There’s just something about Bordeaux, isn’t there. The gravels, slowly deposited over time, that have soaked up centuries of human history to provide a bedrock for civilisation that now manifests itself through wine. The pomp and circumstance of wine’s only true class system, constructed in 1855 by Emperor Napoleon III, unashamedly commercial, elitist, exclusive and, yet, somehow sexy. The hierarchical complexity, the sheer number of châteaux, their appellations and place in the cru classé system - can one possibly learn it all? It’s a challenge for sure, and one that, for many of us, is often performed in the realms of the imagination. The Ausones, Pétrus and Cheval Blancs are the wines of dreams, intangible, untastable and generally out of reach.
Of course, we crave that which we can’t have, but the prohibitive price of Bordeaux means that it is a wine we often overlook, especially In NZ where we can go to the affordable riches of Hawke’s Bay or Central Otago for quality wine. These wines too are often driven by ripe fruit which has been given every chance to sing through a more minimalist approach to oak use. As such, the wines of Bordeaux, which are often marked by the heavy hand of the winemaker, have possibly become just a little bit unfashionable - in certain wine circles at any rate.
However, this is a monumentally important region, the spiritual home of Merlot and the Cabernets - responsible for a style imitated around the world and categorised under the slightly diminutive sounding title of the Bordeaux blend.
So it was fabulous to revisit this region in the glass with a personal introduction to some of its eclectic characters by Jean-Christophe from Maison Vauron - the man who brings these wines into NZ and who knows them as well as anyone. It was a lineup of the major appellations (with the noticeable absence of Pessac-Leognan) but was more than just a simple preamble through the communes - this was the story of Merlot versus Cabernet and 2015 versus 2016... and it turned into quite the contest.
The 2015 and 2016 vintages have been rated very highly by the experts, and it is clear that 2016 really is something special, just like it was in the Rhône. This was demonstrable in the first 5 wines of the tasting, all of which hailed from this vintage. These wines had something in common, with a clarity of fruit and precision that was impressive. They generally showed clever oak use too, almost as if better fruit from a better vintage had instilled a level of trust from the winemakers - allowing them to be more hands off.
This was exemplified in the Lagrange with its high percentage of Cabernet. This grape often has a lean taut profile - the flavours stretch over the palate in quite the opposite way to the roundness of Merlot. But the stony gravels of Saint-Julien and the benevolence of 2016 have obviously favoured Cabernet. This wine had all the gentleman-like qualities that Saint-Julien is famous for; the power of Pauillac married with the femininity of Margaux (its two main neighbouring appellations). It was the archetypal iron fist in a velvet glove - with real depth and concentration under its plush exterior.
The 2016 Marquis de Calon-Ségur, the second wine of Calon-Ségur in Saint-Estèphe also showed the vintage in good light, this time via the benefits to the early ripening Merlot which forms 70% of its assemblage (much more than in the flagship wine). Saint-Estèphe is the northernmost of the six communal appellations of the Médoc and here the Gironde Estuary is wide and serves to heighten the cooling maritime climate. This results in the often rugged and slightly rougher nature of Saint-Estèphe, but also bodes well for the early ripening Merlot, especially in warm vintages such as 2016. The Marquis offered all the plush roundness and roasted notes that Merlot does so well; it’s a big wine and has correspondingly received more oak, but it wears it well and will fare well in the cellar.
The Merlot also seemed to be a vintage bellwether with the two left bank wines, Ch. Fonbel and Ch. Taillefer from St Emilion and Pomerol respectively. The first, from the 2016 vintage, was all class and elegance but still showing the plushness expected from its Merlot component. The site is also a beautiful mix of limestone, clay and sand and the owners are those of Ch. Ausone, so maybe one would expect nothing less? The vineyards at Ch.Taillefer sit on iron-rich clay and the assemblage is 75% Merlot with the balance Cabernet Franc, so one would expect a bigger, gruntier wine with darker fruit flavours… and this is what we found. That said, the wine felt over-extracted and the big ripe fruit flavours and high alcohol had been over compensated for with masses of oak, as if the winemakers had fallen into a cascade of intervention faced with high sugar levels from an obviously hot year. 2015 is supposed to trump 2016 in the right bank and although it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from just two wines, this pair seemed to show the opposite.
The Grand Puy Lacoste was a fitting finale. A wine of clear pedigree; a thoroughbred stallion with its glistening skin stretched taught over a frame of rippling sinuous muscles. It fell into the contradictory realm that top flight wines often do - being unexpectedly approachable whilst showing great ageing potential. It was the taste equivalent of listening to a church bell ringing on a crisp Sunday morning, true and clear and then lingering in the cerebellum until you wonder whether it’s still truly audible or just the mind playing tricks. 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and seasoned perfectly with 5% Petit Verdot - very much a classical left bank wine, it had none of the over-ripeness that other 2015s had shown and left us wondering just how good it would be from the 2016 vintage.
So nice to really get to taste this region again in a serious context. The wines were good, some of them great - showing a deftness of touch that I had not expected. When I first started my journey into wine - this was the region that romanced me the most and it’s lovely to fall in love all over again. Bordeaux can be an expensive wine partner to enter into a relationship with… but on balance, she’s probably worth it.
Here’s the full lineup of wines that were tasted and some other vintages that we have available too with links to purchase...
- Grand Verdus, Bordeaux Blanc '19
- Ch. du Seuil, Graves, '16
- Ch. Anthonic, Moulis-en-Médoc '16
- Ch. Fonbel, St Emilion Grand Cru '16
- Ch. La Tour Carnet, 5eme Cru Haut-Medoc '16
- Le Marquis de Calon-Segur, St Estephe '16
- Ch. Lagrange, St Julien '16 (out of stock)
- Ch Taillefer, Pomerol '15
- Ch. du Tertre, Margaux '15
- Ch. Grand Puy Lacoste, 5eme Cru Pauillac '15
Ch. Lagrange, St Julien '15 - worth noting that this wine is a whopping 33% cheaper than its 2016 counterpart.