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EIGHT APPELLATIONS, EIGHT WINES FROM THE MÉDOC

wines from the medoc
Photo credit: Philippe Caumes

The Médoc region of Bordeaux is famous for its cru classés châteaux and its refined, ageworthy Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot blends. However, wines from the Médoc can also be incredibly affordable, offering great value for every day consumption.

Médoc Geography

The Médoc region is located north of Bordeaux, on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Over 16,000 hectares of vineyards are planted here, spread over eight appellations. Heading north from the city of Bordeaux, these are: Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Moulis-en-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, and Médoc.

The Médoc region has a warm, maritime climate. Sandwiched between the Atlantic ocean and the Gironde estuary, the Médoc peninsula benefits from the temperature moderating effect and the air circulation provided by these two large bodies of water.  While spring and early summer can be fairly damp, dryer conditions later in the growing season allow for consistent most vintages.

The soils of the Médoc are quite diverse in nature. In the south-east, gravel-rich soils are most prevalent. These gravels, mixed with sand and other alluvial deposits, originate from two sources: the Massif Central and Pyrenees mountains. They were carried along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers respectively, over thousands of years. Gravel is prized for its ability to warm quickly in the spring, reflect heat up into the vines during the day, and radiate it at night, aiding with ripening. It is also free draining, encouraging deep vine rooting. Late ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are most planted in the gravelly soils of the Médoc.

In lower lying areas, and notably, as you move further north and west, heavier clay-limestone soils, often with quite stony surface layers, dominate. These cooler, water retaining soils are common in large swathes of the Médoc AOC, as well as the appellations of Moulis, Listrac and Saint-Estèphe.  Early to mid ripening grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Franc thrive in these clay-based areas, yielding fruity, fleshy wines that round out the often angular Cabernet Sauvignon.

For an excellent 3D ariel view of the Médoc vineyards, click here.

Photo credit: Conseil interprofessionnel du vin de bordeaux

Quality Classifications

Two quality hierarchies exist for wines from the Médoc. The most famous, the 1855 classification, ranks top châteaux in five tiers from Premier Grand Cru Classé (first growths) to Cinquième Grand Cru Classé (fifth growths). With few exceptions, this ranking has remained unchanged since its inception. To learn more about the history and debate surrounding the 1855 classification, listen to my audio overview here.

A second estate classification system, Cru Bourgeois, was established in 1932 to highlight high-quality wines from the Médoc not included in the original list. This ranking has had quite a tumultuous history, with numerous revisions, an annulment, and much debate. The latest update was finalized as recently as February of this year. The 2020 Cru Bourgeois classification includes 249 châteaux ranked in three categories: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels. The ranking is set to be revised every five years, and all estates up for consideration must hold the French agricultural sustainability certification: Haute Valeur Environnementale. 

Earlier this month I tuned in to a virtual seminar on wines from the Médoc, which gave an overview of each of the appellation and highlighted one wine from the area.

MÉDOC AOC

The region-wide Médoc AOC can be used for any wine produced within the Médoc production area. For example, producers in Margaux or Saint-Julien may choose to declassify to Médoc AOC, potentially for young vines or areas of the vineyard yielding less ripe or pristine fruit. However, this practice is not frequently seen.

The appellation is generally reserved for the designated Médoc AOC section of vineyards that covers the northern third of the Médoc peninsula. This large area has 5,560 hectares of vines planted on mixed gravel and clay-limestone soils. Wine styles vary widely, depending on site and producer, but tend to be fashioned in a light, early-drinking, approachable style, with minimal oak ageing.

Merlot is the dominant grape here, and tends to make up the lion’s share of blends. Wines from the Médoc AOC are notably good value in warmer vintages, where grapes ripen fully, yielding wines with greater concentration, and more vibrant fruit flavours. Recent such vintages include 2015, 2016, 2018.

