March/April 2015 - Bordeaux UGC week
Bordeaux 2014: final thoughts from a week of tasting
Bordeaux 2014: Gravity and gravel
The final tasting of the week finds Uncorked at Haut-Brion and includes Prince Robert of Luxembourg's St-Emilion property Quintus. You expect multiple generations of ownership in Bordeaux, but is still seems slightly odd to come across a dynasty of managers. Owner Bobby Deluxe, as he's irreverantly known to the UK trade, wasn't in attendance, but Jean-Philippe Delmas - third generation winemaker; technical director; regisseur - call it what you will - has presided over more than ten years of success since taking over from his father. He told us he thought 2014 could be compared to 1988 or 1998, but reiterated as so many have done this week that it is unique. But those two previous vintages have something of the same freshness that runs through almost every wine we have tasted. Chateau Haut-Brion doesn't really conform to a type because the proportions of different varieties can change so much from vintage to vintage, while retaining the Haut-Brion signature.
Chateau Quintus is 69% Merlot and 31% Cabernet Franc in 2014. There are only 1,500 cases. The wine was showing a touch of reduction this morning and was a bit reticent. Le Clarence de Haut-Brion was 80% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon. This was very good, with fruit coated tannins. It's juicy and ripe and has real energy and length.
2014 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion is 54% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon. There will be 6,300 cases for the 70 countries where they sell the wines. There's lots of acidity here, more juicy plummy fruit and depth and richness. It has great persistence and is very well extracted. The big cheese is 50% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 39% Cabernet Sauvignon. This takes ages to taste because the wine needs coaxing, perhaps more than any other we taste this week. There's fine acidity, graphite minerality and loads of dense structure compiled from some big but finely woven tannins. Over the half an hour or so I had it in front of me, it opened it up, really driving forward with energy with lots of underlying red fruit. Lasts for ages too.
The whites here are also legendary but much more scarce, with just over 2,200 cases of all three combined. La Clarte de Haut-Brion is 70% Sauvignon and 30% Semillon and gives us tropical fruit with some mineral and oak flavours, all wrapped in an harmonious structure of fine tannins and harmonious acidity. Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc has more mineral than fruit on the nose. The palate is alot more subtle but has more clout. There's immense persistence and juicy character of grapefruit and greengage. There is still oak but the fruit and energy of the wine is more pronounced. It is 17% Sauvignon and 83% Semillon.
Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc is 32% Sauvignon and 68% Semillon and there will be 600 cases. This has a more lifted acidity and freshness as well as a greater depth and a full, fruity character. There is mouth coating juiciness but at the same time, this is more wine than fruit. This is the first dry white of the week that I would describe as really grown up.
And to their credit Haut-Brion provide the ideal conditions in which to taste. It is a stately process, somewhat akin to a state examination crossed with three star Michelin service , complete with invigilators, albeit friendly ones. The atmosphere is quiet, formal but relaxed and they give you the time you need for these complex wines.
And so to the airport, but time for a marvellous lunch at L'Iguane, unglamorously sited in an airport hotel but with great food and winelist and close enough to walk back to the terminal afterwards. /CW
2014 Bordeaux: left bank bound
2014 Bordeaux: the right bank
Today is a right bank day. We didn't see quite as much gravel and we did see a lot more clay.
First appointment was at Canon, which is a fine boned wine of pedigree. It has pronounced aromas of fruit scent and flowers, medium body and supple tannins with a floral, lifted finish. On to Figeac, which has apparently confused some. All I can say is that it is a straight up and down Figeac with 60% Cabernets and 40% Merlot from a gravel terroir. It has a good structure, fine grained tannins and shows ripe, red fruit throughout, particularly on the finish. It ain't overextracted and certainly isn't over-oaked. It carries its weight deftly and I think it's excellent.
