For most people, Bordeaux is red wine (despite some superb whites). And within that rubric, for most people, Bordeaux means Cabernet Sauvignon (despite plenty of superb Merlot and Cabernet Franc). So for most people, the real test of a vintage in Bordeaux is: How did the Cabernet of the upper Médoc do? Today, to start to answer that question, I began my visits in St.-Julien and Pauillac.
Bruno-Eugene Borie, 57, took over here in 2003 from his brother, who still runs Châteaus Haut-Batailly and Grand-Puy-Lacoste in Pauillac. It was a split of the family properties that allowed Bruno-Eugene to focus on the St.-Julien side at second-growth Château Ducru-Beaucaillou.
The lineup here starts with a Listrac, an appellaiton that often struggles for both quality and recognition. So, why Listrac?
"Because I am loyal to my mother," answered Borie with a hearty laugh. "She was born there and we had a family vineyard there. When I started here in '03, there were just a few hectares left of the family vineyard. So we had to decide whether to rip it out and quit completely in Listrac, or develop a new vineyard and create something new."
To that end, Borie bought the former Fourcas-Dumont estate and, in 2009, debuted his new property, a 100-acre estate planted primarily to Merlot with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
"In Lirac, full ripeness is a little more difficult for Cabernet, despite being in the northern Médoc, so the estate is mostly Merlot. And in 2012, with Petit Verdot being difficult, there's very little in the final blend," said Borie. "But the idea is to make a Listrac, which is an approachable, enjoyable wine. Not a mini St.-Julien. The soils there are a mix of clay limestone, maybe more like St.-Emilion along with some sandy, pebbly soils that are more like a Graves than a Médoc terrace from the river. So it's very different."
The Château Fourcas-Borie Listrac 2012 will spend 12 months in barrel, less than one-third new, and it should retail for a modest $15 or so in the U.S. market. The wine shows a leafy cassis bush note, with gentle plum and raspberry fruit and a perfumy, licorice-tinged finish.
Borie owns 258 acres total in St.-Julien, 74 acres of which were purhcased from Château Lagrange in 1970 by Borie's father and planted soon thereafter. This portion forms the vineyard for the Château Lalande-Borie, which features different soils yet again.
"At Lalande-Borie, it's dark sandy soil with little white pebbles and iron underneath, basically the same soils as Talbot. There, Merlot is the key again, with a little Cabernet that's good in one spot. I'd like to add some Petit Verdot, but it is a difficult grape around here. Leaf pulling, more than bunch thinning is important for Pettit Verdot. And the pruning is difficult because it grows like crazy with buds everywhere. It's a grape that needs a lot of work. But maybe going forward we will add some to the estate."
The Château Lalande-Borie St.-Julien 2012 is another solid value, retailing for around $20 to $25 with an average of 14,000 cases made annually. The wine shows pomegranate, chalk, red cherry and bitter plum notes that are fresh, with cut and sinew. It has a bright, floral-edged finish.
"We want this to be a good introduction to St.-Julien," said Borie. "We could have added it to Ducru, but it's a totally different ecosystem from what we have around the estate at Ducru."
The remaining 184 acres form the estate around Ducru-Beaucaillou itself, located on the eastern side of the road on an alluvial terrace situated very close to the river.
Borie is quick to point out that his Croix de Beaucaillou bottling is not a second wine in the traditional sense, culled from the production of the grand vin every year. Instead, it draws on its own preordained vineyards
"Since 2005, it's not a second label," said Borie emphatically. "It's made from [86 acres] of vineyards in the center of the village on the other side of the road. My ambition was to make first-growth quality wine from the main estate, so that is now the vineyards closest to the river. Then I wanted to use classified-growth quality vines for the Croix de Beacuaillou as well. The soils are gravel like those close to the river, but slightly different slope and slightly cooler, so another ecosystem once again."
The Château Ducru-Beaucaillou St.-Julien Croix de Beaucaillou 2012 should retail for around a modest $40 and there are 11,000 cases made on average every year. Like the Lalande-Borie, the wine sees a 12-month élevage, but with two-thirds new oak instead of one-third. The 60/38/2 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend shows dark plum, raspberry and anise notes with singed spice and subtle black tea shadings. It has nice refined structure and length for the vintage and should be outstanding when finally bottled.
"What was important this year was the amount of technology we used and seeing how important that is for the future," said Borie of his approach to managing his vineyards. "It will be just a few years from now when every vineyard worker will have an iphone to track everything little thing in the vineyard. We will have instant photography of the vineyard at all times. New, light tractors with GPS and cameras, watching disease, weeds, veraison. We will have more and more information at all times."
