I arrived in Bordeaux in time for lunch (I love when that happens), dropped my bags at Les Sources de Caudalie and then decided to check on some of the neighbors in the Pessac-Léognan AOC.
Château Larrivet Haut-Brion was purchased by Philippe Gervoson in 1987, a member of the family behind the popular Bonne Maman jellies, among other things. Gervoson started a replanting of the vineyards that was completed by 1992. Today, the 250-acre estate totals 178 acres of vines, with 148 in red varieties and the rest in white. Bruno Lemoine was hired in 2007 to oversee production after he spent several years at Châteaus Montrose and Lascombes. The estate currently produces around 30,000 cases annually of red along with 4,000 cases of white.
At the château, I met up with Lemoine, who told me about the changes at the estate instituted by both Gervoson and himself.
"The vineyards were nearly all replanted … and so they are young, only around 25 years of age," said Lemoine, 53. "And the cellar had just been redone too when I arrived, so there was a lot of change and new things here. The vines are getting better every year and the density in the wine is starting to show. Another 10 years and I think they will be special."
"The first thing I did when I got here was to go into the vineyards and study the parcels, doing a really detailed soil survey. Now we have smaller parcel selection and smaller tanks in the cellar to vinify them separately," said Lemoine. "I've also dropped the amount of new oak on the white and red and brought in more concrete eggs. I want the feel of oak, but not the taste. And besides, the market seems to want wines of freshness more and more these days."
The vineyards are located just next door to Haut-Bailly and just over a mile as the crow flies to Smith-Haut-Lafitte. Consequently, Larrivet Haut-Brion straddles the two main soils in Pessac—the older, finer-pebbled, sandier gravel typical of Haut-Bailly and the more clay-based, larger-pebbled gravels of S-H-L (each has its variations, too, of course). While the sandier soils result in wines of more finesse, the clay soils produce more power.
"So in one vintage, one of the terroirs may be better than the other, and we can use that to our advantage in the wine," said Lemoine. "But in 2012 it was a very strange vintage. Cold early. Wet in the middle and then very dry and warm before late rains. The clay soils actually did better despite the early moisture, while the sandier soils suffered. The dryness in August really blocked the maturity in the sandier soils, which are our better parcels. It's a very strange year."
This estate caught my eye with their very solid performance in 2010, and at a very modest price. But while making good wine in 2010 was easy, making good wine in 2012 was not. The true test of an estate is how they perform in the more difficult years.
The Château Larrivet Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2012 is whole bunch–pressed but sees no malolactic. The barrel-fermented wine (70 percent new oak) spends 10 months on it lees, with the 90/10 Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend showing brisk quinine, green plum and green almond notes with a fresh, stony finish.
"It's a naturally low yield for the whites in '12," said Lemoine. "Just [1.8 tons per acre] due to the poor flowering. It's a very interesting vintage for the whites."
The Château Larrivet Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2012 is destemmed, with better parcels fermented in small cement vats, the rest in stainless steel. It's being aged in only one-third new oak, down from 50 percent, which was the norm before Lemoine arrived. The 56/44 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend shows a nice, sappy kirsch edge with good depth for the vintage and notes of plum skin and anise on the slightly taut finish.
This is a solid performing château, with room to improve. Those looking for value should look here: The wines typically retail for $35 or less.
Just next door to Larrivet Haut-Brion is Château Haut-Bailly, with its small jewel box of a château sitting alongside 74 acres of vineyards. This estate features some of the oldest vines in the Pessac AOC and is one of the few with some land planted at 4,000 vines per acre (higher density provides for lower yields per vine but keeps the overall crop yield in an economically viable range).
Denis Dubourdieu has consulted here since 1998, working with maître de chai Gabriel Vialard and director Véronique Sanders (the wife of Alexander van Beek, who manages Châteaus Giscours and du Terte in Margaux).
The château is currently celebrating its 15th anniversary under the ownership of American Robert Wilmers.
Vialard told me about the struggles of the difficult 2012 vintage in Pessac. "We were fighting disease pressure right from the start and almost all through the whole season," said Vialard. "You had to be on top if it. It was a very busy vintage."
"But the good side was we had small berries and naturally lower yields because of the poor flowering," said Sanders. "When August finally turned warm, the nights were still cool. So while it was difficult, we did get good maturity, concentration, color and tannind in the end."
The Château Haut-Bailly Pessac-Léognan La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2012, the second wine of the estate, is very silky, without the overly taut feel of the vintage in general, showing just a lightly dusty edge to the lovely cassis fruit, with fine-grained tannins and a perfumy finish.
Following the dry August, rains arrived Sept. 15 and ripening kicked back in. The weather held until mid-October, and early-ripening Merlot, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon on clay soils (with good water reserves) were brought in under good weather conditions.
"Maybe not everywhere in Bordeaux, but Pessac was ripe by the time the October rains came, except for maybe the parts on very sandy soil which were the spots that struggled during the dry August. The clay spots performed wonderfully though," said Sanders, who also noted that during a long, drawn-out veraison, a second green harvest was performed to drop the bunches that were lagging behind in ripeness.
The Château Haut-Bailly Pessac-Léognan 2012 represents a yields of just 2.7 tons per acre, down from the normal range of 3.5 tons per acre. The final blend of 60/40 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is very pure, with dusty cherry, plum and cassis fruit flavors and a finish threaded suavely with warm stone and licorice notes. It's likely to be one of the real successes of the vintage.
As for what the market will bear, Sanders has the hopeful yet pragmatic approach of a seasoned veteran.
"Frankly the buzz wasn't positive following the harvest, so the market is not really excited for the wines. We know that," she said. "But we have as busy a schedule of visits this en primeur season as we did last year and so far people seem to be nicely surprised by what they are tasting. Still, I think they are going to wait and see how the press reacts and things play out in general. But no, this will not be an en primeur campaign like '09 or '10."