Château Tour St. Bonnet Médoc 2015 – 87pts. PW

The 2015 Château Tour St. Bonnet is a blend of 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot. It is vinified in concrete tanks and aged for 18 months in the same vessel. The hot, sunny 2015 growing conditions are apparent in the ripe red fruited nose, the smooth, supple structure, and velvety tannins. Fairly linear and short on the finish, but overall a pleasant, every day Bordeaux with attractive savoury undertones.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($23.85)

LISTRAC-MÉDOC

Listrac-Médoc neighbours Moulis-en-Médoc to the north. It boasts a marginally higher elevation than surrounding vineyards, reaching 43 metres at its highest point. Small in Médoc terms, with just 787 hectares of vines, Listrac-Médoc represents 5% of the Médoc vineyard area. The soils composition consists of three Pyrenean gravel terraces to the west, a Garonne gravel outcrop to the east, and a large central, flat land of clay-limestone.

This more marginal vineyard area is buffeted by strong winds and thus tends to ripen quite slowly. In warm vintages, this slow rate of berry maturation is an advantage, allowing for good acid retention and full phenolic development. However, in cooler growing seasons, Listrac-Médoc wines can be quite lean and vegetal.

Château Vieux Moulin Listrac-Médoc 2016 (Cru Bourgeois) – 88pts. PW

A blend of 58% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Petit Verdot, the Château Vieux Moulin 2016 is aged for 12 months in, mainly seasoned, French oak barrels. Restrained aromas of dark fruit, tobacco leaf, and hints of bell pepper on the nose. Brisk acidity on the attack, followed by a moderately firm, somewhat angular palate, with moderate concentration of tangy red and black fruit, with underlying dried herbal notes. Attractive chalky tannins frame the finish.

Moulis-en-Médoc

This narrow strip of vineyard land lies just north of Margaux, touching Listrac-Médoc. It is the smallest appellation of the Médoc, with 610 hectares planted, and 46 wine producers. The western part of the region is a fairly flat expanse with mainly sandy-clay soils. The central area features gravelly top soils with underlying clay-limestone layers. In the easternmost vineyards, closest to Margaux’s northern border, outcrops of Garonne gravels are highly prized vineyard soils.

Quality is variable depending on producer and vineyard site. Neither Moulis-en-Médoc nor Listrac-Médoc contain classed growth châteaux, however both have reputed Cru Bourgeois estates. Some famous names in Moulis-en-Médoc include Château Chasse-Spleen, Château Poujeaux, and Château Garricq.

Château La Garricq Moulis-en-Médoc 2015 (Cru Bourgeois) – 90pts. PW 

This blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Petit Verdot is aged for 12 months in 1/3 new French oak. This is evident from the spicy, cedar notes on the nose, mingled with black fruit, dark chocolate, and hints of graphite. The palate shows more harmonious oak integration, with its concentrated red and black fruit flavours, tangy acidity, broad structure, and plush texture. Firm, ripe tannins frame the finish nicely.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($34.75)

HAUT-MÉDOC

The Haut-Medoc appellation stretches some 60 kilometres in length from just north of the city of Bordeaux, to north west of Saint-Estèphe. Due to its size, and diversity of soil types, orientations, aspects, proximity or distance from the Gironde, and so forth, wine style and quality from the Haut-Médoc is incredibly varied.

For much of its history, the Haut-Médoc, as well as the appellations along its north-south expanse, were salt marshes, unusable for viticulture. In the 17th century, Dutch merchants drained the marshes to expand Bordeaux vineyard acreage.

The majority of the Médoc’s Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs and Exceptionnels estates, as well as five cru classé châteaux are located in the Haut-Médoc.

Château de Gironville Haut-Médoc 2016 (Cru Bourgeois) – 91pts. PW

Château de Gironville is situated in the commune of Macau, just south of Margaux, near the mouth of the Garonne River. The estate boasts deep, fine gravel soils on their Cru Bourgeois ranked property. This blend of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is completed with 10% Petit Verdot. According to estate director, Yannick Reyrel, the Petit Verdot gives an intriguing peppery, fruity nuance to the blend and the gravel soils bring a suave texture.

