Monthly Archives: May 2015

An unforgettable tour of top-flight châteaux – day one

As mentioned below, I belong to a virtual community based in several countries called www.bordeauxwineenthusiasts.com

Along with a friend in Paris and others in London and the US, I organized a 5-day tour of top-flight Bordeaux châteaux for 18 people.
This took a great deal of planning, months in advance, but was well worth the effort.


We started off with Château Palmer. All my Bordeaux-loving friends adore Palmer, and I’m not about to disagree. It is not rare for me and others to find Palmer better than Margaux in certain vintages, and such was the case with 2014 in my opinion. Anyway, we were shown around by Céline Cassat, and I give her full marks for starting out in the vineyard, explaining the lay of the land, the estate’s winegrowing philosophy and, of course, their recent turn to organic and biodynamic viticulture. This was as opposed to most châteaux that only show visitors their cellars.
Palmer has been entirely renovated and is clearly in full swing. The grounds are beautiful, the château looks great, and the cellar is now magnificently-equipped.
We tasted 2011 Alter Ego and 2006 Palmer. The former was smooth and is in an early-maturing, more commercial style. The latter had velvety tannin and good grip, and will also show well before too long.

 

We went from Palmer to 5th growth Château du Tertre, which has belonged to Dutch businessman Eric Albada Jelgersma since 1997, as has 3rd growth Château Giscours. Several members of the group had specifically asked to go to du Tertre because the wine offers such excellent value for money. We were very well received by Marc Verpaalen and not disappointed with what we tasted. After sampling the elegant and fairly forward 2012 du Tertre and 2012 Giscours, we went for a light lunch on a beautiful veranda overlooking a swimming pool and the château.
You have to admit that Bordeaux does some things extremely well…
The wines we had at lunch were 2009 du Tertre, 2006 Caiarossa from Tuscany (also owned by Eric Albada Jelgersma), 2014 Giscours and du Tertre, as well as 2004 Giscours. The 2014s are very promising and the 2004 was good for the vintage and ready to drink now.
Marc informed us that since the owner’s son is allergic to red wine, Château du Tertre will be soon be producing a white wine.

While organizing this trip, I learned that the first growths now limit the number of visitors, which made planning things a little hairy. Such was the case with Château Latour, who accept no more than 10 people. However, much to their credit, they agreed to welcome two groups in succession.

 

While the first group visited Léoville Las Cases, the other half, including myself, went to Latour. Like many top-flight châteaux, they have expanded and renovated their cellars, which are now in tip-top condition. We were first of all ushered into a room to watch a film about the château. This had tinkly faux-Zen music and didn’t seem particularly to focus on Latour rather than any other wine estate. Once past this rather boring introduction, we went on a guided tour. The facilities were as impeccable as one would expect at a first growth. We also admired their new wine library, with magnums going back a very long way. The tasting room is wonderful, and we sampled three wines there: the 2011 Pauillac, the 2008 Forts de Latour, and the 2004 Latour. The Pauillac was very attractive, Les Forts lacked some richness and concentration, but was still quite nice, and the Latour proved to be lovely with fine textured tannin. It is also quite enjoyable to drink now. No, you don’t always have to wait decades to drink these wines, even if that is the case in great years.

 

Gruaud tower

 

 

 

After Latour, I went with half the group to Château Gruaud Larose. This was a wonderful visit. It started out with a trip up a steel tower that has just been built to house an observation post and a visitor reception center. This affords a fantastic view of the estate and the surrounding countryside, including manicured grounds and gardens. We were taken around the cellars by winemaker Stéphanie Lebaron Bouchonneau. As always, it’s the person and not the surroundings, however luxurious they may be, that makes visiting a wine estate memorable. Stéphanie is charming, relaxed, funny and, above all, extremely competent. She poured us a number of wines. 2014 Sarget (the second wine) was simple and nice, 2014 Gruaud Larose quite tannic and promising, 2006 GL a little too oaky, and 1998 GL – 17 years old – perhaps a little dry, but at its peak and very enjoyable. It is a treat and a rarity to drink a wine that old when visiting a Bordeaux estate.

