As we leave Château de Sours in the Entre-Deux-Mers - our home away from home in Bordeaux - it is apparent that yesterday’s sunshine is now gone. The weather has turned and it is both colder and cloudier. Rain looks imminent. Why does this matter you may ask? Partly, it is that good weather naturally lifts your mood. However, it is also important because many in the wine trade (including Robert Parker) believe that high and low pressure systems can positively or negatively affect the way the wine tastes. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps it is just a by-product of the good cheer that sunshine brings.
Above: Ancient sign posts point the way at Château de Sours.
As we approach the Medoc though, almost miraculously, the sun begins to assert itself. By the time we reach Château Latour, our first appointment of the day, we have gone from winter gloom to glorious spring in the space of a few miles. Maybe God is not just a Frenchman, he is also a Bordelais!?
One always expects great things from Château Latour and, ever since Frédéric Engerer took over the reins in 1998, the estate has produced a string of marvellous and outstandingly powerful vintages. However, the true tests of the world’s great terroirs (and the brilliant winemakers who work with them) are not the ‘easy’ years like 2009 or 2010. It is the ‘off’ vintages that really push the people and the environment to their limits.
Upon our arrival, three, deeply purple wines are set out before us in Latour’s immaculate salle de degustation. Looking out through the massive sheets of glass that rim the room, we can see directly south towards Léoville-Las Cases and the town of Saint-Julien. The sun is now streaming down from between the clouds and it is a magnificent vista.
The first glass we sample is filled with the estate’s third wine, simply called ‘Pauillac’. Comprising more Merlot than usual in the blend, at 62.5% this year, with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, it is an impressive start to the morning. The wine is fresh, generous and accessible. No harsh tannins or rough edges here at all. 92 Points
Les Forts de Latour comes next and it is 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and the rest a smattering of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. What struck me immediately were the Margaux-like aromatics – floral, expansive, and beguiling. On the palate it had a lovely initial attack and superb sweetness. The fruit flavours seemed to be more black than red, with nothing overdone or out of place. Generous, poised and with a real sense of restrained power. The tannins were beautifully controlled, expressive and deft. 94 Points
The Grand Vin was even more impressive. Thus far it is my candidate for wine of the vintage. It is a serious vin de garde, with great purity of fruit, intense minerality, perfect concentration and a sense of controlled, coiled power. The tannins have been sufficiently kept in check and the fruit flavours are expressive and long-lasting. Black fruits dominate the palate, mingling with lead pencil and cigar box. There is a brooding quality to this wine that tells me it is one for the long haul. 98 Points
Interestingly, none of these wines were more than 13.1% ABV and it seems that the freshness and finesse of the Grand Vin, in particular, is due to the larger proportion of Merlot in the blend than in recent vintages. These are three superb efforts from Latour, particularly for such a troublesome year.
Our next appointment was at what remains one of Bordeaux’s hottest properties, Château Pontet-Canet. This incredible Pauillac estate is located immediately adjacent to Château Mouton Rothschild and it looked as glorious as ever in the spring sunlight. In the tasting room, we meet owner Alfred Tesseron, who we are looking forward to welcoming into AWC Wine Academy later this month. On April 25th, Alfred will host a special evening of Château Pontet-Canet, featuring a vertical tasting of ten vintages, including the 2009 that was just given a perfect, 100 point rating from Robert Parker. It promises to be quite a night.
Above: Perfect pours of Pontet-Canet.
Having now tasted it, I anticipate that the 2011 vintage will also do well with Parker. However, I do not expect it to receive another three figure score. Nonetheless, this was a very good effort from winemaker Jean-Michel Comme. He was convinced that the biodynamic regime at Pontet-Canet once again, ‘proved critical during the 2011 growing season. The health of the vines helped enormously with the balance of the final wine. However, it was also important for us to adapt to the varying conditions of the year.’
Above: Jean-Michel reflects on the difficult vintage.
Like many estates, yields were down at Pontet-Canet, this time to around 32hl/ha, compared to normal levels of around 40-45hl/ha. The harvest was early and rapid. The Merlot vines were picked from the 15th of September, followed a week later by the Cabernet Sauvignon. Everything was completed by the 29th, which was, coincidentally, the exact same date as the start of the 2010 harvest, noted Jean-Michel.
