As the old joke about London buses goes, you wait for ever for a vertical tasting to come along and then two arrive at the same time. After the special privilege of tasting multiple vintages of Borgogno’s Barolo, I had the considerable pleasure of exploring a good range of recent years of Château Sociando-Mallet. This Bordeaux château has a special place in the hearts of UK wine drinkers. It has long been known for its exceptional quality-for-price ratio, a property to follow if you want to drink fine Claret, rather than trade it. (Jancis Robinson gives her testimonial here.) Why is this?
Firstly, the property is situated just outside of the boundaries of a top Bordeaux commune, Saint-Estephe, but on the wrong side of the line which marks the appellation. However, it has a superb vineyard site on a gravel croupe, outcrop, right next to the Gironde estuary. In this situation it benefits from the excellent drainage of gravelly soil and a mild climate modified by water. Its harvest dates are very early by the standard of other properties despite its northerly position in the Médoc. Thus, if it was few kilometres south it could have be a top cru classé. Its classification is the humble AOC Haut-Médoc but with the benefit of a very good site and, as we shall see, high quality wine making, adds up to a real bonus for the Claret drinker.
Secondly, the standard of wine making is high and the investment in French oak barriques considerable. The property modestly says that the winemaking is standard practice: wild yeasts, one or two pump overs only, malo in tank, aged in oak, racked twice in May and September. But the blend is aristocratic with a high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon (55%) supported by 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc. This blend shows through in the power of the wines and in their classy weight. And when it comes to oak for the Grand Vin there is an unusual strategy: 80% of the wine goes into 100% new oak for structure and added aromatic complexity (a large proportion of new oak for anything that is not a first growth) and 20% in stainless steel for freshness and preserving the fruit. The result is wines with a certain glossy elegance from the outset and the added structure to ensure long ageability. These choices show both financial and wine making ambition well beyond the average Haut-Médoc property and is reflected in Parker scores in the low 90s. The second wine Demoiselle de Sociando is a more typically Médoc blend with more than than 60% Merlot. 25% of the wine spends 10 months in new barriques, the rest is aged in concrete.
And what of the vintages? Demoiselle 2014, the second wine, has lovely lifted fruit with medium intensity, fresh and classy. The demanding 2013 vintage of the second wine does show some stalky notes and green-edged tannins, despite strict selection of fruit.
There is a very big step up in quality to the Grand Vin. 2012 is still very tight with rounded black fruit presumably from Merlot currently to the fore. (To give an idea of price, this vintage is currently available at Lay&Wheeler for £24 duty paid.) 2011 has the glossiness of that new oak with rather lighter fruit, but is elegant and finely balanced with acidity. Not surprisingly for a stellar vintage the 2010 is outstanding: deeper colour, a dense black fruit and a kirsch note, a broad finely-knit palate with a wall of adhesive if suave tannins, suggesting substantial potential to age. The acidity cuts admirably across the richness. This should be outstanding on its tenth birthday. The warmer 2009 is much more approachable now with ripe, open, succulent fruit, glycerol weight but with freshness. This may not age as well but it is attractive drinking now. 2008 now has an evolved rim, a first mushroom note but then lots of primary fruit and pleasant final grip. Medium weight and elegant. 2006, another cool year, is beautifully fragrant, clove, blackberry and a touch of lifted acidity. Good red Bordeaux really hits its straps after ten years. 2005 is a predictable triumph for another great year: garnet-rimmed, slow ageing evident in the glass, a smooth and complex palate, with the fruit now absorbing that continuing tannic and acidic structure. Superb. 2001 is lean, supple and refined, earth, mushroom and leather over just ripe fruit. But certainly still fresh and highly drinkable.
To finish we had the treat of a bottle of Cuvée Jean Gautreau 1998. In another innovation this is a selection of the best 15 barrels of the year irrespective of standardized blend. Thus unusually in 2010 it was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1998 it was a more classic 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The wine now is very fine with good depth of evolved fruit and a poised, long finish. It is a fitting tribute to the man who put Sociando-Mallet on the path to producing fine, elegant and classy Claret.
With many thanks for the tasting and hospitality at 67 Pall Mall provided by Château Sociando-Mallet and Richard Bampfield MW. November 2016