Posts Tagged ‘Bordeaux’

Pouring first growths


Sometimes a picture (or two) are worth a thousand words.  At the recent Institute of Masters of Wine annual Claret tasting the ‘helpers’ all got a turn to pour on the First Growths table. In a vintage like 2009 this was a straightforward pleasure. Although massively concentrated and youthful, this year produced wines with so much attractive fruit that it was not difficult to appreciate the potential here.  No Latour or Petrus, but apart from that all the big names were very much present.  Given their current prices, this could be a first and last time experience! 

It seems a bit presumptuous to have a ‘favourite’ wine among these titans, but I am very fond of the Graves and the slightly herbaceous notes of Haut-Brion.  Angelus and friends

Underwhelmed in Bordeaux

In general I like to praise the good qualities of wines which I taste. If anything I can be too positive.  But if there is something to like, I will lead with that, while noting shortcomings as they are evident.  It is surprising to me, therefore, to report that Andover Wine Friends’ May tasting of Berry’s own label Bordeaux was distinctly underwhelming.  It was not that these were bad wines but they just did not shine. 

The idea of the tasting was simple.  Was there value, quality and variety to be had in Bordeaux at two price levels?  We all know that at the top end, Claret can be among the very best wines in the world. Less well known is that at the bottom end of the market it is almost impossible to sell some bulk, characterless wines. So what about either the £5-10 level, and then, more significantly, at the £20 level?

In fact the couple of inexpensive wines did OK.  Waitrose Reserve Claret 2010 received a rather frosty reception until the price was revealed – a rather neutral nose but then some decent red and black fruit all for £6.  Berrys’ Good Ordinary Claret 2009 had better fruit and subtle oak – but at £10 it really did not pull up any trees. It would be fine if you are wedded to the ‘Claret’ name, but otherwise there are many more interesting wines you could buy at this price. 

It was really the better wines which failed to shine.  It was partly the expectation on two parts: first, knowing that Berrys are either the biggest name in Claret in the important UK market or among the very best. And then there are the magical communal names which adorn the bottles of some of the finest wines in the world: St Émilion, Pomerol, Margaux and so on.

The two right bankers were met with the most disparate responses: St Émilion 2008, made by Ch. Simard, has pleasant fruit but was disappointing in its simplicity, while Pomerol 2009 was the wine of the evening, with a more pronounced nose, more than a hint of the famed gorgeous Merlot fruit, balance and decent tannins.  But that was as good as it got: none of Margaux 2006, St Julien 2008 or St Estèphe 2008 were more than adequate at the £20 mark.  Competent, well made wines, with some tipicity but very little excitement. 

If these bottles were representative, I can only guess what is going on here.  These wines are probably selected lots from the second or even third wines of famous estates.   With Berrys’ buying power and connections I would expect them to be mini versions of the estates’ fine wines but these weren’t.  So I can only guess that there is still a part of the UK wine market which is willing to pay a decent sum of money for two famous names – that of Berrys and then the commune name.  But the market has moved on and there are so many exciting wines at this price …


1970s Claret – old friends reunited

IMG_1381_2Saturday night’s Andover Wine Friends’ Fine Wine supper was remarkable by any standard, the main act being eight wines from Bordeaux from four vintages in the 1970s.  The first thing to celebrate was the friendship and generosity of those who love wine.  The eight wines all came from the cellar of one of our number who happily shared them with the rest of us.  This was no small gift – among the eight there were two second growths, three third growths, a ‘super 5th’ from the Medoc and a Premier Grand Cru Classé from Saint-Emilion.  At today’s prices – if you could find the wines at all – they were together worth a four figure amount but were shared with us at their original prices.  One still had a price label on it from the year after decimalisation – £5.91.  They had spent the past thirty plus years mainly in one cellar before being moved to Hampshire in the last few years. It was a great act of generosity and, let’s face it, a sharing of an experience that no of us are ever likely to have again. 