This is yet another exceptionally good Pontet-Canet and one that I think will open up much sooner than the 2010, thanks to its fine-grained tannins. The fruit was ripe and fresh with notes of blackcurrant and kirsch, along with a fine seam of mocha. This was not a monumental Pontet-Canet in any way, shape, or form. Rather, it is impressively lithe and supple. This will be drinking fabulously within five years of its release. Do not be fooled by the early accessibility though, as I think it will also be graceful in its old age. 96+ Points
Next on our itinerary was Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, a beautifully situated and well-appointed estate in Saint-Julien. Under Bruno Borie’s guiding hand, Ducru-Beaucaillou has really found its form recently, including also garnering a 100 point Parker rating for its 2009. Along with adjustments in the vineyard and the chai, Bruno has also instigated several major changes to the estate’s business plan. For example, the Croix de Beaucaillou is no longer considered the estate’s second wine. Instead, it now has its own, separate and distinct vineyard just to the west of the Château. As a long-standing patron of the arts, music, and fashion, and as part of the changes to the Croix de Beaucaillou brand, Bruno asked Jade Jagger to redesign the wine’s label – her involvement being a play on the connection between the word ‘Beaucaillou’ (‘beautiful stones’) and the legendary band of her famous father.
Whether or not you like the rather odd re-imagining of the tasting experience at Ducru-Beaucaillou – let’s just say it involved a lot of neon lighting – I certainly could not complain about the rebranded, Croix de Beaucaillou. Made with a blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and a surprisingly high 7% of Petit Verdot, the result was an unusually spicy, broad, and dense wine with solid depth and serious palate weight. There was an impressive amount of sweet fruit and ripe, fleshy tannins here as well. 92 Points
Above: The gardens at Ducru-Beaucaillou.
The Ducru-Beaucaillou was more classical in form, as well as more monolithic, with impressive blackberry and tobacco notes, firm tannins, fresh acidity and tremendous power. My only criticism was that the wine lacked some charm at this stage. I expect it will take some time to come around. But, having said that, I am sure it will be worth the wait. 93 Points
Like many other châteaux this year, Ducru-Beaucaillou’s crop was also significantly reduced, down more than 30% on last year’s volumes. This actually made it the smallest yield in the history of this exceptional Second Growth.
From Ducru-Beaucaillou, it was a short trip back up to Pauillac where our next tasting was at Château Lafite-Rothschild. We arrived at Lafite slightly early, which meant we had a chance to chat with Guy Woodward and Adam Lechmere of Decanter Magazine, as well as Lafite’s Christophe Salin and Charles Chevallier, both of whom looked relaxed and confident.
Above: Discussing the 2011 vintage with Charles Chevallier.
After tasting their 2011s, I can understand where the confidence comes from. First up was the 2011 Carruades de Lafite, which exuded a wonderful perfume. On the palate, it was exquisitely sweet, elegant and silky – very much in the Carruades mould of recent years. It is very, very good for the vintage. That said, if you put it next to the 2010 or the 2009, it would most certainly end up as third best. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to taste and I rated it 95 points.
After the performance of the Carruades, I was perhaps a touch disappointed with how this year’s Château Duhart-Milon performed. Again, the wine was very good and showed great vivacity, freshness, balance, and some intense blackcurrant and raspberry fruit flavours. The tannins have also been structured correctly and there was no hint of heaviness. My only complaint was a slight lack of persistence on the finish. 94 Points
We now are at a stage where we have come to expect nothing less than the greatest from Lafite. The 2011 is another sleek and ethereal effort from this thoroughbred First Growth. Once again, the wine has tremendous purity of fruit and is supremely elegant. The tannins are wonderfully ripe, creamy and sweet. The length is profound and already it is a joy to taste. It is a classic Lafite-Rothschild - albeit not a truly great one. 96 Points
According to Christophe Salin, ‘it took a long time to build and it certainly didn’t taste this good in December. In fact, it already tastes better than it did two weeks ago. For me, this was a Cabernet Sauvignon year, even though there is now more Merlot in the blend. It shows the importance of great terroir. If the wine is born in the right place, it makes all the difference.’
Above: The AWC team at Lafite-Rothschild.