Initally closed. High toned plum, cassis, and dark cherry aromas emerged with aeration, underscored by complexifying notes of black licorice, nutmeg, and earth. Fresh, full-bodied, and stylish on the palate with lively dark fruit flavours, ripe, polished tannins, and a lengthy finish. Drinking well now, with 4 – 5 years ageing potential.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($30.00, $62.00 for magnums)

SAINT-ESTÈPHE

Saint Estèphe is the northermost and largest of the cru appellations within the Haut-Médoc. The region’s 1,229 hectares of vineyards are spread across an undulating landscape, with gentle hillsides reaching 20 metres at their highest point. While gravel-rich soils are prevalent, notably at higher elevations, Saint Estèphe has significant areas of clay-dominant soils, with a limestone bedrock. Greater concentrations of clay in Saint-Estèphe equate to wider plantings of Merlot, giving the bold, full-bodied wines of the area a certain mid-palate roundness.

Saint Estèphe has a mere five cru classé estates. However its best properties, including second growths, Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose, and third growth, Château Calon-Ségur, are highly esteemed.

Château Beau-Site St. Estèphe 2015 (Cru Bourgeois) – 92pts. PW  

Château Beau-Site overlooks the Garonne River, from one of Saint-Estèphe’s higher grounds. The stony soils of the estate are deep and free-draining. The 2015 vintage is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc, aged 18 months in 35% new French oak.  Intense aromas of prune, mocha, and pencil shavings, are lifted by underlying hints of menthol and red currant. The palate is remarkably fresh, given the hot summer, with concentrated flavours of dark chocolate, black fruit, menthol, and cedar, and a dense, weighty structure. Excellent length and balance. Drinking well now.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($43.75)

MARGAUX

Margaux is the southernmost of the Haut-Médoc cru appellations, situated near the confluence of the Garonne and Gironde rivers. Vast quantities of Garonne gravel cover Margaux’s central area. This nutrient-poor soil is has excellent drainage stimulating deep vine rooting. Margaux has a marginally warmer mesoclimate than surrounding areas. The wines of the area are often described as quite velvety in texture, with floral overtones, and exotic spice nuances.

With its 1500 hectares of vines, Margaux accounts for 9% of the Médoc region’s vineyards. Among its 65 producers, Margaux has a whopping 21 classed growth châteaux – more than any other Médoc appellation. The region also boasts a number of highly regarded Cru Bourgeois estates.

Château d’Arsac Margaux 2014 (Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel) – 89pts. PW 

Château d’Arsac is a well-regarded 112-hectare property in the western part of the appellation. This blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 47% Merlot is reflective of the cooler 2014 vintage with its restrained bell pepper, dried herbal, and tart red currant aromas. The palate is far more inviting, with brisk acidity nicely balancing a broad, textural mid-palate and moderate concentration of dark fruit, graphite, and herbal flavours. Overall, a pleasant, supple wine – yet lacking the depth and opulence of top Margaux.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($38.50)

SAINT-JULIEN

Bordering the Gironde, just south of Pauillac, lies Saint-Julien. The 910 hectares of the appellation are planted on fairly uniform, gravel-rich soils. This factor is given as an explanation for the impressive concentration of classed growth estates here. Indeed, of a total 19 wine producers in Saint-Julien, 11 were included in the 1855 classification. There are no first growth vineyards in Saint-Julien, but its second growths are often referred to as “super seconds” inferring that they are worthy of first growth status. These include: Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Léoville-Las Cases, Léoville-Barton, and Léoville-Poyferré.

The wines of Saint-Julien are often described as a combination of the silkiness and floral elegance of Margaux, with Pauillac’s power and heft.

Sarget de Gruaud Larose St. Julien 2016 – 94pts. LW

Sarget is the second label from Château Gruaud Larose. The 2016 cuvée is made from 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and  4% Petit Verdot. Fragrant aromas of black plum, raspberry, violets, and exotic spice feature on the highly complex nose. The palate is full-bodied and firm, with a highly concentrated core of tangy red and black fruit, savoury notes, and subtle cedar nuances. Very polished and precise overall, with fine-grained tannins and a lengthy finish. Drinking well now, but should improve over the next eight to ten years.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($54.00)

PAUILLAC

The vineyard region of Pauillac is named for the Gironde port town of the same name. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates on the region’s gravel rich soils. However, marked variations in the depth, origin, and concentration of gravels across higher and lower lying sites leads to significant quality differences. In general terms, the wines of Pauillac are considered the most muscular and long lived of the Médoc, with notable cassis and graphite aromas.

