“The very essence of elegance,” concluded The Queen last time she visited Bordeaux. From the grandiose buildings that reminiscent the glorious past and the wonderful narrow streets that are now hosting some of the young generation’s favourite spots, Bordeaux is turning into one of the most appealing cities to live in France. The new TGV line that connects it with Paris in just 2 hours and the recent developments in the airport with more airlines & flights to Merignac on daily basis, brings more tourists to the city. The La Cité du Vin is by far World’s Best wine museum and a ‘must-see’ when in town. It brings the wine culture closer not only to the oenophiles but the average wine consumer who just wants to learn more about wine, in an interactive and educational way.
In a city that more than of its 60.000 inhabitants work in the wine industry (which include barrel companies, logistics packaging etc.), someone can understand that Wine is a protagonist on a daily basis. The city is bustling with wine professionals every April, when the En-Primeur tastings taking place. This was exactly the purpose of my trip; Flew on Friday to visit some of the most prestigious Château and try to get an understanding of the 2017 vintage, from wines still in their infancy. Even though that some times is hard to taste wines that are not ‘ready’ and will require more élevage (think of élevage as a wine’s adolescence or education), you can still tell about certain qualities.
2017 was defined as a vintage from the spring frost at the end of April. And even though that clearly had an impact on the quantities as it was 40% less than 2016 and 33% down from the 10 year average, it didn’t quite right have the impact that many people thought on the quality. People tend to focus on the negative aspects and forget that nature might find its way along the way. Need to say that 1961, one of the most legendary vintages of the previous century was hit by an early frost in May? Heavily affected areas include many of the Saint-Émilion satellites and Côtes de Bordeaux appellations, especially Côtes de Francs which saw the lowest yields. If you like to find out more about the vintage charts and statistics, Gavin Quinney (a member of our club and Château owner in Bordeaux) wrote a great article on the subject and you can find the link below.
Spending the whole of Friday with the famous Thienpont family in the Right Bank is not a bad way to start your trip, right? We started with L’If which was released for first time with the 2011 vintage. L’if is the brainchild of Jacques Thienpont (of Le Pin fame) and is managed by Cyrille Thienpont. Is located just east of the Saint Emilion village, not far from Troplong Mondot & La Mondotte, planted mainly with Merlot (around 80%) on the classic clay soils with chalky limestone bedrock. There are few smaller parcels of Cabernet Franc that constitute the remaining of the blend and 2 more parcels that will be replanted soon. Here you don’t find the magnificent buildings of the Left Bank with the impressive towers or any exotic Pagodas. Tiny and simple premises just to host the crop from 8 hectares property, equipped with some of the original vats of Le Pin. Cyrille is softly spoken, allows the wine to speak for itself. A wine with a moderate vigour, coming from the Merlot that dominates the blend, and a fine strip of acidity that provides balance to the blend by the Cabernet Franc. Not the blockbuster St-Émilion like its neighbours, but a wine with finesse and elegance. Pavie-Macquin and Vieux Château Certan are next to follow, finishing with the jewel of the crown, Château Le Pin.
Château Pavie-Macquin is managed by Nicola Thienpont who arrived in 1994 and he joined the young Stéphane Derenoncourt, who was cutting his teeth at the estate, splitting time between it and Château Canon-La Gaffelière just down the road. Despite the tough start, Nicola and Stéphane have spent more than 20 years together now fine-tuning the wines, which was evident with the promotion of the Château to St-Émilion Premiers Grands Crus Classés B classification in 2006. The wine is defined by a combination of ripe dark fruit, with silky tannins and a core of acidity that gives balance and nerve. Power and purity is a wonderful thing. And is always great to taste it next to other Château managed by Nicola & Stéphane, Château Larcis Ducasse. Here the wine defined by minerality and the fruit spectrum is more towards red crunchy fruits and delicate flowers. Needless to say that the efforts of the duo has boosted the quality here as well, bringing Larcis Ducasse in the same group of St-Émilion Premiers Grands Crus Classés B classification in 2012. The duo of success!
