A Wine Director’s Tale at The Cellar Table
Forming a good understanding of Bordeaux isn’t that difficult from just about any location in the world. There are certainly enough books about terroir and the various Chateaux; often you’ll find entire works detailing a single estate or grouping within a village. As for terroir, there is no shortage of maps and studies on the topic: left bank, right bank, the soils and each variety that they specialize in. You can even find the percentage of each grape planted in a vineyard, broken into blocks, and with a pedigree of ownership going back over 100 years or more. The fact is that Bordeaux, mostly because of its popularity and well-established branding, is probably the most studied and documented wine region on Earth. Which, you would think, would make it easy to understand the region without ever setting your feet on the ground.
However, I for one have always wrestled with it. I’ve read and studied, tasted and pored over maps. However, for me, Bordeaux has always been a mystery, a land of labels, sprawling vineyards, and immense châteaux. I failed to comprehend the scope of it, the boots-on-the-ground understanding, or gain any connection to its people and what inspired them to make wine. Bordeaux always seemed to be about brands, companies and profits to me. I never connected…
Until This Year
The idea was pitched to me to join a group that was setting off to explore Bordeaux for an entire week. We would be knocking on the doors of the top chateau, and tasting with winemakers and owners alike. I must admit that, at the time, I didn’t feel very excited. I was propelled by the education aspect, by the ability to taste new vintages and make contacts. I was biased by over a decade of tasting labels, studying often long-winded texts and drinking brands.
However, what I found there was completely different from what I had ever imagined.
For one thing, it was the people. Anyone reading this that hasn’t visited Bordeaux must admit that they would feel anxiety over this. There is an image that is Bordeaux. It is an image of grand Chateaux, old money, tuxedos and fancy cars. There’s a museum-like aura that surrounds the region, making you question if it’s okay to pull out the camera, and if so, is it okay to use the flash? Should you speak? Is your question relevant? And, of course, are you dressed well enough for your visit?
All of these fears were settled upon my first visit at Les Carmes Haut-Brion, reinforced on my second visit at Chateau d’Yquem, and completely solidified by my third visit at Smith Haut Lafitte. These were not the people I had expected; they were the most welcoming that you could ever imagine as I walked into a gilded dining room and was offered a seat in a chair that my grandmother would have covered in plastic. These were passionate and inspired people, yet also confident and laid back, whose number one topic of conversation was to ask what they could be doing better. As for my worries about the dress code, let’s just say that I felt overdressed in the attire that I had decided was befitting a visit to Chateau d’Yquem. And if you want to talk about welcoming, nothing could be more welcoming than Bruno Borie, of Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, cooking us dinner (himself) simply because he loves to do it.
But what about the “Old Guard,” you might ask?
I will answer with this, that one of my favorite visits was lunch with Monsieur Jean-Hubert Delon, the sole owner of Leoville Las Cases, who spoke in detail about the evolution of Bordeaux, the history that he loved to recount, and the new faces that are adding diversity and flavor, as well as the region’s standing in the market–its need to understand the consumer. He then went on to open a vertical of Leoville Las Cases that would make the Gods tremble. ‘85, ‘86, ‘88, ‘98 and 2015, along with wines from other Bordeaux producers that he loved. We were literally late for our visit to Mouton Rothschild because this man was so much fun to talk with.
In the Vineyards
The biggest breath of fresh air was to see a sincere connection to terroir. At nearly every chateau we visited, producers talked in depth about their soil types, exposures, and how they are changing the way they’re thinking about vineyard management. This goes well beyond the most widely-known chateau to go organic, Chateau Latour in Pauillac. In fact, at Chateau Palmer in Margaux, Thomas Duroux is not stopping at organic viticulture; he’s talking about biodiversity, a reintroduction of trees and flowers back amongst the vines. Granted, this isn’t going to happen overnight, but it was thrilling all the same, just to see the passion behind his words. Another of note is Pontet Canet, also in Pauillac, where organics and even biodynamic practices have taken hold. Speaking of biodynamics, the venerable Chateau Le Puy of St.-Émilion has been practicing it for decades. Simply put, there’s no shortage of organic producers in Bordeaux, it’s just that most of them haven’t started to advertise that they’ve put them to work.