At Cheval Blanc the wines are also very good as you might expect. Petit Cheval is all perfume and fruit, lifted red fruit, fine grained tannins and quite long. It's 48% Cabernet Franc and 25% of total production here. Le grand Cheval is 45% Cabernet Franc, 55% Merlot and on the nose has both perfume and stones, with a touch of beetroot. On the palate there is great freshness, but it's all about structure and ageing at the moment. With fine grip, layers of fine-grained tannins and woven through with minerality this isn't a wine of pleasure just now, but a wine of appreciation. You want intellectual delight? This is your wine. Super elegant, super cool, super stony. Freshly bearded Lurton says it is the most Cheval Blanc of any vintage he's been involved with. This wine has a hinterland, has context, isn't a wine for an oligarch only beginning her vinous journey.
Let us only hope I haven't run out of superlatives, for we progress to Vieux Chateau Certan. At VCC we are fortunate to have a long chat with Alexandre Thienpont as his schedule has a gap in it. He mentioned the very long ripening season, which he said only Bordeaux can do. I can imagine the reaction in Burgundy to a remark like that. For him, one of the keys to success in 2014 is the soil, not the variety. he had heard through the grapevine that Cabernet Franc was the better grape in '14. Not here, where they declassified more than one plot of that variety. Their's is another right bank gravel terroir and the blending of different plots is crucial. The fiche tech is 3 weeks of vatting, max temperature of 28C - 'the new normal for these youngsters like my son' and very little faffing about with the wine in the cellar. Picking took a month, with most sorting in the vineyard. The wine is very specific to 2014 as no other vintage is like it. If you want a comparison, Alexandre said that 2009 and 2010 are barbeque wines, 2014 is for Haute Cuisine.
It's the first wine of the week that greets you outside the glass. There's a pronounced red fruit perfume that's mixed with mineral notes. The palate has all the mineral of Cheval Blanc but with more power and drive and energy. It's powerful and very long. It is complete. It is a strong candidate for wine of the vintage so far.
Comparisons are odious and so am I, but Clinet suffers for being after these two extraordinary behemoths. One of the things we were told was that the ageing process will be very important. It will here, as it gives the wine a chance to catch up a bit. With some wines you think about the barrel ageing as a necessary part of development. With others, as here, it is like a retake for a kid that hasn't done its work in the first place.
Ah, Feytit-Clinet. Jeremy Chasseuil told us they did two green harvests in 2014, partly because they were anxious it would turn out like 2013. So after veraison they dropped the green bunches and then the uneven fruit nearer full ripeness. He farms sustainably, always looking to reduce treatments. When the fruit is in the vats, they only work it until alcohol appears. Max fermentation temperautre was 29C and cuvaison lasted 25 days. He has made a fantastic, dense wine with very supple tannins -- almost invisible tannins actually. For me, this one is a no-brainer. 93% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc.
Chateau Gazin is 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and aged in <50% new oak. Total yield was 39hl/ha. It has a really fragrant nose, piercing red fruit. It has fresh fruit flavours and is very promising. A bit of barrel ageing should make this very impressive indeed. It's a gourmand wine with lots of character.
To La Conseillante, where the newish second wine Duo de Conseillante was another with a very aromatic, red fruit nose, more even than Gazin. Conseillante itself is also very aromatic with a distinct red plum aroma. On the palate it derives enormous drive and energy from the perfect acidity and mineral freshness. The tannins are extremely supple and fine and the finish is long.
Not my first visit to Le Pin, but the first where there is any wine to taste. Both L'If from St-Emilion and Pomerol Le Pin are stunning and made in risibly small quantities. Sorry.
We popped into the St-Emilion UGC, ostensibly to taste the wine of hosts Clos Fourtet. It came across as a slightly old school wine: robust, fresh, long finish. However, I also tasted three other wines that we tasted in situ half an hour later, with as the critics tend not to say; with completely inconsistent notes. In particular Larcis-Ducasse, Pavie Macquin and Berliquet came across as tough old birds at the UGC, but fragrant and supple tasted at Pavie Macquin shortly afterwords.
