After two days in Bordeaux's Pessac-Léognan, where I visited some châteaus with bright futures in addition to the venerable Châteaus Haut-Brion and La Mission, I headed into the Médoc's Margaux appellation, home to first-growth Château Margaux, the highly regarded third-growth Palmer and the exciting Monbrison, Siran, Giscours and du Tertre.
"It would be difficult to assess this vintage, , because there are huge differences up and down the scale," said Paul Pontallier, the wise man of Château Margaux, who now at 57 has a generation of vintages under his belt at this first-growth estate. "The main characteristic is the year was cut into three parts. First, wet spring with mildew. Then mid-July to Sept. 20, extreme drought but with mostly average temperatures. Then some rain at the end of the season. The rain in September wasn't ideal but not a major problem. The real problem was if you were picking in October, when things got really wet."
"Of the three things, the brutal drought after a very wet spring was the most difficult, because the change was so drastic. Only the best terroirs and oldest vines can handle that. Even in the best soils, the young vines couldn't handle it," Pontallier said. "For example, with the Petit Verdot, our oldest vines were lovely. The rest of the Petit Verdot, frankly, was not ripe. The differences between the good and not so good are very dramatic, and much more so than in '11. Vines suffer more from drought after getting used to an abundance of water, rather than dry early and wet later. For the grand vin, it is the heart of the vineyard, the oldest vines and best terroirs, so I am really happy with how it turned out. I think the '12 is better than '11. But for the second wine, perhaps not. You will see big differences from the top to the bottom."
In 2012, Pontallier also decided to farm all of the estate's top parcels organically, a move that is slowly but surely moving through Bordeaux. With the very wet conditions, Pontallier's commitment was tested early.
"Early on, with all the rain, I did one chemical spray. But that was it, as opposed to several as in previous years. And in the end, it was fine. That proved to me we can do it and we are on the right track. We've been experimenting with organic for 20 years. Now I believe we should be totally organic," he said.
The selection here has been severe in recent years, but perhaps none more so than in 2012, with the grand vin barely one-third of the crop and the second wine even less. The third wine, bottled since '09, and a fourth selection, culled out for bulk, combined for 36 percent of the crop in '12.
"What's amazing to me is to think that 25 years ago, both of those wines would have been combined. All the lots that went into Pavillon this year would have been in the grand vin 25 years ago. I guess that's progress in a way," he said.
The Château Margaux Margaux Pavillon Rouge 2012 is a 63/33/3/1 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, which shows lilting black tea and singed vanilla aromas with supple red currant and iron notes. There's a nice backdrop of cedar on the slightly sinewy finish.
"It's less about Cabernet versus Merlot for me in '12," said Pontallier. "All our best sites are planted to Cabernet and they were the ones that performed well in '12. It is the heart of the vineyard that makes up the grand vin. It's a terroir year rather than a varietal year in my opinion."
The Château Margaux Margaux 2012 (87/10/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) shows a tighter nose, but it's purer and fresher than the Pavillon with decidedly red fruit and violet notes. The wine is very pure, almost sleek, with fine-grained tannins carrying the red currant paste and iron notes. The plum skin-tinged finish really sings, with remarkable integration already. Seriously long too. A very impressive showing today, as the grip is substantial but very refined, particularly for the vintage.
"What matters more than quantity of tannins is which tannins we are talking about," said Pontallier. "And the ripeness of the tannins. At the right ripeness, tannins lose their tannic character. There are still a lot of them, but they don't show off. The counterexample are vintages like '70 or '75, when people rushed picking and had concentrated wines that had harsh feels. And that harsh feel is still there in the wine today—it doesn't go away. You can have a wine with less tannins that feels more tannic if they aren't ripe. And in '12 we did get the ripeness, thanks to that dry, warm period of August."
Pontallier still holds '11 and '07 up as the benchmark vintages for whites in Bordeaux. "You really never get a vintage where both the whites and the reds are both terrific," he said matter-of-factly.
The Château Margaux Bordeaux Pavillon Blanc 2012 is "very limited in quantity this vintage because of the huge differences between the best lots and the rest," said Pontallier. It represents just one-third of the crop, with the rest bulked out and is made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc as usual. The wine is pure and stony with chamomile, white peach, lemongrass and kafir lime notes. It has a lovely sleek feel and long, graceful finish with a high-toned echo of talc at the very end.
Just around the corner from Margaux is third-growth Château Palmer, where the thoughtful Thomas Duroux is in charge of the winemaking. For more background on this estate, you can reference my 2011 en primeur notes.
"2012 is marked by low yields, but a bit better than '11 when we had hail and sunburn in addition to drought and poor flowering," said Duroux. "The vines were so stressed in '11 that when we pruned to prepare for '12, we had to leave fewer buds than usual. Then the spring of '12 was humid, so there was a lot of coulure, particularly on Merlot and the end result is 2 tons per acre. At that level it's not a good thing economically, but it's not a bad thing for the wine. The naturally lower yields in '12 helped because ripening was difficult."
