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INTRODUCTION – SEPTEMBER 2014

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, not another Bordeaux wine site, who on earth needs that?”… In reality, though, there are precious few sites focusing on the wines of the Gironde out there! I am assistant manager of one, www.bordeauxwinenthusiasts.com, but Bordeaux is usually just one region out of many.

Bordeaux takes a lot of knocks these days. A “fox and the grapes syndrome” has set in. The price increases in the great growths over the past few years have made them unattainable for many consumers – so it has become trendy to say that the wines are not worth it, that Bordeaux is “old hat”, and that is best left to the likes of stockbrokers and the decrepit bourgeoisie! Of course, it is also claimed that “modern” Bordeaux is over-extracted, over-oaked, Parkerized, and not nearly as good as it once was…

The fact is that I’m as put off as anyone by the recent price increases of the crus classés. But these wines represent only 5% of Bordeaux! Of the remaining 95%, to be fair, there is a certain amount of dross: thin weedy wines selling at bargain basement prices. But there are also numerous gems and a full spectrum of terroirs and styles

The media love to discover and highlight estates in the Lubéron or the Languedoc or the Loire Valley, but rarely enthuse about non-classified growths from Bordeaux. Despite the region’s 9,000 châteaux, Bordeaux is perceived as a known entity, so journalists don’t often go there – except to see the famous names…

The main purpose of my blog is to write about these lower-profile estates, to give a face to châteaux eclipsed by the high and mighty.
Based in Bordeaux, I also intend to write about what it’s like to visit and live here, to speak about the people behind the labels, and in my own little way to breathe new life into Bordeaux’s somewhat fossilized image.

A week in Burgundy – Jan. 2018

 

Les Hospices de Beaune

My heart may be in Bordeaux, but I am also a great fan of Burgundy and spend a week of intense tasting there every year. This also enables me to come back home with many wines that I could not buy otherwise. Fine Burgundy also has the advantage of being much more open when young than Bordeaux of a similar category.

Upon arriving in Burgundy on the 13th of January, my friend Ian Westcott welcomed me with a dish of fresh pasta and wild mushrooms accompanied by two wines: a 2015 Chablis Premier Cru Fourchame from Roland Laventureux and a 2010 Charmes Chambertin from Hubert Lignier. The former had all the hallmarks of traditional Chablis with some added richness, but I cannot say that the earth moved. The red wine was a different story. It was deeply-colored with beautiful subtle aromatics and a great deal of authority on the palate – a lovely virile wine with the structure I often find missing in Burgundy.

The next day, Sunday, I shared lunch with friends from Australia and the UK along with two winegrowers (Patrick Essa of Domaine Buisson Charles in Merursault and Jean-Marc Pillot of the eponymous estate in Chassagne-Montrachet) and their wives at the Hostellerie de Bourgogne in Verdun-sur-le-Doubs in the Saône-et-Loire department, about a half hour drive from Beaune. This proved to be a Pantagruelian feast with things like a whole black truffle in puff pastry and lièvre à la royale. Delicious! We enjoyed 1996 Guy Charlemagne “Mesnillésime” Champagne as an aperitif, then 3 village wines from Meursault from the 2014 vintage. The latter brought forth much discussion. The consensus seemed to be in favour of the Pierre Boisson, followed by Buisson Charles, and then Coche Dury. We also had a 2012 Chablis grand cru Bougros and a very old Paul Pernot Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. Not to worry, there were red wines as well, including 1995 Groffier Les Amoureuses as well as some superb Bordeaux donated by Ian Amstad: 2000 Château Beychevelle and a 1988 Mouton Rothschild, both of which showed well in “enemy territory”. In fact, Jean-Marc Pillot guessed the Beychevelle blind!

The following is an overview of my experiences visiting estates. It is very long, so perhaps I can be forgiven for not posting full notes for every individual wine…

Our visits to domaines (arranged by importer Ian Westcott from Melbourne, without whom none of this would have been possible) started with Domaine Amiot-Servelle in Chambole-Musigny, where we tasted through wines from the 2015 vintage with Prune Amiot: the village wine, premiers crus Les Charmes and Les Amoureuses, and grands crus Charmes Chambertin (from the Mazoyères part) and Clos Saint Denis. The house style is classic – elegant wines of great precision with good ageing potential and not too much extraction or oak. I quite liked them and came away with a bottle of the Clos Saint-Denis, a wine I have not often encountered.

Lunch was at a new restaurant in the center of Nuits, Le Café de Paris. This was started by the owners of La Cabotte in the same town. It is a very different place, but ideal for people who want just one dish and relatively quick service at a very reasonable price. Since the restaurant is small, I suggest booking ahead.

 

Suitably fortified, we went to Domaine Claude Dugat, next door to Rousseau on the little square next to the church in Gevrey-Chambertin built of amazing pink-colored stone. Bertrand and his siblings have recently taken over from their famous father Claude and the challenge obviously weighs heavy on Bertrand. He made a mistake in with treating, or rather not treating, part of the vineyard, tended organically, and lost a goodly bit of the crop. He was embarrassed by what happened and is determined to do better (one wonders why he told us this…). We tasted through the Domaine’s 2016s: village, premier cru Lavaux-Saint-Jacques, and grands crus Charmes-Chambertin, Chappelle Chambertin, and Griotte-Chambertin. These wines lived up to the domaine’s excellent reputation: deep, structured, serious, on the big side, and with grip. I was happy to discover them.

 

The last visit of the day was to Domaine Jean-Marc Millot in Nuits-Saint-Georges (8 hectares), where we were welcomed by young Alix Millot, the second woman winemaker of the day, along with Prune Amiot, to have done an internship in New Zealand. The Millot cellars are in a part of Nuits where you would least expect it, and were once the premises of a négociant. We tasted thorugh a series of 2016s: Côtes de Nuits village and grands crus Les Echézeaux, Clos de Vougeot, and Grands-Echézeaux. The style was pure and fruity and the Clos de Vougeot was one of the best wines I tasted all week (lovely violet nuances). We also had a look at the 2017 premier cru Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots, but I’m not very clued in to tasting such young Burgundy, so I mostly listened to others comment on it. Alix shows that the future of winemaking in the Côte d’Or is in excellent hands.

 

Several of us dined at Auprès du Rocher in Pommard that evening. This has a fine reputation, but that evening the cuisine was just good rather than very good or superb. The wines, however, were a different story. We had two 2013 village Meursault wines from Bernard Boisson-Vadot (Les Grands Charrons and les Chevalières) that we quite enjoyed, even though the 2008 Pommard-Rugiens from Thierry Vilot-Guillmard did not light our fire.

Our next day stared out with a visit to Domaine Bruno Clair. I have followed this domaine for years and have known winemaker Philippe Brun since his Napa Valley days, some years ago. We tasted through a vast array of 2016s, and I was particularly impressed with the Marsannay Longeroies, the Savigny-lès-Beaune premier cru La Dominode, and the whole range of wines from Gevrey-Chambertin, especially Clos Saint Jacques, Les Cazetiers, and Clos de Bèze. We ended with a delicious Corton-Charlemagne as an apéritif before going to lunch with Bruno Clair and Philippe at La Table du Rocher in Marsannay, which features a very odd decor with a story behind it… Anyway, I can recommend this restaurant, which features very good food at reasonable prices. While there, we drank a white Marsannay, 2015 Le Clos from René Bouvier, and a red 2012 Marsannay from Huguenot. I was particularly impressed with the former (apparently Bouvier is recognized as a fine producer), but not so by the latter.

The afternoon visit was to Domaine Bruno Clavelier in Vosne-Romanée. The owner is amazing in that he perpetually smiles, especially as he goes into detailed explanations of geology, helped by an impressive cluster of stones spread over the tasting table. If you never believed in terroir before, you would be utterly convinced after about 15 minutes with Bruno Clavelier! As with most growers, we sampled his 2016s, starting with Les Hauts-de-Beauxmonts, La Combe-Brûlée, and Hautes-Maizières, all village wines from Vosne-Romanée.
We then went on to his premiers crus (Les Corbeaux from Gevrey Chambertin, Aux Brulées and Les Beaux-Monts in Vosne, Les Noirots and La Combe d’Orveau in Chambole, and Aux Cras in Nuits), finishing with grand cru Corton Le Rognet. What can I say except that these showed class, great winemaking, and a wide spread of profiles depending on their… terroir.
We also tasted two older wines: 2015 La Montagne and 2015 Les Beaumonts from Vosne and a 2011 Combe d’Orveau from Gevrey, which I am at ease admitting that I drank rather than just tasted, or as the Bourguignons say “craché à l’intérieur”.