And finally for the day a quick tasting at Chateau Biac, where we looked at separate components of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; not yet assembled. The Merlot was the chunky one, the Cabernet supple and perfumed; fresh bramble fruit. They will make a good combination when blended. /CW
2014 Bordeaux: Pessac and Sauternes
Early evening sees the first sunshine of the week. It's most welcome after a day of tramping through wet Pessac and Sauternes terroir, even when at Smith Haut-Lafitte they have nailed a red carpet to the pathway. 'It's nearly stopped raining', was the day's refrain.
We started at Latour-Martillac this morning, where the Merlot was affectd by uneven ripening, due to their enlarged size, so a bigger proportion (66%) of Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Petit Verdot than usual, but it doesn't do this nicely textured wine any harm. The white at 70% Sauvignon and 30% Semillon didn't undergo Malo and spends 11 months in oak, 25% of which is new, followed by 13 months in tank on its lees. Great value wine.
At Haut-Bailly we tasted the second vintage of their Le Pape: the first vintage was 2012 and they didn't make a '13 in case that's ever a question in your pub quiz. Mostly Merlot, it's ripe and suave with good tannins and mid-palate. La Parde from Haut-Bailly was more perfumed, had more oomph and offered a streamlined structure of ripe fruit and fine grained tannins. Long finish and a very good wine. The Haut-Bailly itself was problematic for me. First because it was so impressive rather than charming; it's highly structured, slightly armour-plated. It is still perfumed, but much of the fruit and perfume are repressed. It's not over extracted, but it is concentrated - in part by the following wine, which is Rosé, not made since 2011 and here used as a device to concentrate the red by removing some of the liquid. Perhaps a little too much in this case. Haut-Bailly is one of my favourite Bordeaux properties and Veronique Sanders one of my favourite managers, so I want to love this wine. I'll reserve judgement.
On to the UGC at Smith Haut Lafitte, where we tasted a range of wines from the AOC, some good, some not so. The hosts were among the highlights of the reds, as were Carmes Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, de Fieuzal. Pape-Clement also scored with their white as did La Louviere, SHL again and Larrivet Haut-Brion. To Chevalier for tasting and lunch, where it's difficult to taste properly because the place always stinks of wood ash and smoke from the enormous fire. Nice lunch though, thank you!
Down to Barsac after lunch to taste the components of Climens. Some micro blending had already taken place so there were but 6 different lots to run through. We started with the early passes from September and ended with the late October picking. This Biodynamic property under the inspirational leadership of Berenice Lurton might not make much wine - 6 hl/ha in 2014! - or any money, but she does make fantastic wine through huge attention to detail at harvest time and therefore expense. Extraordinary wine and the best since before 2010 and perhaps ever. Now fully Biodyvin certified.
On to Yquem where we tasted the 2013 Ygrec, of which 10,000 bottles are made and which is a fabulously restrained and classy wine, giving quite the opposite impression from the gilded smoke detectors in the gold ceiling. Restrained, even slightly austere with lime leaf, a touch of herbs and menthol, great acidity and cleansing minerality. The 2014 Yquem was a delicate surprise. It was as though they had set out to make a Barsac like Climens. They preferred the early passes through the vineyard and like the freshness. There are 134g/l of sugar compared to 145g/l at Climens.
It's April 1st tomorrow and I see someone has got into my inbox with an early April fool: a new wine and lifestyle magazine called Le Pan. Nice try.
Since tomorrow is April 1st, we had better talk about Bordeaux pricing today, ladies and gentlemen. We know that many properties in Bordeaux produce much less wine than they used to do. We also know that some parts of the market are as saturated as many of the vineyards are at the moment. Proprietors have to realise that consumers; people who drink Bordeaux and have a lot in their cellars, need a reason to buy more. That reason isn't a Chateau's optical sorting machine, nor is it habit any more, it is good to great quality wine, according to vintage, at a sensible price that they'll want to drink. There are some quite decent wines out there for which some very high prices are being asked.