 

 

Afterward, we went to Château Léoville Barton, where Liliane Barton welcomed us warmly, despite the fact that we were not on time… Liliane’s family have owned Langoa and Léoville Barton since the 1820s, and are definitely part of the Médoc aristocracy. However, Llilian is a relaxed, down-to-earth person and very much a philosopher in her own way. Trends come and go, but the Bartons have nearly two centuries of experience in making fine wine, and so are very circumspect. For instance, Liliane is against green harvesting because she feels that what works one year complicates things the following year. We started out by tasting the other Barton estate, 2011 Château Mauvesin-Barton, which I have talked about elsewhere on the blog. We then sampled 2012 Langoa Barton which, like some other wines from this vintage, was already showing very well. The 2014 Léoville Barton was sweet and seductive on the nose, lacking perhaps just a touch of weight and richness to back up the structure. It is nevertheless a fine, classic wine.

 

 

Léoville Poyferré - menu

 

 

The final château that day was Léoville Poyferré, where we were welcomed by the bubbly Anne Cuvelier, who speaks good English and clearly enjoys explaining the ins and outs of winemaking. The group had dinner at the newly-refurbished château (a recurring theme, as you can see).

If you have read this far, please note that all of the above was in just one day, which is about the maximum anyone could possibly fit in!

We tasted the wines at dinner rather than beforehand. The 2014 Moulin Riche was light, fruity, upfront and – unsurprisingly – less serious than the grand vin. The 2012 was better than expected and I am not far from thinking that 2012 may actually be better than 2011 in many instances in the Médoc. The 2008 Léoville Poyferré had a fine ethereal nose and lovely blackberry flavors on the palate. The 2007 was light and refreshing and the 2005 was deep and classic, with rich berry fruit.

An unforgettable tour of top-flight châteaux: day two

This day was enjoyed at a more relaxed pace.

We started out at Château La Conseillante in Pomerol. And, yes, they had redone the cellar there too. The facilities are rather spiffy for such a small estate, and the vat room is not only functional, but round and very attractive.
La Conseillante’s trademark purple color is everywhere.
Estate manager Jean-Michel Laporte began the tour with a long explanation in the vineyard, which was highly useful in order to situate the vineyard and to talk about geological influences.
We tasted the 2006 vintage. The nose was sleek, but closed, and the wine was very suave and elegant on the palate with an almost Margaux-like elegance and no impression of alcohol.
M. Laporte is leaving La Conseillante because as he frankly admits, he had “strategic divergences” with the owners. But I have little doubt that he will resurface in short order at another top-flight estate. He had done great things at La Conseillante and came across as a gifted professional.

We went from there to Château Corbin, where we were taken around by owner Anabelle Cruse-Bardinet, member of a famous Bordeaux wine family. Anabelle also began the tour in the vineyard and is a very hands-on manager. She explained how she had to fight to keep the estate and has thrown herself wholeheartedly into running Corbin, where she looks after far more than paperwork and public relations. Corbin has maintained its grand cru classé ranking through the various classifications, as opposed to some of her neighbors.
We tasted three wines. The 2014 was pure, fresh, and classy, if somewhat short. The 2012 was very interesting and worthwhile, and the 2010 stole the show. Anabelle says this is the best wine she has ever made.
Corbin is attractively priced and is going from strength to strength. We were very grateful to have visited and to have heard Anabelle’s explanations in excellent English.

We did not visit Château La Dominique, but had lunch at the restaurant there, La Terrasse Rouge. This is run by the team from La Brasserie Bordelaiss, a popular restaurant in Bordeaux. There is something of the New World here, with long communal wooden tables and plate glass windows offering a great view, including of the new cellar at Cheval Blanc, just a stone’s throw away.
The bistro-style food is simple, good, and not too expensive. I recommend La Terrace Rouge when in Saint-Emilion. It is also open on Sunday.

