With Merlot the early favorite for lead variety in 2012, I was anxious to see what the Right Bank accomplished in this tricky vintage. Here, in Pomerol and St.-Emilion, Merlot plays the lead over Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc often an important player as well. With the vintage putting an emphasis on a short ripening window, does the Merlot-dominated Right Bank have an upper hand on the Left Bank and its later-ripening Cabernet?
I met up with technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet and director Pierre Lurton on a drizzly Saturday morning. I pulled in past the white-chained gate shortly after Lurton pulled in and opened the place up for me—such is a sleepy Saturday morning in Bordeaux.
"2012 is like '01 or '98: A classic-styled vintage with aromas and minerality. Not like the power of '09 or '10," said Lurton. "But we will need to be smart and have a good price for the market, because it is tired after the en primeur series of '08, '09 and '10," he added, injecting an air of hope for those consumers looking for values in this more difficult vintage.
Managed by the team here is the separate estate of Château Quinault L'Enclos, whose 2012 St.-Emilion is an 81/19 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend that is very focused, with a taut, sinewy frame but nice stuffing, as plum paste and raspberry pâte de fruit notes sit at the core and a long tug of earth runs through the finish. It's solidly built and shows the more obvious flesh and stuffing the Right Bank is able to deliver in 2012 vis à vis its Left Bank cousins.
"Things were very slow to start because of the coulure and the moisture," said Clouet regarding the 2012 growing season. "It was very heterogeneous. Then July 15 it changed and the drought took over. But on the clay soils the ripening wasn't blocked everywhere because there was enough water in the soil. The young vines were blocked, but the old vines got the the water they needed because they have deeper roots. Also, the crop is low for two factors, both the flowering, with low crop set, and then the drought, which produced small berries."
I asked if small berries or the warmth of August was the more critical factor in getting the crop ripe in 2012.
"Small berries was the most important factor in the ripening," said Clouet. "But overall, the balance is what we want. There are three things we look for: aromatics, acidity/sugar and tannins. For aromas we don't want green or overripe. We want fruit and floral. For acidity and sugar, we want acidity for aging and not extra sugar for up-front feel. Everyone admits acidity is important for white wines but they don't want to admit it for red wines, because of the en primeur. You need the wine to show well during en primeur so some people are willing to sacrifice acidity so the wine shows well early. And then the ripeness of the tannins in Bordeaux arrives only with time."
"Pierre [Lurton] always talks about 'cool maturation,'" Clouet said. "Because of cool nights we preserve aromas while continuing to get ripeness of the tannins. When we get all three together, we are happy. If you get all three at the same time, that parcel will make Cheval-Blanc. If one of those is out of balance and we have to compromise, it goes to Petit Cheval."
The second wine of the estate is the Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion Le Petit Cheval 2012, which comprises just 14 percent of the crop in this vintage. The 75/25 Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend pulls lots primarily from the young vines on the estate (the estate is nearly three-quarters old vines of 40 years or older). The wine is concentrated but sleek and pure, with a range of red and black fruits, a flash of blueberry, dark tobacco and earth notes and a long, refined finish. A nice perfumy hint lurks in the background too and should emerge steadily with time.
The Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2012 is the grand vin from this small, micromanaged estate—there are 96 acres of vines, divided into 45 different parcels and fermented in 52 different vats. The grand vin represents about 70 percent of the crop in 2012 and is its classic 55/45 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend. It is tightly wound, with a serious core of red currant, red licorice and bergamot notes. There's a long, earth-driven finish that really shows a tug of clay and warm stone while a backdrop of bittersweet cocoa and dark tea waits in reserve. This has sinew, but muscle and flesh for balance and is very impressively rendered for the vintage. I would put it a half-step ahead of any of the first-growth reds I tasted on the Left Bank earlier in the week.
Cheval-Blanc is not normally a wine that shows well when young. Cabernet Franc is a muscular grape that takes time to show its aromatics. The reliance on acidity and structure here, rather than vinification techniques that result in a more flattering, richer-styled young wine, might put Cheval-Blanc at a disadvantage during the en primeur showing. But Clouet and Lurton seem unfazed by the prospects, sticking to their guns.
"For en primeur there is a competition to get the wines to show their best. But for Cheval-Blanc, with a large proportion of Cabernet Franc, the wine may not have that sexy showing right away. But we won't compromise by showing a blend that has more Merlot. Cheval-Blanc is Cheval-Blanc," said Lurton with understated defiance.
