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.
I caught up with AXA director Christian Seely on the Right Bank this time, pulling him away from the flagship Pichon-Longueville Baron to show me his group's Pomerol estate, one of the wineries to watch in my 2014 Bordeaux report.
Petit-Village is petit, about 27 acres. Only 21 are currently in production, as the estate is at the tail end of a replanting program begun in 2004 that has turned over 40 percent of the vineyard base. Diana Berrouet-Garcia, from a Cava-producing family in Utiel-Requena, spent seven years earning her chops in the Médoc; she was hired by Seely in 2015, with 2016 marking her first full vintage at the estate.
Part of that replanting program has been to increase the percentage of Cabernet Franc in the vineyards, a trend in general among Right Bank estates that typically rely on a majority of Merlot. "It's important to have the Cabernet Franc because, as the years are trending hot and dry, it brings the freshness to the Merlot," says Berrouet-Garcia.
The Achilles' heels for 2016 are young vines (and their shallow root systems) and vines on sandy soils (which don't retain water well)—neither generally have the capacity to withstand drought. Half of Petit-Village's vineyards are planted on red gravel over sandy soils, the rest on gravel atop clay. Consequently, a strict selection was made for the second wine, the Le Petit Jardin, which is produced from the estate's young-vine Merlot (20 years or younger) planted on sandy soil. It shows brisk plum, bitter cherry and licorice notes, but keeps a fresh edge on the finish.
That leaves the older vines, as well as the parcels situated on more clay soil, for the grand vin, and this is perhaps the best young Petit-Village I've had. It shows an intense core of raspberry and boysenberry paste, with a good, juicy feel. It still has a gutsy edge, but has dropped the slightly stolid feel this wine has sometimes had in the past, favoring a racier, spice-infused finish. The blend is three-quarters Merlot with 14 percent Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon.
"It is a tannic year," notes Seely. "If you didn't take your foot off the gas in terms of extraction, you could get a wine that is too tannic. But the freshness is there." Seely's new hire is off to a good start here.
While young vines or those on sandier soils might have been hamstrung in 2016, older vines situated on clay basically did an Irish jig during the drought-influenced summer. In other words, Pétrus is ground zero for just how good this vintage can be. With its heavy, blue-clay soils forming the bump at the epicenter of Pomerol, this benchmark estate was given a prime opportunity to succeed in 2016, and winemaker Olivier Berrouet has hit it out of the park. For background on this tiny, elite property, start with my 2015 en primeur notes.
Echoing Seely's comments on how to handle the fruit in '16, Berrouet notes, "You don't extract fruit and not tannins. When you extract, you extract everything. The fruit is there, so when people say they want to extract tannins, I don't understand that. The key for us is not to go to far in terms of the structure. If you push too much you get the bitterness or toughness of the tannins that overcomes the fruit. We wanted to preserve the complexity of fruit."
The 2016 Pétrus just coats the tongue right away with alluring raspberry and loganberry fruit, full of spice aromas and a gorgeous anise streak. A black tea note echoes through the finish, which is broad and rich yet defined and, ultimately, very silky. A large-scaled wine, but remarkably light on its feet. There's a beautifully corseted finish thanks to a wisp of chalk. The rare few who get to put this into their cellar will have one of the wines of the vintage in 2016.
Alexandre Thienpont's Vieux Château Certan also benefits from the clay soils ideally suited for a drought year such as 2016, along with some gravel on the estate. Ripening continued at a languid pace and without pressure thanks to the Sept. 13 rain that basically saved the vintage. Harvest here didn't commence until Oct. 3, ending Oct. 18. The yield was a robust 2.9 tons per acre. (For background on VVC, start with my 2015 en primeur notes.)
T he blend has just 14 percent Cabernet Franc, down from the normal 20 percent. "Drought without heat is ideal for Cabernet Franc," Thienpont notes. "On clay it was perfect. On the gravel, it was just a little bit vegetal, so we selected it out of the final blend."
Working with his son Guillaume, the Thienponts again employed a GPS-reliant vineyard crew, marking literally vine by vine which plants were in good shape and which had hydric stress. "Those with stress were not picked," says the elder Thienpont. "The worst stress was on the deepest gravel, with little or no clay. But the oldest vines on clay, just perfect."
The 2016 VCC grand vin is intense, with plum and loganberry fruit that is deep, dark and inviting, with a juicy edge underneath providing energy. It has lots of licorice snap, tobacco and warm earth notes in the background, with ample grip fully embedded on the finish. It's simply gorgeous.
