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tannin

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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.

 

Life

Salt, pepper & Pinot Noir

wine food pairing
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

In my previous life as a winery sales manager I used to do lots of in-store tastings. They required a lot of standing around, and serving wine in terrible conditions…too warm, in awful little plastic cups, in overly hot or cold stores…not ideal. You do learn a lot about how different cultures around the world relate to wine however.

In the UK, people will taste any time of day. A free sample is a free sample. They won’t necessarily hang around to hear your shtick about the wine and they probably won’t buy a bottle, but they will happily take the proffered glass. Whenever.

French people will take the glass, sniff and swirl, and then proceed to tell you about their cousin so and so who has a vineyard in the Beaujolais, or their buddy in Paris who is a caviste (wine merchant). They want to make sure that you know that they are “connected”, and that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes.

In North America, it all depends on when you are offering. Before 3pm the majority of people will turn down your wine sample with a shocked “I’m driving” or “I’m in the middle of my work day”…as though a thimble full of wine will suddenly turn them into deranged, drunken lunatics. However, come mid-afternoon, the driving stress somehow goes out the window and everyone takes a glass.

…as though a thimble full of wine will suddenly turn them into deranged, drunken lunatics

Business lunches are more of the same. In France, if you go out for a meal, you drink wine. Period. This side of the Atlantic, if people do accept to have a glass of wine before 5pm, they generally feel the need to justify their extraordinary behaviour, along the lines of: “It’s almost Friday” or “It must be six o’clock somewhere”, followed by a nervous chuckle.

This is not to say that North Americans are repressed, or that Europeans are more liberated. It is simply a reflection of wine’s role in different societies. My husband is French. He grew up with wine on the table at every meal. Aside from special occasions, wine was consumed in moderation to slake thirst and punctuate conversation.

Guillaume’s take on wine is one that I wish more people shared. He sees wine as a condiment; something to be used to flavour your food. A seasoning agent, if you will, to be consumed in much the same way as mustard in a sandwich.

He sees wine as a condiment; something to be used to flavour your food.

Wine is increasingly being taken out of context; evalutated on its own and consumed separately from food. The intoxicating effects of wine are overly glorified or demonized, so that many see this as its principal attribute.

But wine is so much more…

One of the many things that sets it apart is its interaction with food. Tannin binds with and softens proteins in meat, intensifying their rich savoury flavours and reducing the astringency of the wine. Acidic sensations from lemon or tomato based dishes can be tempered by pairing with an equally acidic wine. Certain aromas or flavours can be underscored by matching with similarly scented wines.

Olive oil tastes rich and delicious on its own, but sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on it and the flavour comes alive. This is what wine and food can and should be to each other. Just think of the briny tang of oysters washed down with fine Champagne bubbles…

Oysters and Charles Heidsieck

Olive oil tastes rich and delicious on its own, but sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on it and the flavour comes alive. This is what wine and food can and should be to each other.

A number of years ago, my husband and I were in Piedmont for the annual Fiera del Tartufo (truffle festival). The white truffle is one of my all time culinary favourites. There are few flavours out there that can rival this pungently earthy, yet delicately refined taste. The mamma at our guest house overheard our rhapsodising and sent us off truffle hunting with her winemaker neighbour Luigi and his truffle dog. Bilbi proved a valiant beast, quickly unearthing several nuggets of white gold.

What came next was an evening I won’t soon forget.

Luigi took us to his cellar to taste his latest vintage of pleasant yet fairly rustic Grignolino and Barbera wines. Then on to dinner. Luigi’s charming wife had prepared a simple, creamy white risotto. After passing around the plates, she proceeded to shave great mounds of white truffle on each bowl. Luigi brought out his Barbera d’Asti Superiore. What had seemed a fairly ordinary wine in the winery was suddenly transformed. It seemed richer and rounder, with more earthy nuances and brighter fruit. Each bite of risotto called for another sip, and each sip, another bite.

I could recount a hundred tales like this but I’d sooner let you discover this pleasure for yourself.  On the menu tonight, caramelized onion and gruyère quiche. I am thinking that a rich, smoky Alsatian Pinot Gris might just do the trick.

 

 

Education

a nerdy little guide to tannin descriptions

wine tannin glossary

If you read enough tasting notes, you will know that there is a whole language of descriptive words for things like acidity, mouthfeel, structure, and none more so than tannin. They are useful tools to describe a wine as precisely as possible. Some adjectives are fairly obvious, like silky or chewy, giving you an immediate sense of how they would play across your palate. Other terms are a little more obscure.

I was finding myself a little baffled by the majority of different tannin descriptors that I had heard or seen used…so, after talking to a number of MWs, winemakers, wine critics, etc., I decided to compile this nerdy little guide.

LEVELS

Low: soft, light, delicate, fine

Medium: moderate

High: big, massive, powerful

TYPES

Though there are no hard and fast rules, the following terms are most often used to describe a specific level of tannin. They are therefore (roughly) grouped by level.

Generally Associated with Light to Medium Tannin

Silky: Glides across the palate leaving little trace (ie. Burgundian Pinot Noir in ripe years)

Rounded: Well integrated, ripe and smooth. No harsh edges. Similar terms: supple, smooth.

Powdery: quantity of fine tannins that spread out all across the tongue & mouth (ie. Grenache dominant Châteauneuf-du-pape & Priorat)

Generally Associated with Medium to High Tannins

Velvetty: smooth textured; slightly more present than silky tannin (ie. Argentinian Malbec)

Plush: similar to velvetty, with a notion of richness/ sweetness (ie. Merlot – Pomerol, St. Emilion, Napa Valley, etc.)

Fine grained: firmly structured yet smooth (ie. High quality left bank Bordeaux)

Polished: smooth, seamless. Like silky but with more structure (ie. Zinfandel, some modern Rioja styles).

 Sinewy: like muscular but slightly more lean (ie. St. Estèphe)

Chalky: a shade rougher and thicker than powdery (ie. good quality Chianti, certain Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignons)

Grainy: slightly astringent, rough edged like sand (ie. cheap Chianti). Similar terms: sandy.

 Generally Associated with Very High Tannins

Chewy: coats the sides of the mouth, feels present and weighty enough to chew (ie. Douro red blends, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage)

Chunky: big, powerful and bulky…like chewy but bigger (ie. Barossa Shiraz, Aglianico)

Muscular: powerfully chalky tannins; generally associated with young wine. Similar terms: assertive (ie. Premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon).

 Grippy: tannin that sticks to the sides of your mouth (ie. Barolo)

 Angular: tannins that hit one particular spot on your palate; jagged (ie. Bordeaux in lean years)

General Descriptors

These terms can apply to one or more tannin levels.

Unresolved vs. Resolved: Very firm, tightly knit referring to a young, highly tannic wine vs. softer, more mellow tannins after a period of ageing

Ripe: lack of any green, astringent or drying sensation

Firm: solid, unyielding. Generally medium + to high tannin wines. Similar terms: dense, tightly-knit.

Broad: opposite of firm. Generally medium to medium minus tannin wines.

Negative Descriptors

Often due to under ripe tannins or excessive extraction of bitter tannins (from seeds and/ or stems)

Harsh: rough and aggressive like sandpaper; drying. Similar terms: hard

Rustic/ Coarse: similar to harsh or aggressive, but slightly less damning

Aggressive: overly dominant, throwing off balance. Unpleasant. Similar terms: rigid.

Astringent: bitter and drying

Stalky: green, unripe, astringent