The arrival of the invitation to a Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) tasting is always eagerly awaited because it gives those wine investment professionals who have not been lucky enough to attend en primeur week the chance to taste what all the fuss is about. It is also usually the first chance that most people have to taste the finished product from the bottle before it is shipped off to negociants and wine merchants and eventually the customer.
The Vin-X team arrived at the Paul Hamlyn Hall adjoining the Royal Opera House with no real expectations. Whilst the critics had deemed that 2012 was never going to be a classic like 2009 or 2010 neither had they marked it down as badly as 2013. With only a few hours available the trick was to select a number of chateaux to provide a representative sample and focus particularly on the top end investment grade chateaux. I have to say I think we were all pleasantly surprised. 2012 is a very easy drinking vintage that will be accessible at a very young age. There was little evidence of any hard tannin and the general consensus was that whilst it may not provide many investment grade wines there would be plenty that would be very drinkable, very soon for a reasonable price. Our only female taster particularly liked the Troplong Mondot and of course the classic, sweet Sauternes from Doisy Daene. The newest tasting member of our team preferred the Lynch-Bages and the Pavie Macquin whilst my favourite was Gazin. All different but that’s the beauty and subjectivity of fine wine.
One of our favourite commentators at Vin-X is Gavin Quinney of Chateau Bauduc, pictured here gathering in his vintage. Besides making his own excellent wine he also writes various guest blogs for wine publications, amongst them Liv-ex, and is particularly insightful about the recent 2014 harvest throughout Bordeaux in his most recent blog. Having been resident in Bordeaux for 16 years he has learnt to moderate his enthusiasm with a dose of reality. Whilst 2014 won’t necesarily be a classic vintage he feels that it could be a “really good one for many chateaux.” Excellent flowering and a gorgeous autumn suggest it was a “bookend season.”
However despite the return to a more “normal” size crop it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Bordelaise in 2014. After the fine spring a lacklustre summer of cool, damp weather meant the vintage was looking marginal but the glorious heat of the autumn has performed a miracle and transformed the vintage. But that does not mean that there will be uniform success throughout the region. Picking dates have been more random due to varying rainfall levels and the fact that the extended sunshine has allowed chateaux the luxury of being able to wait and pick the optimum time to harvest. Another consequence of the extended sunshine was the absence of rot for the first time in 4 years which has allowed growers to pick their grapes for the best level of ripeness.
Away from the vineyards the sophisticated sorting equipment is still very much in evidence in the winery complemented by new innovations such as yeast boosters. At one chateaux the equipment is so advanced that not even their wine consultants are permitted to view it because of patent restrictions ! Yields may have been healthy but it looks like not everyone has been so lucky. Growers have reported widespread withering of the skins of the Merlot grapes which could point to a Left Bank vintage but again those lucky enough to possess sorting machines should be unaffected. Finally there have undoubtedly been rainfall variations within the region and this will once again bring diversity in the wines but at Vin-X we will of course keep you in formed. One veteran winemaker of 50 years experience reckons that 2014 will produce “elegant, classical wines. They should suit the British.” To read the full article click below.
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Thursday 9th October
Our final visit during the 2014 harvest was to Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The heritage and reputation of the chateaux of the world’s greatest dynasty in wine needs no introduction. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild has led the way with many innovations in the wine industry, most notably during the long reign of Baron Philippe de Rothschild from 1922 – 1988 in terms of quality, production and promotion, especially in the alliance with world famous artists in the creation of the famous Mouton labels establishing the estate’s link with the art world.
This has been an extraordinary year, with the passing this summer of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, the matriarch of this famous family of wine-makers and bankers. An actress, she joined the family business at the request of her father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, in the 1970s and then assumed control on his death in 1988. Following in her father’s footsteps she continued to develop his projects at Mouton and the other estates owned by the family along with projects including that at Opus One in the Napa Valley. Speaking to members of her team you can see she is sadly missed.