Our third day began at Domaine Comte de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny. I was really psyched to visit this famous producer for the first time. The cellars radiate a sense of place and tradition. We were warmly received by François Millet who is not only a great winemaker, but also very skilled at explaining, including the use of unusual analogies and a dash of humor. The wines are timeless Burgundies that make no concession to trends. They are dense and need to age. I am not surprised that they are not necessarily the darlings of people who want flashy or easy-going wines. They are made to last. This is evident from the first taste of the 2016 Chambolle-Musigny village. The domaine suffered greatly from hail in that year, losing some 70% of the crop, a story we were unfortunately to hear all up and down the Côte. We went on to taste three other 2016s: Les Amoureuses, Bonnes Mares, and Le Musigny. The character of each climat certainly comes through, and the overall style reminds me – in a very good way – of the sorts of Burgundies I drank when I was young. Very classic and uncompromising. My notes include such adjectives as “well-muscled” “mouthfilling”, and “velvety”, among a host of others. It was a real treat to taste them and to benefit from Monsieur Millet’s insight.
We did not taste the extremely rare white Musigny. The domaine sold the wine as AOC Bourgogne for years because they felt that the vines needed to age to be worthy of their grand cru appellation. This has been the case starting with the 2015 vintage.

Lunch was at La Part des Anges in Beaune. We enjoyed a good meal there and the wine list is also worthwhile.

Afterward, we went to see a young winemaker, Valentin Jobard, at Domaine Jobard-Morey in Meursault, where we had a look at two village wines from Meursault, 2016 Les Tillets and Les Narvaux, as well as the premier cru Les Charmes from the same year. I quite liked the wines and bought some, since I was especially taken with the Charmes. I also picked up some light and feminine 2015 Meursault rouge, since it was a rarity I had never seen before. I feel unqualified to comment on the 2017s I tasted, as I need more experience with such young Burgundy. Valentin has also encountered commercial success with his Coteaux Bourguignons rouge, a fruity, thirst-quenching wine sold at a very attractive price.

The evening ended with a marathon tasting (not far from 20 wines) at the cellars of Jean-Marc Pillot in Chassagne-Montrachet. I will not reproduce my notes, but will summarize by saying that Jean-Marc’s Chassagnes (red and white) are reasonably priced and very good indeed. He was the former head of the winegrower’s association there and strongly believes in preserving the appellation’s red wine production (on the appropriate terroirs) even if growers can make more money by producing only white. His own reds are top-notch, and he agreed to sell me 6 bottles of his premier cru Clos Saint Jean. We were invited to dinner at Jean-Marc’s house along with his Portuguese cork suppliers and enjoyed a wonderful evening.

The fourth day started out at Domaine Chevillon in Nuits Saint-Georges where, like so many others, they had been very badly hit by frost in 2016. However, this happily did not detract from the quality of the wines. We were looked after by Bertand Chevillon. I have visited the domaine several times, but I cannot remember ever appreciating his wines as much as his 2016s: from a superb village wine to his premiers crus: Les Chaignots, Les Bousselots, Les Roncières, Les Perrières, Les Pruliers, Les Cailles, Les Vaucrains, and Les Saint-Georges. The last three were just great. Chevillon is simply one of my favorite growers, especially in terms of value for money. Every time I go there, I ask Bertrand how the process to upgrade Les Saint-Georges to grand cru status is going. As in the past, he shrugs and says that it is more or less in the hands of the gods – and the French civil service – and that the whole thing is absurdly complex.

The second and last visit of the day was to Domaine Mugnier in Chambolle. Freddy Mugnier is a philosopher winemaker, who always seems very thoughtful and a tad melancholic. He also makes wines that the whole world beats a path to his door to buy… We tasted his usual range from 2016, all from Chambolle, except for the last: a fine village wine, a vivacious Les Fuées, a sweet sensual Bonnes Mares, a sophisticated Les Amoureuses, (in a style so different from de Vogüé’s!), a seamless Bonne Mares, and a Clos de La Maréchale from Nuits, rich and full of black fruit. We ended the tasting with a 2015 village Chambolle, a 2015 Clos de la Maréchale, and a 2015 Clos de la Maréchale blanc. It helps that the Nuits is so good, because it is the only one I can afford!

Our final day began with a visit to Domaine Lamarche in Vosne-Romanée. I have followed them for several years and see the extent to which winemaker Nicole Lamarche has blossomed and become confident. We were poured a series of 2016s: Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Vosne village, Vosne premiers crus Les Chaumes, Les Malconsorts, and Les Suchots, Nuits premier cru Les Cras, and two grands crus, Clos de Vougeot and La Grande Rue. The latter is a “monopole”, or exclusivity.
They say that the mark of a good taster is to objectively evaluate wine irrespective of one’s personal preferences. I think all of Nicole’s wines are impeccable: well-made and very Burgundian. However, I think you have to be a Burgundy fanatic to appreciate them fully because they are on the pale, pure, and light-bodied side – a style that clashes with what I usually seek (except for the pure part!).
Nicole did not barrel-age her 2016s, which is quite unusual and, apparently, somewhat controversial.
We got to talking about the meaning of the word “climat” in Burgundy and I asked a question about the one bordering on La Grande Rue: Les Gaudichots. Is La Tâche part of the Les Gaudichots climat? This developed into a “How many angels can you fit on the head of a pin?” discussion that went somewhat over my head. But Nicole was thankful for the question and went on to say that Domaine Lamarche had in fact traded some land in Echézeaux with the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for a slice of La Tâche in 1959. This had been incorporated into La Grande Rue, but Nicole decided to make a tiny cuvée from that itsy-bitsy part of the vineyard that had previously been La Tâche. You can tell by the numbers 1959 (the year of the acquisition) on labels of La Grande Rue. She was kind enough to pour us a taste of this rare wine, which Nicole calls “La Tâche vue par moi”. It is the only one of her wines for which she uses unstemmed bunches (50%). I also felt it was her best.

The next-to-last visit was Domaine Duroché in Gevrey Chambertin. I had bought some of their village wine at the Caveau Municipal (chez Rateau) in Chassagne-Montrachet on the strong recommendation of the staff, so was anxious to try the wines. We tasted mostly 2017s here, but the quality was clear, even as young as they were: village Gevrey, premier cru Lavaux Saint Jacques, and Clos de Bèze. We also tried a 2016 Gevrey village Les Jeunes Rois and a 2015 Gevrey Village, and finished with a mystery wine, that turned out to be a 1981 Lavaux Saint Jacques. Young Pierre Duroché is the fifth generation of his family to make wine at the domaine, and he does very good work. His is a wine to follow, if you can find any!
The final visit was to Domaine Dublère in Savigny-lès-Beaune, owned by American Blair Pethel. Once again, the domaine was badly hit in 2016.

We tasted through a series of wines from that vintage: Chorey-lès-Beaune Les Maladerottes (one of the better wines I’ve had from that AOC), Beaune premier cru En Orme, Volnay premiers crus Les Pitures and Taillepieds, Morey Saint-Denis premier Les Blanchards, Nuits premier Aux Bousselots. The level was very good.
The whites were Savigny premier cru Aux Vergeleesses, Chassagne premier Les Chaumées, and a tiny amount of Chassagne premier cru he will label “La Cuvée de la Gelée Noire” because of the disastrous frost. We finished with a very classy Corton Charlemagne.

My last night in Burgundy was another extravaganza repast at the Hostellerie Bourguignonne. We started off with the 2012 Louis Picamelot “Cuvée Jean-Baptiste Chautard” crémant de Bourgogne. This was slightly oxidized, but no more than a good Champagne can be. We went on to drink a 2015 Bourgogne Blanc Coche Dury, a 2012 Meursault Grands Charrons from Boisson-Vadot (we had had the 2013 earlier in the week), a 2001 Léoville Barton, a 2013 Racine du Temps Gevrey Chambertin from René Bouvier (his Marsannay is mentioned above), and a Gevrey Chambertin premier cru “Les Corbeaux” from Lucien Boillot.

