Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2016 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
After my visits in Pauillac, I continued to move south, crossing over into St.-Julien. No first-growths in this AOC, but plenty of second-growths. It's also the Left Bank's version of Pomerol: It's relatively small compared to its neighboring appellations (Pauillac, Margaux, etc.) and the quality of its wines is very consistent from year to year. Consistent, but diverse …
Owner Bruno Borie continues to fashion a wine that brims with ripe, youthful fruit and a fairly unabashed oak treatment at Ducru-Beaucaillou. But this is no glossy, sizzle-only wine. There's plenty of steak here (for background, reference my 2015 en primeur notes).
In addition to the grand vin, Borie continues his commitment to neighboring Listrac, where value is the name of the game. The 2016 Ducluzeau Listrac, from lighter soils in the southern end of the AOC, is dominated by Merlot, delivering soft-edged plum and anise notes with a friendly feel. The '16 Fourcas-Borie Listrac, from more gravelly soils in the northern end, draws on 15 percent Petit Verdot, along with Merlot and Cabernet. That Petit Verdot—as we saw at Mouton yesterday—is proving to be an intriguing element in the 2016 vintage as it adds a noticeably juicy, vibrant feel here, with lots of plum fruit and dashes of black tea and sandalwood.
"We got a little lucky in Listrac in '16," says Borie. "While we were waiting for the Cab in St.-Julien to ripen, and it was taking so long, we sent the pickers over to Listrac to hand-harvest that fruit. We usually machine harvest half the crop in Listrac, but in '16 it got the benefit of a little bit better precision from the hand-picking, and then of course, we got the Cab exactly as we wanted it back in St.-Julien."
In St.-Julien, the 2016 Lalande-Borie is soft and alluring, with plum sauce and roasted anise hints backed by a singed-wood edge for spine. The 2016 La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou, Ducru's second wine, drips with gorgeous raspberry confiture and plum cake notes, with ample toast along the edges and a rather tight finish; it's one of the first really backward wines I've tasted so far. It's topped in all aspect by the grand vin, as the 2016 Ducru is packed with dark, dense plum, licorice and anise notes, framed by an ample roasted sandalwood frame and pumping with sappy intensity through the finish. It's very tight, and seems to be begging for the 18-month élevage in 100 percent new oak it's slated to receive. It's an elite wine putting in an elite performance in this vintage.
Just a minute down the road is owner Patrick Maroteaux's charming Branaire-Ducru, with 148 acres of vines that produce one of the more elegant wines in the appellation. I adore this wine for its charming aromatics and pure approach, unencumbered by oak. It's a terrific example of how style (basically the opposite of Ducru) needs to be separated from quality (yet both are superb in their way) when it comes to discussing wines. Maroteaux's son Francois-Xavier has joined the team here in the past two years while cellar master Jean-Dominique Videau remains since joining in 2003. (For background on Branaire, reference my 2012 en primeur notes).
As usual, the 2016 shows lovely floral lift and perfume which helps it stand out. That's followed by a very pure beam of unadorned cassis, gilded with refined tannins and backed by the lightest kiss of woodspice through the long and elegant finish.
And not surprisingly, 6 percent Petit Verdot plays a role in the blend.
"When I bought Branaire in '88, one of the first things we did was replant the Petit Verdot parcel onto better terroir. Now, after waiting 25 years, with those vines on that terroir, we have excellent Petit Verdot," says Maroteaux.
Precision and a light hand remain the mantra in the cellar, as Videau notes, "Extractions were a little longer in '16 because there was such good material. But we still kept the extractions light and gentle, we just lengthened the time."
"The philosophy we follow is simple," says Maroteaux. "It's like with Chave or Rousseau. We want a consistent signature. It's nice to be in St.-Julien. It's nice to be a classified growth. But to be special, we need to consistently put our signature and style on the wine."
And to that end, for those looking for elegance and purity without sacrificing ageability, this is one of Bordeaux's best and most consistent wines fitting that bill.
You don't even need to be Aaron Rodgers to make the stone's throw from Branaire to Château Beychevelle, which sits directly across the road. Beychevelle for me is a prototypical St.-Julien, straddling the middle between the elegance of Branaire and flashy modernity of Ducru-Beaucaillou. The wine is marked by dense purple and blue fruit, slightly briary grip and a dense but energetic feel.
That's all pretty much true with the 2016 here, which delivers a blaze of typical plum and blueberry notes. But the sometimes rambunctious, chewy grip here is rather sleek and refined in this vintage. Whether that is a function of the brand new cellar manager is hard to say. But having more tanks in a wider range of sizes to accommodate the parcel selection is certainly a benefit. And maybe that 5 percent of Petit Verdot in the blend, too.
Director Philippe Blanc has been given a big upgrade here in terms of infrastructure. He seems to have capitalized on it right away. Always a blue-chip, Beychevelle in 2016 delivers clearly outstanding quality, rivaling the 2010 here.