Along with my colleague Thomas Matthews, I have been in Bordeaux this month. To evaluate the 2008 vintage in bottle, we've blind tasted nearly 450 reds, dry whites and Sauternes. You can read the first batch of reviews in the upcoming Dec. 15 edition of our weekly Insider newsletter, available only to WineSpectator.com subscribers. Now I am visiting different châteaus to check out the evolution of the 2009 wines. Read about my first stop, with Jean-Philippe Delmas at Château Haut-Brion, in my previous post.
One thing is for sure around here: None of the top dogs are sitting on their laurels. While the elite wines of Bordeaux are fetching prices that can seem absurd, the money is clearly being put back into the wineries. Both Cos-d'Estournel and Latour have recently completed major cellar overhauls while both Cheval-Blanc and Mouton-Rothschild are in the midst of doing their own. There's new construction planned at both Châteaus Margaux and Pétrus as well. Bordeaux may be a wealthy region (at the top end), but it is certainly not idle.
When I asked for a visit with the elder statesman of the Right Bank, I figured we'd meet at his office, talk and taste a bit. When he said to meet him in the parking lot at Pétrus, the famed Pomerol estate, I figured I'd be lucky enough to get a cellar tour as well (cellar tours are not automatically given around here).
When I pulled up at Pétrus, Christian and his son Edouard met me—and I noticed Christian had his pruning shears with him.
"Let's take a walk in the vineyard," he said. "I want to show you some things."
Now we're talking ...
It's only a few short steps to get into the middle of Pétrus' modest 12 hectares of vines. And from there what you see is Pomerol fanning out around you.
"It's a bump," said Moueix. "A gentle bump, but a bump, here at Pétrus. We are very proud of our 40 meters of elevation," he added dryly.
"Below the bump, just a few meters lower, is the plateau of Pomerol, with clay and gravel soils," said Moueix. From there he points out the properties that ring Pétrus, like spots on a sundial, La Fleur on the north side, La-Fleur-Pétrus on the northeast, Gazin on the east, then L'Evangile, Conseillante, Vieux-Château-Certan, Certan de May and Trotanoy. It's clear the plateau is home to the top properties, which tend to be smaller and as a group make up only about one-third of Pomerol's 800 hectares.
From there the appellation dips again, down to a belt of clay where Bourgneuf, Beauregard, Nenin, Plince, Petit-Village and others have their vines. A final ring of sand then marks the limits of the appellation, where less expensive soils mean properties can develop larger vineyard plots—the labels that are the more everyday, accessible wines of the appellation, such as de Sales, Clos Rene and L'Enclos.
As for Pétrus, Olivier Berrouet is taking over the winemaking, following in the footsteps of his father, the longtime winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet. The Moueix team has managed the estate since 1952 (Moueix's father purchased it in 1964) and the Ets. J.-P. Moueix négociant house has been its exclusive distributor all along—that is unlikely to change. It's clearly something dear to Moueix's heart.
"I'm happy to say I've pruned each of the 60,000 vines on the estate," he said. "For me, pruning is like jogging for someone else. It's what makes me feel good, knowing I did it at the end of the day."
From there we drive over to St.-Emilion, to see the efforts underway at Château Bélair-Monange, which Moueix purchased in 2008 (changing the name from Bélair). It's one of the prime spots on St.-Emilion, at the top of the hill, neighboring Ausone, with prime parcels on both limestone terraces and clay soils below. It's a rarity in the appellation to have both.
"Bélair fell asleep," said Edouard. "We are exciting about bringing it back."
It will not be easy. An old parcel of vines dating to the turn of the century had to finally be pulled up as production had dropped precipitously—it will now lie fallow for a few years. The limestone quarries underneath the château and vineyards have been pilfered over the years for their stones, to the point where they are structurally tenuous. Moueix is not shoring them up
"We asked if anyone in the appellation wanted to help us, because St.-Emilion is like Swiss cheese now underneath," said Eduoard. "This is a big problem. But most people kept their heads down when we asked."