"It's like two vintages for us: The Merlot is ripe, rich and with dense tannins. Not '09 or '10 for sure, but quite rich. On the other hand the Cabernet was lower alcohol, 12.5 range, different aromatic profile, fresh. So the concern was how the two would marry in the wine. In the blend, the Merlot took a big position early, giving the fruit and aromas of the wine. But slowly and surely, the Cabernet developed and brought the freshness and length of the wine."
"But this is a vintage where there are enormous differences from one type of soil to another, and so big differences for the same variety depending on parcel," cautioned Duroux. "We started with wet conditions so we knew it would be a late harvest. When we got the warmth and drought, we were happy because we knew the later conditions would be manageable. But the problem was with the late rains. It wasn't a question of rot in the end, but ripeness. Well-drained sites protected berry size, keeping them small and avoiding dilution. Old vines had the deep roots to find water during the drought and avoid stress. So a difficult vintage but an easy solution: old vines and good terroir. And a bit of work too."
As at Margaux, Palmer is another château moving toward organic production.
"Following 2013, Palmer will be entirely organic in the vineyards, but it's not something we will market as such. Organic farming has an impact on your management practices. If you are using just copper and sulphur and not chemical sprays, you need to have a well-balanced vineyard. So it takes time to get there and adapt the vineyards. But it is simply an obligation at this point. There's no reason why châteaus like Palmer shouldn't be organic. It is the future and there is no choice."
Also of note here in 2012 is the fact that Petit Verdot made its way into both the first and second wine in the same vintage for the first time. The grape, distinctive for its savory cassis bush note, marks the aromatics of both wines noticeably in my opinion.
The Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2012 is a 50/41/9 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot that shows smoky, roasted herb and cassis bush notes with solid cassis and plum fruit. It shows more grace on the palate, with dark, silky fruit and caressing tannins lined with a nice iron edge. As at Margaux, however, the grand vin is a big step up in this vintage. The Château Palmer Margaux 2012, a 48/46/6 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, is quite juicy, with a bright leafy note framing dark plum and blackberry fruit. There is lots of singed alder and spice notes flowing through the finish, which has solid but integrated grip and a strong iron edge is buried nicely on the finish.
While Châteaus Margaux and Palmer are the headliners in Margaux, there are numerous other estates making lovely, perfumed wines with subtle minerality and at a square price. One of those is Château Monbrison, owned by Laurent Vonderheyden, 54.
Located in the commune of Arsac on the southern edge of the property, you can reference additional background on Monbrison from Vonderheyden's visit to my office in New York in 2010.
The estate was bought by Von der Heyden's grandfather in 1921, though the vines had been ripped out during World War I. Eventually his parents replanted in the early 1960s and today Vonderheyden runs the property (he took over in 1992), producing about 8,300 cases annually from his 37 acres of vines.
"1992, I remember it well. Aug. 8th we got hail and I lost half my crop," he said. "Then '93, frost. Then '94, not so good. Those first few years were tough."
But Vonderheyden persevered and today he's just finished updating his cellar with a row of smaller stainless steel vinification tanks to handle parcel selection. The wine then spends 14 to 18 months in only 40 percent new oak for its aging.
The Château Monbrison Margaux 2012 is a 68/29/3 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot which displays nice bitter cherry, alder and iron notes with a refined, sanguine finish. It has the light sinewy feel of the vintage, but stays focused with nice length. If it puts on some weight, as a sample of the '11 seems to have done since I tasted it last spring, it should be one of the better buys of the vintage (Monbrison retails for around $35 to $40 in the U.S.).
I also caught up today with Edouard Miailhe of Château Siran, whose 2012 Margaux is a polished, perfumy wine with supple black fruits and a touch more stuffing than the 2011. I also stopped in to see Alexander van Beek, who oversees production at Châteaus Giscours and du Tertre, both of which performed well in '12. I give the edge to the longer, more mineral- and cedar-infused Giscours, a wine that excelled in 2010, the first vintage where Denis Dubourdieu helped consult on the wine. When van Beek asked if I was surprised by what I was tasting so far on my trip, I said no, because I visit the châteaus that are making good wine to begin with. Even in difficult years, the best should do well.
"You're right," he said, pausing. "We really can't afford to make bad wine. The vintage certainly has its say, but we can always work hard enough to give a tricky vintage a push in a certain direction that it needs. We should always be making the best wine we can."
Tomorrow I continue up the Médoc, with stops in St.-Julien and Pauillac, where the vintage handed out it's toughest test, as late-ripening Cabernet is likely far from the strong suit in 2012. Stay tuned.