The heat was the first thing to greet us as we made our way through the crowds at the Gare de Bordeaux St. Jean. Temperatures were in the mid-90s everywhere we went, with no limited relief except the air-conditioned car or the chateaux cellars. This was the beginning of two very full days for Moriah and me in the Medoc, St. Emillion, Pomerol and Pessac-Leognan regions. By the trip’s end, we left Bordeaux with a clear impression of the best recent vintages (2009, 2010, and 2012) and and came away with a much-improved knowledge of the Bordeaux market, geography, style differences and wine-making techniques.
Here is a recap of Day 1:
Stop 1: Latour
We began an ambitious first day at Chateau Latour, where we proceeded to tour the winery, including an active labeling and packing line. The staff was busy labeling the 2011 and some recent back vintages including the 2005.
The tasting focused on the 2012s and 2010s. The 2012 Latour and Forts de Latour were among the weaker wines we tried from that vintage during our trip; a bit blousy and simple. The 2010s had no such problems. The 2010 Forts was as good or better than many first wines that I have had from this vintage and the Latour was just remarkable; dense and firm with all of the gorgeous purity that is the hallmark of this historically great vintage. It was a sign of things to come.
The wine library at Chateau Latour
Next on our Pauillac tour was a quick walk down the road to Latour’s next-door neighbor Pichon Lalande. The winery was under construction so we went straight to the Chateau house (available for client stays) and a tasting among Madame Lencquesaing’s antique glass collection.
A quick note on construction: We came across a great deal of construction while visiting Bordeaux particularly in Pauillac. Apparently the 2009 and 2010 vintages brought a lot of revenues in to the Chateaux and rather than hand those euros over to the French government in taxes most decided to improve or expand the wineries. Your futures dollars at work.
The tasting at Pichon Lalande was focused on the 2012 and 2010 vintages, which would end up being a recurring theme over our two days. It was at Pichon Lalande that we got our first idea of the potential of the best 2012s. The 2012 Pichon Lalande was very good with some of the purity and precision of the 2010, similar structure and very good length. The 2010 was a significant step over the very good 2012 with more pure fruit and better weight and finish. The wine has great long term aging potential but like many of the 2010s I enjoyed it right away.
Next on our tour was a visit to Lynch Bages, where we got to see the racking process first hand. Racking is the means by which a maturing wine is separated from the natural sediment that accumulates at the bottom of the barrel. The wine is poured or pumped out into a clean barrel until the “racker” (if there is there such a word?) starts to see sediment – much the way you would decant a bottle of wine. The traditional method of checking for sediment is to use a glass vial to catch a sample of the wine as it pours and then hold it up to a candle stationed next to the barrel; it’s very low tech. When the racker gets a cloudy sample he stops removing wine from the barrel. Once the wine is poured or pumped off into a clean barrel the racked barrel is rinsed out thoroughly with water and a sulfur tab is burned inside to sterilize it. That barrel is then ready to have wine racked back into it. When wine is poured into a barrel that recently had a sulfur tab burned inside of it the sulfur gas is displaced and comes out of the top of the barrel. The sulfur fumes in the aging cellar at Lynch Bages were almost unbearable. I don’t know how the winery workers could stand it.
At Lynch we tasted the grand vin along with the Ormes de Pez and Echo de Lynch Bages which are the same wine (Echo is the new name for Lynch’s 2nd wine) and the Blanc de Lynch Bages. The 2012 Lynch was at least as good as the Pichon Lalande 2012 with an inviting sweet chocolate cherry bouquet, precise fruit expression and ripe tannins on the finish. The 2012 Lynch Blanc was gorgeous and just the thing after tasting so many young tannic reds: 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 27% Semillon and 13% Muscadet the wine was generous and extremely well balanced with lots of ruby grapefruit and lime fruit, plenty of acid and great length.