After lunch, we went to Château Figeac. There is change in the air here. The former manager, Éric d’Aramon, left in 2013 and was jointly replaced by the previous Technical Director, Frédéric Faye, and Jean-Valmy Nicolas of La Conseillante. It is rumored that this came about because Figeac was not promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” status in the 2012 classification. Be that as it may, Figeac has always enjoyed a loyal following and I have the highest regard for the wine, which features a highly unusual blend of grape varieties: 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, and just 30% Merlot. The high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon is due to the part of the vineyard with gravelly soil, more reminiscent of the Médoc than Saint Emilion.

We tasted the 2011 vintage. My notes read as follows:
Color: beautiful and brilliant
Nose: subtle oak and dark fruit
Palate: good acidity and tangy tannin. Nevertheless round, going into mineral. Very well-balanced. Light on its feet. An intellectual wine.

Next on the itinerary was Château Canon, a peer of Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé “B”). This turned out to be a delicate exercise because Saint-Emilion has often been described as a gruyère, i.e. a Swiss cheese, due to the numerous underground galleries dug out of solid rock. In fact, there are no fewer than seven levels of these galleries! What this means is that it is forbidden for a bus to go along certain roads because there is danger of their collapsing! We nevertheless drove close enough to Canon to arrive more or less on time… Canon is yet another estate undergoing large scale renovation and the château looks like a major building site. We were taken around the underground cellars, which go on for miles, and also saw a cross-section of the soil. This was very instructive. There is much talk of clay-limestone soil, but it speaks volumes to actually see the solid rock with veins of clay, and the vine roots that push through the latter – a wonderful illustration of terroir.
We tasted 2006 Canon, which looked a little older than its 9 years. The nose was very tertiary with deep cherry aromas. The wine was more expressive on the palate, but seemed austere and not overly user-friendly.

We played tourist in the lovely medieval village Saint-Emilion for an hour, inevitably visiting wine shops (Bordeaux Classique and http://www.vignobleschateaux.com/eng/accueil) and doing some further tasting, including a very fine 2010 Château de Cambes, an expensive but very good Côtes de Bourg from François Mitjaville, owner of Tertre Roteboeuf in Saint Emilion.

Ferrand - menu

Then it was time for dinner at Château de Ferrand, newly promoted to grand cru classé status in 2012. The château belongs to the family of Baron de Bich, whose fortune was made with Bic pens, lighters, etc.
We were taken around by an 18 year-old apprentice sommelier who acquitted himself very well in English. The château is quite impressive and the cellars are lovely. Ferrand also has an unusual sales policy, keeping back old vintages and not selling them for any more than the release price. For instance, they were just finishing off sales of the 1998 at a very reasonable price (twenty some-odd euros).
Bordeaux is well and truly waking up to wine tourism, and Château de Ferrand has embraced this trend. The meal we were served was catered by the Michelin-starred restaurant La Cape in nearby Cenon. We were served a series of vintages and asked to which wine which went best with each course, although I did not take part in the competition.
Having tasted several vintages, I unfortunately cannot say that Ch. de Ferrand is one of my favorite Saint Emilions, but I nevertheless appreciated my evening there and the warm welcome we received.

An unforgettable tour of top-flight châteaux: day three

 

 

 

 

Château La Mission Haut Brion has risen remarkably in the firmament of Bordeaux wines over the past couple of decades and is now sold at the same price as its illustrious sister château – and first growth – Haut Brion. A visit to La Mission is a great pleasure. Things start out in the vineyard, which is surrounded by apartment buildings and suburban houses. In fact, it is a miracle that the vines were not wiped out by urban sprawl. We also saw Château La Tour Haut Brion, a former great growth in its own right that is now incorporated into either La Mission or their second wine, La Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion, depending on the plot.
The château is a treasure trove of religious art, and they have rare original prints by Albecht Dürer in the tasting room. The ancient chapel is lovely, and no one would guess that the cloister was only recently built.
We compared 1997 Haut Brion and 1997 La Mission side by side. Opinions were evenly divided as to which was “better”. As usual, I preferred the elegance of Haut Brion, which is not to say that La Mission was anything less than delightful.

