Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth was in France for his 2015 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he visited the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers. Here, he shares impressions of the barrel samples.
Pascal Chatonnet is Bordeaux's Mr. Clean. His career has been highlighted by his efforts to eradicate TCA taint from winery cellars—work that led him to seek out other contaminants in cellars, corks and barrels, such as TBA and MDMP, that can contribute musty odors to wine. He has worked with wineries not only in Bordeaux, but South Africa, South America and elsewhere.
But he's also a vigneron.
Originally from St.-Emilion, the Chatonnet family has had ties to the wine business for centuries, including as landowners (with now-distant connections to Château Ausone and other famous crus), though over time all their parcels were sold off. Pascal's maternal grandfather owned a vine nursery that helped in the replanting of the region after World War II, then Pascal's parents bought the Haut-Chaigneau estate in Lalande-de-Pomerol in 1967, with around 15 acres of vines out of nearly 30 acres.
“They bought it as a hobby, as their main business was selling vineyard supplies. But the wine bug grew for them, and they built the winery in 1991. Luckily, there was no TCA taint in it,” he adds with a quick laugh.
Pascal joined the winery in 1995. Though his father has passed on, his mother, 88, still helps with day-to-day management of the estate. “She gets in at 8 a.m., stays until 8 p.m.,” says Chatonnet.
In the early 1990s, Chatonnet was studying to be a viticulturist but then switched to winemaking. “Why just grow grapes and not make wine?” he says. “Then I got into research, planned to stay two years, wound up staying 12 and got two PhDs.”
During this time, he created his Excell laboratory for wine and food analysis and—as a contemporary of University of Bordeaux professor, consultant and vigneron Denis Dubourdieu—did much of the research and academic groundwork that led to today's more modern Bordeaux winemaking. “We were both go-getters,” says Chatonnet, referring to Dubourdieu. “And we really wanted to discover things and do something, so it was a great fit. I got my PhDs thanks to him. He's a great man, and a close friend.”
Today, with around 75 acres of vines in the family holdings, Chatonnet focuses as much on his wines as anything else. Tasting through his 2015s showed wines with a light hand stylistically, silky textures and charming fruit. And yes, the cellar is immaculate and orderly.
The '15 Haut-Chaigneau Lalande-de-Pomerol, from the home estate, is set to be aged 12 months in up to 30 percent new oak barrels. The Merlot–Cabernet Franc blend shows bright raspberry coulis and lightly steeped cherry fruit; it's very silky and refined with a pretty perfume-edged finish that is sneakily long.
The '15 La Sergue Lalande-de-Pomerol—sourced from three parcels, including a more gravelly portion that was originally part of Haut-Chaigneau and a newer acquisition—will receive 14 months in barrel, ranging from 40 to 60 percent new oak, with malolactic fermentation done in barrel. The blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a drop of old-vine Malbec is also silky and refined, with a bright minerality, higher-pitched cherry and raspberry fruit and a pretty sandalwood edge through the finish.
Topping them off is the '15 L'Archange St.-Emilion, a cuvée first made in 2000 from a 2.5-acre parcel and not produced every year. It sees 14 months of élevage, ranging from 50 to 100 percent new oak, with malolactic in barrel. This all-Merlot cuvée is sourced from predominantly clay soils, and it delivers plump-edged, juicy plum sauce and red licorice notes, but stays refined, with a pretty floral hint on the finish.
“2015 is a great vintage, but not a vintage of the century,” concludes Chatonnet flatly. “It's an original though. Very ripe, but not heavy. Very tannic, but soft.”