I slept soundly and am looking forward to another trip to Burgundy next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Down Under to the End of the World…

This title calls for an explanation, even though the first half is fairly obvious. Down Under, of course, refers to Australia, which is where Richard and Shelley Serisier come from. Shelley is a biologist and Richard had a successful career in management. However, Richard’s roots are actually in Bordeaux. His great-great-grandfather, Jean-Émile Serisier, emigrated from there to Australia in 1839. He even planted vines in the Dubbo region of New South Wales from which he made wine receiving critical acclaim…
The French word “cerisier” means cherry tree, and so the Serisiers have adopted this as their family emblem.


Undoubtedly encouraged by their family history, the Serisiers fell in love with France and the French way of life, and decided to buy a house there. Fate led them to acquire nothing less than a full-fledged castle close to Libourne in 2004. The Château de Cadillac in Cadillac-en-Fronsadais (not to be confused with the château of the same name 60 km distant in the eponymous town on the Garonne) has a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages. The Serisiers beautifully renovated the impressive building both inside and out. It now corresponds in every way to one’s mind’s-eye representation of a French château.


The estate included 3-hectares of vines on the plateau leased to the previous owner of the chateau who had retained the rest of the vines. However, Richard, who could easily have settled into a comfortable early retirement, decided that he wanted to take control of and extend this vineyard holding. A man of action, he reasoned that the limestone plateau overlooking the Dordogne had much the same terroir as nearby Saint-Émilion and wanted to make his own wine. He strongly felt that winegrowing here was “a geographical inevitability” and that, surrounded by vines, it was only natural to try his hand at winegrowing.
So, when the former owner of the chateau sold their estate in 2011 to the Chinese, Richard bought the rest of the best parcels on the plateau adjoining the chateau. Taking a very “can do” New World approach, he does not have much truck with Bordeaux hierarchies of appellations and classifications. All his wines are either Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur, and he believes they should stand on their own merits. He sells much of them to the local restaurant trade, where they have done rather well.

Richard could not call his wine Château de Cadillac because there is a Bordeaux sweet wine appellation of the same name. So, he chose that of the vineyard plot poetically designated Champ du Bout du Monde, or “the End of the World”, on the land register. He did not attach the word “château”.

The first vintage of Le Bout du Monde was in 2012. In 2013, Richard also bought another closeby vineyard estate, Château Meillac, in Saint-Romain-la-Virvée. This provided a much-needed and since-renovated winemaking facility centred around an 18th century windmill. Total area under vine now stands at 15 hectares which includes 5 hectares of new plantings. Average annual production amounts to 40-45,000 bottles a year. Le Bout du Monde accounts for 70% and Château Meillac 30%. A prestige cuvée, Château Montrevel, was first made in 2014 (2,500-3,000 bottles a year). This comes from the best part of the vineyard and undergoes vinification intégrale.


I sampled the full range of wines, which made a very good impression. Meillac is the entry level wine, easy-drinking and early-maturing. Le Bout du Monde is more serious and has already garnered several medals. Last, but not least, Château Montrevel has benefited from its vinification intégrale winemaking and mercifully avoids the trap of too much oak on the palate. It is a fine wine that would stump just about anybody tasting it blind. The proximity with Fronsac and especially Saint-Émilion is patent.
Richard Serisier has his sights set on the long term. By any standard, creating and marketing a new brand from the Bordeaux appellation is a difficult task, and even more challenging for a foreigner. However, Richard is following his star… Even such a serious setback as the horrendous frost damage this year (75% of the crop was lost) has not deterred him or Stéphane Renié, who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the estate. The best wines so far have been made from 100% Merlot, but that will soon change when the new plantings of Cabernet Franc and Malbec vines come into production. The vines are grown sustainably.
Richard and Shelley Serisier belong to a long line of enthusiastic entrepreneurs from abroad who have contributed so much to Bordeaux wine. I have little doubt that their efforts will pay off, and their wines are well worth discovering.

Tasting of 25 great Médocs from the 2014 vintage

 

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For the past several years, I have been invited by the Union des Grands Crus to take part in a mammoth tasting organized during the Weekend des Grands Crus. This is always a wonderful experience and the 2017 tasting on the 20th of May was no exception.

Open to the general public, the UGC Weekend includes wine country tours, dinners in famous châteaux, a golf tournament and the monster tasting on Saturday with some participating 116 châteaux. The tasting takes place in the city of Bordeaux in a single huge room in a former warehouse, H 14, overlooking the Garonne, not far from the new Cité du Vin. Every UGC member is asked to show two wines: one from the same vintage (the 2014 this year) and another of their choosing. Most estates are represented by their owner or general manager, so this is a rare opportunity to meet the people who actually make the wine and talk with them. The tasting lasts from 10 am to 5 pm. Snacks are available as well as a sit-down lunch accompanied by older wines.

The tasting is well attended by wine lovers from all over the world.

The choice of wines is so great that I usually decide to focus on one region in one vintage.
This year’s choice was 2014 Médoc.

Here are my notes.

Saint-Estèphe
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2014 Château Cos Labory
C: Lovely, bright, medium-deep color.
N: Open, fruity, and plummy with graphite overtones. Expressive, subtle, and more elegant than usual for this château.
P: Unfortunately unbalanced because hollow on the middle palate. Starts out fluid and free-flowing, and then turns hard. The aftertaste is rough, and this is a shame after such a fine bouquet.

2014 Château Lafon Rochet
C: A little dull, but good enough with a thin purplish rim.
N: Lovely marriage of fruit and oak. Pretty rather than deep, although there is an attractive uplift. Nevertheless hides its light under a bushel.
P: Round and soft on the attack, then segues seamlessly in a fine structured aftertaste. More elegant than powerful. Medium-light in body with blueberry and blackberry flavors, as well as a tannic finish that indicates the wine is for mid-term drinking.

2014 Château Les Ormes de Pez
C: Relatively dense with a medium-deep purplish rim.
N: Fresh, upfront, and seemingly unoaked fruit with ethereal graphite aromas and cherry nuances in the background.
P: Somewhat lightweight for a Saint Estèphe. A good cru bourgeois not pretending to be otherwise. Relatively short aftertaste.

2014 Château de Pez

C: Medium dark core with a vibrant purplish rim.
N: Underwhelming blackberry aromas. Sweet but not very expressive.
P: A thirst-quenching, tangy sort of Médoc with fresh acidity. Light for a Saint-Estèphe. Shortish aftertaste, but with decent, slightly rubbery tannin on the finish.

2014 Château Phélan Ségur
C: Medium-deep, luminous purplish-red.
N: Underdeveloped (more understated or lacking in expressiveness?) at this time with black cherry and sweet cosmetic/perfumed aromas.
P: A little dilute, but well-constructed. The tannin on the finish makes this a serious wine, but one best enjoyed on the young side. Fresh and well-made, but not a heavy hitter.

SAINT JULIEN
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2014 Château Beychevelle
C: Medium-deep with a youthful rim.
N: Lovely. Ultra-classic fresh nose of super Médoc. Blackberry, black cherry, cassis, and earth. Subtle and perfumed.
P: Rich, soft, and mouthfilling on the attack followed by a flawless development towards a long fresh aftertaste. Fruit and tannin are very much in balance accompanied by that extra something that can only come from a fine terroir. Medium-bodied and truly elegant, this is not a huge wine, but one that will please claret lovers.

2014 Château Branaire Ducru
C: Medium and not particularly brilliant with a thinnish purple rim.
N: Too indeterminate at this stage. Some graphite there, but the bouquet is not quite up to grand cru level even though it is quite fresh.
P: Better on the palate. Tight and brambly, delicious and appetizing. Lovely texture with a classic, long, velvety afteraste. Well-made. A sleeper. The bouquet may not be expressive, but let us hope this comes around in time.

2014 Château Gloria
C: Attractive deep colour with a fairly watery rim.
N: A sweet, fresh, immediately rich and satisfying nose with hints of graphite, kirsch, and toasty oak.
P: Full-bodied, round, and with tannin that melts in the mouth. Penetrating, and then drops off somewhat before picking up again on the tannic aftertaste showing candied fruit and coffee overtones. A compromise between a classic and a crowd-pleasing commercial style. Open and attractive.

