Bordeaux is often accused of being too tradition-bound, too resistant to change. Sure, they can bring in fancy technology like optical sorters to help at the winery. And the increased attention to parcel selection and smaller vinification lots based on terroir has helped increase precision and quality. But many châteaus have relied on the same vineyards for generations, so change often comes quietly, from within—say, creating a second wine, or making a more severe selection, rather than from the addition of new terroirs. That may make Bordeaux seem static when compared to places like California or even South Africa, where new vineyards, new projects and new ideas seems to spout forth regularly.
But then there's always a château that makes you realize how much has yet to be done, even in a place where the map is as seemingly rigidly drawn as it is in Bordeaux.
"It was just what we need to wake up Château Olivier," said Laurent Lebrun, the director of the Pessac property which is currently owned by the Bethmann family and has been family-owned since 1886.
Lebrun is referring to a new 17-acre parcel first planted in 2004, located a short drive away from the château itself, in a corner of the property that was formerly forest.
"When I started here in 2003, we brought in Denis Dubourdieu to consult," explained Lebrun, 46, who spent several years in Australia with the Rémy Martin and Seguin Moreau operations there before returning to Bordeaux. "There is only so much you can do in the winery itself and the investment had been made there. We wanted to know what could be done in the vineyards. Olivier is large, 568 acres in total and there were spots that had never been planted. So we did a soil analysis across the estate and found this section, with a fine compact gravel very different from the historic vineyards of Olivier, on a different alluvial terrace than what we already were planted on. It was a very exciting find."
"The key was to increase quality though, not just increase quantity. So as we planted those new [plots], we took out lower-quality blocks from the existing vineyards. And now, we have the entire [17 acres] in production. It's all Cabernet Sauvignon and it makes up half the Cabernet component of the final blend. We took out Cabernet Franc from the blend after '07. So Olivier has changed a lot recently."
The Château Olivier Pessac-Léognan 2012 checks in at slightly higher alcohol and slightly lower acidity than the 2011, a charming, fruit-forward but lightly structured year. The 60/40 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend is very supple, with tasty red berry fruit, a twinge of spice and a lightly dusty but still fleshy finish that has a nice echo of anise.
The Château Olivier Pessac-Léognan White 2012 is a 78/20/2 blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle, with the Sauvignon Blanc portion increased in recent years for freshness and what Lebrun described as "consistency."
"We wanted a consistent style for aging. Sémillon is not consistent—it can be good or not in a good year, and good or not in less important years," said Lebrun. "So, we are focusing on certain clones of Sémillon we get from Château Guiraud for the new plantings, but reducing the overall plantings of Sémillon as we move forward."
The wine shows a very bright profile, with green almond, honeysuckle and white asparagus notes and a clean-cut, nicely precise finish, giving further proof that 2012 is a strong vintage for the whites (though understandably, most people think "red wine" when they think of Bordeaux).
Château Olivier is another very solid performer that has room to move up, like Larrivet Haut-Brion. Retailing for less than $40, it drinks well when young but also rewards mid-term cellaring, and it is likely to fly under the radar in a vintage like 2012.
There are a few châteaus in the Pessac area that share the Haut-Brion name in their estate titles, but only Carmes Haut-Brion among them can say that it borders the famed first-growth property (ever since Haut-Brion purchased Allary Haut-Brion).
This small property, with just 27 acres of vines, boasts similar gravel and clay soils to La Mission (Haut-Brion sits on a bump between the two) along with older vines (an average of 40 years with some 70-year-old vines), a high 4,000 vine-per-acre density and a hefty percentage of Cabernet Franc. But it wasn't until recent changes that the dust got knocked off this relatively unknown château.
In 2010 it was purchased by Patrice Pichet, and in 2012 he hired Guillaume Pouthier as director/winemaker. Among the changes in the winery: a new line of small tanks for parcel selection as well as an increase in the amount of whole bunches used in fermentation.
"Before, there were three tanks here: one for Merlot, one for Cabernet Franc and one for Cabernet Sauvignon," said Pouthier, 39. "They picked each cépage at the same time, regardless of parcel, and just put it in the vat, then made one wine, one blend. Now we have 20 small tanks and ferment by parcel, and we started a second wine, to make the selection more severe."
Pouthier is animated and his energy level is understandable, as he just spent two years working at the Rhône's M. Chapoutier, a winery where energy is a prerequisite for employees. At Carmes, Pouthier is farming organically and the still-sleeping vines are nearly matched in height right now by the healthy ground cover Pouthier sowed this past season for the first time.
Pouthier is also experimenting by filling his tanks with alternating layers of destemmed and whole-bunch grapes (the final percentage of whole bunches ranges between 10 and 20 percent) with pigéage only, no rémontage.
"I want power, but it must have finesse too. So I'd rather work the vat by hand with pigéage and keep some stems. I find that is the best way to extract without overextracting," explained Pouthier.
The Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan Le Clos 2012 is the new second wine which debuts in this vintage. The 80/20 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend offers tasty pastis, violet and black currant notes with a rounded feel and open-knit finish. The Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2012 is a 40/40/20 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon which has a nice sappy feel, with kirsch, black cherry and tar notes and a sleek, well-integrated finish.