Pomerol was next and at Château Le Pin, we were welcomed by Guillaume and Francois Thienpont, who invited us to try one of the most sought-after Bordeaux straight from the barrel. Not many of them to count…
Visiting Le Pin is almost as sacramental as visiting a temple. The simple surroundings add to the almost mystical ambience and on your way to the chai (the underground room with the barrels) it feels like a pilgrimage. Close your eyes and with the aim of the wine you will be listening to the hymns of the angels that happily live here. The wine is made from 100% Merlot and is definitely the most Burgundian wine you can find in Bordeaux. A wine with finesse, elegance and persistent character. 2017 is still very shy, with a wonderful core of crunchy red cherries, mulberries and violets. Silky tannins, great freshness, long and poised. If you look for power, better look somewhere else. Is not only a wine that requires big pockets, is a wine that requires understanding & patience and will reward you accordingly if you can wait.
To understand the philosophy of the Thienponts, no better way to discover it by meeting Alexandre Thienpont, who became director of Vieux Château Certan in 1985 as natural heir to his father Léon. There are not many Château in Pomerol with the consistency of VCC for the last 50-60 years. A true star of the appellation and a long-time favourite for many wine lovers. The proportion of Merlot to Cabernet Franc changes from year to year and there are no recipes to follow. This year is one of the highest in Merlot (84%) and the addition of Cabernet Franc always gives the core and provides the spine of this wine. What is unique though for the history of VCC, is the 5% Cabernet Sauvignon that made into the blend for first time!
One of the most unusual properties in the so-called Right Bank, is Château Figeac in St-Émilion. A unique blend of 1/3 each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. A very simple reason; The soil conditions of the plateau of Figeac as is been called, with a gravel outcrop (that the Cabernets love) that runs through the estate and makes its way to the neighbouring Cheval Blanc, where Cabernet Franc most of the times dominates the blend. This year though we will see one of the highest proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon into the blend of Figeac (46%) which gives this leafy, blackcurrant complexity, with a graphite, pencil shaving character that makes you wonder if you stand in the wrong bank of the river. Truly wonderful wine.
Spending a weekend in Bordeaux can be great fun. You can either visit the Dune du Pilat in the Arcachon Bay, which is the biggest sand dune in Europe, spending the day on swimming, hiking or kite-surfing & paragliding if you are one of those adrenaline freaks. Alternatively you can visit Cap Ferret and play it safe over a great plateau of fresh oysters matched wonderfully with a nice glass of Bordeaux blanc. Stay and explore the city is not a bad idea either, with some alternative routes for the young generations, like the Darwin complex with new wave cafes and street art exhibitions.
On Monday we were back to work, visiting the Left Bank. Château Montrose was the first of the day and I was impressed with the detailed 3-D video that had analysed all their parcels and displayed clearly the detail to attention when it comes to picking the grapes and the timings of harvest. This year the Cabernet Sauvignon proportion is quite high, due to the quality of the fruit and with much stricter selection of Merlot. Please keep in mind that Merlot is budding and flowering much earlier than Cabernet and therefore is much more prone to an early frost, like the one that hit the region last April. Though, the proximity of the estate to the estuary meant no issues for the Grand Vin. Quite fragrant and expressive, with a charming character for such a young wine. Lighter pressings and less pressing wine into the final blend had probably have an impact on the finesse of the final wine.
Château Mouton- Rothschild was our next visit, starting with D’Armailhac. Good Cabernet fruit density on the nose, with blackcurrant and red fruit hints. Touch of tobacco and sweet oaky notes. Clerc-Milon was less expressive, with lower percentage of Sauvignon but higher Cabernet Franc. Elegant and crunchy, with a blackcurrant & fig leaf component. Very pure, charming palate, which was dominated by a sweet core of red fruit. Almost a sophisticated Loire example.