2014 Château Gruaud-Larose
C: Medium-dark with a wide purplish rim.
N: Showing sour cherry and berry fruit aromas, but underdeveloped at this time. There is a spirity quality here (blackberry liqueur).
P: Mouthfilling with sweet fruit, but there is some hollowness on the middle palate and dryness on the finish (too much oak?). Long aftertaste, but the oak is intrusive. A little top-heavy and clunky in this vintage, but I hope I will be able to revise my opinion down the road.

2014 Château Lagrange
C: Medium-deep with a watery purplish rim.
N: Expressive bouquet of primary fruit and toasty oak. Simple and forthright, with some graphite.
P: Starts out solid, going on to reveal fine-grained tannin. A natural, undoctored kind of Médoc with some dry oak on the finish. Not the red fruit flavors I would have hoped for. Tangy, medium-long aftertaste with good grip. The type of wine that is good young or old. Good value.

2014 Château Langoa Barton
C: Fine, youthful, and vibrant, including the rim.
N: Very typical of the Saint-Julien appellation with some graphite. Good, but not great.
P: Creamy, rich, and mouthfilling. Very long, tangy aftertaste with fresh acidty and red fruit flavors, especially strawberry. Needs loads of time. Promising, but not showing especially well at this time.

2014 Château Léoville Barton
C: Deep core, but also a very youthful color on the rim.
N: Subtle bouquet of candied cherries with some truffle overtones and a fascinating unpindownable floral element. Class rather than power with toasty oak bringing up the rear, but very much in harmony.
P: Sweet without being sweet… Tremendous black fruit and candied cherry flavors. Unfolds beautifully on the palate into a fine aftertaste consistent with everything the precedes. A long, long finish with bright fruit. Could perhaps use a touch more richness and volume, but this is a very fine wine indeed.

2014 Château Léoville Poyferré
C: Very deep and not totally clear. Thin rim showing different shades.
N: Concentrated bouquet of blackcurrant and throat lozenge. A little spirity.
P: Sweet and soft on entry, dips somewhat, and then comes back with significant, but not overdone oak. Fresh with a medium-heavy mouth feel. Some dryness on the finish. Very good, but not excellent. Reliable. The first vintage sold in a bottle embossed with the château emblem.

2014 Château Saint-Pierre
C: Comparable to the sister château, Gloria, tasted just before, perhaps looking a little more dull.
N: Fresh, subtle, and floral, with some candied black fruit and truffle nuances. Very interesting.
P: Starts out sweet and with the chunkiness I associate with Saint-Julien. Joyous, exuberant fruit that goes just a little too quickly into a dry aftertaste. The oak needs to blend more with the fruit.

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2014 Château Talbot

C: Lovely dark colour, much deeper than the other wines.
N: Classic sweet Cabernet Sauvignon nose with graphite and cedar overtones. Seductive and full of character, but oh-so-unlike most New World Cabs…
P: Mouthfilling, seems rather chunky and then thins out some. Controlled tannin on the aftertaste. Lovely finish with oak playing the role it should. Lacks some richness and depth, but very well-made.

PAUILLAC
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2014 Château d’Armailhac
C: Vigorous and deep with a bright purple rim. Brilliant, very good.
N: Forest floor and a definite greenness to accompany the traditional hallmarks of Pauillac. A certain herbaceousness needs to integrate better with age and/or aeration before serving.
P: A chunky quality, but without the elegance to back it up. Definite cedar and graphite aromatics, but unfocused at this time. Medium-heavy mouthfeel then dilute, then showing slightly clumsy tannin. Needs re-evaluation at a later date…

2014 Château Batailley
C: Not totally limpid. Medium-deep core.
N: Toasty oak dominates at this point and the nose smells more like coffee than wine… However, black fruit nuances are lurking.
P: Hard oakiness overlaying good back fruit, but this oak is just too much, and I do not see how time can overcome the imbalance. Dry finish.

2014 Château Clerc Milon
C: Deep, with purplish tones throughout.
N: Toasty oak, but in tune with the red fruit aromas, along with black cherry and truffle notes, as well as a touch of eucalyptus. Not celestial, but very good. Understated.
P: Silky smooth texture if a touch watery, going into a taste I can only define as Pinotlike minus the tannin! Mineral, and not very long, but a “digestible” wine that will be good young. Tangy acidity plays a major role here. A different profile from what I am used to, but Clerc Milon is still on a roll…

2014 Château Croizet Bages
C: Light and not very clear or appealing.
N: Soft and simple.
P: Smooth, light, and not much there. Rough tannin on the aftertaste. Off notes. I keep trying with Croizet Bages, waiting for the estate to be turned around, but that time is still in the future.

2014 Château Grand Puy Ducasse
C: Medium in every respect, with a purplish rim.
N: Rather rustic with hints of pencil shavings as well as odd and unexpected tropical fruit aromas!
P: Smooth, short, and simple. Dilute and ends with dry, bitter tannin. Not a winner.

2014 Château Haut Bages Libéral
C: Somewhat dusky.
N: Barnyard aromas.
P: A little better, but the bretty quality overshadows the rest.

2014 Château Lynch Bages
C: Very dark, much more so than the other wines.
N: Fine, subtle oak with trademark black fruit (cassis) and graphite aromas. Overtones of blackstrap molasses and coffee, but the aromatic profile is still largely closed at present.
P: A touch green, and acidity coats the teeth. This is a good Lynch Bages that will age well.

2014 Château Lynch Moussas
C: Medium intensity with a watery purplish rim.
N: Not much fruit. Toasty oak and caramel overtones.
P: Starts out sweet, then becomes hot and oaky with granular tannin on the finish. Out of balance. More fruit and less oak needed. There is also a slight greenness on the finish.

2014 Château Pichon Baron
C: Very dark color, one of the best of the tasting. The rim is red rather than purplish.
N: Roasted aromas (coffee) and reticent black fruit. Pure and fresh.
P: A big wine with medium-heavy mouth feel. Luscious and ticks all the right boxes for Pauillac. Smooth and requires medium-term ageing. Spreads out beautifully on the palate. The tannin less virile than in many other vintages of this wine. Wonderful.

2014 Château Pichon Comtesse
C: Medium-deep with a purple rim.
N: Candied red fruit. Sweet, but not yet complex at this stage. Surprisingly, a little rustic and not showing particularly well at this time.
P: Better on the palate, which shows marked fresh acidity and a blackcurrant flavor. Seems a little harsh and needs to age. Should be revisited at a later date to re-evaluate.

 

Overview of the 2016 vintage from the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences (University of Bordeaux)

As we go into en primeur week, this is the first “official” look at the 2016 vintage now that the wines have begun to age:

Professor Laurence GENY and Doctor Axel MARCHAL
Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux University, Oenological
in conjunction

V. LAVIGNE-CRUEGE*, E. GUITTARD*, N. DANEDE*, C. BAZ*, L. RIQUIER*, A. BARSACQ* and Ph. PIERI**

*Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux
University, Oenological Research Unit

** Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux
University, UMR 1789 Functional Ecophysiology and Genomics of the Vine, INRA (the French National Institute of Agricultural Research)

 It is always somewhat risky to announce a second great vintage in a row without appearing unduly optimistic. However, 2016 is unquestionably remarkable in Bordeaux, combining quality, quantity, and a very classic

Before looking into the effect of weather conditions on vine physiology and grape composition, let us once again consider the main parameters of a quality vintage in Bordeaux. A successful red wine vintage depends on five essential conditions:

(1) and (2) – Relatively quick flowering and fruit-set during weather that is sufficiently warm and dry to ensure good pollination and predispose towards even ripening,

(3) The gradual onset of water stress thanks to a warm, dry month of July in order to slow down and then put a definitive stop to vine growth no later than the beginning of véraison (colour change),

(4) Full ripening of the various grape varieties thanks to dry and warm (but not excessively so) weather in the months of August and September,

(5) Fine (relatively dry and medium-warm) weather during the harvest making it possible to pick the grapes in each plot at optimum ripeness without running the risk of dilution, rot, or loss of fruity aromas.