With a 10 o’clock appointment at La Mission and a 2 o’clock appointment in Sauternes, 45 km. away, fitting in lunch was not an easy affair. After checking Trip Advisor, we decided to book at the Langonnais restaurant in the small city of Langon. They did us proud, managing to serve us a fine, reasonably-priced meal in good time.
One of the group members brought out a wine to taste blind with the meal. We were all puzzled. It was obviously very old, and rather good, but no one guessed its pedigree. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a 1934 Pétrus! Looking at the cork and thinking about the wine, I am convinced it was genuine.
And very fine it was, too.

 

 

We miraculously arrived on time at Château d’Yquem, where we were shown around by Anne. The tour began in the vineyard here too. This was much appreciated since Yquem offers such a commanding view of the region. We tasted the 2011, which I thought was tremendous. Comparisons were made with the 2001. While I wouldn’t go quite that far, this is clearly a fine Yquem.

 

Next stop was Chateau Coutet in Barsac. This is quite a historic estate, dating back to the English period, with a wonderful little chapel and the longest cellar in all Bordeaux. We tasted the 2013 which corresponded to everyone’s fine opinion of the château. It also had the acidity and minerality typical of wines from its appellation.

 

 

 

 

The day ended at Château Smith Haut-Lafitte. We were surprised to be greeted by a large number of police and gendarmes because the president of Singapore was staying at the Sources de Caudalie hotel-restaurant next door to the château.
Smith Haut Lafitte is a very slick operation. The original château has been embellished and is very geared-up to wine tourism. There are works of art here and there, and the underground cellar is quite impressive.
Florence and Daneil Cathiard greeted us before the tasting and we had dinner at the château along with Cellarmaster Yann Laudelho.
While I certainly like Smith Haut Lafitte, I am actually more partial to the white than the red wine. The 2009 red we tasted was nevertheless outstanding (Mr. Parker gave it a score of 100 points).

An unforgettable tour of top-flight châteaux – day four

 

 

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Flags out in honor of visitors

 

 

 

 

Pontet Canet - menu

 

 

Our final day was a wine lover’s dream. We arrived at Château Pontet Canet at 11 am and immediately noticed three flags had been put up in honor of group members hailing from Canada, England, and the US. We took a walk around the vineyards with the English-speaking guide and then tasted four wines (2014, 13, 12, and 11 – but not in that order) with Alfred Tesseron and estate manager Jean-Michel Comme. I actually preferred the 2012, followed by the 2014, the 2011 and the 2013. Then it was time for lunch. And what a lunch it was! Drinking 2003 Dom Pérignon in the château salon was a very good kick-off. Then all 18 of us trooped to the formal dining room where Alfred Tesseron held court, despite feeling somewhat under the weather.

The 2000 Pontet Canet is ready to drink, which is the case with many wines of that vintage despite what you may have heard. The 2003 is a somewhat controversial wine, but it showed very well – not too big, although a little raisiny. Alfred Tesseron says that appearances are deceptive and that it has a long life ahead of it. The 2005 was not quite up to the vintage’s reputation in my opinion.

One of the group members had brought a 1962 Pontet Canet purchased at auction years ago. Alfred Tesseron went into his private cellar and brought out a bottle from the same vintage so we could compare. In fact, the wines were not far apart, and I actually preferred the one that had been trundled many miles and stored less than perfectly.

