The expressway that circles the city of Bordeaux has become a major artery for commuters and long-haul truckers, and traffic on the rocade is always bad. So I avoided it for the short drive from my hotel to Pessac, the Bordeaux suburb that now engulfs the historic château and vineyards of first-growth Haut-Brion.
A barrage of red lights and swarms of pedestrians out for a morning stroll conspired against me, and it took 40 minutes to cover the few kilometers. Seems like everyone is taking advantage of this early blast of spring weather here.
Jean-Philippe Delmas, the technical director at the sister châteaus of Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut-Brion, which are just opposite each other, has a big vintage on his hands. Of all the first-growths, these wines were easily the most backward examples of the 2010 vintage I've tasted yet. Delmas was dealing with too much of a good thing, which he admitted made for a tough time deciding on the blend.
“This was the most difficult blending of the past five years. Usually what you do is eliminate unripe vats, astringent lots and so on. When something is green—easy, it’s out,” said Delmas. “When everything is good though, then finding the harmony is difficult. We had 30 different blends we looked at before making the final decision.”
We started with a tasting of the estates’ second wines. All the wines described below were tasted non-blind. As these are unfinished wines, they are scored in four-point ranges—eg. 89–92 points—to indicate that the ratings are still preliminary.
The Château La Mission-Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion 2010 is a "wow" wine, with a very sleek, seamless feel and a rush of violet and pastis notes with a dense, sappy, plum-filled finish. Not as overtly bright as many other ’10 wines I’ve tasted so far, but you know the freshness is there since this is big, but light on its feet (92–95 points).
The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan Le Clarence de Haut-Brion 2010 is even juicier and still very compact, with a big core of plum sauce, pastis and graphite followed by lots of kirsch and sweet spice on the finish. This still has some unwinding to do, but looks to rival the Carruades of Lafite and Forts de Latour for best second wine honors so far in 2010 (93–96).
“The Clarence is more like a grand vin for me, while La Chapelle is more a second wine,” said Delmas. “The Clarence is really concentrated and pure, while the Chapelle is more rustic. There’s 10 percent press wine in La Chapelle.”
For the grands vins, the La Mission-Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2010 is a blend of 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 37 percent Merlot and 1 percent Cabernet Franc; that’s one of the highest percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon ever in the blend. The wine is loaded, delivering a torrent of pastis, crushed plum, blueberry and boysenberry, backed by tarry tannins and a long, spice- and graphite-filled finish. Big, but very, very sleek (95–98).
“It’s hard to say if we were disappointed with the Merlot, plus the yields were down from the coulure, or if we were in love with the Cabernet,” said Delmas of the final blend. “But the Cabernet was really exceptional.”
Similarly, the Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2010 is made from a blend of 57 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 23 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc—one of the lowest levels of Merlot and one of the highest percentages of Cabernet Franc for the grand vin. It’s sappy, dense and packed, with layers of kirsch, melted licorice snap, anise and black tea. And it’s just as dense, if not more so, on the finish, with extra tar, violet and blackberry confiture. There’s really massive grip on the back end, but it’s velvety and caressing (96–99).
The one tricky aspect for Delmas in ’10 was the green harvesting, normally done around veraison. In 2010 though, he wound up doing two passes through the vineyard, as veraison came a little later than usual and was also uneven; he thought his first pass through the vineyards wasn’t as effective as usual in getting the remaining crop to ripen fully and evenly.
“So we did a second pass in August,” said Delmas. “The target is 50 hectoliters per hectare [roughly equivalent to 3 tons per acre], and we wound up with 40. That would be high on the Right Bank, but here, that’s low,” he said, with a half laugh.
Of the white wines, the Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White La Clarté 2010 is very fragrant, with kiwi, plantain and lemon curd aromas and flavors, laced with honeysuckle. There’s a toasted macadamia hint on the finish too (91–94). The wine, as usual, contains declassified wine from both estates, as they have a total of less than 15 acres of white varieties.
