilogie, which is a blend across three successive vintages.LePin-original

The original house at Le Pin.

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The new winery

The property takes its name from the massive pine tree that stands just in front of the winery. Jacques now seems to be repeating history with the recent purchase of a property in St. Emilion, originally Chateau Haut-Plantey, but now renamed L’If (the French for yew tree).

My visit to Le Pin this week started out at the new winery, a contemporary jewel that replaced the old building in 2012, more than thirty years after the original purchase. Then we visited L’If, where the building is pretty dilapidated, but modern equipment has been installed inside. The old large fermentation tanks have been replaced with a variety of tanks to allow fermentation of individual plots. The original purchase included 5 ha in single block around the building, and another 2 ha close by; another hectare has since been added, bringing the total to 8 ha. This is good terroir, a nice slope just under Chateau Troplong Mondot, with a view across to the church at St. Emilion. There’s lots of limestone, which will be planted with Cabernet Franc; Merlot will be retained or planted on the plots with more clay. “It’s good terroir, but we will have to start from scratch, because they used weed killer,” Jacques says.

Almost half of the property has been pulled out for replanting. 1 ha is about to be replanted, and another 2 ha will be uprooted shortly; the land will be left fallow for four years before replanting, and then it will be three years till the first grapes are ready to use, so for the next 7 years production will be down. Cabernet Sauvignon has been removed—this is not a good spot for it, says Cyrille Thienpont, who is managing the property (and we will meet again at other Thienpont properties). Replanting will bring the varieties to a mix of about 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc. The big debate of the moment is how much to increase the density of planting from the present 6,500 vines/ha. With any significant increase come additional costs such as the need for different tractors that can handle narrower rows. I asked Jacques whether he was going to be frantically busy at harvest with two properties, but he explained that, even though the distance between the properties is only about five miles, L’If always harvests about three weeks later than Le Pin. “When we are putting wine into the barrels at Le Pin, we know it’s time to go and do the harvest at L’If,” he says. The first vintage to be released under the L’If name is 2011.

Coming from Pomerol, where there is no classification, Jacques does not intend L’If to become part of the St. Emilion classification. It may join Chateau Tertre Rôteboeuf as one of the most significant unclassified properties in the appellation. No one could have forecast Le Pin’s rise to fame, but it’s much easier to prophesy that we’re going to hear a good deal about L’If once the project really gets under way: Jacques hopes it will take less than the thirty years he’s been at Le Pin to fructify. Whether it will rise to the dizzy heights of challenging the top wines of the appellation remains to be seen.