The second reason for celebration was that all eight bottles – and a 1982 which another member shared with us from his cellar – IMG_1415were in good condition.  Nine wines in drinkable condition between 30 and 42 years old were a testimony to the longevity of wine itself. It represented a triumph of the wine maker’s art, made possible by impermeable glass and high quality cork.  Those who remember the 1970s will know that it was a poor decade but that there were some half decent and better vintages represented here. The warming of the climate since then has meant that the lottery of the weather is no longer the feature it was, especially for the production of ripe Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, a late ripening variety which is the backbone of the Médoc.   One feature was clear enough in these examples – while most had Cabernet Sauvignon as the principal grape variety, the amount of Merlot has increased at the expense of Cabernet Franc in particular.  Young wines are no doubt more approachable now than then – for this reason, combined with warmer weather and better work in vineyard and cellar. But we of course were tasting seriously old wines. 

IMG_1410While all eight 1970s were still alive and well, there was quite a range within them.   Two of the three 1970s shone – the oldest wines of them all – while a 1978 from a very famous chateau also sang.  But some famous names in relatively good years did not. 

Best of the ‘70s

Top wine of the evening, with 5 out of 15 tasters voting for it, was second growth Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou 1970.  The Ducru led with classic cedar box and perfumed bouquet and still had beautiful sweet fruit and a mildly tannic finish.  Not many of these wines showed that balance, and where they were grippy it was in a drying out way, not still lively tannins. Interestingly, Michael Broadbent many years ago stated that aside from Latour and Cheval Blanc, this was the best bottling of the 1970 vintage.  From the same vintage but rather less prestigious in terms of rankings, Ch. La Lagune also showed really well – a deep colour, most youthful of the bouquets of all these wines, excellent red fruit character.  The other, rather more predictable, star wine was Ch. Palmer 1978, well known third growth with a very imposing label.  We did not taste these wines blind so we will never know how much reputation swayed people’s judgments.   The Palmer was certainly very fine:  capsicum, balsamic and lavender notes on the nose, much more fruit than its 1978 partner and still a fine refreshing finish.  Last up in the top half of the table was another prestigious wine, second growth Ch. Brane Cantenac 1970, which was positively farmyardy and could just about have passed for old Burgundy, with a superb texture, which was a feature of so many of these wines. 

Texture, now there is subject in its own right.  The great thing about fine old wines is the evolution of bouquet and flavour, followed by the mouth feel.  The forceful flavours of young fruit have long gone, the acidity is somewhat attenuated and the tannins have got longer and suppler.  Even some of the less good wines in this line up still showed a remarkable subtlety in the mouth.  Apart from sheer curiosity about longevity, this is a quality which makes it positively worth keeping good or excellent wines for decades to witness how they will develop. 

The ‘we’re still here from the 70s’ wines

Our one wine from the Graves, ie south of the city of Bordeaux, put up a good show in this company: it certainly got the most original tasting note of the evening.  Ch. Malartic-Lagraviere 1978, was a humble Graves then, but has since been promoted to AC Pessac-Léognan.  Notes of green pepper, cattle hair (sic), grass and leather, not much fruit, but that super subtle texture which has been commented on.  Ch. Malescot St Exupery 1976 had some fading plum fruit but was drying out, while that old British favourite Ch. Lynch Bages 1975 still had some cedar and blackcurrant notes and that sinewy, perfectly knit together palate with some freshness.   Our only representative from the right bank (ie from predominantly clay soils rather than gravel) Ch. Trotte Vieille 1975, showed some balsam perfume and old fruit, but was also drying out, from an originally tannic vintage. 

This was a superb evening, further enlivened by some other fine wines, excellent food and great company.  Of the wines, the following should get a mention, however brief:

Champagne, Pol Roger, Brut 2000: a beautiful aperitif but perhaps not quite the wow factor I was hoping for

Ch. Fonréaud, Les Cynes, Bordeaux IMG_1449blanc 2009: prominent oak, then bold lemon fruit and waxy texture (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle)

Ch. de Pez 1982: very fine fruit, tobacco and balsam, very subtle, very good Claret from the ‘Parker vintage’

Clos de Bourg, Première Trie, Moelleux, Vouvray, Domaine Huet, 1990 – a quite superb deep orange gold in colour (see picture on right), only moderately sweet, brilliant marmalade fruit, outstanding

Bordeaux blind

November’s Bring a bottle club had the theme of Bordeaux. In advance this seemed manageable and would surely make the task of blind tasting relatively simple?  Well, yes and no, as we shall see. Like the stately and elegant Bordeaux chateau architecture itself, would the evening be a model of precision and orderliness? Rather less likely … the combination of friendship, good food and, er, alcohol, means that the analytic approach to tasting has to jostle with the social.  But it was very instructive and a great evening. 