"We don't want a wine that shows well en primeur and then doesn't age. We want a wine that improves with aging. We work in the vineyard and the cellar thinking about how the wine will be in 20 years, not at en primeur," said Clouet. "It would be easy to just use the five best parcels of Merlot for the wine to show well early. But to get the complexity, we use the best parcels from the entire property. And that takes time to show in bottle."
Lurton's home estate is a modest Entre-Deux-Mers property that produces an enjoyable value and shouldn't be overlooked. What basically functions as his weekend home (which he bought in 1989), the Château Marjosse Bordeaux 2012 is an 80/10/10 Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blend that shows fresh savory and mint aromas and pure, unadorned cassis and red cherry fruit. It has a nice, chalk-framed finish with cut and freshness.
The Château Marjosse Entre-Deux-Mers 2012 is made from 45 percent each of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon with the rest Muscadelle. It has lots of bright honeysuckle and chamomile notes and a fresh, pure, stone-tinged core of white peach. There's a flash of tarragon on the delightful finish.
Lurton is also director for the famed Sauternes estate Château d'Yquem, which has elected not to release a wine in 2012, a vintage that hit the Sauternes area particularly hard (though conditions weren't as dire in neighboring Barsac).
"It was a difficult decision. But the concentration wasn't there," said Lurton, with a confident, matter-of-fact air. "Don't forget, in vintages like '09 or '10 only half the crop makes Yquem to begin with. We are very selective to begin with. In a vintage like '12, the purity, complexity and depth wasn't there. And frankly it would have been dangerous to make an Yquem that wasn't up to Yquem standards."
From Cheval-Blanc I crossed the nearby border into Pomerol, the spiritual home of Merlot on the Right Bank. For more on Pétrus and its director, Olivier Berrouet, you can reference my 2011 en primeur notes.
Despite being a small property, things are quite a jumble here now, with construction of the new vinification cellar completed in time for 2012, but renovations continuing on the office and other parts of the property. As we stepped around the stray plank and past a leaky spot in the ceiling, Berrouet bemoaned the San Francisco 49ers' loss in the Super Bowl. Wait, isn't Berrouet French? The 49ers?
"Well, my dad went to California in the '80s and all he brought back was stuff from the 49ers. I had the hat and shirt and that's what I grew up with. So I was very disappointed this year when they lost," said Berrouet. Well, he has a few bottles of Pétrus to console himself with …
Berrouet, who started with the 2008 vintage at Pétrus, echoed the familiar details of the 2012 growing season, though particular to Pétrus and its clays soils.
"The flowering started well, but then the rain and temperature drop at the start of June resulted in a lot of coulure, and Merlot is very susceptible to that," he said. "Then the drought was severe. But luckily with the lower crop and smaller berries, there was enough canopy and it stayed green, rather than turn yellow. That was also thanks to the clay soils. We had some hydric pressure—I don't like the word stress—but no blockage of maturity as the soil always had the capacity to feed to vine."
The Pétrus Pomerol 2012 is very lively, with invigorating raspberry ganache, briar, bay and red licorice notes. There's lots of energy here with mouthwatering acidity coursing along. This has power but not aggression despite the very briary tannins, and there's serious range and length. It rivals the grand vin at Cheval-Blanc and it too is a half-step ahead of the Left Bank's best in 2012. It's also several steps ahead of the 2011 Pétrus, a year when the estate looks to have missed its mark.
"2011 was more difficult because the weather was cooler and wetter," said Berrouet. "With the clay we have, the Merlot couldn't get the ripeness we got in ''09, '10 or '12. We need drier weather at Pétrus. Any temperature stress for Bordeaux varieties is not good—that's not the main factor here. It's water that makes the difference at Pétrus. We need drier conditions because of the clay we have and that is why the '12 was successful."
The 2012 also shows serious backbone. The vintage produced high tannins in general, with small berries and thick skins. But managing those tannins was key, as too much extraction could result in dry or astringent textures. With many producers proudly quoting high IPT numbers (Indice des Polyphénols Totaux, or Total Phenolics—an analysis of tannin levels) as a measure of 2012, it's easy to miss the bigger picture.
"The tannin potential was very high in 2012, higher than the average for Pétrus," said Berrouet, measuredly. "But the key point with the hydric pressure we had was the tannins were not all ripe. There were so many potential tannins the goal was to extract the good tannins and not the astringent tannins. The level of alcohol was high, so we started with remontage but then decreased it toward the end when the extraction potential is higher. At the end, maybe we just moved 10 percent of the volume of the tank, just to keep the cap moist."