Petit-Mouton showed lots of cassis and blackberry fruit notes with hints of violets, plums and cherries. On palate the higher percentage of Cabernet (81%) was quite evident, with a grip from the tannins.
Château Mouton- Rothschild was slightly shy on the nose, not showing much of the characteristic exotic opulence. But it was smooth, with really fine tannins, delicate and long. Very fine.
Aile D’Argent is their white wine and for this year, the quantities were down by 30% due to the frost, mainly on some parcels that were planted 10 years ago on cooler sites. The wine is a blend of 53% Sauvignon Blanc with 46% Semillon and 1% Muscadelle. Just 30% of new oak, which is very well integrated. Very expressive nose, with ripe peach and nectarine notes, exotic nuances of pineapple and mango, Lilies and white tea. On palate shows a touch of creaminess which is balanced by a fresh acidity. Really charming wine.
For many people Château Latour is considered the quintessential Pauillac. Broad, powerful, smokey and with a tremendous ability for long ageing. The third wine is called Pauillac and has an unusual high proportion of Petit Verdot. Showing a round and fruit driven character, with some plummy notes.
Forts de Latour ’17; Here the smokey and leafy notes are more apparent, with classic blackcurrant and cassis hints. A typical Pauillac in style, with breadth and vigour which clearly needs time to develop its real potential. The Grand Vin is less expressive, with similar characteristics, but more depth and finesse at the same time. An underlying power than hasn’t been released yet and will wait peacefully in the cellars of the Château, as Latour does not sell wine en primeur from the 2012 vintage onwards. The 2006 though was showing with an already approachable character, of dried red fruits, earthy and savoury with mushroomy undertones. Softer and rounder from the Latour of the 80s and early 90s.
Continuing with the First Growths, Château Margaux was next. We were welcomed by the Château’s Deputy General Manager Aurélien Valance, who guided us through the conditions of the growing season and the decisions that they had to make. They lost only 8ha out of the 82 from frost. Extreme selection this year which has affected mainly the Pavillon Rouge, as only 22% qualified as such and 37% as Grand Vin. Despite the low quantities for Pavillon Rouge, which is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon (76% for 2017), the wine shows sapidity and structure. On the nose is a bit restrained and shows the classic mix of Cabernet fruit with some elegant herbal nuances, palate has nerve and tension and shows the ability of this wine to age.
The Grand Vin is blend of 89% C.Sauv., 8%Merlot and 2% C.Franc and Aurélien explained their decision to ‘bleed’ the Merlot (famous saignée method) so they can concentrate it a bit more. The wine is the epitome of concentration and sophisticated power dressed in silk and velvet. Plummy fruit with a juicy nature, superbly long that keeps on lingering on your palate, with deep notes and slightly smoky complexity. A truly fine example.
For the Pavillon blanc, the aspersion system (a sprinkler which sprays water and when freezes covers the embryonic buds) saved them from frost issues. The wine is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, fermented and matured in French oak barrels for 9 months, which only 25% is new. There is a current move towards bigger formats (demi-muids) to give better integration of the wood. Malolactic fermentation is blocked, which highlights the opulent & exotic aromatic intensity. Nots of pineapple, melon, mango and honeysuckle married harmoniously with hints of vanilla and white lilies. Palate shows more citrus freshness and more stony fruit complexity. And the news is that from 2018 Pavillon Blanc with be closed with DIAM closures, as part of the long experimentation with different closures that started under Paul Pontallier’s management since 2002.
Château Rauzan-Ségla is just around the corner, a beautiful Château currently owned by the Alain Wertheimer and Gerard Wertheimer, the owners of the luxury goods company Chanel. They bought the property in 1994 and two years later they added Château Canon in St-Émilion. They renovated the beautiful buildings and the cuverie. Tasting the same wine out of different coopers is another unique experience, as many winemakers are now individually sourcing the staves for their top wines or selecting the trees that their barrels want to be made of. Tasting the wine from the Sylvain barrels, we realised that maintains the fruit profile and the crunchiness, while Taransaud barrels were adding more weight and provides an horizontal line.
