Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2016 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
If you've been following my Bordeaux coverage over the past few years, you've noticed the new race in St.-Estèphe these days. An appellation once dominated by Cos-d'Estournel now has spirited competition among its most celebrated historic estates. Both Calon-Ségur and Montrose have upped their game in recent years, with new ownership at both châteaus heralding investments and upgrades.
Known for being on the austere side of the spectrum, and often in the shadow of Pauillac to the south, St.-Estèphe is among the sweet spots for the recently released 2014 vintage. And in the 2016 growing season, which ran late, this northern AOC also ripened well. With a predominantly clay subsoil (which retains moisture) underneath its gravelly hillocks, St.-Estèphe's terroir was well-suited to handle the drought of '16. Today was a good day of tasting.
At Château Calon-Ségur, director Laurent Dufau and winemaker Vincent Millet now have all the pieces in place. Millet has been here since 2006, and he started his work with the vineyards, rejiggering parcels and increasing the density in some plantings. Dufau came in with the new ownership in 2013. He helped oversee construction of the new chai, finished in time for the 2016 vintage. It doubles the number of vats (all new conical stainless steel) to 70, ranging in size from 5 to 120 hectoliters. There's ample play space for the 60 different parcels.
"The key in 2016 was the difference in day and night temperatures in the second half of the season," says Dufau. "It was very dry, of course, and warm, but not hot. But at night it cooled off, so the grapes retained freshness. And the areas that had clay in the subsoil performed really well against the drought."
In recent vintages the wines here have gained freshness and definition, and the early look at the 2016 shows that trend line continuing. Calon-Ségur owns Château Capbern, the cru Bourgeois property located across the street. The 2016 Capbern is very fresh and pure, with pretty floral lift, a persistent cassis core and a light chalky echo through the finish. The Marquis de Calon (Calon's second wine) is sappy in feel, loaded with engaging kirsch fruit laced with a bay leaf note and showing good tension and purity through the finish. Calon-Ségur's grand vin is eye-opening—sappy like the Marquis, but racier and longer in feel, with more refined structure and a much deeper well of dark currant and plum fruit. The finish has terrific drive and minerally cut, sealing the deal.
Cos-d'Estournel is up for the challenge being put forth by its St.-Estèphe colleagues. Owner Michel Reybier and his team have more than settled in here in their 16th vintage. And they did not miss the mark in 2016.
"It's a vintage that took a lot of compassion and ended with a lot of fatigue," says Dominique Arangoits, the technical director since Reybier's purchase in 2000. "A lot of water early, and there was good budbreak. It was May [when] the difficulty [began], and we were worried going into the flowering. Even with a week of perfect weather in June and a quick and homogenous flowering, there was a lot of mildew pressure and things looked tough. The panic would have been to do more deleafing or a heavier-than-usual green harvest, because of the moisture. But we have learned that the one thing you do know is you don't know what is coming. Even in cool years you get days of extreme heat, which can burn the fruit if you are too aggressive. So we were patient."
That patience paid off during the warm and dry second half of the season. The homogenous flowering allowed for steady, even ripening. Rain Sept. 13th refreshed the vines just enough, and picking went on under ideal conditions through Oct. 15—one of the latest harvests ever at Cos.
"And the amazing thing is, despite it being a warm year and late year, the wines are still very fresh," says general director Aymeric de Gironde.
That freshness is apparent in the Goulée, a Médoc AOC bottling that is quietly among the top values in Bordeaux. It offers a pure ball of cassis laced with a bay leaf note, ending with a succulent finish. The Pagodes de Cos, the second wine of Cos, shows the purity of the vintage, with a silky, almost lush edge to its mix of lilac, red currant and plum notes, backed by just a hint of chalk on the finish. The grand vin is a big step up, though. It's really packed, showing plum sauce and currant reduction notes, a lilting whiff of anise and remarkably polished structure despite its obvious tannic drive.
If you ever come across Cos-d'Estournel's white, jump on it. Located from vineyards 20 miles to the north of Cos, this carries just a Bordeaux AOC. The blend of three-fourths Sauvignon Blanc and one-fourth Sémillon offers scintillating lime pith, verbena and white peach notes with a twinge of sel gris.
As I noted in my initial tasting of the 2013 vintage, the future is now at Montrose. Cellar master Vincent Decup joined in 2014 to run the cellar, while the experienced Hervé Berland handles the big picture.
That big picture includes a growing commitment to organic farming. Montrose had 37 acres of vines under trial in 2016, including 15 acres under biodynamic farming.
"And we chose the toughest parcels we have for the trial," says Berland. "We figured, if we could get it to work there, we could get it to work everywhere else. And if we didn't, then the risk would have been minimized."
The results were good, however, with the Cabernet coming through perfectly despite the tough humidity issues of the first half of the growing season. The Merlot yield in the biodynamic parcel was down 50 percent, but the fruit that was produced was of the quality the team was used too.
"And the vines were clearly healthier," says Berland. "I'm of a generation that used chemicals in the past without knowing what they did. Knowing what I know now, I'd be damn guilty to go back to that way again," he adds with an impassioned edge.
Going forward, 99 acres will go into organic practices next year, with the ultimate goal of being completely organic within five years, an admirable move for the 222-acre estate.
Similar to Calon, Montrose's sister property offers lovely value. The Tronquoy-Lalande is supple up front, turning to a more typically austere, chalky edge through the finish, with plenty of pure cassis fruit in between. The Dame de Montrose, the second wine of the main estate, is bright and engaging, with lots of black currant fruit backed by flashes of chalk and tar, keeping good tension through the finish. The grand vin is an intense wine, showing terrific integration already despite a very hefty core of dark plum and currant paste fruit, along with mouthwatering tar and anise notes. There's a long, smoldering edge on the back end, laden with a warm paving stone note before finishing with terroir-driven kick.
The race is definitely on in St.-Estèphe.