A tale of three white chateaux

The evening started with three dry whites. The blind tasting question was could you spot the proportions of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon – any claims to spot minor additions of Muscadelle in the white Bordeaux blend would be met with allegations of IMG_0879
showing off.  Ch. Tour Léognan, Pessac Léognan 2009 was moderately pronounced in aroma and on the palate, the predominant flavour was of lemon with a little bit of sherbet and perhaps a tale tell hint of wet wool, ergo predominantly Sauvignon Blanc with a bit of Sémillon, 70/30 in fact.  Ch. La Garelle 2008 pushes those percentages down by the 10% Muscadelle component (nobody took the chance to show off) – white flowers, subtle and rich lemon notes. Both these are very good examples white Bordeaux blends and the latter is great value from Caviste.  By contrast, Ch. La Garde, Pessac Léognan, 2008 is grander but more obvious in its make up – Sauvignon Blanc dominates (in fact its 100%) with characteristic gooseberry notes,  very refined fruit, some boiled sweet notes, beautiful acidity, perhaps a slight touch of oak, very long.  On the blind tasting front we just about passed the first test. 

It’s a dry red …

We then passed on to six Bordeaux reds where the first question tends to be left bank (of the Gironde estuary) or right bank.  The left bank is characterised by being predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon grown on gravel soils, while the right bank sees a dominance of Merlot grown on limestone over clay. These should surely be relatively easy to spot? 

The wines were:

Left bank

Right bank

Alter Ego, the second wine of Ch. Palmer, Margaux, 2007
60% Merlot, 40% Cab Sauvignon
Ch. Cadet Piola, St Emilion 1995
51% Merlot, 28% Cab S ,18% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec

Ch. Lafon Rochet, Saint-Estèphe 1998

66% Cab S, 31% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot

Ch. d’Angludet, Margaux, 2000
55% Cab S, 35% Merlot, 10 Petit Verdot
Ch. Batailley, Pauillac 1999
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 3% Cab Franc, 2% Petit Verdot
Ch. Cantemerle, Haut-Médoc, 2000
50% Cab S, 40% Merlot, 5% each Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
Ch. Gruaud Larose, Saint- Julien, 1996 (‘second growth’)
57% Cab S, 30% Merlot, 8% Cab F, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec

So we can’t worry too much about our vinous confusion. Alter Ego breaks the simple rule, being mostly Merlot but on the left bank and, unusually, being made and aged without any oak at all.  So its fruitiness would lead to you to the right bank …  Cadet Piola was all cedar and perfume, a classic quite austere Bordeaux, which which might point you to the left bank but in fact it is half Merlot and from the right bank.  Meanwhile,  Ch. Cantemerle is a 50/40 split between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and so quite close to call.  So, clearly the simple rules won’t quite do.  Needless to say this did not stop us enjoying the wines.  It was great to taste the second growth Gruaud Larose with its excellent rich fruit, the Batailley showed well with a superb cedary nose, balsamic notes and choice plum and blackcurrant fruit and the Alter Ego was a treat. 