Going back to Chateau Palmer, which was one of the most enlightening vineyard tours I enjoyed on the trip, another trend that we are witnessing in Bordeaux became clear: a focus on rows and vines. When I used to think about Bordeaux vineyards, the vision of large tracts of land came to mind, of picking, fermenting and aging in large blocks, yet this is no longer the case at many of the top estates. Within each winery, I witnessed fermentation tanks of various shapes and sizes, and the reason for this new development is a true focus on terroir, a system of farming, picking and fermenting by rows or parcels, of locating specific portions within the vineyard that share similarities and giving them unique care prior to assembling for the aging process. This very Burgundian approach has triggered a whole new level of experimentation, as the likes of Chateau Palmer are even aging parcels in barrels of various sizes. Our tasting with Thomas included two different versions of the 2017 Grand Vin, one from their classic approach and another from large barrels. Both were excellent, but I couldn’t help but love the textures imparted by those big barrels.
Which Brings us to Vintage
While in Bordeaux, I was given the option to taste new vintages and many older ones as well. At this time, the average Chateau is pouring 2015s for their guests, a vintage that I’m enjoying for its pure pleasure factor from the best estates, especially those from Saint Julien. The 2014 vintage remains an amazing year for Bordeaux Blanc; in fact, it’s difficult to taste the ‘14s next to the ‘15s, as it makes the latter seem overly ripe and a bit flabby. However, a few would pour their new 2017s, a nervous vintage that I’m finding tension and minerality in, which I’m not used to in Bordeaux–and I have to admit that I’m liking it. In a few cases, we were treated to tastes of 2016s, which for me was always a pleasure. 2016 is shaping up to be a vintage that I like a lot for its dark, rich, brooding fruit contrasted by vibrancy, minerality and grippy tannin. Otherwise, the number one takeaway for me on vintage was how much I’m enjoying the 2006 vintage. These wines were plentiful during the trip, and each time they left me feeling very satisfied. It’s a vintage that’s just entering its drinking window, yet it has a long way to go in a cold cellar.
The Back Again
It was a whirlwind visit, with an average of five appointments a day, making if difficult to take it all in, yet I kept my notebook handy as often as possible, along with my camera and recorder in hand. Through it all, the insights and experiences have given me a whole new outlook on Bordeaux, and especially about the people behind the scenes. Returning to the Bordeaux city center to attend Fete de la Fleur was bittersweet, as part of me ached for home, while another part wished there was time to explore, but as these trips go, time is at a premium. With Jetlag still tugging at my sleep, I found the perfect time to tour the city, around 5am on a Saturday, and the tourist in me took control.
There will be more to come in future blogs, musing and notes; for now I leave you with my tasting highlights and the knowledge that Bordeaux will be firmly on my radar from here on out.
On To the Tasting Notes
Les Carmes Haut Brion
We tasted through a number of vintages at Carmes Haut Brion, a property that has a lot of people talking due to the story behind their vineyard (apparently they managed to secure it by the skin of their teeth, as Haut-Brion itself had their heart set on it), and a conversion to Biodynamic winemaking that is now about 90% completed. However, it’s important to recognize that the best wines are without a doubt the newest vintages, and much of this is the result of bringing on Guillaume Pouthier (former M. Chapoutier winemaker), an extremely bold move. These wines have a healthy dose of Cabernet Franc, and the winery sits nestled into the city of Bordeaux itself. For me, it was the 2014 that really impressed.
Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2014 – The nose showed intense spicy raspberry, dried orange peel, exotic rosy florals, and lifting minerality. On the palate, I found silky textures with dark, tart black raspberry, savory herbs and saline minerals. Fine tannin saturated the long finish, along with dried berries and spicy inner florals. (94 points)
Tasting the dueling 2015 and 2005 Chateau D’Yquem was an experience I’ll never forget. While 2015 may not have been the most balanced vintage for much of Bordeaux in my book, it produced some amazing Saturnes. The Chateau has its eye on the future as well, trying to understand how to get Americans to drink sweet wines again. Luckily, other markets around the world are happy to take the balance.
