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.
Not so much the new guy as the new old guy, Philippe Bascaules is back home at Château Margaux. He had spent 21 vintages there as technical director under Paul Pontallier, before heading off to California to work on Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon in 2011. Following the sad passing of Pontallier just a year ago, Margaux owner Corinne Mentzelopolous brought Bascaules back.
His official starting date was March 1, just in time to face the hoard of visitors during the busy en primeur season. I asked him how the transition was going. "I'm going to let Sébastien do all the talking," he says with a light smile, pointing to Sébastien Vergne, the young estate manager who joined just a couple of vintages ago.
"It's not as familiar as I expected," Bascaules continues. "Five years in California is a long time. It's so far away and so different, after I returned I realized five years was more like 15. And there have been so many changes here at Margaux too, with the new facility and other progress. But as I thought about it, I would rather come back and have an open mind again, just as when I went to California and it was a blank page for me."
As for the biggest difference he saw between Bordeaux and California, "I am surprised by how impactful the vintages are now in Bordeaux, both with climate change in general and from year to year, how the vintages are really marked by the weather. I find in California that is less the case because sometimes the winemaking there covers the vintage."
As for 2016, Vergne takes over, as he brought this crop in himself. Margaux experienced the same dramatically wet spring followed by the same dramatically dry summer.
"We had some hot days in August, but in reality it was not a warmer-than-usual vintage, as the overall average was in line with the last 10 years," says Vergne. "We picked the white early to keep the freshness, then took our time with the Merlot and Cabernet, starting Sept. 23 and ending Oct. 18."
The estate is going to be hard pressed to reach the heights they did in 2015, when they may have the wine of the vintage. Vergne seems to know the pressure is on, as just 28 percent of the crop made the selection for the grand vin in 2016, despite the high quality of the vintage, with another minuscule 26 percent going to the Pavillon Rouge.
"The goal is to make more grand vin, of course, but to keep a very high level at the same time. After the 2015 we had to try very hard to keep that level, so yes, it is a very strict selection."
The Pavillon Rouge is tight but sleek, with a long beam of lightly mulled cassis stretching out over incense and black tea notes, with a sanguine flash through the finish. The grand vin once again carries a hefty 94 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, with just 3 percent Cabernet Franc, 2 Merlot and 1 of Petit Verdot.
"When Cabernet Sauvignon is great, it's difficult to add anything else," says Bascaules matter-of-factly.
The wine offers a gorgeous mouthfeel, draping like velvet with raspberry, plum and cassis fruit that shows lively definition and purity. Beautifully fine-grained tannins run tongue-in-groove all the way through, letting the finish unfurl with bergamot, sanguine and rooibos tea notes. It doesn't have the nearly brooding power and depth of the '15, but it is equally as long while displaying a fresher profile, with more red than black fruits.
Not to be overlooked is the Pavillon White, a pure Sauvignon Blanc that has slowly and steadily shifted style to a rapier of acacia, verbena, honeysuckle and quinine flavors over recent vintages, away from slightly richer notes of straw and brioche. The quinine note ripples longest, the purity is basically flawless, and I'd proffer that since the passing of Didier Dagueneau in 2008, this has assumed the mantle of arguably the best pure Sauvignon Blanc in France.