Off to Bordeaux

Dipping my toe in the water by tasting 450 wines
Dec 10, 2010

No sooner was I back from my visit to the Southern Rhône and nearly over my jetlag, and it was time to head back again, this time for a 15-day jaunt through Bordeaux, my first official tour through the region since assuming coverage at the end of his past summer.

Those of you who follow along here know that I'm deeply immersed in the Rhône. And the Rhône of course has Valrhona chocolate, so getting presents to assuage my daughters after being away for so long is easy. As for Bordeaux, madeleines don't keep as well as a box of chocolate, so I'll have to come up with something else. Hopefully they're not getting used to my being away.

Of course, a first-time visit wouldn't be complete without a little travel nightmare. My flight out of New York was delayed four hours, so I missed my connection in Paris, then had to dash for the next one. That flight of course, wound up being delayed as well. But eventually I made it, and with a wave of adrenaline kicking in shortly after I landed in Bordeaux, I attended to the first order of business, which was to taste through the a selection of the newly-released wines from the 2008 vintage.

Along with my colleague Thomas Matthews, I blind tasted nearly 450 reds, dry whites and Sauternes, working out of the Les Sources de Caudalie hotel near the town of Léognan. The samples were submitted by the wineries; senior tasting coordinator Alison Napjus arrived two days before me to catalog the samples and prepare the tasting flights. It took six days of tasting to work through the wines, using our normal blind tasting procedures, along with ringers and benchmarks to ensure consistency and a level playing field for all the wines. It was easily the most intensive tasting I've done—exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. You can read the first batch of reviews in the upcoming Dec. 15 edition of our weekly Insider newsletter, available only to WineSpectator.com subscribers. A full tasting report will appear in the magazine in spring 2011.

In general, 2008 is a vintage that has received little fanfare; a difficult growing season saved by some good weather right at the end resulted in one of the latest harvests on record as ripening was slow to come. Producers had to get yields down to ensure ripening and then perform rigorous selections both in the vineyards and the winery to ensure quality. The result is a very good, though rather heterogeneous vintage. Choose carefully and you'll be rewarded with wines that will benefit from a decade of cellaring, though not much more. Prices are also low, in some cases lower than the 2007s, which by most accounts is an inferior vintage, so there are some buying opportunities.

With the heavy lifting of the tasting done though, it was time to head out for some visits. I was curious to see how my deeply ingrained Rhône culture would fare in the flatter expanse of Bordeaux. The Rhône is a valley—in the north a narrow spine, a bit wider in the south. But it's easy to navigate. Vignerons are often clustered in small towns, making it easy to hop from one to another, and there's a warmth and style of hospitality there that I adore.

For my first official trip here to Bordeaux, I admittedly am a touch leery of the region's more formal personality. Owners aren't necessarily the ones making the wines. Visits tend to be in tasting rooms rather than cellars. Visits through the vineyards aren't as de rigueur. Most folks wear ties (and I'm a jeans and t-shirt guy).

But ultimately it's about the wine in the bottle and how the grape expresses its origin, whether that's a small lavender-edged field of large rolled stones or a large, gently sloping plateau of gravel deposits from a retreated riverbed. I keep telling myself that I need to focus more on that, though I can't help but use my experience in the Rhône as a barometer for Bordeaux wine culture.

So with that in mind, I made my first stop with Jean-Philippe Delmas at Château Haut-Brion to taste the 2009s. Delmas, just 41, follows in his father's footsteps in running these two estates. His father started here in '61 before moving on in '04 (and he now consults at Château Montrose in St.-Estèphe).

Both Château Haut-Brion and its sister property, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, sit like islands, wedged in the midst of the town of Pessac, a sprawling, suburban area with a bustling college campus. It reminded me a bit of Cousiño-Macul and Viña Quebrada de Macul in Chile's Maipo Valley, two wineries trying to hold out against the inevitable encroachment of Santiago's urban sprawl. The walls here are a bit higher though, and I suspect Haut-Brion and La Miss will continue on easily enough.

Though they are literally across the road from each other, technically Château Haut-Brion is in the town of Pessac while La Mission sits in Talence. They each have their respective town's water tower located in the middle of their vineyards, perhaps a small price to pay for not having to turn their terroir into parking lots or houses.

There are some changes going on here, as Delmas streamlines the labels and renames the second wines from each château. La Clarté is the new second label for the white wine, sourcing declassified fruit from both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion; Le Clarence de Haut-Brion is now the second label for Haut-Brion, replacing the former Bahans Haut-Brion label. A third wine has also been added: the Clarendelle Rouge is a generic Bordeaux bottling which sources juice that doesn't make the cut for the second wines, as well from purchased fruit around the region.

While Delmas ferments all the estate's parcels separately, the selection for the grand vin and second wines are made in the winery, as opposed to in the vineyard.

"We taste lots both blind and not blind and generally we find the same lots will make one wine or the other, but all the lots have a chance to compete for the grand vin," said Delmas, 41.

The La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2009 is very grapey and primal right now, with packed red licorice and floral notes, but an overtly toasty edge that has yet to be fully absorbed. In contrast, the Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2009 is showing its tarry, sappy, kirsch-driven spine with more clarity and focus, along with super vibrant anise and violet notes that drive through the powerful finish.

Selections here tend to be severe—typically La Mission's grand vin sees just 40 percent of the estate's production, Haut-Brion around 35 percent. But in '09, with the strength of the vintage, La Mission drew on 50 percent of the estate's production, Haut-Brion an ample 57 percent.

The Le Clarence de Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2009 is easily outstanding, with grippy, dense tar, anise and mulled currant fruit. The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2009 is all velvet though, with lush purple, blue and black fruit aromas and flavors, a dense, fully-embedded tarry spine and a tremendously long finish.

The white wines here are equally compelling, among the more longer-lived dry whites in the region. They also sport among the highest percentages of Sémillon in their blends, 40 to 60 percent, when most of Bordeaux uses 20 percent at most. And since the heat-ravaged vintage of '03, when harvest here started on Aug. 13, the grapes are now transported in refrigerated trucks from the vineyards to the winery, to ensure freshness. It's another example of the painstaking (and cost-inducing) detail that some châteaus are able to employ as they aim for quality, even if it's for a just-in-case scenario.

[Note: For more on the Dillon family's history with Haut-Brion, see my colleague's Mitch Frank's profile in the Dec. 15 issue.]

All the whites here are vinified in oak (with varying percentages of new wood) with the malolactic fermentation then blocked as well. The La Clarté de Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2009 is brisk and lively, with lots of lemon verbena, green fig and mineral notes. The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2009 is more precise, with clear verbena, white peach, paraffin and blanched almond notes that are well-delineated already, and a super long finish. The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2009 takes on a creamier profile, with more green fig, almond and crème fraîche notes. It's a stunning wine in the making that should easily last for 15 years.

It was a fitting way to start my visits—at a first-growth château run by a smart, engaging young director who sets the quality bar high, getting me quickly calibrated for the rest of my time here.

And while I haven't seen any bécasses or truffles on the menus around Bordeaux, the magret de canard, foie gras and côte de bœuf ain't bad. I think I may find something to like here …

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]

France Bordeaux Bordeaux 2008

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