On day three of our En Primeur road trip around Bordeaux, we assessed the successes and failures of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc-dominated wines of the Right Bank.
We began the day at Château Troplong-Mondot, which is perched at the very highest point in Saint-Emilion. This beautiful property is situated slightly to the east of the main town centre, right at the top of the appellation’s famous ‘côte’. It is owned by Christine Valette and Xavier Parente and it has a superb terroir due to its elevation, angle of exposure, and the deep, clay and limestone soils of the plateau on which it sits.
Under Michel Rolland’s consultancy, Troplong-Mondot has gone for both later harvesting and lower yields in recent times. Following the warm weather last year, in fact, the wine topped nearly 15.9% alcohol. This year, it is mercifully lower; but not by much. Once again, Troplong-Mondot’s cellar-master, Jean-Pierre Taleyson, has produced a turbo-charged 2011. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that this wine may always remain an ugly duckling rather than successfully developing into an elegant swan.
Above: Troplong-Mondot vines in the early morning fog.
The nose is attractive enough, with high-toned black cherry and plum fruit aromas. Once you put the wine into your mouth though, your palate is overwhelmed by a wall of astringent tannins. My fear is that it will take an eternity for these tannins to soften and the wine may stay rather unbalanced as a result. I also found the finish to be a bit harsh and hot, probably due to an alcohol level of just over 15%. Honestly, this was not a great surprise given the direction the winemaking has been taking of late. However, it is both a disappointment and, in my view, a grave mistake to continue in this formulaic vein of winemaking - especially in a vintage like 2011, when over-extraction seems guaranteed to have produced unbalanced and ungainly wines. 88 Points
From Troplong-Mondot, we navigated our way around the hillside to Château Pavie, which sits on the southern part of the côte. Since 1998, this historic property has been owned (and summarily transformed) by Gerard Perse. In that time, along with substantial investments at Pavie, Perse has ploughed an enormous quantity of cash into his entire portfolio of Saint-Emilion properties, including Château Pavie Decesse, Château Monbousquet, Château Bellevue-Mondotte, Clos L’Eglise and Clos des Lunelles.
As part of this process, Perse is currently renovating the cellars and production facilities at his flagship property. Pavie is not alone in this respect, as serious construction projects seem to be the recurring theme across all of Bordeaux at the moment. Given that so many châteaux are awash with cash following the recent, banner vintages, one does wonder whether the real thinking behind the cranes and scaffolding is simply to try and reduce their exorbitant tax bills with a nice bit of capital expenditure. Either way, in the case of Pavie at least, after looking over the grand plans that are posted prominently in the tasting area, the end result will be nothing short of spectacular.
Above: Purchasing Manager Berenger Piras (l) discusses the Perse selections with winemaker Henrique da Costa.
I wish I could say the same of Gerard Perse’s 2011 wines. My favourite was the Monbousquet, which was deeply coloured and had a good attack of acidity, along with intense, black cherry fruit flavours, as well as coffee bean, violet, and minerals notes. I was happy with the alcohol, which didn’t seem too intrusive at just under 14%, yet the tannins were simply too obvious and aggressive. 92 Points
The Clos des Lunelles was even more saturated in colour and saturated with tannin - to the extent that it made the wine almost completely impenetrable. 87 Points. The Pavie Decesse was measurably better. Whilst it also had a powerful and overbearing tannic structure, it was not as off-puttingly monolithic as the Clos des Lunelles. There were some rich, dark cassis and plum fruit flavours which were quite nice. However, my main problem with this ‘international style’ of wine was that it simply didn’t taste like Bordeaux, let alone Saint-Emilion. 88 Points
The Bellevue-Mondotte was also weighed down by a mass of tannins, which drowned out the kirsch-like fruit. My view is that the 2011 vintage simply cannot absorb this kind of structure or tannic volume. 89 Points
Perhaps, not surprisingly, I did not particularly like the Pavie either. Again, there was good intensity of bold, black fruit as well as violets and an attractive, roasted meat character. However, the whole ensemble is simply overrun with heavy-handed, mouth-puckering tannins. One day, the wine may come round, but I am unsure it will it be worth the wait. 90 Points
After just two tastings my palate was already feeling jaded and weighed down under so many firm and poorly integrated tannins. However, I was hopeful and confident that our next tasting would restore my sense of equilibrium. It proved more than up to the task as we presented ourselves to Alain and Pauline Vauthier, keepers of the flame at one of Saint-Emilion’s most historic properties, Château Ausone.
