The charm offensive is well underway. Armed with a potentially great vintage and a more positive economic outlook, the Bordelais are pulling out all corks to achieve favourable press reviews. Wine writers and journalists are the ultimate fair-weather friends. Although technology and wine making philosophy have evolved in quantum leaps over the last few decades, there is nothing like perfect weather patterns to keep the fulcrum nicely sharpened.
The media is both the tipping point and the balance weight. The proprietors and wine makers of many grand cru Chateaux are out in force speaking to all and sundry about the quality of the vintage. Behind the scenes is another circus. The media is divided into several groups. The most experienced and specialised wine writers tend to taste wines ‘aveugle’, whereas there is a fairly significant general media contingent who prefer not to challenge themselves. These uncompetitive journalists are running way back in the pélaton but no doubt enjoying the lashings of foie gras and the festival-like atmosphere.
At the front, there is an unspoken but very real bloodthirsty race to publish. Most of these writers are on the move; no time for languid lunches and being weighed down with goose-fat. The new media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and internet blogs are in full swing; perhaps full of boastful and self promoting feats of teeth-staining wonder. The immediacy of this medium is astonishing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see fairly large margins of opinion emerging, simply because there is no reference point.
The holy quatraine of Bordeaux wine opinion are Robert Parker Jr., Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson and Michel Bettane. At Sources des Caudelie, the reception was filled up with samples for James Suckling (Wine Spectator) causing mayhem at our barracks for the night. I haven’t seen Robert Parker Jr. but his minions have been scurrying around. Jancis Robinson, Michel Bettane and crew have been here all week without fanfare. I have bumped into them several times. Bettane is a real celebrity in France. The poor man is constantly being imprisoned, cornered and killed by kindness.
It appears almost the entire editorial team of Decanter are in Bordeaux and doing their bit for global warming. I assume the thousands of keen followers have their search engines in over-drive; apparently every time you search the internet it is the equivalent of running one light bulb for a month. Anyway that is what the larger than life character Bruno Borie told me at Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou the other day.
I have been tasting on the left bank for a few days. Making appointments during the en-primeur week is bloody difficult. Veteran wine tradies and seasoned observers would have a standard formula that keeps the driving down and optimises the sequence of visits. Chateau Montrose has over 4000 appointments over a two week period. I glanced at the appointment book at Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou. Considering the number of visits it is quite incredible how they manage to treat each person as a special visitor. If you are late, some people snarl.
I tasted most of the Margaux and Haut Medoc wines at Chateau Maucaillou near Listrac. This is quite an old fashioned place with all sorts of agricultural machinery lying around, a wine museum, rather horrid paintings and an unloved yacht parked outside the winery bottling shed.
Traditionally Margaux tends to be very aromatic, with medium concentration, a gentle red fruit spectrum and fine grained but loose knit tannins. This tasting illustrated the strength of the left bank. Even some of the minor Chateaux have stumped up some terrific wine this year. For instance Chateau Poujeaux (at Moulis), something of a favourite cheapie among Australian wine collectors, punched well above its weight. Deep and inky it showed strong cassis/ dark chocolate aromas, fine chalky/ lacy tannins and excellent buoyancy of fruit (91-94 points).
Chateau Cantenac Brown with its well concentrated but elemental elderberry aromas, incredibly well saturated flavours, fine looseknit/ lacy tannins and savoury nuances was a cracker (93-95 points). Chateau Prieure Lichine (93-95 points) and Chateau Ferriere (93-95 points) both showed superb palate richness and fine grainy tannin structures. These will evolve very well. They were eclipsed, however, by the hugely impressive and expressive Chateau Kirwan. This wine has rarely attracted much of a mention, but the 2009 with its lovely blackcurrant pastille/ cedar aromas, classic fine grained structure and dense fruit flavours, is neatly balanced (94-97 points).
Chateau Brane-Cantenac (92-94 points) Chateau Chasse Spleen (92-94 points), Chateau Malescot St Exupery (92-94 points) Chateau du Tertre (91-93 points), Chateau Desmirail (91-93 points) and Chateau Giscours (90-93 points) all showed great vinosity and freshness; hallmarks of the left bank vintage. Some of the samples in this tasting were a touch stale; Chateau Rauzan Gassies was an example, so it will be interesting to see how this fared in other forums. I will get to see it again no doubt.