“So technically it’s not a second wine, but a generic wine,” said Delmas. “Sure, for marketing, we could have two separate wines, but we chose not to do separate second wines because La Mission’s second wine would be entirely Sémillon, which sometimes doesn’t work. Plus there are only 1,000 cases as is for the blended wine, so two separate second wines would mean 500 cases of each or less.”
The Château La Mission-Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2010 sports a typically high level of Sémillon—81 percent, along with 19 percent Sauvignon Blanc. It’s tight, with lots of verbena, blanched almond, green fig and plantain notes. It sports some power too, with a dense, lightly toasted finish, but it has focus and length and just needs to stretch out (94–97).
In contrast, the Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2010 favors Sauvignon Blanc, with 54 percent of the blend matched with 46 percent Sémillon. Right now it shows more clarity than the La Mission white, with bright honeysuckle, green fig, verbena and green plum notes. The gorgeous finish just glides through, with the cut buried deep. It’s long and stony, with impressive definition already (94–97).
“Both wines are barrel-fermented in 50 percent new oak, but you don’t feel the oak at all right now. It’s integrated, because the fruit is so concentrated,” said Delmas.
The past decade has been a good one for Bordeaux, said Delmas “Since the end of the ’80s, it’s gotten warmer and warmer. But while the ’90s were warmer, it was also more humid. Since ’98—look at ’00, ’03, ’05, ’09 and ’10—it’s been drier and drier. Is it the greenhouse effect, or just a cycle? Who knows? But for the wine, it’s been a great decade.”
While I was in the Pessac area, I also stopped in at Malartic-Lagravière, Pape-Clément and Brown (see the Q&A below). For reviews of those wines, and hundreds of others, stay tuned for the full set of scores and tasting notes being posted in our 2010 Bordeaux Barrels package later this week. Tomorrow, I’ll be heading back over to the Right Bank with a few stops in St.-Emilion …
Jean-Christophe Mau, 38, is a member of the family that formerly owned the well-known Yvon Mau négociant company, which is now owned by the Spanish group Freixenet. Today, Mau’s parents own Château Preuillac in the Médoc, while Mau owns Château Brown, which straddles the towns of Léognan and Gradignan. Mau produces 12,500 cases annually (80 percent of which are red wine) from his nearly 72 acres of vines. Since purchasing the property after the 2004 vintage, Mau has had Château Brown on the rise—its wines are excellent, overlooked values, typically retailing for under $40 per bottle.
It’s early, but how do you think ’10 measures up to ’09 in terms of quality and style?
The styles are totally different because the weather was different. In ’09 it was warmer, and the fruit was very expressive. But in ’10, the flowering was bad, and June was wet. It didn’t really start to turn nice until July, and then August was not so hot. It will make an excellent red wine vintage, but I’m not sure it will be as good for the whites, like ’07 was for example. I know most people are saying ’10 is great for red and white, but I think whites need a little more moisture than we had in ’10. 2010 was really dry.
Do you look for finesse more than power in a wine and, if so, how do you handle a vintage like ’10?
We picked at the normal time, rather than waiting. You could’ve waited easily in ’10. So that was one thing. But for the finesse, you really had to do more work in the cellar, such as shortening the maceration period. The alcohols were so high, if you left the maceration too long, the alcohol broke down the pips and you started to get astringency. It was easy to go too far with the extraction in ’10.
You work with renowned winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt, but he’s often thought of as a Right Bank specialist. How did you connect with him?
Stéphane works with me on the reds. He actually started with me at Château Preuillac in 2003. I met him through Stephan von Neipperg and I really liked his philosophy. At the time, Preuillac was only the second property in the Médoc he worked with. It was a risk for him to come to the Médoc, leaving what he knew in St.-Emilion. But he was a great help in ’03, which was a very atypical year. So, without hesitation, I asked him to join me here at Brown when I purchased the estate. We work well together.