Chateau D’Yquem 2015 – This showed an amazing tension of sugar and acidity, with sweet spices and cream offset by lemon, savory herbs and a hint of horseradish. The textures were silky and weighty yet with a gorgeous mix of acid and spice, grapefruit, ripe pear and blue cheese. The finish was long, with acid and spice dancing on the senses. (96 points)
Chateau D’Yquem 2005 – This was simply gorgeous, with sweet florals, undergrowth and sweet animal musk up front, then giving way to honeydew melon, yellow flowers and hints of crushed almonds. It was like a sheet of silk on the palate, as ripe stone fruits, spice and hints of blue cheese lingered and washed across the senses, and then slowly faded though the finale. (95 points)
Smith Haut Lafitte
I have always had a soft spot for Smith Haut Lafitte, both their Rouge and Blanc. Our trip started with an evening where the 2010 was shown, and although it’s incredibly young, there’s no denying the potential. Smith Haut Lafitte is also one of the tours that impressed me the most, tasting current vintages and observing how the winery is working toward 100% control of their product from barrel to bottle.
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2010 – The nose was gorgeous with dark red fruits, rich spices, gravel dust, lavender, and minerals. Enveloping silky textures washed across the senses with zesty dark red fruits and mounting young tannin, followed by sour blackberry, minerals and savory herbs. The finish was long with dark fruits, savory herbs, saline minerals and saturating fine tannin. The 2010 is a big wine and quite intense, yet it is wonderfully balanced. (95 points)
Tasting at Haut Bailly reinforced my belief that they produced one of the top 2015s, but it also stands as one of the most enjoyable tastings I had of a 2017 Bordeaux, which was actually going out the negociants for En Primeur on the same day I was tasting it.
Château Haut-Bailly 2017 – Here I found a dark and woodsy bouquet, with red and black fruits, floral undergrowth, and minerals, yet remaining remarkably fresh. On the palate, silky textures with intense raspberry, current, blackberry, and spice dominated, as a wave of brisk acidity added liveliness. The finish was a long combination of zesty acids and fine tannin. This is quite enjoyable, and I can’t wait to taste it after bottling. (92-95 points)
Château Haut-Bailly 2015 – The nose was dark and earthy with crushed cherry, blueberry, hints of cedar, and floral undergrowth. Soft textures formed up on the palate with zesty, intense sour berry, along with a stunning mix of acid and tannin that quickly clenched the senses. The finish was long and structured with lasting dark berry tones. It’s a firmer style than I’m used to here, and maybe that’s why I like it, yet it was also balanced and quite enjoyable. (94 points)
This trip marked my first chance to taste Fonplégade, and I’m glad I did. The visit itself was epic, as owner Denise Adams herself jumped behind the wheel of an All-Terrain vehicle and took us on a tour of their hillside vineyards. She and her husband fell in love with the property and took on the challenge of renovating the Chateau and vineyards. Her passion was infectious and was a great precursor to tasting multiple vintages where we witnessed an uptick in quality the closer we came to the current releases. This is certainly a property to watch.
Château Fonplégade 2015 – The nose was spicy and intense, with mineral encased blackberry fruit, savory herbs and sweet dark floral tones. On the palate, I found silky textures offset by a zesty acid and mineral mix, tart blackberry and savory herbs, as fine tannin saturated the senses. The finish was long, with penetrating red and blue fruits lingering along with zesty spices. (94 points)
“Diversity is the key to complexity” “…pick al dente…” “The goal of Cheval Blanc is to obtain freshness, delicacy and elegance.”
Sage advice, and one of the few chateaux to talk about the challenges of global warming. To hear the term “al dente” used when talking about harvests in Bordeaux certainly left its mark. Cheval Blanc is one of the estates that is studying its parcels to find the perfect methods to make the best use of their terroir. The unique expressions they capture from each of them can be markedly different, but in the end, “complexity is the key,” as each parcel is blended together to achieve perfection.