 

2001 Ducru

 

 

Afterward, we drove to Château Ducru Beaucaillou, where cellarmaster René Lusseau took us around. He is a true product of the Médoc and translating his puns and local references was no easy task. We visited their semi-underground cellar and went on to taste three wines. 2011 Lalande Borie was a little one-dimensional, but good enough. The 2008 La Croix Beaucaillou was showing a little too much oak, and the 2001 Ducru Beaucaillou was at its peak –  which makes me think it is high time to start opening the fine wines in my cellar from that vintage.

 

 

Our next stop was at Lynch Bages. This estate is very much into wine tourism. Not only do they receive visitors easily, including on Sunday (a rare phenomenon in Bordeaux), but the Cazes family has also established a little hamlet nearby with a restaurant (Café Lavinal), baker, butcher, and gift shop. We received a standard tour and then tasted several wines from the Cazes stable, starting with Les Ormes de Pez, Echo de Lynch Bages, and Lynch Bages from the 2014 vintage. Unsurprisingly, Lynch Bages was the star here, with the château’s trademark blackcurrant fruit. We also tasted 2007 Ormes de Pez and Lynch Bages, neither of which left a particularly fine impression.  We finished with the 2014 Blanc de Lynch Bages that displayed a very fresh varietal (Sauvignon Blanc) nose and a considerable amount of oak.

 

 

The last stop of the day, and the end of the tour, was at Château Pichon Longueville. This was a wonderful end to a memorable trip. We were taken around by Nicolas Santier, who did a tremendous job. He is extremely well-informed, speaks excellent English, and has a great sense of humor. He made us feel very much at home – even when we went to dinner in the château, in the lap of luxury…

Prior to dinner, Nicolas took us through a fascinating tasting in one of the best equipped tasting rooms I know. It was also quite appreciable to be able to sit down by this point!
We sampled 2014 Pibran and then 2014, 2010, 2009, and 2008 Pichon Baron. I think Pibran is one of the best value wines in the Médoc and was therefore not surprised to enjoy the 2014. All the Pichons were top-notch, and I was especially taken with the 2008. The others may be intrinsically better, but they need a great deal of time to come together, especially the 2010.

We went from the tasting room to the château, where we were immediately served a glass of Jacquesson Champagne (I believe it was the 735, but why in the world do they give their wines numbers instead of names?) and invited to walk around and admire the beautifully decorated rooms and antique furniture. Then it was time for a formal meal in the lovely dining room. The following wines were served: 2012 “S” de Suduiraut (a dry Sauternes), 2004 Pichon Baron, 2003 Pichon Baron, and 1988 Pichon Baron. The white wine was perky and nice, more attractive than serious, and probably best enjoyed young. The 2004 Baron was a little weak on the middle palate, a tad dry, and still youthful. The 2003 once again belied the preconceived notion that the wines of this vintage are top-heavy, overly alcoholic, and flabby. 2003 Pichon was certainly rich, but not outrageously so, and had good acidity. Very pleasant. The 1988 was served blind and correctly guessed by one of the group members who had bought cases of the wine. It was “à point” and a wonderful way to end the series. A silky, aromatic 2005 Suduiraut was served with dessert.

We left the château replete, tired, and extremely happy. Looking back at the floodlit château and its reflecting pond, we were filled with admiration for the majesty of the great wines of Bordeaux, as well as the genius of the Bordelais in linking their wines with magnificent structures such as this.

Pichon by night

The Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum

To my knowledge, this is the only forum in any language focusing on Bordeaux wines.

Started by James Howaniec, a lawyer in Maine (USA) in 2005, Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts is a free-wheeling forum open to everyone who loves the wines of the Gironde and who cares to express their experiences, ideas, thoughts, and tasting notes in English.

www.bordeauxwineenthusiasts.com

The bulk of contributors are from the US, but there are also contingents from the UK, Canada, and other countries.

What’s wonderful is that a lot of the guys get together for tasting dinners in a number of cities across North America and Europe. These “off-lines” are tremendously convivial, and have included many memorable wines thanks to the generosity of members belonging to the BWE virtual community.