They lost fruit in some inland areas due to frost, planted closer to the forested areas with more clay content (cooler soils). The blend of 2017 consists of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. Is a fragrant and floral wine, with round and soft tannins. And surprisingly they were generous enough to offer a mini-vertical of Grand Vin wines for us to try; 2006 has tomato vine leaf and dried fruit notes, while the 2004 (42% Merlot) has classic tobacco and cigarbox complexity, with a leaner nature and more damp earth & truffles notes. A wine that will please all the classic lovers of Bordeaux. On a similar aspect is the 2001 (63% Cab Sauv), with a mix of dried fruit, potpourri, cigar box and cedar wood. The wine is driven by its beautiful core of acidity that gives a fine and elegant character. Has reached its peak and will keep easily for another 7-10 years.
There are not many Château in Left Bank that can challenge the First Growths. The two strongest pretenders will be Château Léoville Las Cases and Château Pichon Longueville Baron.
Former one is owned by the meticulous Delon family, further owners of Château Potensac and Château Nenin in Pomerol. Attention to detail and rigorous selection is key here, which probably explains their tremendous consistency and longstanding record of fine examples over the last century. 2017 is blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc & 10% Merlot. Been next to Latour, someone already looks for the similarities in style. Though the wine is always more fragrant than its famous neighbour, with a haunting perfume of blackcurrants, cassis and charcoal. Has power unmatched by other St.Juliens and this doesn’t come to a sacrifice of elegance. Possibly the contribution of Cabernet Franc into the blend, has a story to tell here…
Château Pichon Longueville Baron is owned by AXA Millésimes, the wine branch of the big insurance group and is managed by the Englishman Christian Seely who welcomed us at the tasting room. The change in quality was apparent from the first days when the ownership changed, putting the Château back on track with some wonderful wines made in the late 80s and 90s and since Seely took over, the quality has skyrocketed. In his constant thirst of improving the quality at the Château, he introduced another 2nd label in 2012 (Les Griffons) alongside the Tourelles de Longueville. Griffons is a Cabernet based blend, from parcels that are closer to the Château and used to be blended with the Grand Vin before. Tourelles is more Merlot based and comes from heavier and more clay-rich soils from the inland part of the appellation. Former is firm and leaner, while the latter, shows a juicy and soft aspect. The Grand Vin has real depth of character, with energy and ripe tannins, showing already signs of good ageing potential. If you look for a great Pauillac, do not look further.
Christian’s biggest challenge is to make people drinking Sauternes. His contribution to Château Suduiraut has yielded already an iconic dry white wine, the ‘S’ de Suduiraut which started in 2004 from grapes coming from the classified vineyards for the Sauternes production. Blend of 56% Sauvignon Blanc, vinified and matured in Burgundian oak barrels, with a creamy mouthfeel, notes of pineapple, peach and melon, complemented by waxy and light herbal hints. Only 600 cases made in an average year.
Because of the limited production they have introduced another white wine, Blanc Sec de Suduiraut, from parcels spread all over the appellation. Based on 50/50 Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc, 2/3 vinified in stainless steel and 1/3 in older barrels. This will slowly replace the second labels of the sweet wines, which will give them the ability to continue producing less but an exceptional dessert wine.
Château Léoville Poyferré was next in line. Part of the original Léoville property that now is split in three, is managed by Didier Cuvelier who has been in charge since 1979 and was fundamental on re-establishing the former glory of the property. This is the final vintage with Didier Cuvelier at the helm and it is a testament to his many accomplishments at Léoville Poyferré, with a wine that displayed the classic lush & spicy black cherry, truffle, and cocoa-filled bouquet that is synonymous with the Poyferré style of the last period. Château Moulin-Riche might be made in the same winery and for two vintages to be considered as a second wine of the Château, though is a separate property which was bought at the same time with Poyferré in the 20s. The wine is rounder, with a sweet core of fruit.