Pauillac is the only Haut-Médoc cru appellation with two first growth estates: Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild. In all, Pauillac consists of 1213 hectares of vines, and has 18 classed growth estates.

Lacoste-Borie Pauillac 2016 – 93pts. LW

This is the second wine from fifth growth, Château Grand Puy Lacoste. The 2016 blend features 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, aged in 45% new French oak for 15 months. Classic Pauillac aromas of cassis, dark plum, graphite, cedar, and hints of earthy, black truffle feature on the attractive, highly complex nose. The palate is lively, with a dense, full-bodied structure, and excellent depth of savoury, dark fruited flavours. Well-knit cedar nuances and firm, quite muscular tannins mark the finish. Would show best with six to eight years further cellaring, though has the power to hold nicely for another decade.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($59.00)

*** What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out.

Médoc Wine
Reviews

VERTICAL TASTING AT CHATEAU PICHON BARON

Pichon Baron Wine Tasting
Photo credit: Daphne Feng

Three weeks ago, I was still bundling my kids up in snow suits. Today, they are sweating in shorts and tee-shirts. There is just no accounting for weather these days. And, according to climate change experts, the frequency of extreme weather events, and erratic weather patterns, is only going to increase in the coming years.

One of the (many) things that makes fine wine so fascinating, is its variability from one growing season to the next. While, “everyday wines” generally list a vintage on the label, they aim to offer a consistent taste profile year after year. Not so with fine wines. The goal here is to show the best of what that year’s vintage had to offer. In cooler years, the winemaker may strive to showcase the lively acidity, elegance, and restrained, tangy fruit. In warm years, producers might focus on the rich texture, ample body, ripe tannins and so forth.

The idea is not to make a wine so wildly different from one year to the next that it is unrecognisable; but simply to respect the fact that wine is a natural product, made from the grape harvest of one season, in one place. Regardless of the weather, the unique attributes given to a wine by a great terroir will always shine through if the vineyards are managed with care.

…wine is a natural product, made from the grape harvest of one season, in one place…

Weather is a constant preoccupation for Bordeaux grape growers. The climate, notably on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, is maritime. Winter is mild, and summers are generally dry and hot. It is in spring and fall that problems often arise. Inclement weather often plagues both seasons. Chilly April temperatures can bring frost, damaging new buds. Wet weather in May/ June can affect flowering, lowering the crop quantity and quality. In the fall, cool, rainy weather can delay ripening which is particularly problematic for the late maturing Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon can have pungent bell pepper aromas, overly firm acidity, and astingent tannins.

Just as poor weather can spoil a vintage; a run of fine weather can save it. Never ask a wine producer how they think the current growing season’s wines will be. Until the day the grapes are harvested, conditions can (and often do) change dramatically. Grapes that are struggling to ripen mid-summer can be perfectly mature by harvest if the end-of-summer weather is sunny and warm.

Just as poor weather can spoil a vintage; a run of fine weather can save it.

Our tour of the Château Pichon Baron estate began with a walk in the vineyards, under cloudless blue skies, on a 25°c day just two weeks ago. A far cry from the frosty weather of 2017! After a fascinating tour of the various Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot parcels, it was on to the winery to see the state-of-the-art facilities.

Our visit came on the tail of the busy “en primeur” week. In Bordeaux, the majority of wine estates pre-sell their while still in barrel. Top Bordeaux wines are often aged for 18 months to 2 years before release. However, just 6 months into their barrel ageing, an initial blend is created and poured for prospective buyers and journalists.

We were lucky enough to sample the new blend to kick off our tasting. Château Pichon Baron is often referred to as a “super second”, standing out amongst the Second Growths (Deuxième Grands Cru Classé). This acclaimed status came in the wake of AXA Millésimes purchase of the estate back in 1987. The new team made the bold decision to cut back on the quantities of Grand Vin produced, including only the finest Cabernet Sauvignon parcels from the plateau of deep gravelly soil shared with neighbouring Châteaux Latour and Léoville Las Cases.