The dessert course: the very good and the great

Of course we had to finish with Bordeaux’s sweet wines.  This type of evening really depends on the quality of wines people bring and their generosity in sharing them.  IMG_0896And we certainly had a treat to finish with – and a learning point.   First off a bottle of Ch. Sigalas Rabaud, Premier Cru Sauternes, 1996 served side by side with the second sweet wine,  which turned out to be Ch. d’Yquem Premier CruIMG_0905 Supérieur Sauternes, 1999.  In short, the first was a superb wine from a great year, the second a true great from a poor year which nonetheless was in a different league.  Fascinating. The Sigalas was everything you could wish for in a sweet wine – superb honeyed and fruit notes, waxy and luscious on the palate, excellent counterbalancing acidity, sweet and refreshing, gorgeous.  But the Yquem was something else: superbly rich and complex nose, richer and more pronounced marmalade notes on the palate, great structure and weight in the mouth, outstanding length. It was difficult to know whether to be more impressed with the complexity or the outstanding balance of a very rich wine.  A suitable climax to our circuitous journey through Bordeaux. 

Something to celebrate: 1990

I suppose it is inevitable that the wine trade will live on hype about certain vintages.  It was 1982 which made Robert Parker’s name when he declared it, early and correctly, to be a great vintage. 2000 was much promoted because it was IMG_4485 the millennium and fortunately turned out pretty well  and 2005 was hailed as for being the vintage of the decade, or at least until we are offered  the 2009s next year!  And then very occasionally you will have something to celebrate which coincides with a great vintage such as 1990.   The very first case of wine that Janet and I bought together was a mixed case of 1990 Burgundy reds including two bottles of Santenay-Gravieres, a fairly modest ‘village’ level wine aimed at the private consumer who had the patience to wait for its drinking window of 2000-10.  This formed a centre piece for a 1990 dinner (OK, a 1990ish dinner) with some very fine bottles. 

It helps if you are a bit of a hoarder and have enough in the cellar (under the stairs?) to ‘lose’ a few bottles.  Some wines are stored because they really need time before they are ready to drink, some because they are special enough that they have to wait for an occasion.  This is not just about quality level, as long as it meets your own threshold, it could also be that the bottle was bought on a special occasion or location. 

To start with we tasted the Grand Cru champagne from Roger Brun, a small producer in Ay, his Cuvée des Sires.  It’s not a vintage wine, though according to its maker this particular bottle was a mixture of IMG_4482-11995 and 96, Champagne making use of its permission to keep quality high by mixing across vintages.  This has lasted in the wine store because it is the penultimate bottle of a tiny cache we bought back with us on a memorable trip to Burgundy.  People can be snooty about coach travel but for the wine traveller it has one huge advantage – those cases you can stash away in the luggage compartment which travel back with you.  So this bottle was a memento of a stop off in Champagne on the way home – is there a better way of sweetening the business of having to come back from holiday?  A little bottle age has smoothed all the edges of this wine, with a nose of brioches and apples moderately pronounced. Smooth and sophisticated. 

IMG_4501 IMG_4504 Well out of keeping with the 1990s theme but otherwise very impressive was a 2003 white Burgundy: Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Folatieres’ (Ch. de Puligny-Montrachet) – it’s there on the table with a yellow neck label!  This is a wine you can admire from afar – the minute you pour it, its golden-yellow colour announces a grander wine on which lots of lovely new oak has been lavished.  Actually, it could have done with a few more years yet.  While it was beautiful, a few more years and that fruit and the oak would be yet more harmonious – a wine for a long term relationship? 

The main event however was a trio of 1990s or near 1990s.  This was a fascinating comparison between the Santenay already mentioned and two clarets. So on the one hand you had Burgundy (Pinot Noir) v. Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and then between two levels, and indeed near vintages, in Bordeaux. 

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The Santenay and the Ch. d’Angludet are a fair comparison.  The former is a village wine, ie the level between Bourgogne Rouge and the named vineyards of premier and grand cru. The claret similarly is a cru bourgeois, rather than a classed growth.  The Burgundy is a pale brick colour with some ruby left, but pale and interesting in comparison to the much deeper red of the claret.  Similarly, the Burgundy is now mainly old farmyard smells and a little bit of raspberry and strawberry fruit, while the claret is smooth and integrated, no one flavour dominating, the fine wine version of easy drinking. 