An incredibly wet spring was quite worrying for winegrowers at the time (danger of fungal diseases), but later proved to be a godsend. The soil’s water reserves were largely reconstituted, enabling the vines to cope with the exceptionally dry, hot summer. The grapes finished ripening during beautiful, relatively warm weather, with very little rain and cool nights. This unhoped for, simply incredible weather for Bordeaux made it possible to harvest deeply-coloured, aromatic grapes with beautiful acidity.

The best white wine terroirs in Bordeaux (limestone, clay-limestone, and clay-gravel soils) protected the vines from premature or overly severe water stress. Sauvignon Blanc grapes retained surprising aromatic freshness and acidity on these types of soils. The Sémillon grapes were also very successful: plump and tender.

The dry, hot summer of 2016 was also conducive to the perfect maturity of grapes in Sauternes and Barsac prior to the development of botrytis. This is a vital prerequisite for the quality of sweet white wines. Two short, but significant rainy periods triggered the development of noble rot starting in mid-September. This was followed by a return to an anticyclone propitious to concentrating the grapes. Very spread out in 2016, the harvest began in the latter half of September and finished in early November.

A mild and extremely wet winter, followed by a gloomy spring, caused a delay in vegetative growth.

 Although 2015 ended on a particularly dry, sunny note, the first three months of 2016 had above-average rainfall with accumulated precipitation close to 500 mm compared to the 30-year average of 230 mm.

Despite this grey, wet weather, temperatures were mild. In fact, the winter of 2016 was the most clement since statistics have been kept. No daytime sub-zero temperatures were recorded and there was frost on just five days.

That is why the first signs of vegetative growth (swelling buds) that appeared in late February gave the discomforting impression of extreme precociousness. However, temperatures dropped to the seasonal average starting on the 20th of February and even less in the second ten-day period of March.

Cold temperatures in March and waterlogged soils due to heavy precipitation in the early part of the year delayed bud break, which began the last week in March, one week later than usual, but earlier than 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015 (and later than 2011 and 2014).

Cool temperatures beginning in late February lasted until May. As often happens at that time of year, there were alternating warm and cold periods, with a large diurnal temperature difference that did not facilitate regular vine growth. Despite the rather early bud break, the weather until late May delayed vine growth. Phenological development was also slower than usual. This situation was compounded in some regions by frost on the last three days of April that caused major damage in localised areas.

This meant that, by late May, precocious vegetative growth was no longer the case and phenological maturity was comparable to 2014.

A providential window of fine, dry weather at the beginning of flowering limited coulure

After a gloomy winter and rainy spring, there was some apprehension about flowering. Depending on the type of soil and its water retention capacity, some vines showed normal development, whereas others with a skimpy leaf canopy or on cold clay soil were behind. That explains why coulure (as in 2013) was feared.

Flowering began during rainy weather in the last days of May. However, there was a providential window of dry, warm weather between the 3rd and the 11th of June. Mid-flowering in our reference vineyards took place around the 11th of June, i.e. 8 days later than the 20-year average (Table II). The change in the weather fortunately avoided widespread coulure. The end of flowering in certain late-ripening plots was slightly perturbed by a a final rainy period that caused some millerandage.

Fruit set occurred 8 days later. Bunches were relatively homogeneous and the number of seeds greater than average – the sign of good pollination.

After three days of rain in mid-June, beautiful weather finally set in and proceeded to lasted for quite some time. This definitively changed the nature of the vintage. High temperatures in the last ten days of June enhanced berry development. These grew very quickly, and became “pea size” by the end of the month.

At this stage, the first two prerequisites for a good vintage, i.e. quick even flowering and fruit set, were fulfilled in most plots. Overall maturity was uniform with little coulure.

An exceptionally hot, dry summer leading to lasting water stress

The remarkably fine weather in late June continued into July and August.

A few very hot days around the 15th of June degraded the herbaceous aromas without bringing growth to a halt. Rainfall was infrequent and light, while temperatures were normal and there was slightly more sunshine than usual. (Table I). Due to heavy winter rains, the lack of water stress during vegetative growth accounts for the rather large size of the berries. Bunch closure took place about the 20th of July, as in 2011 and 2015.

The water balance in late July was not conducive to stopping vegetative growth definitively (figure 6) or triggering véraison in a significant way, except on clay-gravel soils. The grapes first began to change colour in the last days of July on terroirs prone to early ripening. However, seeing as vegetative growth had not completely stopped, véraison got off to a slow start. It took until the first week of August for colour change to become noticeably widespread.

Water stress was accentuated by the absence of rain. The situation was comparable to 2010 midway through véraison. These conditions were conducive to good structure in the cell walls and the accumulation of phenolic compounds, as well as facilitating the end of véraison.

A halt to vegetative growth, the 3rd condition for a great red wine vintage, was attained by mid-véraison. Although this occurred slightly later than hoped, colour change was complete enough for a perfect start to ripening.

The month of August featured real summer weather.  It was very hot (5°C more than usual) with a remarkable amount of sunshine (+30% compared to an average year). Fortunately, minimum night-time temperatures were close to the thirty-year average, and even less on some nights. This large diurnal temperature difference guaranteed the potential formation of anthocyanins, while limiting the degradation of aromas and acids in the grapes. The absence of major precipitation caused excessive water stress in some locations, especially in plots of young vines, ones with high yields, and ones with shallow soil.

Much-welcomed showers in early September gave a new boost to ripening

In late August, a few instances of scorching were noticed in vines that had undergone excessive leaf thinning and everyone began to wonder about the danger of inhibited ripening. A heat wave arrived in early September, with average temperatures of 30-32°C. The first 13 days of September were the hottest since 1950, reaching a record 37°C in Sauternes on the 12th of September.

A storm arrived from the Basque Country late in the afternoon of the 13th of September. It rained throughout Bordeaux the following night, with varying intensity depending on the region. A depression lasting three days brought as much as 40 cm of rain in some parts of Bordeaux.

However, the sun returned on the 20th of September and, with it, fine weather that lasted until the end of the harvest.

This rainy period gave a new impetus to ripening. Cabernet Sauvignon and late-ripening Merlot grapes benefited particularly from this.

A sunny mid-September and month of October virtually without any rain completed ripening and made for a leisurely harvest

Once again, the month of September was decisive for the quality of the vintage. October was dry and sunny, with cool nights making it possible to wait serenely for the best time to pick all grape varieties.

The rain in early September gave a boost to maturity, which nevertheless took more time than usual to be reached. The sunshine and relatively cool night-time temperatures were conducive to the unusually large accumulation of phenolic compounds, as well as the preservation of aromas and acidity.

These weather conditions stopped grey rot from developing, except in certain parts of Bordeaux where fairly heavy rain in early September forced winegrowers to pick early.

The rain in early September, followed by a dry, but not excessively hot period, ensured that ripening would start up again – the fourth condition for a great red wine vintage. The month of October was just as sunny, but cooler, enabling the Cabernets to ripen fully. 

Despite the heat in June and July, the 2016 vintage was not particularly early.

The dry white wine harvest began in the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellations at the very beginning of September, about one week later than in 2015. After a remarkably dry month of August, the grapes were in perfect condition, without a trace of grey rot. Although they quickly attained sufficient sugar levels, their potential fruitiness, which had stayed in the background for a long time, also came to the fore at the end of ripening. The showers in mid-September did not have a major effect on the grapes, which could be picked without any need to hurry. Yields were very satisfactory, especially for Sauvignon Blanc, where such prolific production had not been seen in years.

The freshly-picked grapes had lower sugar levels than in 2015, but in keeping with the previous 5-year average. Total acidity was slightly lower than in 2013, 2014, and 2015, and similar to 2011 (Table IV). The balance between sugar and acidity gave rise to hopes that 2016 would be a good vintage for white wines, especially those from soils where they are traditionally successful (limestone, clay-limestone, and clay-gravel) and which are conducive to retaining good acidity.

The red wine harvest began with the most early-maturing plots of Merlot in the third week of September, but most grapes were picked in early October, i.e. one week later than usual. Harvesting of the Cabernets and Petit Verdot went on until just after mid-October during sunny weather.

Therefore, the fifth and final prerequisite for a good red wine vintage – fine weather during the harvest – was perfectly fulfilled in 2016.

