Game on. The 2009 Bordeaux tasting game, that is. After arriving just in time for lunch (how's that for planning ahead?) I got right down to it on Day 1, tasting through some dry whites.
From there, I worked through the morass of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOCs and turned up some interesting and tasty values, including the 2009 Bad Boy (Mauvais Garçon) bottling from Château Valandraud's Jean-Luc Thunevin (for background on that and some other solid Bordeaux values, you can check out my Bordeaux values cover story from the May 31 issue).
Days 2 and 3 continued with flights from the Haut-Médoc (lots of solid wines in the very good range, along with a few notable outstanding wines), Médoc (less compelling) and then Pessac, which is one of the standout appellations for reds in 2009, with racy tobacco, graphite and tar notes amplified by the ripeness and power of the vintage.
While the tasting is large—I'll probably get through over 500 wines while here—I do take a break here and there to stop in at some châteaus. Last week I caught up with Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, 37, and her husband, winemaker Patrice Lévêque, 43. I first got to know them in Argentina, where they started their Poesia project several years ago
Their home base is in St.-Emilion, however, at Barde-Haut, while her family also owns Clos L'Église in Pomerol, as well as the Left Bank properties Haut-Bergey and Branon, located just a few minutes' drive from my hotel.
Branon was purchased by the Garcin family in 1996, the château itself a burned-out ruin. But it was the 2 hectares of very old Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that caught the eye of Hélène's mother. The original plan was to simply include it in the Haut-Bergey bottling (the Garcins bought that estate in 1991). Luckily, they asked Jean-Luc Thunevin for some advice, and he convinced them to keep Branon separate. The Garcin's heeded that advice and brought Branon back on the market in 2000. Today, Branon's 2 hectares produce just 6,000 bottles annually of a dense, broad, fleshy-styled Pessac that's loaded with dark tobacco and rich structure. An additional 4 hectares of vines on the property have been replanted and are going into Haut-Bergey.
At Haut-Bergey, a new cellar with smaller, conical stainless steel vats for more parcel selections, has just been completed, and the estate's 17 hectares of vines produce 100,000 bottles annually, split between the grand vin and second wine. As we toured the new cellar, Patrice was proud to show off the optical sorter, which they've been using since the 2009 vintage.
"Its really a revolution," he said. "It makes it so much easier to wait for full ripeness knowing you can sort very finely and quickly."
"It becomes even more important in a year like '11, where you had uneven ripening," added Hélène.
When I ask if the pursuit of precision and perfect ripeness comes at the expense of range or complexity, the Garcins quickly dismissed the idea.
"Not at all," said Patrice. "We're talking about taking out less than 5 percent of the fruit in a year like '09 or '10, and maybe just 5 percent in a year like '11. It's just taking out the berries with a small bit of stem still attached. The small parts you really don't want in the wine."
"Exactly," added Hélène. "It's an insurance policy. And with the competition for quality so high in Bordeaux right now, we have to have that insurance. It's a race in a way, and we need to keep up."
The 2011 Château Haut-Bergey Pessac-Léognan has completed its malolactic and already been racked back to barrel (just 40 percent new). The wine is youthfully angular, with a touch of snap, but shows fresh kirsch and floral notes that should fill out during the élevage. The 2011 Château Haut-Bergey Pessac-Léognan White is made from 80 percent Sauvignon Blanc, the balance Sémillon. It's lively, with peach and straw notes and good snap, though not as bracing as you would expect for a young Sauvignon Blanc.
"It was so warm midseason," said Patrice ruefully. "I would have liked a little more acidity."
The 2011 Château Branon Pessac-Léognan has also completed its malo and been racked, as the vinifications from this early harvest went quickly. It's fuller in feel, though still has a clear youthful tightness, with the cassis and sweet spice hanging well in the background. Branon's wine sees 100 percent new oak, another differentiation from the fresher-styled Haut-Bergey.
"Branon is more clay, and it has lots of structure naturally, so it can take the oak," said Hélène. "Most Pessacs though, like Haut-Bergey, are gravel, and they show tobacco and smoke naturally, so you don't need to push oak on them, or you make that character extreme."
Both properties have progressed steadily as the Garcins have reinvested and made improvements, coinciding with Hélène's increasing role in the production side of the family business.
"That's where you get to create something," she said with a big smile, adding with a chuckle, "I'm happy my brother is willing to do sales."
"But really I see a new time now for Pessac reds. When we started here in 1991, no one wanted Pessac reds. It's really the one appellation that has come on in the last 10 years or so. The quality in the appellation has improved so much and people have really turned on to the wines, because they are so distinctive."
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.