The mark of a truly exceptional estate is that, even in poor vintages, their wines are impressive.

Château Pichon Baron wines are renowned for their firm Pauillac style, regularly referred to as powerful or masculine. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, making up as much as 80% of the blend in many vintages. Merlot plays a minor role here, rounding out Cabernet’s bold structure. The wines are aged for 18 months, in 70 to 80% new French oak from a range of top coopers.

The mark of a truly exceptional estate is that, even in poor vintages, their wines are impressive. A vertical tasting back through the past eight vintages of Pichon Baron showed just that. Here are my impressions from a tasting that will live long in my memory.

Many thanks to the Pichon Baron team for your gracious hospitality.

Château Pichon Baron 2017

Vibrant dark fruits (black currant, plum, blackberry) feature on the nose, with hints of graphite, sweet tobacco, and floral notes developing upon aeration. Full-bodied, yet very fresh, silky, moderately concentrated, and quite approachable despite its youth. The tannins are very firm and grippy, and the cedar, spice scented oak is already quite integrated.

Growing season: “2017 was a year of contrasts” reads the Château’s vintage report. Dangerous frosts in late spring, and very wet conditions in June challenged the harvest. Luckily the hot, dry weather that followed allowed for decent ripening.

Château Pichon Baron 2016

Exquisite balance defines this vintage. Complex aromas of ripe dark plum, cassis, gamey notes, earthy nuances, and cedar fairly leap from the glass. The palate is dense, firmly structured, yet velvety in texture. Brisk acidity lifts the highly concentrated core of black fruit, licorice, and graphite notes perfectly. The finish is incredibly persistent, wonderfully fresh and framed by elegant, fine-grained tannins.

Growing season: “A long, splendid Indian summer helped the grapes reach excellent ripeness levels”. Sugar and phenolic ripeness was optimal through-out the region, leading to elegant, firmly structured, ripe wines for long-term ageing.

Château Pichon Baron 2015

Very fruit driven aromas and flavours. Overt notes of crushed black cherry, plum, and cassis dominate on the nose. Upon aeration, licorice, cedar, and graphite notes emerge. The palate is weighty, opulent, and fleshy, with impressive depth and intensity. Cedar, spice flavours from the oak are still quite prominent, though well-balanced, adding nuance to the heady fruit. Big, grippy tannins punctuate the finish.

Growing season: “Summer started with warm and sometimes scorching hot, dry weather”. The heat led to some water stress, causing the grape skins to thickens. Stormy periods in August and September boosted ripening. The resultant wines are powerful, tannic and ultra-ripe.

Château Pichon Baron 2014

Quite restrained on the nose, with earthy, gamey, graphite, bell pepper notes in the foreground. Just ripe cassis and dark cherry notes develop with aeration. Brisk acidity is matched by a tightly knit structure, and tangy black fruit flavours. Muscular tannins need time to soften. The finish is very fresh, with attractive cassis and herbal notes.

Growing season: Difficult early summer requiring careful green harvesting and leaf stripping to help the grapes ripen. Hot and sunny late summer weather spurred on ripening. Wines were leaner and fresher than in 2015 or 2016.

Château Pichon Baron 2013

Very attractive on the nose, with inviting mint and dark fruit notes, underscored by hints of mushroom and gamey nuances. Tightly knit and somewhat angular on the palate, with crisp acidity and a very firm tannic structure.

Growing season: “They key word for the 2013 harvest could be ‘responsiveness’ as we constantly had to adapt operations to the unstable weather conditions.” The cool, damp conditions of 2013 led to leaner, more marginally ripe wine styles.

Château Pichon Baron 2012

Understated, yet elegant nose featuring leafy, minty notes providing an attractive backdrop for bright cassis, plum, and licorice notes. Graphite and cedar notes emerge with aeration. Very youthful and firm on the palate, yet also quite plush in texture. Fine-grained tannins, and well-integrated oak bring additional finesse.

