"When I took over Branaire-Ducru, my first decision was what style did I want to have for Branaire," said Patrick Maroteaux, who purchased this St.-Julien estate in 1988. "There are three things we look for. Pure fruit, for people who like to drink wine. The freshness, which is a major factor as to when we pick. We've been lucky the last few years, we've been able to pick exactly when we want to pick. Others are looking for ripeness. But while we realize we could go further with ripeness, we feel there is a time to save the freshness. And last, we want elegance. And that's the top target. If we have to decide between more power or elegance, we will always follow the way for elegance."
The 150-acre estate (25 acres were bought two years ago) is planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon along with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. A gravity-flow winery and updated barrel room were built in 1991 and Jean-Dominique Videau took over as maître de chai in 2002, when Philippe Dhalluin left to join Mouton-Rothschild. Maroteaux and Videau have made the uncommon decision to work exclusively with one cooper, Taransaud (most producers use many coopers for the varied notes that different types of cooperage can lend to wine) and there is just 65 percent new wood used for the grand vin.
The Château Branaire-Ducru St.-Julien 2011 (67/24/5/4 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc) checks in at just 13 percent alcohol, "normal, finally," said Videau. "And the extraction was natural at the end. We prefer to work with press wines to make the blend and adjust the richness of the wine that way."
There is usually 12 to 15 percent press wine in the final blend. "We really build the blend that way. And we separate the press wine first by lot, but then we deal with it on a barrel-by-barrel basis. So over 250 barrels it's a lot of work, but the precision is much better," said Videau.
The wine is very focused, with plum skin, cassis and bitter cherry. The long, sleek finish has a nice high-toned feel now but should fill in nicely with its continued élevage. The Petit Verdot character stands out too, with a lilting cassis bush note that runs throughout the wine. [Note: An official review based on a formal blind tasting will appear after my complete tasting of 2011 en primeur samples.]
Yields here in 2011 were just 2.5 tons per acre, where the average of St.-Julien in 2011 was almost 3 tons per acre.
"Our target is [3.3 tons per acre] and the AOC maximum is [4.2 tons]," said Maroteaux. "Lower yields are a disadvantage for the business, but an advantage for the quality. And for us, since '00, the best is clearly '10, then '09, then '05, and from there it's a debate," said Maroteaux.
As at Lafite in Pauillac, the dry winter and spring have become cause for concern for the 2012 vintage in St.-Estephe. "With global warming, I'm not so sure that the drought isn't the bigger problem, more than increasing temperatures," said Nicolas Glumineau, 38, the director at Château Montrose in St.-Estèphe. "After a dry winter again, the vines could really struggle. We have deep soils in St.-Estèphe with clay that retains water, so we do well in dry years. But that's based on getting the water in winter. Now with a dry winter, things could be different. February was very dry—basically nothing. If we don't have water by the flowering in April and May, we'll be worrying. We're still [around 2.5 tons per acre] in recent vintages, but if you go to [2.2 tons], you wind up changing the style of the wine. We're not there yet, but we're thinking about what if?"
Glumineau noted that in 2011, managing extraction was not easy, following the small berries and thick skins the vintage produced. "We did the same number of pump-overs but we moved less volume of wine, just to keep the cap wet, but not overextract," he said.
"We got the hailstorm on Sept. 1, but we were lucky in a way, because we got hail with water, so the hail was small. And rather than pick right after, we decided to wait a few more days for the better parcels to mature, and luckily we got no rot. And we actually wound up harvesting at the time we originally planned. In the end, for '11, I think the vintages '01, '95 and '86 are the family."
The estate's sister property is Château Tronquoy-Lalande. The estate is located about a mile away on the "heights of St.-Estèphe," joked Glumineau, noting it's just 75 feet of elevation. But the soil is finer in texture and produces a more elegant, shorter-aging wine. The cellar was renovated for the '08 vintage and this 74-acre estate has been under the guidance of Yves Delsol, 48, since 1988. The Château Tronquoy-Lalande St.-Estèphe Tronquoy de St.-Anne 2011 is very perfumy, with violet and white pepper notes followed by light bitter cherry fruit and an elegant, dusty finish. The Château Tronquoy-Lalande St.-Estèphe 2011 has a lightly sappy edge, with a flash of kirsch giving way to stylish cherry and plum sauce flavors. The sleek, iron-tinged finish picks up grip on the very back end. It's a very good effort for the vintage.
The Château Montrose St.-Estèphe La Dame de Montrose 2011 (72/28 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) is the second wine, selected from lots tasted after vinification. The vineyards on the 234-acre estate are managed and then vinified the same way.