BWE “conventions” are held once a year. Furthermore, two pilgrimages have been made to Bordeaux for intensive forays into the wine country in the group’s 15-year history. The highlight of the 2005 trip was dinner at Château Margaux and magnums of the 1961 served by white-gloved waiters with the cheese course…
The 2015 week-long trip (18 people) also includes a wonderful agenda. Yours truly will be taking part on 4 out of 5 days, and it will be a pleasure to share the experience on my blog.
So, please stay tuned to www.bordeauxwineblog.com in the coming days!

Two from Lalande-de Pomerol and one Fronsac

 

 

 

Château Perron

2010 Château Perron, Lalande de Pomerol

Michel-Pierre Massonie is one of the leading figures not only in Lalande de Pomerol, but also in Bordeaux. He was president of the Grand Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux for 9 years (http://www.grandconseilvinsbordeaux.com/GrandConseilBx_site/welcome.html).
Monsieur Massonie is an ardent defender of his appellation and was also one of the founders of the local vinous brotherhood, Les Baillis de Lalande de Pomerol.
He has since handed over winemaking at Château Perron to his son, Bertrand. I bought a couple of bottles of his 2010 during a Portes Ouvertes weekend in April of last year: http://www.lalande-pomerol.com/
The wine had a deep color, but the nose is really rather mute. There are nevertheless some violet aromas in the background. There is also a pleasant tartness on the palate. This is very appetizing with blackberry flavors, a tea element, and a lip smacking aftertaste. Not necessarily what one expects from a Merlot-based wine, but fun to drink and enjoyable young.

La Sergue

 

2008 Château La Sergue, Lalande de Pomerol

The Chatonnet family has very deep winegrowing roots in the Libourne region. Besides managing Ch. Haut-Chaigneau in Lalande de Pomerol and L’Archange in Saint-Emilion, Pascal Chatonnet also owns and manages Laboratoire Excell, a world-class firm specialized in enological analyses.
La Sergue is made from the best 5 hectares of the family’s 22 hectares of vines in Lalande (87% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec). The 2008 is looking just about as it should for a 6 year-old wine. The nose shows ripe plummy fruit and subtle mocha overtones. Internationally renowned for his research on the effect of oak on wine, it is hardly surprising that Pascal Chatonnet has mastered barrel ageing to perfection here. There are dried fruit and blackberry flavors on the palate, and a cherry-vanilla component. This is definitely not your easy-going Merlot, because the tannin has loads of character and follows through into good grip on the long and slightly tarry aftertaste. I have followed La Serge for years, and it never disappoints. This 2008 is pleasurable to drink now, but it needs much more time to reach its full potential.

Haut Carles

 

2005 Château Haut Carles, Fronsac

This is the prestige cuvee of Château de Carles, a 14.5-hectae estate in Saillans (AOC Fronsac). The wine is followed by Michel Rolland and comes within the orbit of Jean-Luc Thunevin. In fact, I bought the wine at Thunevin’s boutique in Saint-Emilion several years ago.
Haut-Carles has also received praise from Robert Parker, and I was more-or-less prepared to encounter a big Parker-style wine. Big it is, to the extent that it is 14.5% alc./vol. However, the wine is by no means clunky and, mercifully, is not heavily overoaked. The color is very dark purplish-red with thick legs, and looks younger than its years. The nose is rather closed-in, but shows hints of prune, candied fruit, and chocolate.
Seeing the alcohol content on the label, I was expecting a “hot” wine. But, no, this Haut Carles is not overbearing or adversely affected by its alcohol content. It is indeed spirity to some extent, but this is ethereal. The wine has a heavy mouth feel and is quite rich. It nevertheless lacks acidity, freshness, and elegance. The aftertaste finishes dry, and the new oak does come through at this stage. Although somewhat one-dimensional, this Haut-Carles is a pleasant enough wine. At ten years of age, is has mostly achieved what it is capable of.