There can never be a better time of year to visit a vineyard than harvest time, with the workers in the vines and the grapes, juices and aromas in the cellars. To see the detailed workings of a First Growth such as Mouton in full harvest action is an extraordinary privilege. During our tour we heard that estates increased their labour force to about 150 personnel. At Mouton it was 700 to ensure the quality of the grapes were protected to the optimum extent during harvest. We were there on their last day, the grapes could be seen in vats with a glass visibility seam running longitudinally through the depth of them. The juice being driven by gravity and weight of the ‘cake’ above through spouts at the base of the vats to be pumped back through. A glorious combination of visual and fragrant sensual overload – breathing in great gulps of Mouton-Rothschild 2014 – I didn’t want to leave the pristine, functional beauty of the cellar room.
I was gently coaxed upstairs to view the lasting legacy of Baroness Philippine, a wonderful exhibition of all of the Mouton-Rothschild bottle labels created by the artists who have contributed since Baron Philippe initiated this in 1945. The exhibition has travelled the world and now resides at Mouton and includes labels designed by Picasso, Warhol and our own Prince Charles. The contrast of this art exhibition adjacent to the state-of-the-art workings of one of the top five vineyards in the world is breath-taking. Mouton is a mind-blowing experience.
Finally, what was the early opinion on Mouton 2014? Herve Gouin, Commercial Director was very happy, “The colour, tannins and alcohol levels are very close to perfect. July was difficult and August very challenging but September was perfect and the quality is there. Volume is better than 2013, but it is not a big year for volume – we expect to be very happy at en primeur.”
Chateau Pontet-Canet, Wednesday 8th October
Can you imagine Chateau d’Yquem 2011 for breakfast? Really! Croissant and coffee is for wimps – we tasted this sublime ‘Sauternes Masterpiece’ having commenced our morning with a tour of this most beautiful estate, once owned by King Henry I.Standing at one of the highest points in Sauternes under the chestnut tree planted by French soldiers hospitalised at the chateau during WW2, we looked over the precisely planted vines of Chateau d’Yquem. You can find oyster shells in the soil here, a result of the low-lying Sauternes land having been submerged by sea millennia-ago. This marine-enriched earth nurtures the vines of the highest slopes in Sauternes making this unique terroir. The wines of Yquem are recognised as the finest whites in Bordeaux, and a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 1811 was the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold at £75,000 in July 2011. These wines age extraordinarily well and can last for well over 100 years, continuing to evolve.
The harvest at Yquem is exacting with the attention to detail being focused on the perfect degree of development of botrytis, referred to as noble rot, in the individual grapes, not clusters. The degree of rot will determine the levels of sugar, acidity and alcohol and the complexity of this is what makes Yquem great. Getting this delicate balance right is a skill that has passed down through generations of vineyard workers under the skilled eye of the most talented wine-makers through the ages. In 1785, Francoise Josephine de Sauvage d’Yquem, widow of Count Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces, took control of the estate. She perfected the harvest method of picking individual grapes by several passes through the vines over weeks having identified those as having reached the optimum stage of noble rot. Today there are fifty Yquem vineyard workers, of which notably 30 are women who tend the vines all year round and are each responsible for their own section of vines. These women of the vines are generational with grandmothers, mothers and daughters involved in the creation of Sauternes’ premier wine. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that the wine-maker at Yquem is also a woman and Sandrine Gambay has excelled to such an extent that she has overseen the production of one of the estate’s finest vintages in 2001, thought to be the best vintage in a hundred years. Another great is 2003 and the team believes that 2011 holds great promise too.
This unparalleled Sauternes heritage of exacting standards, means that a vintage will not be produced if the quality of the harvest is not good enough, as was the case in 2012. This has meant that Yquem has earned the exalted reputation as the greatest Sauternes vineyard and producer of the finest white wines ever made. When we were taken to the cellars we noted the empty racks where the 2012 oak barrels would have been stored – this a poignant and stark visualisation of the effect of such high standards. Protecting this reputation has been key and Yquem was one of the first major estates to fight fraud by introducing a unique watermark on their label. Anne explained that another responsibility of the Yquem women is to check every bottle of wine individually by hand with a magnifying glass. Any bottles found with any imperfection are all disposed of. This identifying mark allows them to track any quality issues in the vineyard as the location of the original vine is also understood through this mark providing extraordinary information on the wine production.
That brings us on to the 2014 harvest and having arrived at the tasting room we were joined by Valerie Lailheugue. She advised us that the Yquem team were delighted. September had brought summer warmth to Bordeaux after a disappointing August and they too feel 2014 is a promising vintage. Finally, and most importantly, back to breakfast – 2011, in the life of Yquem is still very young and yet it has the potential to be a great vintage. The delicate and yet quiet sophistication of this beautiful wine took our breath away. Truly there could not be a more perfect way to commence the day!
Chateau Margaux, Tuesday 7th October
Finally, we finished day 2 with a visit to the iconic First Growth, Chateau Margaux. No doubt the First Growths are the pinnacle of the world’s wine growing, and the glorious chateau exudes the heritage and centuries of tradition espoused in Margaux’s sacred terroir by a long line of some of the most talented wine makers ever. The history of the estate can be traced back to the 12th Century but it wasn’t until the arrival of the Lestonnac family in the 16th Century it became recognized for its wine production. In 1771 wine from Margaux became the first claret to be sold at Christies and it is of public record that Thomas Jefferson was also an aficionado.
Margaux today is wholly owned by Corinne Mentzelopoulos and, similar to the other First Growths, is a global super brand. The chateau, itself, has been undergoing a refurbishment designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the world’s most notable modern architects. The new buildings will be revealed next summer.
The harvest was also near completion at Margaux and our host observed that September had transformed their opinion of the vintage at the end of August. “The unexpected warmth of the last month has been extraordinary and the climate conditions were similar to that of 1996 – in fact 2014 could well be likened to a modern day ’96. The levels of sugar are very high and the acidity quite high, the vintage is expected to be at the least very good.” We left Margaux with another positive view on 2014 and look forward to tomorrow, starting with Chateau d’Yquem, the jewel of Sauternes.
Chateau Pontet-Canet, Wednesday 8th October
With the bell tower of Angelus behind us and after a reviving lunch at Café Lavinal in Pauillac, where some excellent foie gras was perfectly accompanied by a velvety Sauternes, we arrived at Pontet-Canet. We were warmly welcomed by owner Alfred Tesseron and his niece Melanie to the chateau, which nestles in the Pauillac appellation near Chateaux Lafite and Mouton, to witness a bio-dynamic harvest in action.
With the harvest in its final week Melanie escorted us through the vines, alongside the working teams to explain Pontet-Canet’s bio-dynamic approach to producing fine wine. Alfred redesigned the harvest process in 1999 and much of this practice exists today with the grapes gathered by hand, and carried by the team of seven magnificent horses into the highly labour-intensive sorting rooms.The simplified practices used ensure the condition of the grapes is protected, keeping them uncrushed and not engaging processes like pumping over to avoid the risk of oxidation.
The introduction of horses in the management of the vineyard a few years ago was more than a romantic vision or PR angle, it is key to the ideology Pontet-Canet adopts in the optimum maintenance of their terroir and vines. Ulysse, Univers and five other magnificent Postier Bretons, who also enjoy the odd grape, are used with adapted devices to help work the vineyards and assist with the harvest. Melanie walked us through the team sorting the grapes and down to the vats and there were smiles all around. Pontet-Canet too has enjoyed and benefitted from the extraordinary September weather and you can feel the suppressed excitement. Melanie’s view; “It’s early days but 2014 is looking very promising and we are very happy.”