When I mentioned I'd had a bottle of the '98 Bélair a few nights earlier, both Christian and Eduoard raised their eyebrows inquisitively, wanting to know how it was. "A wine with beautiful aromas, perhaps a touch austere on the palate, but it sang for a few minutes," I said.
"That is great to hear," said Christian. "We know how much potential there is here. It's difficult to find the balance between the austerity and perfume the limestone gives, with the power and flesh the clay parcels give. It takes 10 years to understand a vineyard, so we are just at the beginning here."
The tour continued at Providence, back in Pomerol, where the small, efficient cellar has both cement and stainless steels vats.
"I love the cement vats for their temperature inertia," said Moueix. "I am a bit old school. But they are large so it's hard to do smaller parcel selections in them, and we are going more and more that way as we look for precision. The stainless steel tanks give us that flexibility."
Precision is now the buzzword around Bordeaux. It's what all the vignerons say they are striving for in their wine, the way Rhône vignerons talk of minerality for example. In Bordeaux, it's popular to tout the latest technological toy—an optical sorter for example—as the châteaus try to leapfrog each other in pursuit of the precision.
"I am looking for precision," said Moueix, when I press him on the issue. At what point does human control of the winemaking process become too much? Can you eliminate complexity by searching for an unattainable goal of perfect precision?
"It's true, we have become maniacs with selection. I agree at some point it could be too much. This is a question we have to ask ourselves," said Christian, before turning to Edouard. "We should discuss this at the next meeting," he said.
"You're right," said Edouard. "There is the old school and then there is technology. They can work together if you ask yourself first, before you try something new, 'Who am I?'. If you can answer yourself that question, then you can move forward."
"I think of the past," said the elder Moueix. "The '90 Pétrus for example, I made without temperature control and without parcel selection. I think it turned out to be a pretty good wine. But '00, '05, '09, I see what progress and advancements have allowed us to do in the cellar, and it's truly amazing how far we have come."
We then taste through a range of the family's top '09 bottlings, starting first with the Château Magdelaine St.-Emilion 2009, which offers a tight beam of mineral and very cherry/raspberry fruit. It's pure and unadorned, tight on the finish and very, very solid. The Château Bélair-Monange St.-Emilion 2009 shows a beautiful dusty edge, with floral, perfume and raspberry sauce notes and a silky texture. The long chalky spine is buried deep on the finish, sweet and pure. The Providence Pomerol 2009 is super lush, but refined at the same time, with raspberry, cherry compote and red licorice. It stays pure and driven and has latent power but this is about finesse, even in a grippy vintage like '09. All three are easily outstanding, and the Bélair is the one I'd buy now to start a vertical off, as Moueix brings the property back to life.
The Château La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2009 (Merlot with 10 percent Cabernet Franc) is very tight today and showing its wood too, with a briar note on the edges of the dark raspberry, blackberry and cherry compote notes. It has a long, spice- and tobacco-filled finish and is showing lots of range and plenty of grip too. The Château Hosanna Pomerol 2009 (Merlot with 20 percent Cab Franc) is denser and darker than the La Fleur-Pétrus, with more black currant, licorice and blackberry fruit notes. It's tighter grained too, with sweet spice hints on the slightly muscular finish. Despite the power, it's seamless; both it and the Hosanna flirt with classic quality.
"This estate was bought in '99, and as I said before at Bélair, I always feel you need 10 years to start to understand a vineyard," said Moueix of Hosanna. "So the timing was perfect for '09."
We finish with the Château Trotanoy Pomerol 2009, which is dense and very layered, with superb length to the gorgeous blackberry and raspberry fruit and loads of buried sweet tobacco, mulled spice and fruitcake notes, all pure and stylish. It's a clear classic in the making.
As we finish, we step back outside and Moueix, who has been hanging on to those pruning shears, said "If I don't get to prune a vine though, I will not be happy, so come, and let's do one."
Moueix then demonstrated how he wants a straight cane, so the shoot length can be even and the fruit evenly spaced, all aimed at homogeneous ripening. I watch as Moueix snips away the old shoots and then positions the cane for next season. It's precision, from the ground up. But the smile on his face tells you it's not mania, just a long-simmering passion.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]
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