"It's made like the grand vin, so it's a serious second wine, but it's still more charming and supple in the end, because it has more Merlot," said Glumineau. The wine shows nice density, with a lightly chewy edge to the kirsch, blackberry and bitter orange notes. A nice hot stone edge drives in on the finish. The Château Montrose St.-Estèphe 2011 (63/22/12/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) has serious grip from the start, with fine-grained but obvious tannins running along the dark plum, cassis and hot stone notes. Nice tobacco-filled drive on the finish. This is already taking on some dimension.
"I'm obsessed with the perception of tannin structure, much more than aromatic structure," said Glumineau. "The aromatic complexity will come later. I try to focus on the definition of tannins. You can track ripeness and anthocyanins with numbers. But mostly I work by taste. Our palate makes the decision, hopefully. When I can taste a hint of chestnut in the seeds, then I know, we are just within the window of a day, maximum for the tannins I want. Any longer and it becomes overripe."
I adore the austere style of Montrose. It's a throwback wine, that rewards aging and patience. It's become a terrific contrast with the blazing modernity of Cos-d'Estournel, just about a mile away.
"You say austerity, I say monastic," said Glumineau, as we discussed the wine's style. "It's a wine that you know where it starts and where it ends, and it's very straight."
The search for precision continues at Cos-d'Estournel, where Jean-Guillaume Prats is making wines that define modern Bordeaux with their expression of pure fruit. The 2011 is a success here, but not without some careful vinification.
"It's a very technical vintage," said Prats. "Not like '10, '09, '05. It's back to normal. We had our earliest harvest since 1893 and the smallest production of grand vin since the frost of '91, though that is due to selection, as the yields were still normal."
"We had the heat in the first half of the year. That was similar to '03 in extreme, but earlier in timing, rather than at veraison. The consequence of the early heat: The Merlot on gravel soils and young vine Cabernet of 15 years or younger didn't perform up to grand vin levels. By the end of August the analysis had the Cabernet ahead of the Merlot, which of course doesn't make any sense."
"Then the storm came through Sept. 1, followed by two weeks of humid weather. So we moved the harvest date from Sept. 12 to Sept. 5 and 6. In the end, the alcohol is a full degree less than '09 and '10, and we have wines with more acidity. The wine is less opulent, the tannins fine and the fruit a little shinier, which is the aspect I really tried to preserve. The '11s are like '86 or '96"
"I don't mind high alcohol if you have the acidity and tannins," continued Prats. "I prefer the style of '09 and '10. But I also like '11, though it's not what you want to make every year. It was a very technical vintage. You had to think two or three times before acting. You really needed to focus, to make sure you didn't overextract. Every vat was its own individual problem and you had to go vat by vat."
The Goulée Médoc 2011 (70/30 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) is very pure, almost sweet, with a creamy edge and gorgeous cherry pie, lightly toasted vanilla and creamed plum notes. (87-90 points, non-blind; 6,250 cases made).
The Château Cos-d'Estournel St.-Estèphe Les Pagodes de Cos 2011 (65/33/2 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot). has a high pitch today, with Bing cherry, floral and incense notes allied to a creamy texture and long, suave finish. There's ample stuffing here but it's restrained right now, with a twinge of iron buried deeply on the finish (89-92, non-blind; 1,667 cases made).
The Château Cos-d'Estournel St.-Estèphe 2011 (65/30/5 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) has lilac and violet aromas which quickly give way to dark toasted spice and black tea, followed by remarkably creamy cassis and plum compote flavors, all offset beautifully by a hint of bitter cherry and tamarind on the finish. There's a saturated feel that shows no hard edges. It's a touch languid rather than driven, but this usually seems to put on weight and gain greater focus as it ages (90-93, non-blind; 9,000 cases made).
There's also a small amount of white produced here, from vineyards located 45 minutes north of Cos, probably the most northerly white wine plantings in Bordeaux. The Château Cos-d'Estournel Bordeaux White 2011 (67/33 Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon) is up from 20 percent Sémillon, as that's what's been planted in recent years and now the vines have come on line.
"There's an intellectual limit to making a wine of minerality and freshness," said Prats. "At some point you need a little fatness and material, so that's why we've added a little more Sémillon." The wine is whole-bunch pressed, vinified in barrel, then blended in March and bottled in early April.
The wine is creamy, with verbena and sweet pea notes buried in a core of white peach, pineapple and grapefruit pulp flavors. A long, talcum powder-tinged finish sails on nicely. This lovely white has weight but stays refreshing (90-93, non-blind; 833 cases made).
"The whites are like '07," said Prats, echoing the sentiment of many Bordelais. "We harvested early, in mid-August, but it was a cool August and so the freshness is there. It's probably a better vintage for whites than for reds."
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.