Ideal conditions for harvesting excellent quality grapes

The red wine grapes in 2016 were characterized by a reasonable degree of potential alcohol and an outstanding phenolic composition.

As opposed to other French regions adversely affected by violent weather, the vintage in Bordeaux was generous. This can be explained by the large number of grapes per cluster as well as their size.  Because water stress manifested itself rather late, the berries were comparable in weight to 2015, but lighter than in 2010. The very low malic acid content – the lowest since 2009, except for 2011 – was due to the hot, dry summer weather.

These meteorological conditions enhanced the degradation of isobutyl-methoxypyrazine. This compound, responsible for “green pepper” aromas in Cabernet, was practically unable to be detected from the very beginning of the ripening.

Alternating cool nights and sunny days in September was conducive to the remarkable accumulation of anthocyanins. Content was higher than in 2015 or 2009, and close to 2011. Extraction took place slowly and varied according to grape variety. Extractability was greater for the Cabernets than for Merlot – proof of excellent maturity in the later-ripening varieties. Colour was deep and the tannin in the seeds was most often ripe and of high quality in 2016.

Due to the lack of rainfall until mid-September, botrytis took its time to appear and so grapes in Sauternes and Barsac were essentially concentrated at first thanks to raisining. However, showers on the 13th and 30th of September triggered the development of noble rot on perfectly ripe grapes, and their concentration was enhanced by the return of fine weather. Picking during the second trie, or pass, constituted the lion’s share of the best part of the harvest, which lasted until early November. The quantity of wine made at several estates reached a record high.

 Good dry white and sweet white wines, and outstanding red ones

The 2016 dry white wines are good. They are fruity and flavoursome, less acidic than the three previous vintages, and well-balanced. The Sémillon wines were especially successful in 2016, adding body and softness to the blend, but without heaviness.

The great wines of Sauternes and Barsac are extremely pure. Very rich and showing candied fruit overtones, they display a style that emphasises power rather than bright aromatics or freshness.

At the beginning of ageing, the 2016 red wines give every indication of being outstanding. They have an amazing colour. They are also fruity, without any herbaceousness, and combine the tannic power of great vintages with a deliciously velvety texture. Their relatively high level of acidity gives them an admirable freshness and tremendous balance, without any hardness. The vintage is unprecedented, more classic than 2009 or 2015, and seems to have very long ageing potential.

 

Book review: “From Yquem to Fargues” by Alexandre de Lur Saluces

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At the age of 82, Alexandre de Lur Saluces has written a book telling us of his trials, tribulations, and joys in the many years he has made world class wine in Sauternes.

d’Yquem à Fargues – l’excellence d’un vin, l’histoire d’une famille” was published by Gallimard in November 2016.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/253-1422515-3899335?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=d%E2%80%99Yquem+%C3%A0+Fargues
Gallimard (one of the largest French publishing houses) only distribute the French version.
However, an English version does indeed exist, and can be ordered directly from the château :
www.chateaudefargues.com/librairie
or
https://www.chateaudefargues.com/en/bookstore/

This relatively short (175 pages), but many-faceted book is a very interesting and entertaining read. There’s even a section on “Sauternes in Literature”. It has a handsome royal blue and gold binding, as well as the crown all wine lovers will recognize from the labels of both Yquem and Fargues.

The book is divided into several parts: a forward by Natacha Polony (a French journalist and essayist of Polish origin), a preface by Marguerite Figeac (a professor of history at Bordeaux University), an introduction and a conclusion by the author, a postface by Jean-Paul Kaufmann (a journalist, writer, and noted lover of Bordeaux wines), and a series of appendices on various technical and historical subjects.

One is struck by Alexandre Lur Saluce’s modesty, candor, grounding in his rural environment and, of course, his deep sense of history. Château de Fargues has been in his family since 1472. He represents the 15th generation and has produced 48 vintages there…

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Château d’Yquem

The Lur-Saluces name will, of course, forever be associated with Château d’Yquem. This came into the family when Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces married Joséphine de Suavage in 1785. At one time, the Lur Saluces owned some 700 hectares in Sauternes (over a quarter of the combined present-day area of Sauternes and Barsac), including châteaux de Malle, Filhot, and Coutet.
Alexandre de Lur Saluces was in charge of Yquem for 36 years, from 1968 to 2004. The sale of the estate to LVMH involved a long bitter fight, but this is wisely dealt with dispassionately and in summary fashion. That is not the point of the book.

Château de Fargues

Château de Fargues

What is the point then? In fact, there are several. The book is necessarily autobiographical (for instance, I was unaware that Alexandre was the 8th of 9 children), but also describes the renaissance of Château de Fargues and goes into considerable detail about the making of one of the world’s great wines: Sauternes. That is because Alexandre de Lur Saluces has always been a sterling ambassador for Sauternes as a whole, not just his family estates. He has clearly lost none of his sense of wonder at the transformation by Botrytis cinerea of grapes grown on a unique terroir to produce a wine like no other. And he is very concerned about the appellation’s future. He points out the danger of a proposed TGV high speed train line that would upset the region’s delicate ecosystem, decries the production of dry white wine at the expense of one of the world’s great sweet wines, and criticizes the lack of commercial support from Bordeaux négociants.  He also writes about matching Sauternes and food, a subject that often puzzles wine lovers.

One must admire Alexandre de Lur Saluces’ ability to rebound after leaving Yquem and invest his energy in the renovation and expansion of Château de Fargues, an estate that has gone from strength to strength. This is described in a lively way and illustrated with beautiful photos.

I would recommend this book by one of Bordeaux’s greatest figures to anyone with even a passing interest in Sauternes. It is informative, entertaining, thought-provoking, in easy-to-understand French, and full of anecdotes.

What to do when an expensive wine is corked? Why, ask the château to replace it, of course!

 

DSC03027

 

It is always a disappointment when a fabled and/or expensive bottle of wine proves to be undrinkable. Many of my Burgundy-loving friends have stopped buying that region’s white wines altogether because of the number of prematurely oxidized bottles they encounter. Unfortunately, Burgundy has, as yet, found no cure.

Then there are the corked bottles, which bedevils producers everywhere… As we all know, this is caused by trichloroansol, or TCA, a substance found in both cork and wood. Once again, no sure way of avoiding this has been found, other than multi-piece, colmated, agglomerated, or synthetic corks and, of course, screw caps, keeping in mind that none of these have proved to be appropriate for fine wines meant to age for decades.

It is estimated that 7% of all wines with natural cork closures suffer from cork taint.

In the same way that most people will not complain about food or wine at a restaurant if asked by a waiter if everything is fine –  when this is not the case – the majority of wine lovers just shrug their shoulders when confronted by a corked wine at home, considering this as destiny, a necessary risk to take, and a low-level form of Russian roulette. The price to pay.
This is what I have always done.

However, I hosted a wine dinner at my house in November and invited two enologists. One of them works for a Médoc great growth. I had wanted to compare a bottle of 2001 Mouton Rothschild and one of 2001 Pichon Baron. This was impossible since the latter was indisputably corked to high heaven. I was prepared to go tsk, tsk, shake my head and move on. However, my friend said “At the château I work for, when someone reports a corked bottle, we replace it”.

So I thought, why not try? So, I wrote a letter to Château Pichon Baron and enclosed the cork. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from Jean-Marie Matignon, the estate’s technical director, confirming that the cork was indeed infected and that the château would be glad to replace the wine. Of course, I was delighted, and the bottle arrived on my doorstep in due course.

I salute the château’s great sense of fair play in replacing a 15 year-old bottle, and will never again be defeatist when I come across a corked wine. Of course, I’m aware that not every producer will be as conscientious, but Pichon Baron has set a fine standard.

If any of you have similar stories to tell, I’d be glad to hear them.
 

 

 

A tasting of 17 wines from the Côtes de Castillon

 

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I was invited to a tasting on the 9th of November by the Castillon Winegrowers Association.

I have a soft spot for Castillon. It’s one of those under-rated Bordeaux appellations that’s a treasure trove of good value wines.