The biggest surprise was the unfortunately named Chateau Greysac. Although in the redcurrant/plum fruit spectrum it had really good fruit definition, ripe tannins and underlying cedar notes (92-94 points). Chateau Clarke (87-89 points), the gorgeous bell-towered Chateau Fonreaud (86-88 points), Chateau Fourcas Dupré (85-88 points), Chateau Fourcas Hosten (88-91 points), Chateau La Tour de By (85-88 points), Chateau d’Angludet (85-87 points), Chateau Dauzac (85-88 points) and Chateau Labegorce (85-88 points), really by no means distant seconds showed the overall quality of the vintage. There’s not much a winemaker could do to stuff things up. Even Chateau Durfort Vivens with its fairly noticeable alcoholic kick (83-86 points) was still drinking quite well.
In Australian wine show parlance there was little wine under silver medal quality; although the mindset is different. Typicity is generally factored into the overall picture. I also tasted the cultish wine Chateau Marojallia, which is located in Margaux. Typically it showed pretty raspberry/ blackberry fruit, mocha notes, smooth texture and fine slinky tannins (88-92 points).
The afternoon visits were generally dysfunctional. These capers of appointments generate so much road traffic and fossil-fuel emissions, not to mention frayed tempers. The deployment of elegant girls dressed in various uniforms of haut couture and employed to meet and greet would annoy some, but quite frankly it just adds another element to the theatre.
The wines at Chateau Margaux were impressive this year. Paul Pontallier and crew are very proud of their 2009 Pavillion Rouge, which represents 41% of production this year (The Grand Vin is a relatively high 36%). This strongly conveyed sentiment is discharged into our brains at the same time as the wine is poured. Let us make no mistake. These psychological games are all pervasive this year. The attempt is to frame this wine as a 2nd growth quality wine; something worth buying and keeping. I definitely liked it. With less Merlot than normal (29%) and more Cabernet Sauvignon (67%) it was aromatic with redcurrant/ cassis aromas, very well concentrated flavours, tremendous buoyancy and fine chalky loose-knit tannins (92-94 points).
The Grand Vin – Chateau Margaux (87% Cabernet Sauvignon/ 9% Merlot/ 2% petit Verdot/ 2% Cabernet franc) – is truly excellent this year. It was very deep in colour with intense blackcurrant pastille/ ginger/ aniseed aromas, superb palate richness, fruit density and grainy/ chocolaty tannins. Of course this was elemental, but the sheer drinkability and overall generosity of fruit must set it up as a beacon of achievement this year. It is being compared to 2005 but my postscript reads inimitable (95-99 points)! This transcendent wine does not deserve points as it completely boxes it.
We finished off with the 2009 Pavillon Blanc (100% Sauvignon Blanc) which is made from the “first juice off the press”. The wine typically showed lime cordial/verbena/ herb garden aromas, some yeasty notes and underlying new oak. It was fresh and minerally and very good for its genre (88-92 points), but against some new world wines, I wonder whether it offers truly great value. We will have to see.
Across the road is Chateau Palmer. Bernard de Laage de Meux, who many of Langton’s members will know, was showing the wines. Although there are comparisons with 2005, he says that his 2009s are more “Claret-like”. Certainly there is more percussion, but similar freshness. One can ramble on endlessly, but in the end this place has stumped up the goods. Winemaker Thomas Duroux, formerly of Tuscan producer Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia, knows how to make good wine and with the resources of 2009, he has turned out two outstanding examples. The 2009 Alter Ego de Chateau Palmer is very plummy with chocolaty dense / velvet tannins, some roasted chestnut notes and underlying savoury oak (93-95). The 2009 Chateau Palmer is more powerful with roasted espresso/ mocha/ cassis aromas, superb fruit complexity, concentration and freshness. It has some real sinuous muscle that pervades on the palate giving the wine a litheness, generosity and aging potential (95-97 points).
The theme of a great left bank vintages persisted throughout the line up of St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe wines. The overall ripeness of the vintages has perhaps muffled the lines of difference. I have still to taste some key First Growth Pauillacs and the two top St Estèphes, but my impression is that with such high standard fruit, the winemaker is the dominant voice; terroir playing a back seat role. Well, this certainly is the case at the moment. Chateau Talbot which lies behind Chateau Léoville Barton is more of a country house than a chateau. It is still owned by the Cordier family who also have Chateau Meyney in their portfolio. The tasting was held in their summer house looking over a flower garden and orchard. Early spring is already here with the whole of the Medoc punctuated by white and pink blossom and pointillist trees.
Notwithstanding the temperamental weather, it will only take a few more weeks before the wintery spine of forests and vineyards are cloaked in emerald green. These were generally more powerful wines than further south in Margaux, Moulis and Listrac. The wines showed plenty of blackcurrant ripeness, occasionally some fresh brambly/hedgerow notes, dark chocolaty flavours, plush tannins and cedar oak. Many wines showed compelling elderberry notes, with inky deep colours and saturated flavours. This is a highly evocative year with the scents of autumn and the smells of drenched oak and sycamore forests of misspent youth.