Then again, some proprietors are very ambitious. They want to charge first growth prices, but in that case you had better make sure that you have first growth terroir and not just first growth extraction. Will the departure of Parker make a difference? I don't think so, except perhaps for some dodgy boiler room so-called wine investment companies. But we shouldn't get carried away with 'Le Bordeaux-Bashing', for there are some very honest wines at reasonable cost, and as this afternoon showed, some heartbreaking wines like Climens that genuinely are produced at a loss. And unlike Rieussec, not made specifically as a market ruining loss-leader. Climens made the wine of their lives last year and won't see a return. Remember, there are over eight thousand other producers in the region in a hand to mouth situation. So this plea to save yourselves is addressed to the gilded few. Don't take us for granted. You need us more than we need you. /CW
2014 Bordeaux: the sunshine is in the glass
Because the sunshine is definitely not in the sky. Today was a day of low cloud and drizzle such that one couldn't see the nuclear power plant across the estuary. Even the lamprey catching houses were obscured at times. However our trip round the Haut Medoc was not dampened by the weather. Starting in St-Estephe we tried Cos d'Estournel, clearly benefiting from a return to form over the last few years after the nonsense of over extraction blighted it. Quite elegant it was and deft. Grand Puy Lacoste, Haut-Batailley et al all showed the rewards of light extraction with red fruit. Today we started to get to grips with the pattern of the growing season. More details came our way than have been shared in the harvest reports. For instance that the right bank had twice as much summer and autumn rain as the Haut-Medoc. We know about how local hail is and tasted the results with Pibran, which is 70% Merlot this year because of hail hitting a patch of Cabernet Sauvignon.
We have also witnessed the result of Le Bordeaux-Bashing - a new bit of franglais for me - which has made some representatives defensive in the extreme, while others: Bruno Borie in particular, have launched a charm offensive and are expansive. Though it doesn't necessarily mean they have emerged from the Bordeaux bubble. It must be the fog that isolates some very intelligent people from reality. For most of today I was with a party of people who, as well as being merchants as a day job, are keen consumers of Bordeaux. It was galling for them to be informed that the business of Bordeaux is conducted between the chateau and the negociant. The consumer apparently has no part in this business. Having relocated my jaw, I was still speechless at such ignorance of how a market works. I know some very wealthy idiots.
We taste at Mouton-Rothschild, actually a relaxed process. Mouton itself is a tour de force I think with plenty of aroma and stuffing in the mid palate. It is very impressive and not without charm. Armailhac is charming, Clerc-Milon is more muscular and Petit Mouton has just been sulphured and is tough to taste. At Pontet-Canet I am seduced by the Burgundian complexity and light-on-its-feet wine. Those amphorae contribute much to the purity of the fruit. They considered the 'egg' fermenting vessel, but find the amphora much more conducive to balance. No horses in the vineyard, but in their stables watching a huge delivery of straw with much interest.
Lunch at Pontet-Canet is a regular treat, of which the talking point is the 10 metre 'cheeseboard', where there is a permanent queue, even of our lactose intolerant friends from the far east. Easy to see why when the scent greets you before the lady on the door.
After lunch Ducru Beaucaillou, the Pichons and the Leovilles, followed by Margaux and Palmer. Of the afternoon tastings, for me Margaux and Ducru steal the show, though Potensac isn't shabby and Chateau Palmer now counts as a natural wine.
What is the key to making successful wine in 2014? Seems to be more what happened in the cellar. Light extraction - if you like the 'infusion' of 2013, though for different reasons entirely, and often combined with low temperature ferments. These were often restricted to 27C, a good 5 degrees cooler than normal highs. So why the light extraction? In 2013 growers were dealing with fragile fruit lacking much structure, while in 2014 they had thick skinned fruit with huge perfumes. They had to get the aromas without harsh tannins, hence the gentle treatment in the cellars.
