Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, tasting the 2011 Bordeaux vintage and visiting select châteaus.
Over the first several days here in Bordeaux I've worked my way through nearly 200 samples of Left Bank reds from the major appellations of Pessac up through the Médoc. It's been an interesting tasting so far, with the wines showing briary grip and perky acidity that sometimes give the wines a frankly structured or chewy profile. But the fruit isn't underripe at all. The problem in general with 2011 is that the wines simply aren't that concentrated, and so in contrast with the elevated structure, sometimes they can come off as angular. But if the flesh is there, they can be quite good and there have been some standouts already. In addition, the quality is generally consistent and the châteaus with strong track records are performing well. The biggest swings in quality often come between an estate's grand vin and second wine, rather than across a broader appellation to appellation comparison.
Things should continue to be interesting as I work my way over to the second half of the tasting, with a hefty dose of St.-Emilion and Pomerol samples. Then there are the dry whites as well as sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, both of which look to be more promising than the dry reds.
While it's exciting to immerse oneself in the vintage and taste in such an intense manner (I average 50 to 65 wines a day), I do need some fresh air. In addition to the occasional jog around Martillac where I'm staying, I also try and steal a bit of time here and there for a mental acuity break to go kick the dirt in some vineyards. I started with a quick drive over to see Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier, which produces some of the top reds and whites in Pessac-Léognan (you can reference background on Bernard in my colleague Mitch Frank's profile.
At Domaine de Chevalier, a 125-acre estate, the soil sits atop a limestone vein, and it's a relatively cool spot, making it ideal for whites and reds that display freshness and minerality. Nonetheless, Bernard finds he can push for ripeness to offset the natural acidity the wines have.
"Acidity has never been the problem here. Finding full ripeness is. I started here in 1983 and Cabs were often picked at 11.5 [degrees natural alcohol] and Merlot at 12.5, and then we would chaptalize," explained Bernard. "But with climate change we find we are picking two weeks later than the latest recorded picking dates of the previous decades. Over time, learning the vineyard as well as modern vinification techniques help us to make better wine at riper levels."
"As an example, the vintages '11, '12 and '13: If we had had difficult years like that in the '70s or '80s, they would have been maybe 3-star years out of 5. Today they are 4-star years out of 5, and we have more 5-star years like '09 and '10."
As at most well-heeled Médoc estates, the cellar here has been steadily upgraded; new large conical cement vats have just been installed for some vinifications. Bernard likes them as they result in a thicker but smaller cap for easier extraction and less reliance on press wine in the final blend. Bernard noted he has to think in two different ways when he makes wine—one way for reds and one way for whites, so he's constantly trying new techniques to go with any new equipment they may bring in.
Bernard has worked for 30 years to figure out the puzzle at Domaine de Chevalier, and the wine's recent track record proves he's been successful. [Note: formal reviews on the 2011s will be published after official blind tastings have finished.]
Another afternoon I headed over to the Right Bank, stopping in to see the always energetic Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, who manages her family's properties Château Haut-Bergey, Clos l'Église, Château Branon and Château Barde-Haut (for extra background you can reference my 2009 blog notes. On the afternoon I met with her, she was particularly enthused to show me the new estate she had just bought in St.-Emilion.
Named Château Haut-Villet, it's located on the limestone plateau extending out from town along the road to St.-Genès, just past Valandraud. Garcin-Lévêque bought the 34-acre estate (22 in St.-Emilion, 12 in Cotes de Castillon) this past September. The vineyard had been mismanaged and the property was in financial distress, and the crop from 2012 was lost. The previous wines weren't particularly good, though Garcin-Lévêque liked the sense of pure fruit she saw hidden in a few of them when she tasted them. Based on the terroir, she thought getting back to work in the somewhat neglected vineyard and cleaning up the winemaking would help bring the place back to life.
The terroir is obvious—a thin layer of clay over limestone, with a block of old-vine Merlot and some excellent-looking Cabernet Franc as well. Working with her winemaker husband, Patrice, and assistant winemaker Brian Cheeseborough, Garcin-Lévêque will bottle the 2013 from the new estate, which may or may not get a name and label change.
"The good news is the vineyard was only neglected, not sprayed with chemicals or totally abandoned," said Garcin-Lévêque. "So we just need to work the soil a bit, replace the dead vines and get the density back up. But there is good fruit already coming off the existing vines and the soil is beautiful. It was a bit of a struggle to get the property, as there is a lot of competition now and [22 acres] on the calcaire (limestone) on the St.-Emilion plateau doesn't come up for sale very often. But I really think this can be special."
"And the parcel is pretty homogenous too," said Cheeseborough. "No changes in slope or soil, so drainage and water issues should be easy to deal with. We'll just need to manage the vinification around the older and younger vines, which are interplanted."
The 2011 shows a beam of plum fruit and a lovely violet edge, but it is marred by overtly dusty, blunt structure and seems to show some slipshod winemaking—Garcin-Lévêque got the remaining stocks of 2011 in the purchase, though she and her team had nothing to do with making the wine.