At neighboring Le Pin, owned by Jacques Thienpont, with Alexandre handling the vineyard, things are a little different. The wine is 100 percent Merlot and draws on a scant 7 acres of vines situated on gravel soils; nearly an acre of the estate is young vines.
With the gravel soils handicapped a bit by the drought, the key was tighter selection in the vineyard, resulting in 10 different lots during the vinification, as opposed to the usual six or seven. As always, this wine displays a torrent of unadulterated raspberry and boysenberry fruit. There is silky, persistent grip for definition, and lilting anise and incense notes through the finish. At this level of quality, though, one sometimes has to nitpick, and while I adore the display of fruit here, as I usually do, the wine is marked a bit by the drought, with just the slightest twinge of both confiture and firmness through the finish. With its mono cépage and terroir à la Pétrus (the difference between gravel versus clay) these two wines provide a marvelous read on Pomerol. In 2016, clay is a nose in front.
While 2016 has turned out to be a superlative vintage for Bordeaux's reds, winemaker Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Château Cheval-Blanc notes that it wasn't how he would have drawn it up.
"2015 is what you expect in terms of a great year," he says. "It was dry throughout, with just the right amount of water along the way whenever you needed it. 2016, on the other hand, had the equivalent of annual rainfall in the first six months, so the soil was saturated. And then, very, very dry until middle of September. It was an extreme year."
"But at Cheval, while we have clay, gravel and sand, all the subsoil is clay, so we had the perfect protection against that drought. The exception is the young-vine parcels, so they were selected out.
That selection resulted in a still eye-popping 77 percent of the crop going to the grand vin, 7 percent to the second wine and the rest bulked out. (For background on Cheval-Blanc, reference my 2015 en primeur notes.)
Drawing from 33 plots, the 59/38/3 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon drapes like velvet on the palate, with plum sauce and melted licorice flavors inlaid with bergamot, cassis and violet notes. The bass leads the finish here, but there's treble for balance with a light mineral hint. There's a light, loamy edge through the finish too, though it's far from overbearing, as this is very fresh in feel, overall. Plus, this feels as if it will gain additional weight and nuance and be among the longer-lived wines of the vintage.
"When you taste the wine, it doesn't taste like a warm, dry year. The acidity is good, the aromas are fresh, and the tannins are ripe," says Clouet.
"We have outstanding Merlot and Cabernet Franc," von Neipperg says. "It wasn't a question of varietal in '16. Young vines in general, or those on sandy soil or gravel with no clay, were the trouble spot. In the end, there isn't any overripeness. It's a very fresh-styled vintage with beautiful ripeness and tannins. The fruit was beautiful."
Von Neipperg had his team effect slightly longer macerations than usual, though temperatures were kept low and extraction via pigéage or rémontage was kept to a minimum—a longer, but more gentle extraction to preserve that beautiful fruit. For more background on the estates here, reference my 2012 en primeur notes.
Von Neipperg is also among the vanguard in the region shifting to organic growing practices.
Among the best value plays in the vintage is the Château d'Aiguilhe Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux. It has a fleshy edge, tasty plum, anise and blackberry fruit, a streak of bramble and good energy throughout. The Clos de l'Oratoire St.-Emilion is pure and unadorned, with a lovely beam of cassis and cherry compote stretching out, flecked with subtle anise, singed alder and mineral accents.
The blue chip here is the Château Canon-La Gaffelière St.-Emilion, produced in ample quantity (and at 3 tons per acre in 2016) this sees less than two-thirds new oak, allowing its red and black currant, fig and boysenberry pâte de fruit notes to show beautifully, wrapped with a brambly thread and driving through to an anise and apple wood–edged finish. It's all tightly wound, but it's all there for the long haul. This is really, really solid.
The hen's teeth cuvée here is the La Mondotte, sourced from just 10 acres atop the limestone plateau of St.-Emilion. Still, this is the first vintage the vineyard ever topped 2.5 tons per acre, coming in at 3 tons, as its sibling did. The classic 80/20 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend is being given 70 percent new oak, but it wears it effortlessly, as this is a towering display of purity, with unadulterated cassis and raspberry fruit coursing along livewire acidity while light chalk, anise and black tea notes fill in. It has serious grip, but it's buried in that jaw-dropping core of fruit. And it has minerality to burn. A stunner, this was one of the most thrilling wines of my en primeur tasting.