Much as I expected, the contrast between Ausone and our our first two degustations could not have been more apparent. Pavie was all about raw, savage power, overtly forced density and supreme extraction, all elements which combined to drown out the estate’s natural terroir. Ausone, on the other hand, was entirely focussed on fruit, balance and finesse, and it managed to express its privileged terroir beautifully.
Above: The view from Chateau Ausone.
We began with the impressively elegant, restrained, and cherry-infused Château de Fonbel, which had terrific freshness and lift to it, along with some superbly handled tannins. To me, this will represent one of the great value wines of Saint-Emilion in 2011. I rated it 92 points. Even better was the Château Moulin Saint-Georges, which has a vineyard that sits just below those of Ausone. This was also elegant, fresh, and pleasantly fleshy, with defined, primary fruit flavours of crushed blackberries. 94 Points
The Chapelle d’Ausone was also a great success this year and will be well worth seeking out. Sadly, only 650 cases of this rare and deliciously delicate wine will be produced, so if you can manage to get your hands on even a small quantity, do so post-haste. 96 Points
As for the Grand Vin of Château Ausone, it was another magical effort and undoubtedly one of my wines of the vintage. Plums, damsons, cherries, chocolate, and mocha dance across the palate. The tannins are beautifully refined and exquisitely constructed. The acidity is invitingly fresh and juicy, while the length is something to marvel at, begging you to take another sip. Nothing was out of kilter in this eloquent wine. This was all about poise, precision, and restraint. 98+ Points
From Ausone, we made our way to the Union des Grands Crus tasting at Château Soutard for a broader look at Saint-Emilion in 2011. Under the aegis of consultant Stephane Derenoncourt, the up and coming Château La Gaffelière has produced a sound and solid wine this year. 92 Points
Even better in my tasting notes though was Nicolas Thienpoint’s Château Pavie-Macquin. It was balanced, correct, and persistent, with well defined plum fruit and cedar notes. I rated it 93 points. Château Trottevieille was also well constructed. It was round on the palate, elegant, and fresh with nice underlying fruit and tannins. 94 Points
I also liked the Château Clos Fourtet which showed firm black fruits, smoked meat and black olive flavours. It deserved 93 points. Château La Couspade though, was clumsy and coarse. Similarly, Stephan von Neipperg’s Château Canon-la-Gaffelière struck me as being a little under-cooked and lacking in concentration. 91 Points
Perhaps the pick of the bunch at this tasting was Comte Eric d’Aramon’s classical Château Figeac. He has produced another impressively delicious and inviting wine in 2011, with sweet, plump, expressive fruit flavours, and ripe, supple tannins. This wine appeared absolutely brilliant amongst the also-rans from the region. Easily 96 points.
Left: Comte Eric d'Armon of Château Figeac describes to us how his new presses work.
After a good lunch with a tired and somewhat disappointing 2000 Château Soutard, our next appointment was at Hubert de Boüard’s brand new cellars at La Fleur de Boüard in Lalande-de-Pomerol. Hubert is also renovating his cellars at Château Angelus and has only recently opened the new facility at La Fleur de Boüard. Sadly, the directions to get there were not terribly helpful. By the time we arrived, we had taken a number of wrong turns trying to find the estate, meaning that we did not have time to taste more than a few wines.