Garcin-Lévêque plans to replace the missing vines with a selection massale (selecting the best vines for propagation) from her Pomerol estate of Clos l'Église. It should be fun to watch the efforts here at this estate. It clearly has potential, and Garcin-Lévêque is a striver, always up for a challenge and always looking to improve.
I guess if you're going to take a break on a winter afternoon, why not head over to Clos Fourtet? Ideally situated just next to the church on the edge of St.-Emilion itself, and with a stellar exposure atop the limestone terrace, this is one of the appellation's crown jewel vineyards, visually and qualitatively. To top it off, or perhaps better, to underscore it, Clos Fourtet has 30 acres of hand-hewn limestone caves underneath the vineyard, affording a perfect temperature- and humidity-controlled environment for aging the wines, as well as a dramatic setting.
Matthieu Cuvelier, 35, has run the estate since it was purchased by his father, Philippe, in 2001. It didn't take much convincing for him to take over. After getting a reprieve from his mandatory military service, his father, a successful Paris-based businessman, asked him to take a look at the estate they had just bought.
"I got here, took a look around and said, 'I want to do this,'" said the younger Cuvelier. He took a winemaking course, did an apprenticeship in South Africa and then assumed the day-to-day running of the estate, which also happened to feature prominently in the recent movie Tu Seras Mon Fils.
The 47-acre property sits almost entirely amidst a clos (walled vineyard) and the grand vin typically totals around 4,200 cases annually with nearly 1,700 cases of a second wine; Tony Ballu has been the technical director here since 1991.
In addition to Clos Fourtet, the Cuveliers have been busy elsewhere in St.-Emilion as well as in the Médoc, purchasing Château Poujeaux in Moulis in 2008 and then the three joint properties of Côtes de Baleau, Château Les Grandes Murailles and Clos St.-Martin from the Fourcade family earlier this year, then selling back control of just Clos St.-Martin to Sophie Fourcade.
The majority of the vineyard was planted during the tenure of Pierre Lurton, when his family owned the property in the 1980s. Today it averages 28 years of age and Cuvelier feels that steady progression toward maturity for the vineyard is one of the major reasons this wine has trended up dramatically in recent years.
"The yields are naturally lower now, at [2.6 to 3 tons per acre], down from [3 to 3.3]," said Cuvelier. "Also, there's less new wood now. It was 100 percent in the past, now 70 maximum. And we do more of the malolactic while the wine is still in stainless steel, about 50 percent, whereas in the past almost all the malo was done in barrel. We think this really helps with the freshness and minerality, which we feel is the hallmark of the wine."
Cuvelier admitted it is still a learning curve for him, and he's not afraid to ask questions or take advice. To that end, he works primarily with consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, but also with Jean-Claude Berrouet, the former longtime winemaker at Pétrus.
"They are both very different people," said Cuvelier. "But they are both very interested in learning how the other works and sees things. So when they both agree on something, I have to figure it must be the right thing to do," he said with a laugh.
For a quick tasting we compare five vintages, including the two twin giants of 2010 and 2009. The 2010 Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion continues to offer a somewhat open profile, though it's closing down quickly, with gorgeous linzer and raspberry coulis notes, a long, iron-spiked finish and terrific energy and length. I find it a half-step ahead of the 2009, as I do for most wines across the two vintages, though the 2009 Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion is no slouch, with stunning raspberry ganache and melted licorice notes allied to a bolt of acidity and backed by a lovely briary twinge. It's among the more structured wines in this relatively plush-styled vintage too.
I've tasted closed and tight wines before, but few as totally shut down as the 2005 Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion, which has a brick wall of chalky minerality in front of the core of fruit. There are floral notes peeking out but the fruit is totally obscured today. Yet the length and cut is there, always keys for seeing how the wine should evolve over time. And time is exactly what this wine will need.
The 2001 Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion represents the first vintage under the Cuvelier ownership. It's showing some secondary aromas now, with warm fruitcake and singed apple wood hints started to emerge from the core of linzer and bramble flavors. The finish sports a nice licorice note along with a fresh minerality. This vintage saw 80 percent new oak as the Cuveliers began lowering the new oak percentage from the start of their tenure.
To finish, the 1998 Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion, from before the Cuveliers' tenure, made in entirely new oak and with 95 percent Merlot (more recent vintages typically have just 85 to 90 percent). The wine is expressive, with cherry and warm plum reserve notes backed by hints of blood orange and dried leather. There's a good iron spike on the finish, though the more recent vintages clearly seem to highlight that aspect more.
As I drove back to the hotel to start a late afternoon round of tasting, the setting sun (it gets late early around here these days) was casting a patina on the Grand Murailles, the ancient ruin that sits at the corner of the vineyard. A natural patina and a fitting visual to help refocus, needed when there's another 100 St.-Emilion samples still to go …