Château Cheval Blanc 2011 – The nose was dark and earthy, as a mix of moist soil, minerals, animal musk and dried florals lifted from the glass; with time, hints of mint, raspberry and licorice came forward. On the palate, creamy textures washed across the senses, as blueberry and blackberry fruits combined with balancing acidity to create a perfectly satisfying and lifted expression for the vintage. Minerals, savory herbs and hints of blueberry skins lingered long on the finish, along with a coating of fine tannin (94 points)
Much of what I have to say about Chateau Palmer can be found in the preceding text, but I will reinforce how pleased I was to hear Thomas Duroux talking about biodiversity in the vineyards and experimentation in the cellar. Palmer is at the head of the charge toward the “New” Bordeaux.
Château Palmer 2017 A – The nose was restrained, showing dark red and black fruit, dried flowers and minerals. It was soft and silky on the palate, with dark ripe fruit restrained by minerals and young tannins. It was long and intense on the dark fruit finish, saturating to the senses, then had fine tannin setting in and clenching down. (93-95 points)
Château Palmer 2017 B – The nose showed dark red fruit, floral tones, earth and minerals. On the palate, soft textures gave way to zesty pure dark fruits, with savory herbs and dark inner florals tones. It finish with energy and good length, prettier than expected, almost lifted and quite refined. (94-96 points)
While the winery itself came across as a bit sterile, the wines they showed certainly didn’t. The 2016 La Conseillante is a big wine, yet it has finds terrific balance and is utterly irresistible.
Château La Conseillante 2016 – The nose showed mineral-infused dark fruit, with violet florals, licorice, sweet spice and minerals. It was velvety yet balanced on the palate, with a wash of blue and black fruits, sweet violets and spice, with zesty acids adding energy as fine tannins settled in. The finish was remarkably long, as inky black fruits were lifted by dark inner florals and minerals. I can’t help but love this wine. (95 points)
The tour itself at Chateau Margaux was breathtaking. Again we find a winery that is a small village unto itself with a history of self-reliance that they work to maintain to this very day. The old barrel rooms are kept up to show the history of this magnificent estate, and they continue to keep their own cooper on hand to aid in producing barrels. The vintage they chose to show was quite different from most other properties, as both the 2004 Rouge and Blanc were presented. Each of the wines were in a perfect drinking window, and they were welcome after the amount of new vintages we tasted on this trip.
Château Margaux 2004 – The bouquet was gorgeous, displaying floral-infused red berry, dark soil tones, animal musk, and crushed stone; over time gaining fresh herbal tones and yellow florals, in a lifted and precise performance. It was wonderfully soft on the palate with pure red fruits, lifted by hints of bitter herbs. Volume and richness seemed to develop with more time in the glass, as the 2004 hovered upon the senses. The long finish showed sour berry, fine tannin and lasting inner floral tones. (94 points)
Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux Blanc 2004 – The nose was nutty and rich yet also gorgeously fresh and floral, with hints of honey, green melon, ripe apple, ginger and yellow flowers. On the palate, I found creamy textures matched by ripe apple, with honey, sweet herbs and raw almond, as refreshing acidity added liveliness and balance. The finish was wonderfully long with hints of spice, ripe stone fruits and lingering notes of hazelnut. (94 points)
Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande
“Great wines are made in the vineyard,” said Nicolas Glumineau, as he showed us around the new cellars of Comtesse de Lalande. The winery is impressive to say the least, but what’s even more impressive is what’s in the bottle. A vertical of Comtesse de Lalande from 2003 through 2009 awaited us in a room that looked out upon the vineyards of Chateau Latour. The most recent vintages are stunning, but nothing could trump the 2005.