For the last day, weather was smiling at us and we were out for a great day in Pessac-Leognan before heading back to the airport. Just a quick morning stop at Lafite-Rothschild…
Château Lafite-Rothschild is the biggest of the First Growths, with vineyard areas that cover 112 hectares. The vineyard consists of three main areas: the hillsides around the Château, the adjacent Carruades plateau to the west, and 4.5 hectares in neighbouring Saint Estèphe that belonged to the Château before the 1855 classification and has always been allowed to be part of the Grand Vin.
The Technical Director of the Bordeaux Châteaux, Eric Kohler welcomed us at the property and we started speaking about the conditions in 2017. Rapid spring time due to hot conditions, June was advanced but then cooler conditions settled in. Their analysis by the end of August showed similar characteristics with 2016, though it was a bit of rain during harvest and Eric mentioned the similarities with 2004 and 2011 vintages. By tasting the Château Duhart-Milon, we can feel exactly this; The wine shows a classic appeal of leafy complexity, crunchy red fruit and cranberry.
Carruades de Lafite, the nose is deeper, with some ripe red & dark cherries, hints of plums and blackberries. On palate there is more red fruit, notes of blackcurrant and a green-herbal aspect. Soft, gentle tannins.
Lafite shows a mix of blackberry and cassis, with some myrtille and damson fruit. Very poised, with a good acidity that drives this wine. Not the most concentrated wine of the vintage, but Lafite was never about extract and power. Is all about the silky expression of Pauillac, a fine harmony, a ballet…
Heading into Pessac, we made our first stop at Château Haut-Bailly. Owned by the American Robert Wilmers and run by Véronique Sanders, this is one of the finest properties you can find in Pessac-Léognan. The 30-hectare (74-acre) vineyard lies at the heart of the Pessac-Léognan appellation, on the left bank of the Garonne river. The mosaic-like vineyard, rich in prehistoric fossil shells that descend deep into the earth, offering exceptional drainage and rare minerals is composed of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. And what is truly unique, is that Haut-Bailly has successfully maintained 4 hectares (10 acres) of century-old vines, planted by Alcide Bellot des Minières, owner of Château Haut-Bailly at the end of the 19th century. This single plot is unusually interwoven with 6 varieties of vine: 1/12 Carmenère, 1/12 Merlot, 1/12 Cabernet Franc, 1/12 Malbec, 1/12 Petit Verdot and 7/12 Cabernet Sauvignon. These vines are the heart of Haut-Bailly, a fundamental part of its genetic makeup. 2017 is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 4% Cab.Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. Gentle, soft and juicy, with a cassis and blackcurrant complexity, subtle oak and long length.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte is around the corner and is easy to spot it with the artwork spread around its vineyards. This Château has a history of 652 years and the current property consists of 78ha, with the 40ha been currently under biodynamic cultivation. The beehives in the property making their own honey that you can find in the spa and restaurant across the road. They have their own cooper, who produces 80% of their barrel needs, roughly 650 barrels a year. The soil is Güntzian gravel, mixed with flintstone and clay, which explains the majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards (around 60%). There is some Merlot towards the forest and the Cab.Franc is planted behind the Georges Smith tower.
Regarding winemaking, they use stainless steel fermentation for the whites and barrel ageing with blocked malolactic. For the reds, they don’t follow the classic Bordelaise approach, but a rather more Burgundian and softer extraction method, as they do Pigeage (punching down the cap).
This probably explains why the 2017 shows generous tannins but very smooth and round in nature. The meaty and savoury nose, paired with some dark fruit notes, hints of cassis and gentle oak is matched on palate, by juicy Cabernet fruit, with some tomato vine leaf characteristics, Very long, with good complexity and concentration. Quite charming wine.