By comparison, the Pauillac, Ch. Pichon Longueville is much grander wine, a second growth in Bordeaux’s (or rather Médoc’s) premier league of 1855.  In the picture above, note the crest in the glass of the bottle.  It is also from a great vintage, the first of the three that run from 1988 to 1990 – Bordeaux certainly had something to celebrate in that run of years.   This is a much bigger, more structured wine, the blackcurrant fruit still evident along with the effects of ageing, now mellow and powerful at the same time. 

As you can see from the pictures, the evening wasn’t all serious wine but a great evening with friends.  But then what better setting is there for sharing fine bottles than with friends who will appreciate them?  The final bottle was a Sauternes with some

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bottle age – Ch. Filhot 1994.  I think I picked this up in a Waitrose end-of-line sale and stashed it away.  At this sort of age, the zip of young acids have begun to fade and the marmalade/cooked fruit comes to the fore.  I thought that this was a bit short
on the palate but nonetheless a decent bottle from a difficult year in which there was rain during the crucial September period. 

So 1990 really was something to celebrate.  My only regret was that it is far more difficult to source older Italian bottles, or indeed anything other than Bordeaux or perhaps Burgundy, for mature wine.  It’s fine if you are buying right at the top of the market or by the case – a few specialist businesses can meet that need.  But apart from that it usually is Bordeaux.  Nonetheless, it’s great to have an occasion to try some high quality wines which have survived and developed over the past couple of decades.  

Recent vintages of Langoa Barton

IMG_4451 There is something very satisfying about a proper case of wine.  At one level it’s only a wooden box as opposed to the usual cardboard container but it spells promise – hopefully great wines and a bit of protection against life’s knocks.  But above all it sends a signal – this is something special. 

This case was just that, a selection of fairly recent but drinkable vintages of Château Langoa Barton, a much loved property in St Julien in Bordeaux, the heart of claret country.   The property has connections with these islands as the ‘Barton’ in the title is of an Irish family who have lived in the château for nearly 200 years.  That means that they were the owners of the property back in 1855 when the classification of the Médoc put Langoa Barton as a third growth and the related Léoville-Barton one class above.  The current owner, Mr Anthony Barton, has been at the property since 1951 and in charge since 1983.  All this speaks of continuity and a long term sense of purpose. 

IMG_4453 For the claret drinker, as opposed to the investor, the purpose is entirely commendable: to make high quality, classic red Bordeaux at a reasonable price.  Perhaps that should be, ‘at a reasonable price by the standards of the speculation-fuelled levels of top quality Bordeaux’.  The recent vintages have been £50-60 a bottle, the older ones a good value £30 plus per bottle.  This tasting showed that – with the benefit of the generally good vintages of the last decade and a half – the Bartons have been producing consistently good results. 

Of the six vintages in the half-case specially packed for the Wine Society four were good years, one was exceptional and was OK if nothing special.   Normally in a ‘vertical’ tasting, you simply work your way from the youngest to the oldest wine, but we skipped the youngest to start with, as it was the exceptional year, 2005.  Thus, we tasted through the good years 2004, 2002, IMG_4457 2001 (perhaps slightly flattered in this company) and 1998.  These wines showed amazing consistency, just the natural progression of ageing. In these good years, while there were always anxious periods, in the end good wine was made.  In 2004, for example, a cool but dry September made up for a rather luke warm July and a wet August.  The youngest of the good years, the 2004, was a nice bright ruby red with a good cassis and oak nose.  The palate showed good fruit, predominantly blackcurrant – the wines are made from 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc – but still quite aggressive acid and tannin, puckering the mouth. So the five and a half year old wine is not yet at its peak, though it would be fine with robust food.

A couple more years of ageing showed a marked difference.  All the wines have spent two years in oak barriques, 50% of which are new each year, and then time in the bottle.  The 2002, the product of a cool, dry summer and a spectacularly good September, still shows a good deep colour and has a gorgeous, complex nose, with the fruit now matched by the classic cigar box smell of well judged oak.  Most markedly, the balance is now right – good levels of lively acid and smoother tannins but in balance with the fruit.  2001, while being overshadowed by the much better 2000 (not tasted), still turned in a decent wine, if one that was noticeably less fruity and less showy than 2002.  Finally, in this run of good vintages, 1998, showed the beneficial effects of time in the bottle, ten years in addition to the two spent in casks. The colour is still good but with a little orange-brown tinge at the rim, but the nose is now all forest floor and cedar, with the fruit secondary, at least on the nose.  But in the mouth the fruit reasserts itself.   All in all, an excellent series from the basically good years. 