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2005 – This was decidedly brighter than previous vintages, with floral-infused cherry, lifting minerality, wild herbs and dusty soil tones. It was soft and lifted on the palate, showing fresh black cherry, minerals, balanced acids and fine tannin. The 2005 was remarkably balanced, pure and refined, finishing long with lasting dried red fruits and a coating of fine tannin. (95 points)
What can be said that hasn’t been already? Chateau Latour is leading the charge in organic practices, the focus being on individual rows and vines, as well as the people who tend them. Granted, this is a “spare no expense” operation, yet it’s great to see that financial power going to good use. The news at Latour, which some people like and others do not, is their new release schedule, with the 2006 standing as the current release from the cellar. The idea is to release the wine when it’s ready, and directly from their care. Who am I to argue, as the 2006 was one of the top wines of my entire trip.
Château Latour Grand Vin 2006 – The nose was dark, earthy and slightly animal in nature. Dark red berries, exotic spice, violet florals, menthol, graphite, and minerals all came together to form a truly seductive display. It was deep, silky and generous on the palate, as mounting tannin slowly firmed up the experience, with dark intense berry, inner floral tones and savory minerals. The finish was grippy, long and remarkably balanced with lingering dark red fruits. (97 points)
Leoville Las Cases
If you’re going to show up an hour late for a tasting at Mouton Rothschild, I suppose blind tasting and a three hour lunch with Monsieur Jean-Hubert Delon would be a sufficient excuse. Forgive me for not having detailed notes from this lunch, as the tasting was blind and completely unexpected. But I did provide the snapshot of the moment that I managed to post to Instagram.
“A truly epic blind tasting at Leoville Las Cases with Jean Hubert Delon this afternoon. As a fan of this estate for years, it was remarkable to enjoy so many back vintages direct from their cellar. The ’98 whet our appetites for what was to come, showing its class in spades. The ’88 was gorgeous in its maturity; earthy, meaty with depths to spare. Then the ’86 hit the table, and the room grew silent as the wine opened slowly in the glass, seeming to grow in depth and size yet completely balanced and pleasurable right now. As for the ’85, it was simply amazing; a wine that is still maturing and in excellent form; dark, earthy, floral, and herbaceous in all the best ways with vibrant fruit and enveloping textures–amazing.”
The winery and estate of Calon Segur remains under construction, as they completely rebuilt the original builds around their updated and state-of-the-art winery. I must admit that it’s odd to see such a large leap forward in design and technology at an estate that has also stood out for tradition and a favorable level of rusticity. However, it’s a change for the better. The new vintages at Calon Segur are cleaner, yet still true to terroir. I believe the best is yet to come.
Château Calon-Ségur 2015 – The nose was earthy and woodsy, showing tobacco, cedar box, dark red berry, currant, graphite, and minerals, yet amazingly fresh for the vintage. On the palate, I found silky textures, dark yet fresh and precise, with woodland red and blackberries, savory minerality, leather, and zesty acids. The finish was long with grippy tannin, dried red fruits, inner florals and refreshing acidity. (94 points)
It may not have been the greatest wine of my life, and even Bruno Borie will tell you that he’s not very proud of many of the older wines before he took control of the estate, but this was certainly one of the greatest experiences of my life. When we arrived at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, the tour itself was only a few minutes. Bruno felt that the best thing to do was to get right to work and taste the 2017. The wines were gorgeous–but nothing could prepare us for what was next. Bruno then brought us to his kitchen where he went on to cook the group multiple courses, and this was some of the best food of the trip. What’s more, he realized that it was my birthday that night and pulled a 1976 to celebrate; he explained that 1977 (my birth year) was a horrible vintage, and so we would celebrate the year of my conception–PRICELESS.
1976 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou – The nose was earthy yet still lively with dried strawberry, cherry, crushed fall leaves, moist soil tones, dried florals, and minerals. On the palate, I found a lively and fresh expression, displaying wonderfully pure red fruits, with cedar, brown spice, licorice, minerals and brisk acidity. It finished long, lingering on minerals and spice with notes of lifted dried strawberry and inner floral tones. (92 points)
Credits and Resources
Article, Tasting Notes and Photos by Eric Guido
A special thanks to Joanne Bordeaux for organizing the trip and visits.
For the entire list of tasting notes from the trip, visit: CellarTracker.com
For my full report on 2015 at the UGC tasting: Click Here