Growing season: A late blossoming, wet vintage, where particular care was needed with green harvesting, plot selection, and grape sorting. A good, yet not highly concentrated vintage.

Château Pichon Baron 2011

Alluring nose with subtle notes of black cherry, plum, exotic spice, and leafy, floral hints. Lively, moderately firm, and silky on the palate, with fresh, almost peppery tannins. This is a lighter, yet very well balanced vintage, with seamless oak integration, and a long, lifted finish.

Growing season: “2011 was an early vintage…by September, we were recording astonishingly high phenolic potential in our Cabernet Sauvignon”. Though not as highly regarded as the stellar 2009 and 2010 duo, 2011 is an attractive, fresh-fruited vintage.

Château Pichon Baron 2010

Fragrant, highly complex nose brimming over with ripe black and blue fruits, exotic spice, graphite, tobacco, earthy notes, and hints of game. Very powerful, firmly structured, and muscular on the palate, with a vibrancy to the acidity that brings great focus and precision. Incredible concentration of sweet dark fruit, tobacco, and cedar flavours lingers long on the finish, promising exceptional ageing potential.

Growing season: “Dry conditions, low temperatures, and exceptional sunshine were the three major climate factors in this vintage”. An outstanding, very balanced vintage with for long term cellaring.

Château Pichon Baron 2009

Intense aromas of macerated red fruits, black cherry, cassis, and plum, are underscored by heady floral scents, licorice, sweet tobacco, and cedar. A lovely freshness underscores the weighty, layered sweet fruit flavours ably. Broad, and velvety smooth, with polished tannins and attractive, integrated oak.

Growing season: “Rich levels of sugar and anthocyans turned out to be well above those estimated in pre-harvest analyses”. A long, hot, and dry summer producing very ripe, voluptous wines. A top vintage.

 

Reviews

A Week in the World of Luxury Wine

Chateau Pichon Baron Visit
Photo credit: Château Pichon Baron, AXA Millésimes

It was on a particularly cold and dreary day in January that I sat down to write an essay that would bring me here, today, staring out at the majestic terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley. The Institute of Masters of Wine had issued a challenge to its students; a chance to win a scholarship trip to Bordeaux and Porto courtesy of the illustrious AXA Millésimes group.

The tour would include visits to the second growth Château Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac, the first growth Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, and the Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley. Only five winning essays would be selected, giving the authors a truly intimate experience at each winery.

Such an exciting opportunity seemed worth penning a couple of pages on a topic of AXA Millésime’s choosing. And against all odds, I won!

The trip dates were set for late April, just six weeks before the Masters of Wine tasting exam. Preparing for this fateful event has consumed me over the past six months. Getting out from behind my spitoon and back in the vineyard was exactly what I needed to shake off the cobwebs. It was high time I reminded myself what all the struggle and sacrifice is for.

I arrived in Bordeaux to cool, blustery weather and felt a little disheartened. Months of daydreaming about brilliant sunshine will do that to you. The drive out of town furthered my sense of anti-climax. It had been some time since my last visit, and I had forgotten all about the ugly, commercial outskirts. The juxtaposition is startling. One minute you are staring out at super-markets, strip malls and squat, stucco housing, the next you are surrounded by swathes of vineyards and stunning châteaux.

We pulled up to Château Pichon Longueville Baron just before lunch. This was to be our home for the next two days. All traces of jetlag were washed away as I gazed up at the graceful turrets. A glass of chilled Agrapart Champagne also helped set the tone, for what has been one of the most unforgettable chapters of my wine journey so far.

From an impressive vertical tasting of recent vintages at Pichon Baron, to blending 2017 vintage Petit Village Pomerol, to a botrytis master class at Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, our Bordeaux experience was second-to-none.

Now, in the lazy heat of the Cima Corgo (Upper Douro), we are basking in the complexities and hedonistic pleasure of top-class Port at Quinta do Noval.

Over the next few articles, I will endeavour to share my adventures with you, so stay tuned!