Smith Haut Lafitte blanc, is a star. Intense floral notes of lilies, cherry blossom and elderflower. The peachy melon character, balances beautifully the light herbal nature of green tea, with some exotic nuances of pineapple and mango. The oak provides a touch of vanilla and creaminess, with a waxy, almost oily nature on palate. A wine to drink now or keep easily for another 5-7 years.
And last but not least, the vineyards that are surrounded by the city walls and managed to withstand the urban expansion, Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion. Both properties are now under the management of Domaine Clarence Dillon, who bought the latter one in 1983. Just a road is separating the two Château, though they are fundamentally different than someone can expect from the proximity of their vineyards. And tasting the 2017s one can tell the delicate nature of Haut-Brion versus the power of La Mission. Personally I have always been a fan of La Mission; Maybe is this Havana cigar leaf complexity, the smoke and leather notes, balanced by a deep dark fruit. For 2017 though is still quite restrained on the nose, a bit shy. Expresses more the smoke and the classic cigar leaf complexity on the palate with some sweet vanilla and oaky nuances. The finish is more fruit driven with blueberry and cassis notes. Blend consists of 56% Merlot, 39.6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4.4% Cab.Franc.
Haut-Brion is softer and more delicate, a round and profound wine wrapped in a silky dress, with more floral intensity, with a complimentary hint of chocolate and nutmeg. The blend is 53% Merlot, 40.7% Cabernet Sauvignon & 6.3% Cab.Franc which probably explains why the wine is always more approachable in it’s youth that the other 1st Growths. Some claim that La Mission is the rustic version of it’s neighbour. But to be honest, I personally love this rusticity!
Contrary to their bigger siblings the second wines are showing the exact opposite characteristics, with the Chapelle de la Mission being restrained and light, with a pure & fresh nature, which I am guessing is due to higher proportion of Cabernets versus the voluptuous and vigorous Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, which is predominantly Merlot and shows intense dark fruit notes, chocolate and smoke.
When it comes to their whites, Haut-Brion Blanc is an expressive and aromatic white, based on 56.2% Sauvignon blanc and 43.8% Semillon. Fresh Citrus and pink grapefruit notes, complimented with white lilies and elderflower. Palate shows more stony fruit complexity of white peach, nectarines and melon, with an oak integration that should be a Masterclass in every Oenology school around the world. The La Mission Haut Brion Blanc is a blend of 23.8% Sauvignon blanc and 76.2% Semillon, as has absorbed the mythical 2.7ha vineyard (100% Semillon) of Laville Haut-Brion since 2009. The wine shows deeper and riper fruit notes, not as expressive and aromatic as its neighbour, with more waxy and oily notes, more weight and softer acidity. Still in it’s infancy, this wine will develop over time and allow the Semillon to show its real character of honey, wax and toasted, roasted nut character that develops over time. Just be patient and the wine will reward you. If you want to be convinced, just try some of the old vintages of Laville Haut-Brion and you will understand what I mean. If you find them obviously…
Bordeaux is surely living one its golden eras’, investment is keep on coming in, the city becomes very appealing not only to the wealthy Parisians but as well foreigners that are getting attracted to a Château life, hoping on creating an illustrious brand and selling a sophisticated product. Though, having an agricultural business you are always dependent on nature and the 2017 frosts or the recent hailstorm (few days ago) that wiped out in few minutes the production of whole year in areas of Pessac, Médoc and Bourg can only remind us that we should be respectful to her. Sadly enough the same areas that were devastated last year, saw their hopes of getting a decent crop evaporating in few minutes. Meaning another vintage with no wine to sell… Surely not many can afford to have 3 years in a row without income, at least not the smaller growers. Global warming IS Happening and the climate patterns have changed, with more extreme conditions, milder winters, later springs, hotter summers, hailstorms, floods and so on. We are purely responsible for this and we are now living the Anthropocene Era as the scientists have named it, the era that the actions of humans have shaped the conditions on the planter Earth and led to the extinction of so many species. We still have time to save our future, is on our hands…