There were about 20 of us at the tasting that started off with a short presentation by Maïwenn Brabant. She outlined some of the appellation’s marketing efforts including one that I found particularly interesting: Castillon winegrowers will go to people’s houses free of charge for groups of at least 10 people to share their wines and talk about them. Winegrowers have even done this in Paris, all at their own expense.
With that kind of motivation and effort, they can help but succeed!

Here are my notes.

IMPORTANT: Please consider the points within the following context. I am a tough grader. For me, acceptable wine is 10/20, 12/20 is OK, 14 is quite good, and 15 on up is special.
Also, obviously, we are talking about wines that cost only a fraction of the grands crus.

 

 

2012 Château Peyrou
Medium deep color. Not very expressive red fruit nose. Round, fruity, and juicy on the palate. Nice to drink at the present time. Uncomplicated and immediately appealing. Very Merlot: soft, with a rubbery finish. Good mid-range Bordeaux.
14/20

2011 Domaine La Tuque Bel-Air
Fine even color. Nose of candied fruit, liquorice, celery, and cocoa. Plush and round on the palate, but with a good tannic backbone. Plenty of black cherry fruit and a medium-long aftertaste. Great value. On retasting, I found a rustic aspect, but this is a good sign to me – that this is a vin de terroir.
15/20

2011 Château Pillebois
Nice color with a deep core. Suave bouquet. The oak overwhelms the fruit, but not in an unacceptably heavy-handed way. The wine has a brawny framework, but a hollow middle palate. Oak ageing dominates the flavor profile, but there is also brambly fruit. Finishes slightly dry.
13/20

 


2012 Château La Brande
Medium-deep color with youthful purple rim. Subtly perfumed nose but ash aromas in the background. Round attack becoming sharpish and appetizing on the palate. An essentially one-dimensional wine that lacks richness. It seems more serious on the aftertaste, but there is also a certain hard, unyielding quality.
13/20

2011 Château Pitray (premier vin)
Brilliant, deep red color with attractive purplish overtones. A nose of deep berry fruity. Big and chewy on the palate. Melts in the mouth, seguing into an attractive easy-going juiciness with oak to back it up. A successful modern style.
14/20

2010 Château Moulin de la Clotte, vieilles vignes
Lovely dark color with violet rim. Understated nose of black fruit. Textbook Merlot on the palate. Tremendously round and easy-going, but tends to drop after the attack and dries out somewhat on the finish. Out of balance because of too much oak, but in a commercial style.
12.5/20

2012 Château Bellevue vieilles vignes
Medium-light color with purplish tinges. Bit old fashioned and secretive on the nose. Closed-in, but shows nice ripeness and freshness. Good tension on the palate. Fluid attack, then dips. Thirst-quenching wine, but with proper tannins to give it substance. Weakness on the middle palate detracts, but the tannin gives character. Best with strongly-flavored dishes. Oak ageing makes this conducive to further cellaring.
13.5/20

2012 Ch. De Laussac, Cuvée Sacha
Fine youthful color. Oaky, minty, and reminiscent of New World wines on the nose. Big and round on the palate, but the promise of the (fairly fluid) attack is not sustained thereafter. Fairly confected and oaky. Will appeal to people who like flashy wines, but this does not seem very much like a vin de terroir to me. Dry and grippy on the finish.
12.5/20

2010 Château des Demoiselles
Relatively light in color. Some ash aromas. Sweet but not remarkable or particularly well-focused. Big and mouth filling on the palate. Sensually soft. Very seductive and follows through nicely, neither overdone nor weak. Lovely Merlot fruitiness. As much as the bouquet is on the nondescript side, the wine is surprisingly attractive on the palate. Not serious, but sexy. Good acidity. A Merlot for self-professed Merlot haters.
14/20

2012 Château Bréhat
Bright cherry-red color with purplish rim. Fresh blueberry nose. Sweet and simple. Very easy-going, as well as fat and juicy on the palate. Quite soft with little structure. Some liquorice flavors on the aftertaste. The wine has virtually no tannic structure and is too rough after the soft start.
11.5/20

2011 Château Grand Tuillac
Nice, medium-deep color with a good youthful tone on the rim. Very ripe nose with black fruit and throat lozenge aromas. Sweet and powerful. Starts out quite soft on the palate, then struts its stuff with fine fresh acidity. Not a classis sort of Bordeaux, but definitely moreish and appetizing. Not tiring or topheavy.
14.5/20

2011 Clos Puy Arnaud
Deep, youthful, and not entirely brilliant color. Lovely up-front black cherry nose. Very sweet and enticing. Rich and enveloping on the palate. Develops well. Quite charming and perhaps too facile, but this would unquestionably create a few surprises if included in a blind tasting of Saint-Emilions… The best wine of the tasting.
16/20

2012 Domaine de l’A
Medium-deep color. Creamy, complex, but odd nose with weird and wonderful overtones, including dill! Too simplistic and supple on the palate, going into a hot, dry aftertaste. Overdone. Disappointing in light of good wines I’ve had from this estate in other vintages.
11.5/20

2011 Château Cap de Faugères
Average color in all respects, pretty much what it should be. The nose hesitates between neutral and off-putting. The wine is angular and not altogether pleasant on the palate, which is surprising in light of the estate’s reputation.
11/20

2014 Château du Roc
Good, vital color with purplish rim. Uplifting, fresh, seductive, and classy bouquet that is curiously Pinot-like (!). Starts out round and attractive and then melts into an unpleasant hardness. There is ageing potential there, but the wine at this stage appears over-extracted and unbalanced.
11/20

 

2011 Château Claud-Bellevue
Good medium-deep color. The nose is muted and hard to define, but there are some meaty overtones there. The wine is quite big on the palate and New World in style. Unfortunately it is altogether too obvious, fat, and oaky.
10/20

2014 Ch. Beynat
Medium-light color. The nose is not terribly expressive, but features some interesting spicy notes. The wine goes from soft to harsh, and is a little dilute. There’s definite dryness on the finish, but this wine will taste better in a couple of years.
13/20.

2007 Haut Brion / 2007 La Mission Haut Brion

I am fortunate to have friends with close ties to both Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion and so have more than a passing acquaintance with these two great wines.

The difference between these two estates, just across the road from one another is amazing.

La Mission’s rise in the past two decades is remarkable. However, it would be more accurate to say that this rise is more in reputation than an actual improvement in quality, which has always been superlative. The price has moved up accordingly and, in many ways, La Mission Haut Brion is a first growth in everything but name.

On a number of occasions I have spent a leisurely meal comparing Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion side by side. I almost always prefer the former because of its finesse. A week ago, I was invited to dinner at which the 2007 vintage of both wines were served. I did not take notes, because I consider it rude at table. So here are my impressions from memory.

The two wines were different in color. Haut Brion was already starting to show mahogany tinges, while La Mission was deeper and more youthful.

Haut Brion had, as one would expect, a beautiful bouquet: elegant and subtle. Everything was understated, including the oak. We did not taste blind but, if we had, it would have been obvious that this was a wine of great class. It was fluid and slick on the palate, relatively light in body and with a medium-long aftertaste. 2007 was a difficult year, but such years often have the advantage of coming around earlier. Was this great wine ready to drink? It was certainly most of the way there, but ideally a few more years will do it good and it will undoubtedly stay on its plateau for a very long time.

 

La Mission had a somewhat deeper bouquet with roasted, brambly aromas and hints of leather and prune. It seemed more substantial on the palate, fuller in body, more vigorous and assertive with a decided mineral (dare I say gravelly quality). The aftertaste was longer than the Haut Brion.

So, on this evening, Haut Brion won by a nose. For now. However, for the first time I can remember, I preferred La Mission because of its potential. A rematch down the line would be wonderful

The 2016 vintage at Château Montrose

 

 

I was invited to Château Montrose on the 12th of October to see how the new vintage was going. I was glad to accept, because 2016 has been a very unusual year weatherwise and I curious to see what effect this had on the grapes. In fact, the harvest finished today (14th of October).

Château Montrose has 95 hectares of vines (90 in production). The estate is dramatically situated on a rise overlooking the Gironde Estuary. The vines go down the relatively steep slope almost to the river, which unquestionably has a positive influence on the microclimate, helping to avoid extremes of temperature. A soil survey defined Montrose’s gravelly terroir in the “terrace 4” category, not unlike Château Latour’s. Grape varieties are 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 6 % Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot.
A relatively recent estate in Médocain terms, Montrose was nevertheless classified a second growth in the 1855 classification. It belonged to the Charmolüe family from 1896 until 2006, when it was acquired by Martin and Olivier Bouygues, among the wealthiest people in France. Although they live in Paris, the Bouygues come frequently to Saint-Estèphe and are intimately involved with their estate.