The 2010 vintage, very solid, can be found for about $75, so this may come in at a reasonable price in a vintage like 2012, where the improvements can be seen. Though there are just 2,000 cases made here annually (on average), the 2012 is perhaps a chance for consumers to get in on the ground floor of a real up-and-comer.
From the large Olivier to tiny Carmes and then to the first first-growth, I wrapped up my day in Pessac with a stop at Château Haut-Brion. Haut-Brion is not only the oldest first-growth and home to great reds, but stunning whites as well. For background on director Jean-Philippe Delmas and the Domaine Clarence Dillon group of estates, you can reference my 2011 en primeur blog.
While Domaine Clarence Dillon's home is in Pessac, the company, owned by Prince Robert de Luxembourg, has expanded to the Right Bank following the purchase of the former Terte-Daugay estate. 2012 marks the second vintage under the new regime and things are trending up, despite the difficulties of the vintage.
"Learning each parcel will take at least five years," said Delmas. "In Pessac, we know it. In St.-Emilion it's a totally new terroir and new viticulture for us. It's a different approach to everything. But I think you learn more about a terroir in a difficult year."
The 2012 Quintus St.-Emilion Le Dragon is the estate's second wine, and it shows nice purity, with brisk pomegranate and damson plum fruit and a nice chalky finish. The 2012 Quintus St.-Emilion features more Merlot than usual, with the 89/11 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend showing a very pure profile of bright cassis. I really like the purity of both wines, and it would seem Delmas is getting a handle on his new Right Bank terroir rather quickly.
Moving back to the main estates in Pessac, Delmas said with a gentle laugh, "I think you will see, it is maybe a Merlot year."
The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan La Chapelle 2012 shows a bright, noticeable savory note, with violet, plum and crushed cherry fruit. It has a lightly stony finish with the savory edge taking an encore and it shows the herbal side of Cabernet in this vintage. It is the only red here with a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend in 2012, checking in at 56 percent of the wine, along with 29 percent Merlot and 15 percent Cabernet Franc. A noticeable step up from the second wine this vintage (the two are often closer in quality than most other first and second wines) is the Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2012, a 62/38 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which happens to be the opposite blend but same volume as 2010. The wine is very pure and racy, with floral, cassis, violet and bergamot notes and a long, mineral-tinged finish that is very racy and expressive.
"We did the usual green harvest in July as usual," said Delmas of the growing season. "But then we had to go through again during veraison in August and drop bunches as the ripening was so uneven. In the end, the biggest problem was the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon parcels."
The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan Le Clarence 2012 (second wine, representing just 34 percent of the crop) is a 43/41/14/2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It delivers plum, mixed berry and singed vanilla notes with a backdrop of anise and tar. It shows the vintage's sinewy edge on the finish but the stuffing is there for balance. The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2012 (a mere 40 percent of the crop as selection was more severe than usual) is a blend that represents the most Merlot ever in Haut-Brion—well, officially, the most in 20 years, according to records.
"My dad was not the most precise in writing things down, but he agrees, it's the most," said Delmas of his legendary father who made the wines at Haut-Brion and La Mission before him. The 66/32/2 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is remarkably plush for the vintage, with a lovely caressing feel and lots of steeped plum, anise and blackberry fruit. There is a nice lacing of tar through the finish and, while there's a tug of earth, it stays graceful overall.
"I think the vintage is a bit of a surprise for people as they taste," said Delmas, with reserved pride. "Certainly the reports during the season and with the rain at the very end, made it seem like a catastrophe. But as they say, August makes the taste and August was very good. It is a vintage for Merlot specifically, but very heterogeneous overall. But at La Miss and H-B we picked lots at 15, 15.5 [potential] alcohol, so the ripeness was there."
What is not really a surprise is the quality of the whites. They have a track record for being among the most compelling in all of Bordeaux, and with a warm and dry August and typically early harvest time for Haut-Brion in general, the whites here missed the late-season rains and came in under generally favorable, healthy conditions.
The second wine blends fruit from both Haut-Brion and La Mission. The result is the Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White Le Clarté 2012, a 58/42 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon that is bright and pure with green plum, macadamia nut, green almond, honeysuckle and orange blossom notes. It's very refined through the finish, has lovely weight but isn't overbearing at all. It is easily outstanding.
The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2012 has it's usual reliance on Sémillon, as the 84/16 Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend is also racy and bright, with lovely definition to the nectarine, peach pit, blanched almond and orange blossom notes. The very stony finish is long and tightly coiled; this is a sleek, pure, driven white that flirts with classic quality. In contrast, the Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2012 is a 55/45 Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend that is surprisingly plump and open at first, with a mix of kafir lime, lemongrass, white peach, macadamia nut and crème fraîche notes. But it eventually picks up a stony edge on the finish for needed grip and cut, and it really drives along nicely, with very serious length in the end. Could the wine of the vintage in 2012 Bordeaux actually be a dry white? We'll have to wait and see …
Tomorrow I start to head up the Médoc, with a stop in Margaux.