Chateau Lynch-Bages, with its intense mulberry/dark chocolate/ cedar aromas and brambly notes, saturated elderberry flavours, plentiful tannins and underlying vanillin oak was elemental and powerful, with a tremendous future (95-98 points). Chateau Leoville Poyferré was also fragrant and evocative with plenty of cassis/ vanilla flavours, lovely volume and richness (95-98 points). Chateau Beychevelle has come up with something special this year. It showed cassis/ roasted chestnut/ espresso aromas and some herb garden notes, lovely chalky dense tannins and plenty of mid-palate buoyancy (94-97 points). Chateau Lynch Moussas, a surprise, was deep in colour with similar aromas, but blackcurrant pastille flavours and loose-knit graphite tannins. More elegantly structured it possessed a beautiful lacy frame (94-96 points). Chateau Lafon Rochet was equally impressive with a juicy/ pure cassis-flavoured palate and dense chocolaty tannins (94-96 points).
Chateau Pichon Lalande was very classical with black currant/ liquorice aromas, cedar oak and fine grained tannins. The tannins just folded into the wine (94-96 points) Chateau Gruaud Larose (93-95 points), Chateau Leoville Barton (93-95 points), Chateau Batailley (93-95 points), Chateau Croizet-Bages (93-95 points), Chateau Haut Bages Liberal (93-95 points), the surprising Chateau Citran (92-94 points), Chateau Clerc Milon (91-94 points), Chateau Phélan Ségur (91-94 points) Chateau de Pez (91-93 points), Chateau Talbot (90-93 points), Chateau Lagrange (90-93 points), Chateau Grand Puy Ducasse (89-92points) were highlights.
There were many other lovely wines; Chateau de Lamarque (88 -92 points), Chateau Camensac (88-92 points), Chateau St Pierre (88-92 points), Chateau Les Ormes de Pez (88-92 points), Chateau d’Armailhac (88-91 points), Chateau Cantermerle (87-90 points), Chateau La Tour Carnet (87-90 points), Chateau Langoa Barton (85-88 points), Chateau Cos Labory (85-88 points). Chateau Brainare Ducru didn’t shine as much as I hoped (84-87 points). Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande again looked very good at the Chateau. The 2009 Reserve de la Comtesse was very perfumed with violet/ cassis aromas and cedar savoury notes (91-93 points).
At Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, the theme was yet again “night club”, with beautiful girls, plenty of orange colour and theatrical embellishments. I arrived on a very wet afternoon but landed up having a good chat with Bruno Borie, the eccentric owner of Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, bedecked in flags of all persuasion except Australia.
Borie describes the concept of Terroir as an ecosystem, which pretty well tells the story, evokes a unique boundary and in many respects ties in nicely to the word’s origins. The idea of terroir and individual micro-climates does seem slightly absurd right here at this moment. The vineyards are dwarfed and littered by grand edifices. At this time of the year the vines, denuded by winter and many partially coated with moss, stand like stumps of paupers waiting for food stamps. Nonetheless Bruno Borie pulls it all off. His second wine Croix de Beaucaillou is excellent with blackberry confit aromas and fresh chocolaty tannins. It has a terrific firmness that augurs well for future cellaring, although the wine is one of parts rather than a whole (89-92 points).
The 2009 Ducru Beaucaillou is marvellous with intense dark cherry/ blackberry/ violet aromas, plenty of mid-plate richness, and chocolaty tannins. It has a robe of silkiness and fruit smoothness. This cherubic wine with its baby fat quality is disarmingly delicious to drink, however it has the stuffing and power to last the distance (95-97 points). The 2009 Chateau Léoville Las Cases was also quite impressive. It was very deep in colour with fragrant and intense liquorice/ cassis/ ginger aromas and some violet aromas, smooth rich flavourful fruit, dense chocolaty/ graphite tannins and underlying savoury oak (94-97 points). Clos de Marquis, often mistakenly thought of as a second wine showed those high tensile top notes of aniseed and liquorice, plenty of blackcurrant and some brambly notes. The palate was really well concentrated with fine chalky/ grainy tannins. The oak was there but as a bass note (92-94 points). The brand new second wine Petit Lion comprises 50% merlot. It was quite different to its other stable mates with more plummy fruit, sage/ herb garden characters and fine sinewy tannins. It seemed completely unevolved, very firm and tight (84-87 points).
I have now tasted most of the Pomerols and Graves, but will publish my notes a little later. Then there are the remaining First Growths to look at. Clearly it is shaping up to be a great vintage. Although we are seeing wines in their extreme youth, there will be many beautiful wines worth buying and cellaring. I suspect the 2008s will be seen as bargains of the century.
Andrew Caillard MW
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