"The IPT analysis is just a number. It tells you how much tannins there are," said Berrouet. "It doesn't tell you the quality of the tannins though. You still have to taste. It's like watching a movie. Do you know what kind of camera they used? No. But you remember what your emotions were when you watched the movie."
"We started with the young vine harvest on the 24th of September, old vines on Oct. 8," Berrouet said. "A two-week spread is rare for us, with just 25 acres. But we decide harvest by tasting . Sure, we do analysis, but that is only a defense against a mistake. Ultimately taste is the guide. And with all the factors of the year—coulure, drought and so on—there was such variation between parcels that the harvest was long for us as we waited for ripeness."
From the clay of Pétrus to the gravel of Vieux Château Certan and the micro-estate Le Pin, where the soft-spoken but very serious Alexandre Thienpont has taken both properties to impressive heights in recent vintages. For background on these properties, you can reference my 2011 en primeur notes, as well as my colleague Mitch Frank's profile of Thienpont.
"It is very difficult to compare 2012 to another year," said Thienpont. "The conditions were really unique and rare, to have cold and rain early, drought and then a very long, late harvest."
"2011 was drier and a more Cabernet Franc vintage, which is why I think VCC was so successful in '11. But Merlot is the more complex variety in 2012. Cabernet Franc is still necessary for the aroma and persistence in the wine, but you only needed a little. '12 is, for me, more of a Merlot year, clearly," said Thienpont.
The second wine at VCC should not be overlooked, and a good percentage of it comes to the U.S. market. The Vieux Château Certan Pomerol La Gravette de Certan 2012 is a 60/40 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend, sourced mostly from the estate's young vines and other lots culled from the grand vin during selection in the winery. It shows bright savory, tobacco leaf aromas with damson plum, pomegranate and red currant fruit. Lacey structure with a very fresh feel through the finish. Lots of tobacco, but this slowly fills out in the glass as it airs.
"The danger in '12 was losing balance because of the tannins," said Thienpont. "There were so many tannins, but getting the right ones was key. So easing off on the remontage, especially near the end of the vinification, was critical. And 2012 is really an old-vine vintage, and the old vines got the water they needed during the drought and didn't have maturity blocked at any time. The youngest vine parcel in the grand vin in '12 was planted in '59."
The Vieux Château Certan Pomerol 2012 is a 87/12/1 Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, a marked difference from the 2011, when the final blend included 30 percent Cabernet Franc, The wine is very fresh, with lots of brightly defined red currant, damson plum, anise, violet and white pepper notes racing out right away. It has lacy but persistent structure and a long, tobacco-filled finish with very energetic acidity. And it opens steadily as it airs in the glass. It's clearly outstanding, but it is one of the few wines that actually seems a step behind its 2011 counterpart (to to be fair, the 2011 VCC is one of the few candidates for wine of the vintage at this early stage).
It's also interesting to note that despite higher pH and slightly lower acidity, the best 2012s seems energetic and fresh, a point with which Thienpont nodded in agreement.
"Because there is no sur maturité, no exuberant fruit like '09 or '10," he said. "The result is wines that have some tension. It's a classic style. 2012 has a little more material and better balance than '11 and, in general, 2012 is better. Specifically I think it's evident '12 Le Pin is better than '11. But for VCC, '11 is not the typical '11, I agree."
The Château Le Pin Pomerol 2012 is a stunner, with beautiful raspberry ganache, black licorice and linzer notes and a nice underlying graphite edge that drives through the finish. It is remarkably lush within the context of the generally more rigid 2012 vintage and easily competes with Cheval-Blanc and Pétrus, albeit displaying a drastically different profile. It's a surprise showing, as I would have handicapped Le Pin's gravel soils to have struggled a bit during the drought of August, as opposed to the clay of Pétrus.
"The gravel at Le Pin is not that deep, so the old vines can still get to water. Yes, there was some stress, but just the normal amount of stress in the vineyard, which is necessary, frankly, for Bordeaux varieties. It wasn't extreme though, and certainly no blockage of maturity during the drought. The vintage was dry but not as dry as 2011, when Le Pin did struggle a little," said Thienpont.
Even the best estates can struggle from time to time. Admitting it, understanding it and benefitting from the experience is what separate the truly great ones from everyone else.