I focussed primarily on the charmingly good and extremely approachable Carillon d’Angelus. I was also quite taken with the Château Angelus this year. It shone brightly, thanks to some beautiful fruit definition, deft and polished tannins, and à point acidity. This was a really lovely Angelus. 94 Points
Our final stop of the day was at Château Cheval Blanc, where the head-turning new cellars were utilised for the first time in 2011. I spoke at length with Pierre Lurton and he is clearly thrilled with this extraordinarily beautiful and flowing piece of contemporary architecture. It is very much the fine wine world’s new, ‘statement’ winery – exactly as you would expect from LVMH.
However, the real purpose of it for Pierre is not simply its aesthetic appeal, but rather how practical and efficient it is from a winemaking perspective. For him, what counts is the fact that he can now make Château Cheval Blanc even more haute couture than in the past. Equipped with 52 different sized concrete vats, for all 44 different plots of vines, he can now pick each parcel exactly when he wants and vinify each one separately. ‘There’s no question that we are making better wine because of the new cellars,’ he told me.
The first wine we tasted was the debut vintage of what used to be Alain Reynaud’s Quinault L’Enclos, which was purchased by Bernard Arnault and Albert Frère in 2008. Clearly, a lot of work has been done in the vineyard and winery to transform the style of this wine since the acquisition. It is now virtually unrecognisable from its former incarnation. Judging by the quality of the 2011 Quinault L’Enclos in the glass, this is a hugely positive change for the better. This was altogether much lighter, fresher and elegant than it was under the previous regime. I picked up bright, summer fruits of raspberry and blackcurrant, as well as suave, silky tannins. 92 Points
Meanwhile, La Tour du Pin, which was an adjacent vineyard to Château Cheval Blanc for many decades until it was acquired in 2006, continues to make good progress. Now in its fifth vintage, this too is firing on all cylinders. Aromatic on the nose, this wine has real lift and presence. On the palate, I picked up bruised plum skin and spicy tobacco notes, while the tannins are ripe and fine grained. 92+ Points
Le Petit Cheval is impressively aromatic. In the mouth, it is vibrant, fresh and opulent. The attack is sure-footed and pure, with red and black fruits, chocolate, caramel and spice. It has lovely length, barely-noticeable tannins and is hedonistically delicious, even at this early stage. A lovely Petit Cheval and worthy of 93 points.
Right: Pierre Lurton comments on the improvements that LVMH has made at Quinault L'Enclos.
So much for the warm-up act; what about the main event? All I can say is that the 2011 Cheval Blanc has the potential for greatness. A blend of 52% Cabernet Franc (which has been extremely successful here) and 48% Merlot, this is full of vim and vigour with great freshness, a fine, dense, tannic structure and a profound concentration. The fruit skews more to the black cherry spectrum and there is a savoury, meaty quality which adds to the slow-building complexity and sustained finish. It will be interesting to see how this develops. 93-95 Points
Finally, it was with great anticipation that we tasted the 2011 Château d’Yquem vintage. We had already discovered that the vintage was very kind to both the dry and sweet white wines, with comparisons to 2001 already being made for Sauternes. Tasting alongside Pierre and his chief winemaker at d’Yquem, Sandrine Garbay, it was clear that they had another great success on their hands with the 2011. With 145gms of residual sugar, this was intensely sweet – sweeter even than the 2001 – yet with sufficiently high acidity to keep it fresh and stylish. The mouthfeel also differs from the 2001, being slightly rounder and with greater palate weight. Only d’Yquem has the unique ability to produce something so fabulous – a wine of royal bearing and supremely elevated quality. 98+ Points
Above: The roof of the new Cheval Blanc chai.
In my final En Primeur post, which will be live early next week, following a few days of much-needed relaxation and palate recovery, I will cover our last day in Bordeaux. During the course of our visits we travelled to most of the major Pomerol properties, including several estates whose wines will almost certainly be candidates for wines of the vintage, including Château Lafleur and Château Le Pin.