Reviews Wines

Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux 2012 Tasting

Smith Haut Lafitte aeriel view

When I was a kid, my dad used to buy Bordeaux futures and pull them out with much pomp and circumstance on special occasions. These bottles marked my vinous awakening. An evening of 1982 Cos d’Estournel and Léoville Las Cases was one of those seminal wine tasting moments for me; like the scene in “Amadeus” when Salieri describes hearing Mozart’s music for the first time.

Unfortunately, I don’t get as many opportunities to drink top class Bordeaux these days, so when a tasting like the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux rolls through town, I am a happy gal. 70 of the most prestigious Bordeaux estates under one roof, pouring their 2012 vintage…definitely an event worth the trouble of wearing heels on an icy January afternoon.

…definitely an event worth the trouble of wearing heels on an icy January afternoon.

2012 was not an easy vintage in Bordeaux. It was late ripening vintage, with a hot spell mid-summer. Merlot dominant blends fared well, but ill timed rain early October wreaked havoc on the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. Jancis Robinson described the vintage as “timorous” and Robert Parker’s vintage charts give all but Pomerol good, but not great scores in the high 80s. The SAQ invitation however hyped the vintage as fabulous though…so I thought I should check it out for myself. After all, the growers of the Union des Grands Crus never really have terrible vintages. They harvest in several passes, and carefully sort, ensuring only the ripest, healthiest grapes make the cut for the “grand vin”.

The tasting area was organized as a walk-around tasting leading tasters from Graves, to Saint Emilion and Pomérol, and then back to the left bank for the Médoc and its famed crus. There was a good sized crowd of happy faces, sipping and nodding earnestly while the wineries spun their lustrous tales. I started with the whites. Péssac-Leognan, a top quality enclave within the Graves region, is reputed for its dry Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends. Imagine the tangy acidity, and fragrant citrus, gooseberry aromas of Sauvignon Blanc, but with more weight, a creamy, layered texture and a smooth, oak-kissed finish. This is top Bordeaux blanc…summed up briefly. The 2012 did not disappoint. Château Smith Haut Lafitte was particularly stunning with enticing white floral aromas, vibrant acidity, a velvetty core and lingering, flavourful finish.

The left bank reds were surprisingly approachable for such a recent release. The mid-summer warmth of the vintage is apparent in the bright, fruity aromatics and general lack of pyrazine (bell pepper) notes. The majority showed fresh, balanced acidity, smoothness, rounded tannins and well-integrated oak. Each appellation was true to form, with the Graves a little lighter and more delicate and the Margaux perfumed and silky. The power and depth of the best vintages is lacking in most, but for an early drinking option, 2012 seems to have a lot of charm. Château Gruaud-Larose was one of my top picks for its intoxicating cassis and exotic spiced nose and dense, brooding core. Château Phélan Ségur, Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, Château Léoville Barton and Château Brane-Cantenac were also heavy hitters.

The majority showed fresh, balanced acidity, smoothness, rounded tannins and well-integrated oak.

The right bank wines showed nicely; very smooth and polished. The Saint Emilion were a little more restrained, with attractive cassis and floral notes. The Pomérols really jumped out the glass though; brimming over with plum, red and black fruits, and spicy oak. The 2012 vintage offers the hedonistic pleasure of smooth, fruit-driven young wines and the tannin structure to age gracefully for 10 years or more.  Château Canon, Château Le Bon Pasteur and Château Clinet showed very nicely.

Sauternes was the only minor dip in the tasting. Sémillon is low in acidity at the best of times and with residual sugar regularly over 100g/L, Sauternes can easily become a little cloying. The range of aromatics on display was phenomenol. Château La Tour Blanche was redolent with tropical fruit, marmelade, honey and spiced notes. However, the acidity faded too quickly on the palate, leaving the finish mouth-coatingly sweet.

Detailled tastings notes for my favourite wines:

Château Smith Haut Lafitte AOC Pessac-Léognan white 2012 – 94pts. LW

Smith Haut Lafitte is a leader in sustainable development for the Bordeaux region. This ultra-stylish white, from 50 year old vines, shows enticing white floral and grapefruit aromas, vibrant acidity, a creamy, velvetty core and lingering, flavourful finish.