2014 Bordeaux - on the ground, thankfully
Today was not a good day for the nervous flier taking off at lunchtime. It was windy and though there were white knuckles in adjoining seats, the LRB took all my concentration and prevented worry. Thank goodness for writing. Why oh why has nobody in the hire car industry designed a check out procedure that doesn't involve prolonged customer contact, the firing up of laptops to prove something or other and general useless bureacracy? It must be possible. Perhaps we need a tech company to do it. Could zipcars have airport franchises? Anyway, off to Uncorked HQ, at Chateau Biac in Langoiran. And almost immediately to Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes for the first tasting of the week and something billed as a buffet. The only disappointment was the volume of buffet, for we were hungry, dear reader and sometimes quality does not substitute for quantity. The 2014 Guiraud whites were mineral and grippy, the 1985 Domaine de Chevalier from Imperial entirely as it should be. Foodwise, oysters, pata negra and discs of seared FG don't come better, but they do come more. So we decamped to Cafe de l'Esperance in Bouliac for some fine, no-nonsense grub, cote de veau in my case, perfectly hung and grilled and a bottle of 2006 Phelan-Segur. Now, bedtime as we leave at 7.30 for our first appointment in the morning at Chateau Montrose. /CW
2014 Bordeaux expectations part 2: what's in those barrels
Not many people have tasted much from 2014 as yet. The estimable Julia Harding MW has perfume as her theme from her preliminary tasting and James Suckling shares this and postulates that it is a Cabernet Sauvignon year. He says it reminds him of 1996, which wasn't too shabby. Some mention hard tannins, most say that extractions haven't been overdone and that textures are supple and wines fruit-forward.
In os veritas, as we don't very often say. We wait and see and we'll let you know once we've done some tasting. Meanwhile, it's off to pack some red trousers and subtley checked country shirtings. Pip pip. /CW
2014 Bordeaux expectations part 1: what's blowin' in the wind
Think of the 2014 Bordeaux growing season as a pair of beautiful, antique, carved walnut bookends cradling the complete works of John Grisham. Forget the middle bit, concentrate on what's holding it up. The winter was warm and wet, giving the vines a reservoir of water for the coming season and as importantly meant that pruning could happen at will. Most importantly of all, it gave the season an early kick start, essential for a relatively early harvest that avoids the worst of the autumn equinox storms. Spring flowering was conducted in good weather, great for yields and hopefully for even ripening later. The presence throughout the whole of the season of both powdery and downy mildews triggered the need for vigilance and an enormous amount of work, especially for the growing number of organic and biodynamic properties.
July was damp and lacking in the essential for a good season, light. The early season gains were reversed and the fruit didn't change colour until well into August. August was a cool and cloudy month, but largely dry, so again fruit development proceeded slowly. However, this marks the final volume of Grisham and we turn to the second, beautiful bookend. The end of August and the whole of September enjoyed warm, dry, classic high pressure weather. In fact it stayed like that until the end of October.
Dry white fruit picking was done throughout September - Sauvignon Blanc first, then Semillon. The Merlot harvest started late in September and at least in St-Emilion, carried on until the end of October. The Cabernet harvest began in the first half of October. The weather continued fine, turning into one of the longest and latest Indian summers on record. Just as well as some red picking was still going on into November. So the region had gone from a forecasted two week early harvest to a very late one. The situation in Sauternes and associated communes was pretty desperate as it was so dry. Lots of mini harvests, lots of discarded fruit until nearly the end of October, when botrytis finally took hold. Nevertheless the final yields are miniscule at a little over 8 hls/ha (hectolitres per hectare in case you're wondering). /CW
Hand luggage only
Next week is UGC week, or Holy Week as it is otherwise known. The Union des Grands Crus get together as only French farmers can and the world's fine wine trade and critics descend for a week for dawn to dusk analysis and information exchange. Lunch and gossip probably covers it fairly well. We're based in Cadillac, which makes the first morning's schlep round the Bordeaux ring road a tad wearisome. However, we will get to see what Bernard Arnault's spent his most recent EU grant on and that's always a privilege. As in Burgundy, I'll be attempting to fight off the temptation to get any sleep while keeping this blog up to date, correctly spelled and not sarcastic. So we'll see how that goes. As ever we'll be twitting so do follow us for pics and impressions as we go round. /CW