The changes in Montrose in the past 10 years have been breathtaking. The 1,000 m² barrel cellar, completed in 2014, is a veritable temple of Bacchus, one of the most classical and beautiful in Bordeaux, which is saying something… All existing buildings were renovated and new ones built. Careful attention was paid to ecological concerns. The château has 3,000 m² of solar panels and draws on geothermal energy from a well dug some 100 meters deep…

 

In this same spirit, experiments are being made with organic viticulture. Fifteen hectares are being farmed in this way and, what’s more, expressly in the part of the vineyard considered to be the most vulnerable to vine diseases. The results are very encouraging and it is hoped that the vineyard will be entirely organic within the next 5 years.
The 2016 harvest started on the 23rd of September. Like elsewhere in Bordeaux this year, the growing season got off to poor start due to a cool, wet spring. Bud burst at Montrose took place around the 4th of April for Merlot, the 11th of that month for the Cabernets, and the 14th for Petit Verdot. Flowering occurred on the same day for Merlot and the Cabernets (the 10th of June) and on the 14th for Petit Verdot.

 

A heat wave in August changed things radically. Véraison took place on the 19th of August for Merlot, the 25th for the Cabernets, and the 29th for Petit Verdot.
Yes, there was some scattered scorching of grapes and vegetative growth was blocked for a time. But an important distinction must be made with 2003. The average highs in August of that year were 32°C, whereas they were 28°C in 2016. The vineyard manager, Mme Patricia Teynac, and the winemaker, M. Vincent Ducup, thought that this would spell high sugar levels. However, this was not the case. For instance, both Merlot and the Cabernets came at 13-13.5° potential alcohol, which is quite reasonable in a good vintage. All in all, this was a slightly early-ripening year.
The average yield was 41 hl/ha.

One of the hallmarks of 2016 is what can only be described as drought conditions. Precipitation from June until the present time has been abnormally low, and may well set a new record.
Montrose’s new (ten years already, even so…) owners have brought about two important changes in the wine. First of all, the selection process has been taken to great lengths. The second wine, La Dame de Montrose, has existed for years. However, a third wine was introduced in 2010, Le Saint-Estèphe de Montrose, and there is even a fourth wine now (!), which is sold in bulk to négociants. The grand vin now accounts for just one quarter to one third of the total crop depending on the vintage.

The second change involves winemaking. Montrose, renowned for its longevity, is now more open in its youth, but without compromising ageing potential. A neat trick, that seems to be working!
Montrose acquired part of Phélan Ségur, a large 21 hectare plot called Fonpetite in 2010. Wine from here has been integrated into the estate started with the 2010 vintage. It is nevertheless important to point out that this parcel was once part of Montrose, so the magical transformation of cru bourgeois land into great growth terroir from one minute to the next is inaccurate.
Be this as it may, much of Fonpetite’s production goes into the second wine.

At a time when 85% of all grapes in Bordeaux are machine harvested, there are 90 pickers at Montrose in 2016. As in years past, all of them come from the village of Pruna, near Seville. Fortunately, the winemaker speaks Spanish!

Among other innovations, Montrose is relying on drones that take infrared photos of the vines. These show different levels of maturity, even within the estate’s 90 separate plots. Montrose has also introduced the dividing of grapes from the premières grappes (bunches on the top of the vine) and deuxièmes grappes (ones from the bottom). The latter are riper and so are fermented separately.

The replanting program, begun in 2006, will take forty years to complete! Montrose is also experimenting with propagating the best vines rather than buying ones from a vine nursery.

Furthermore, Montrose has made an effort over the past 3 years to reduce sufur levels, going from 140 to 100 mg., with an aim to reach just 70 mg.

 


A visit to the vatroom revealed 65 stainless steel vats of varying capacity to keep wines from each plot separate in order to fine tune the final blend.
The ph of the new wine is about 3.5 for both of the main varieties. The anthocyanin content is greater than 2,000 for the Merlot and 3,000 for the Cabernets (measured according to the ApH1 Glories method)
I have a decent backlog of experience tasting young wines from barrel, but it is unfortunately beyond me to taste freshly pressed juice and appraise it. But going on Montrose’s track record, and based on the genuine enthusiasm of the winemaking team, I think something special is in store, and I look forward to tasting 2016 Montrose in March or April of next year.

CHATEAU MERCIER: A GO-TO CÔTES WINE

I am a great fan of the excellent affordable wines of Bordeaux. The Côtes de Bordeaux (especially Bourg, Blaye, and Castillon) are a treasure trove of relatively inexpensive wines with the class and distinction Bordeaux is famous for.

Case in point: Château Mercier in Saint-Trojan in the Côtes de Bourg.

 


I have known this estate for years and never been disappointed. The Chéty family have been making wine at Mercier since… 1698! Philippe Chéty, a former mayor of Saint-Trojan and figure in the Côtes de Bourg, handed over management to his children Christophe and Isabelle – the 16th generation – in 1999. I visited Mercier in May during the Côtes de Bourg Portes Ouvertes, at which time they had some twenty different vintages to taste, not to mention the other wines produced by the château (white, rosé, clairet, crémant, etc.).


I wanted to go back at the end of August for two reasons.

 
First of all, I had developed a strong affinity for Mercier’s white Côtes de Bourg – a relative rarity – called “Graines Blanches” and wanted to buy some more. This wine comes in a 3-litre bag-in-box as well as in bottle.
I find bag-in-box wine highly convenient if you just want a glass or two, or if you only need a little wine for cooking. It is rare for good estate wine to be packaged like this, so when three liters of a perfectly good, aromatic, nippy, dry white wine sell for just over 15 euros at the estate, that seemed like a no-brainer! I used the first box up in no time, so picked up two more.

The other reason for returning to Mercier was to find out more about Atmosphère, their new unsulfured wine.


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There is a lot of media attention and a fair deal of controversy about “natural wine”. In fact, the very definition of natural wine is open to discussion… I admit to having a prejudice against such wines because I have had some poor examples, because they seem more like a marketing gimmick than anything else, and because their “naturalness” is considered by some more important than the way they actually taste…

I was nevertheless intrigued that an estate as solid as Mercier should introduce a wine without sulfur (or, more exactly, with zero added sulfur, because there is always some intrinsic sulfur). I therefore bought a bottle in May to try, not expecting very much.

I might add that the natural wine ayatollahs would exclude Mercier’s wine because they use cultured rather than indigenous yeast (go figure…).

Anyway, I am pleased to say that my prejudice was overcome when I tasted Mercier’s 2015 “Atmosphères”. This 100% Merlot is a vibrant purplish red with a pure upfront nose of cassis leaves and black fruit – not deep, but fragrant, as well as simple, but seductive. Although soft and gulpable, the wine shows Bordeaux’s tannic reserve on the aftertaste making what might, at first, seem like a very good nouveau-type wine more serious and traditional. The wine displays lively acidity that is not at odds with the softness, as well as what I can only describe as a tealike flavor.

Bordeaux doesn’t do primeur wines, but Merlot made this way is a delight to drink quite young when it’s user-friendly and uncomplicatedly fruity. Atmosphères costs 10.50 euros a bottle at the estate. While unquestionably a very fun, anytime wine, it is much more than a diversion for bobos and health food nuts. It’s also an authentic Bordeaux that deserves attention.
Obviously, it takes special care to avoid adding sulfur. The trick is to keep the wine away from oxygen as much as possible throughout the winemaking process. Carbon dioxide (including dry ice) and nitrogen play a key role here. Furthermore, Mercier is also innovating by experimenting with Vinification Intégrale®, a patented method of red grape barrel fermentation.

 

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The Chéty family have a total of 50 hectares of vines, half of which comprise Château Mercier, with the rest taken up by Clos Piat and Château La Cottière, also in the Côtes de Bourg. Château Mercier also has a gîte (bed and breakfast) and if you are every in the region, you are sure to receive a warm welcome should you decide to visit.