Blend: 90% Sauvignon Blanc, % Sauvignon Gris, 5% Sémillon

Château Canon AOC Saint Emilion 2012 – 93pts LW

Situated in pride of place atop the famed limestone summit, Château Canon produces particularly elegant Saint Emilion. Highly complex aromas of plum, floral notes, blackberry and herbal undertones follow through on the palate. Fresh acidity, dense, juicy mid-palate and firm, polished tannins. The finish is long and layered, with hints of cedar.

Blend: 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc

Château Le Bon Pasteur AOC Pomerol 2012 – 92pts LW

Fermented and aged in 100% new oak, this is a potent Pomerol with an intense raspberry, cherry, plum and spicy oak fragrance. Fresh and full body, with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel, firm, chewy tannins and a persistent, creamy finish.

Blend: 85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc

Château Clinet AOC Pomerol 2012 – 93pts. LW

From the highest elevation of the famed Pomerol plateau, Château Clinet combines power and finesse. Attractive plum, cedar and black cherry on the nose, with a juicy, full bodied palate. Firm, grippy tannins provide a solid framework. The finish is fresh and long.

Blend: ~85% Merlot, ~10% Cabernet Sauvignon, ~5% Cabernet Franc

Château Brane-Cantenac AOC Margaux 2012 – 94pts. LW

An opulent style of Margaux, with heady floral aromas, underscored by ripe black currant and black cherries. The full-bodied palate shows lovely balance and poise; with vibrant fruit providing lift through the mid-palate. Aged 18 months in 70% new French barriques, the oak provides structure and a creamy texture without overpowering the fruit. The medium weight, polished tannins frame the long finish nicely.

Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot

Château Gruaud Larose AOC Saint-Julien 2012 – 96pts. LW

“The King of wines; the wine of Kings” is the motto of this renowned estate, dating back to 1725. This was definitely my feeling when tasting the elegant, highly complex 2012. Fragrant aromas of exotic spice, black and red currants, cedar and violets spring from the glass, gaining in intensity upon aeration. Powerful and brooding, with dense, concentrated layers of rich berry fruit and spice. and ripe, fine grained tannins. Lovely, fresh flavours linger on the beautifully persistent finish.

Blend: 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot

Château Léoville-Barton AOC Saint-Julien 2012 – 94pts. LW

Heady and stylish, with attractive aromas of mint, saffron, black fruits and floral undertones. Bright acidity leads into a full-bodied, dense core, with lots of juicy, black berry fruit and firm, fine grained tannins. The minty notes return on the finish, mingling with the cedar oak on the long, vibrant finish. The high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon makes this a bolder, more structured style of Saint-Julien.

Blend: 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron AOC Pauillac 2012 – 92pts. LW

Only 40 of the 73 hectares that make up the Pichon-Longueville Baron estate are deemed fit for the “grand vin”. A further strict selection is carried out during blending, ensuring that only the finest quality barrels make up this cuvée. The 2012 offers classic Pauillac aromas of cassis, cedar and graphite, with a touch of bell pepper. Very firm and powerful, with big, grippy tannins and a medium length cedar-scented finish.

Blend: 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot

Château Phélan Ségur AOC Saint-Estèphe 2012 – 95pts. LW

Phélan Ségur, with its fleshy Merlot character and enticing mineral notes, is always an attractive example of Saint-Estèphe. The 2012 doesn’t disappoint. The nose is sweet and perfumed, brimming with red and black fruit, violets and earthy minerality. Very harmonious and smooth on the palate; the full body is off-set by bright acidity, a concetrated, fruit-driven core and firm, chewy tannins.

Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot

Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2012 – 91pts. LW

Glorious exotic notes of mango, pineapple and passion fruit overlay botrytised notes of honey and marmelade. Lively acidity on attack, that falls just a touch flat on the finish. High viscosity, lots of juicy, exotic fruit and subtle, vanilla notes on the medium length finish.

Blend: 83% Sémillon, 12% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle