On our way to Cabernet country this morning the Cult Wines team either slept, or quietly discussed the day ahead. Unlike yesterday, where we knew that the Merlot based wines ahead of us would most likely be showing well, king Cab, didn’t fill us with as much confidence.The attribute we were hoping not to encounter to an excessive degree within the wines was Isobutyl methoxypyrazine, or bell pepper, this compound has been reported to feature in Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon based wines this year, due to a number of factors. Namely; a long, spread out version which aggravates the accumulation, blocked ripening due to the prolonged summer drought, and insufficient leaf stripping and fruit thinning. All of these combine to result in a measurable level of the compound higher than the human olfactory detection threshold. Too much vegetal characteristic is deemed undesirable by wine critics, as it unbalances the wine and masks other aromas and flavours that would normally be perceived.
So with that in mind we headed to Chateau Calon Segur, in Saint Estephe. This third growth estate, is an impressive sprawling expanse of topiary, walled gardens and out buildings. This year’s yield was down from 45hl/ ha in 2011, to 38 hl/ ha. Which is partly down to 2012 being a particularly bad year for Coulure, which is where wind, rain and chemical deficiencies during flowering prevent flowers from being properly fertilised, this results in the flowers dropping off. As these flowers would normally turn into individual grapes on the cluster, the result then becomes deformed bunches with gaps where the missing berries should be, and consequently a reduced yield. So not only did Cabernet have to endure this downfall, but as a later ripening variety, growers also had to avoid the rain that took place during harvest, this resulted in some heterogeneous ripening hence, virtually any producer you ask in Bordeaux will tell you that their hl/ha was reduced compared with last year.
Our mission today was to ascertain whether or not producers had gone to their best efforts to overcome these obstacles without jeopardising quality.
It was clear that Calon Segur implemented some rigorous berry selection because there wasn’t a hint of ‘bell pepper’, to be seen. The wines were all vibrant and expressive, the Capbern Gasquerton was particularly captivating and represents an excellent price quality ratio.
Our next destination was Chateau Montrose, where we encountered intensely powerful wines. The quintessence of the vintage had clearly been captured through judicious vinification practices, such as a long reportedly long maceration period of 26-28 days, in order to extract phenolics from the thick skins.
Cos d’Estournel didn’t fail to impress. It is like the fantasy land of Bordeaux, the barrel room is like nothing else you will find in France, a sea of barriques can be circumnavigated via an impressive bridge walk way that leads to a feature cellar room containing large format back vintages stored in a Jumanji style high tech storage facility. But even if the winery was a plain Jayne, the wine was still sublime. The Cos d’ Estournel Blanc has been altered this year to provide more of an immediate pleasure, so the blend contained a higher proportion of Sauvignon Blanc compared with Semillon, 77%, 23% respectively. It was deemed by the team to be almost parfait… exhibiting implausible length. The rest of the range was equally good.
Cos d’Estournel was followed by Lafite Rothschild. Where Charles Chevallier greeted us, juxtaposed in amongst the grandiose of Lafite, looking more Latin teacher than Lafite super star wine maker. We discussed this year’s vintage, and Lafite’s decisions to pick much earlier, resulting in 12.5 % ABV, compared with last year’s 13.5 % ABV. Chevallier explained that when deciding the exact moment to pick, he will walk the vineyards and taste the grapes himself in order to make a decision. He also mentioned that they employ students to carry out in-depth crop estimations, where bunches and berries are weighed, sugar, acid, pH are recorded, but actually ‘he doesn’t really care much about this’… and will simply go by his own intuition… Presumably these protocols are implemented more to identify if something peculiar happens, to give work experience kids something to do, or for the sake of harvest reports, and less to pin point harvest dates. But with the amount of vintages under his belt that Chevallier has, instinct and experience will presumably override any other analysis. We tasted the Carruades de Lafite, the Chateau Duhart- Milon and the Chateau Lafite Rothschild. All of which exhibited precision and elegance, but the Duhart particularly captured our attention for providing refinement and personality.
Lunch at Pontet Canet was (as always) impressive, especially the heart attack instigating cheese buffet, with at least 30 different cheeses on offer. The starter was a delicious Terrine de Volaille, Fois Gras au Naturel, and the main a Fondant de Joue du Boeuf, served with the 2002 and the estate owned Cognac Tessaron.
We then hopped along to Chateau Mouton Rothschild en board the iconic golf buggy’s that ferry you to the tasting room. We tasted the Chateau D’Armailhac, Clerc Millon and the top wine the Mouton Rothschild all of which were obviously powerful and refined despite the fact that they will need time to integrate. This year the property have decided to increase the number of tanks from 28 to 56 in order to allow micro-vinification of tiny plots of vines, this will mean that they can blend more judiciously, which is especially during a tough vintage like this year.
Next we went back to Pontet Canet for our scheduled tasting, on the way to the tasting room we passed the new amphora maturation vessels. Owner Alfred Tesseron explained that the Technical director Jean-Michel Comme has spent the last three years trialling different sizes and shapes of amphorae, which are manufactured by the estate. This is with the aim to reduce oak influence, and as Tesseron put it, ‘Oak is fashion, which doesn’t always last’. Evidently they are thinking outside the box and the wines reflected immense purity and freshness. Jean-Michel Comme is a dedicated winemaker, obsessive some may say but it all combines to produce results that are truly sensational!
To understand where Zinedine Zidane fits into a lengthy discussion with PG, keep checking this blog for a full summary which will follow soon.
Last stop Latour. Following the usual security check procedure at the gate we headed for the tasting room. To our delight we were served the three wines Latour released recently as their first non-primeur release, the Pauillac 2009, Forts de Latour 2005 and the Latour 1995. These wines were outstanding, and perhaps enhanced due to our full on day of tasting en primeur. It was a great way to round the day off and provided a useful bench mark for visualising how a fine wine can evolve.
Our general summary of the day was that of all of the property’s we visited each and every one of them appeared to have executed wine production skill in order to get the most out of a tricky vintage. We were not disappointed and felt that some of the second and third wines we tasted offered exceptional value.
For a vintage we had low expectations for, we have been pleasantly surprised…roll on day 3.