"I'm not a supporter of biodynamics and such things. I trust science, and having information so you can work naturally is what I believe in. I want the essence of Ducru. I want to make a '61 or '70 but with more precision. So understanding our ecosystem is critical. I want to work with nature, protect the soil and eventually give it to my son in perfect condition—and I use the word ecosystem instead of terroir on purpose. Research and science can help do that."
"But science shouldn't just be about eliminating things—like the optical sorter for instance. Sometimes that machine takes out too much and you lose complexity. What I want is for science to give me a choice, based on better understanding. And you need to understand the vineyard first. The optical sorter is the last chance to have an impact. You should be understanding the vineyard first and foremost. And I'm not ashamed to use science and technology to do that."
The Château Ducru-Beaucaillou St.-Julien 2012 is the flagship bottling here, a wine that has seen drastic improvement under Borie's tenure.
"Since '03, I took this estate from close to 20,000 cases down to only 9,000, or even 7,000 in some vintages. The goal here is first-growth quality. The essence of the estate. Only the best vineyards, from the parcels closest to the river. I want to make a first-growth quality wine," he said.
The grand vin sees 18 months in barrel, 95 percent of which is new. In 2012, the 91/9 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend delivers ripe plum, currant and blackberry fruit that is nicely integrated already, with taut anise, singed spice and apple wood notes. It's sleek and refined, without the vintage's sinew, staying very stylish through the finish while the anise note hangs on.
"I know most people are nervous about Cabernet in the Médoc in 2012, but we harvested fast and early in the first week of October, so we had ripeness. To be honest, the rains didn't really stop after late September. It was one good day, one bad day and so on. The key was to be able to move fast."
"There is no one characteristic to define the  vintage," said Charles Chevalier, the experienced technical director at Château Lafite Rothschild. "Millerandage resulted in small berries. Humidity early then heat in August with drought. It was a difficult year, viticulturally, with many things happening. In the end, the vineyard was fragile and heterogenous at harvest."
"It's a vintage of cépage and terroir," he said. "But even more so, a vintage of vigneron. There was only so much you could do in the winery. This was a vintage to work the vineyard."
Chevalier, who presented the wines in decreasing order of Merlot content, started with the Lafite-owned Pomerol estate. The Château L'Evangile Pomerol 2012 came in at a very modest 2.2 tons per acre. The 93/7 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend is fleshy and unctuous, with dark plum and steeped currant fruit, a healthy dose of toast and a long, charcoal-filled finish that has some serious weight for the vintage.
Chevalier noted that he only tweaked the winemaking slightly in 2012.
"No, no major changes in the vinification other than to maybe be careful during the rémontage. But if you selected well, the fruit you had was in good condition. The tannins were there, you just had to protect the fruit. You could compensate afterward with the press wine if you needed more structure, but the key was to protect the fruit first."
The Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac Carruades de Lafite 2012 is a 53/42/3/2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that has a smoky, fleshy feel, with dark plum, charcoal and coffee notes. There's nice grip on the finish with a lingering plum skin feel. In contrast, the northwest exposure of the Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild Pauillac 2012 (62/38 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) delivers its hallmark savory, tobacco and cassis notes that race along with a charcoal frame. There's a nice backdrop of kirsch that helps fill it out, with a peppery hint on the lightly dusty-edged finish.
The Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 2012 grand vin was also a lower yield, checking in at just 2.9 tons per acre. The 91/8.5/0.5 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend is still tightly drawn, with a firm, toasty edge framing the core of plum skin, red currant and black cherry fruit. There's a taut mix of beet, anise and bay on the finish, with a touch of astringency but ample flesh and length should fill this out. The length is there, and that's the key early on.
The Domaines Barons de Rothschild [Lafite] group also produces a Sauternes, though the decision was made to only bottle a wine under the estate's second label in the difficult 2012 vintage.
"Ideal weather for Sauternes at the end of the season is a little rain, then botrytis develops for a week under sunny skies, then another rain, more botrytis, and so on," said Chevalier. "That way you get the different tries of concentrated fruit that result in complexity. But in 2012, the rain wouldn't stop, so the vines couldn't absorb it all. They didn't get a chance to develop complexity because the grapes got bloated. There was botrytis, but not the concentration."
The Château Rieussec Sauternes Carmes de Rieussec 2012 represents a minuscule yield of only 0.8 tons per acre. The 87/10/3 Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle blend is plump and open-knit with green plum, nectarine and coconut notes with a round, easy feel through the plantain-tinged finish.
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