Next up was Lafite-Rothschild’s cousin, Château Mouton Rothschild. Sadly, this is the last time we will see Hervé Berland at Mouton, having now announced his retirement as joint Managing Director, after a wonderful career running the estate on behalf of Philippine de Rothschild. Like many, I am extremely sad to see Hervé go and wish him all the best. Equally, we look forward to working with his successor, Hervé Gouin.
Happily though, a contented Hervé Berland did actually confide to us that he has already secured a new position as Commercial Director at Château Montrose. I am sure he will be as great an asset to Montrose as he has been at Mouton Rothschild.
Hervé must also be quite pleased with his swansong vintage at Mouton. I felt that Le Petit Mouton was particularly successful this year, with its vibrant, red fruit characteristics and the fine tobacco leaf and cigar box notes it exuded. I rated it 94 points. Château d’Armailhac was equally sweet and forward, with an attractive, smokey, roasted character and solid palate length. I also gave it 94 points. Château Clerc-Milon was also succulent, with generous fruit and good, ripe tannins. 95 Points
Above: Vineyards and spring leaves at Mouton Rothschild.
The star of the show was still the complex, classy Grand Vin. Supple tannins, fresh acidity, and sumptuous fruit flavours were interspersed with hints of meat and baking spices. For me, this had plenty of charm to offer and it was a great pleasure to drink. With this sort of density and depth, I expect that it will age extremely well. It is certainly one of the stand-out wines from this vintage. 97 Points.
From Mouton, we crossed over into Saint-Estèphe to taste the wines of Château Cos d’Estournel. For the last two years, Cos has courted considerable publicity (and controversy) for producing some very powerful, full-bodied and highly alcoholic wines. This year, the wines are lighter in alcohol, but remain muscular and firm, with good acidity and phenolic ripeness. According to Managing Director Jean-Guillaume Prats, this was a technical and difficult vintage at Cos, requiring almost constant monitoring and intervention in the vineyard.
Jean-Guillaume took the decision to pick early and fast, beginning the harvest with the Merlot on the 5th of September and quickly following it with the Cabernet Sauvignon the following day. This made it the earliest harvest at Cos since 1893! Somewhat surprisingly though, the yields were actually higher in 2011 than they were in 2009.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by either the Goulée or Les Pagodes de Cos. The former seemed a touch over-extracted. I gave it 88 points. The latter was a touch too simple and one dimensional – 89 points. The Grand Vin was slightly more compelling, with attractive concentration, greater balance, elegance, and length. The tannins are round and ripe, but you will need to wait a good ten to fifteen years for this wine to really open up. 93 Points
Finally, our last tasting of the day was at Château Montrose. Talking to Nicolas Glumineau, Montrose’s Technical Director, it was clear that the estate took a slightly different approach to picking the crop than Cos did.
Montrose began early enough, on September 2nd, but instead of pulling the entire crop in quickly, they continued to take their time, finishing the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc parcels towards the end of the month. ‘The weather was good and there was no rot, so we were able to wait for the tannins to fully ripen,’ said Glumineau. In the end, the harvest took twenty five days to complete, making it the longest ever at Montrose.
I was immediately taken with the estate’s second wine, La Dame de Montrose, as it had fabulous fruit aromas and fragrances of both ink and minerals. The tannins are certainly not lacking in this wine, but they are refined and accessible. 94 Points
Unsurprisingly, I was even more disposed to the Grand Vin, which I thought was particularly impressive. What struck me most were the quality, precision and refinement of the tannins as much as the sweetness and complexity of the fruit. It was all here – acidity, depth, balance, and length. 96 Points
This was a pleasing way to finish our second (and final) day on the Left Bank and it confirmed that we have a better than expected Bordeaux vintage on our hands. Certainly, the more I taste, the more confident I become.
Although my confidence is growing, the fact remains that not every wine has been a success and, as I mentioned yesterday, this is not anywhere close to the quality of 2009 or 2010. Given the complexities of the growing season though, the Bordelais are to be widely congratulated on the end results. Already, we are making judgements as to the wines we think are suitably impressive and which we might like to purchase - assuming the price is right, of course. However, there are two Banks in Bordeaux and tomorrow I’ll be reporting on how the Right one has managed to perform in this testing and intriguing vintage.