IMG_4463  That just leaves the bottom and the top of the class.  The oldest wine in this tasting, 1997, was the product of a difficult year: early flowering, a cold and damp May, intermittent rain in June, followed by a very hot period which in turn was broken up by storms at the end of August.  Though still a perfectly decent wine it led with a sort of green pepper nose, very different.  But in the mouth it is soft and silky.  Even in a difficult year, you can make a good wine, if you have the patience to mature it.  Finally, the 2005, despite being the baby of the  bunch showed its great class.  The year was exceptionally dry, to the point of drought in some places, and hot, but with the blessing of cool nights in July and August. This produced a crop of fully mature grapes with small berries.  As nearlyIMG_4476 all the flavour and potential of red wine is in the skins, this is a great combination, even if the wine maker would like more volume to sell. But the resultant wine is amazing, leading now in its youth with gorgeous fruit, big enough to do a fair job of dominating the excellent acidity and tannin, which in turn will give it great ageing potential – if you can resist drinking it now, that is. 

Overall, this was a memorable tasting.  For those of us who are not primarily lovers of red Bordeaux (see the numerous posts on Italy, on Burgundy and other French regions on this blog), it was a reminder of the very good wines that still come from this the largest fine wine area in the world.  But it also showed that you have to pitch it right – at the right price-for-quality ratio for you and your friends and at perhaps above all, that good claret needs time in the bottle.  And some discerning friends to enjoy it with. 

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Thanks to Berry Bros for the summaries of the weather conditions in their excellent vintage charts. 

Bordeaux Masterclass (1)

One of the best reasons to start a wine group is to taste wine you would not normally choose or way beyond your normal price level.  So for Andover IMG_3840Wine Friends’ second birthday party there  were no candles but a major treat, a tour around Bordeaux with Martin Hudson, MW.   When not racing motorbikes, Martin works for Berry Bros & Rudd from where these wines came.

Bordeaux’s whites are slightly out of fashion – ratherIMG_3823 ‘proper’, with little new world immediate impact.  First up was Berry’s  Good Ordinary White, a name which tells you that  Berry’s is big on traditional wines from Bordeaux. This one however owes something to New Zealand, with its forward gooseberry and leafy nose, now a recognisable style. 

More challenging to appreciate, with a big jump up in  price (£20), was Domaine de la Solitude 2006, again the name being a great selling point.  From top white IMG_3821appellation, Pessac-Leognan, this balances Sauvignon Blanc with the weightier Semillon for a more restrained nose, with some spicy, creamy notes from it ageing in oak barrels.  Really a food wine.  I would be interested to know what others thought about this wine in relation to the more immediate ‘ordinary white’ …


IMG_3826 When just one glass won’t do …

At the end of the evening – having tasted the glorious reds, see next post – we tasted the other great style of Bordeaux, sweet white.  I can’t really improve on BBR’s comments on this wine, Château Petit Védrines 2001 (£16), on their website:

“A glorious nose of marmalade with just a hint of smokiness leaps from the glass. The palate is equally enticing and has just the right level of viscocity. A light to medium bodied Sauternes from a legendary vintage, this wine offers ripe botrytis and oranges galore. At this quality and price, I defy you not to drink it now, and lots of it!” 

What’s the answer to the ‘problem’ of needing to buy a whole bottle of sweet wine.  Martin offers up a host of tips:

  • buy half bottles (and they mature earlier)
  • be more adventurous with your food and wine tastings: not just with desserts, but also foie gras or salty cheeses, or even with fusion cooking (duck with plum sauce sprang to mind)
  • and he could have added: invite some friends around

An excellent end to a perfect 2nd birthday party.