Stop 4: Montrose / Cos d’Estournel
Next we were off to the St Estephe and one of my all-time favorites Chateau Montrose. We met the new CEO of the winery Herve Berland, and after a refreshing glass of Pol Roger NV we had perhaps the best lunch of the week which was prepared by Montrose’s in-house chef. The Tronquot Lalande blanc 2011 that we started with was gorgeous, rich, long and had subtle petroleum notes. Also were also served the Dames de Montrose 2005, which was quite surprisingly good particularly for a 2nd wine and just now coming into its own with bright fruit flavors, a well-developed bouquet and great structure. The headliner was a bottle of 1998 Montrose which showed elements of maturity on the bouquet, Asian spices sweet cinnamon and cardamom, sported soft ripe tannins which integrated perfectly with loads of generous cherry fruit. This wine still has many years ahead of it but it is a great drink right now.
From Montrose it was off to their neighbor Cos d’Estournel. Cos is perhaps the most impressive looking winery I have ever been in. Between the Indian style architecture, the intricately detailed imported doors and woodwork and the ultra-modern winery Cos looks like a combination between Maharajah’s palace and space ship. Cos believes that gravity is the key to making great wine. Most modern wineries try to avoid pumping but Cos takes it to the extreme and are – according to our guide Geraldine – the only winery in Bordeaux that does not pump at all but uses gravity to move grapes and wine around during every step in the winemaking process. They also have an incredible cellar of back vintages in every imaginable bottle format up to Sovereign (26 liters). The cellar is two stories high and somehow works perfectly, architecturally, with the modern winery and India influenced reception area.
I was less enthusiastic about the wines. We had the Pagodes de Cos and the Cos 2008 (first vintage in the new gravity-only winery). Both were good but they had a ripe strawberry/rhubarb quality that found a bit clumsy.
Stop 5: Mouton Rothschild
Next we returned to Pauillac for our tour of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. We received a tour of the new winery and the Baroness art collection where we got to see firsthand the figurines that inspired the labels for Clerc Milon, d’Armilhac and the 2000 Mouton. Also on display is the original artwork used to create all of the labels since Mouton began their artist label series.
But where my pre-conceived notions were really blown up was in the tasting room. The Chateau generously arranged a tasting of d’Armilhac, Clerc Milon and Mouton from the 2010 and 2012 vintages. The wines were excellent across the board and showed the most consistent high quality of any winery we visited in Bordeaux. The 2012 Mouton was very dark with a nose of dense ripe fruit and surprising cured meat (prosciutto) element with cocoa aromas that blended in nicely. The wine showed a dense core of ripe plum in the mouth and ripe tannins with excellent structure and balance and sported an expansive and long finish – a very serious wine.
The 2010 may have been the best wine I have had from this remarkable vintage. Like the 2012, it has a gorgeous and complex bouquet of chocolate,black cherry and smoked ham. In the mouth I was initially surprised by the sweetness of the attack but again there was the purity, power and incredible precision evident in so many 2010s. The wine finished extremely well and grabbed the only 4+ star grade (on a scale of 5) of any wine of the trip.
Stop 6: Gruaud Larose
We finished day one at Chateau Gruaud Larose. The most impressive thing about Ch. Gruaud Larose is the huge amount of back vintage wine that they cellar. They have multiple bottles of many pre-phylloxera wines going back to the early 19th century, dozens of bottles in various formats from nearly every vintage of the 50s, 60s and 70 and hundreds bottles from most of the important vintages the 80s and 90s. I doubt that there many more comprehensive collections of the wines of any one winery anywhere in the world (Massandra notwithstanding).
We had dinner with Gruaud Larose’s well-travelled and energetic brand manager David Launay. At dinner, we were treated to several vintages of Sargent and the grand vin including the 1964 Gruaud Larose which was remarkably fresh with a nose of Asian spice and tobacco, a lovely earthiness to compliment the soft fruits and extremely well integrated tannins – a classy mature wine.
For me, perhaps an even bigger surprise than the 1964 was the 2003 Sargent and Gruaud Larose. Neither showed any of the over ripe characteristics and baked qualities that I often encounter in wines from this very hot year. The Sargent was elegant with softer, more fruit forward, flavors and slightly green tannins – a serious wine and great value. The 2003 Gruaud Larose showed candied fruit and spice on the nose and had an excellent balance of slightly sour cherry fruit and soft well integrated tannins and great length. The 2004 had a classic Gruaud Larose nose of soft cherries and tobacco and a soft, rich core of fruit and velvety tannins (a really nice effort for this vintage and a great current drink) and the 1989 was still a baby with very concentrated fruit, firm tannins and great length.
Thus ended day number one.