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Tasting at Pétrus and Cheval-Blanc

Notes on the 2010 wines from two big names on the Right Bank, plus the great Sauternes estate of Yquem
Château Cheval-Blanc's 2010 Cabernet Franc-based blend should be a classic.

Posted: Mar 30, 2011 10:00am ET

All of James Molesworth's blogs and tasting notes can be found in the complete 2010 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting Package.

On my last day of visits in Bordeaux, I decided to go back where I started—Pomerol and St.-Emilion. Since I would be beginning my blind tastings of the 2010 barrel samples with wines from those appellations, I thought it would make a smooth transition.

First stop: Château Pétrus.

Despite the small size of the property—it’s just over 28 acres—there’s a lot going on here.

Olivier Berrouet, just 33, has taken over the winemaking duties from his father, Jean-Claude, who made the wine from 1964 through 2008 and remains as a consultant at Pétrus, as well as at Lafleur, Clos Fourtet and others.

In addition, Pétrus’ vinification and aging facility is being expanded, which will allow all facets of the winemaking to be done in-house. (Previously, some parts had to be done outside the facility.)

There’s change in the vineyards too, as a small parcel of Cabernet Franc has been torn out; it was situated on clay soils that weren’t well-suited for the variety. That means the vineyard is now entirely Merlot—but just for a short time. An old parcel of Merlot on gravelly soils bordering Vieux-Château-Certan is slated to be pulled out, and Cabernet Franc will be planted there. It’s better-suited for that spot in the vineyard, according to Berrouet.

And, perhaps sadly, the famous statue of Saint Peter sitting in his boat, which greets visitors in front of the entrance, will not survive the renovation. Though it’s become a popular photo spot for many passersby, Berrouet admits it was never a favorite of the Pétrus team.

“Perhaps a little flood will come and take him and his boat away,” said Berrouet with a smile.

As for the 2010 vintage, Berrouet is happy with its structured profile.

“For us it’s a very classic vintage, with the acidity and aromas like ’05. But the structure is even more than ’05,” he said. “It was a dry year, but the clay soils here were able to offset the impact of the drought.”

Comparing the last vintages, Berrouet said, “In ’09, the perception of quality was easy for people. In ’10, it’s tighter and it will take more time. The concentration of tannins was very high [in ’10] so we had to be careful during the vinification. The level of ripeness in the seeds was not perfect, so with the high alcohol you could have extracted more tannins and less ripe tannins. So we decreased the number of pump overs and the length of the maceration. If you get bitterness in the wine when it’s young, it’s hard for it to leave.

“Remember the old Bordeaux, where you wait and wait for the wine—but then you never open the wine because it’s never good? That’s not what we want,” Berrouet continued. “My father told me, the great vintages are great to drink when young as well as old, vintages like ’61, ’82, ’89 and ’90, for example. If you don’t have harmony and balance young, then it won’t be there when the wine is old.”

The Château Pétrus Pomerol 2010 is tightly wound still, with lots of briar, Linzer and spicecake notes. A nice dark licorice snap note laces up the finish. There’s lots of grip here—it’s a more structured version of Merlot than the sleek, fruit-driven Le Pin for example. But it shows a mouthwatering, pebbly feel that should unwind slowly over a long stretch of time (95–98 points).

(All the wines described in this blog post 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.)

Next stop: Cheval-Blanc

Just a stone’s throw away from Pétrus, but across the border in St.-Emilion, another cellar renovation is also underway. It’s on a different scale though—a massive, showpiece winery to represent the crown jewel of wealthy businessman Bernard Arnault: Cheval-Blanc.

Technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet, 31, is beaming with the new range of toys he’ll have to play with when the cellar is complete, including rows of different-sized cement vats to correspond to the many different-sized vineyard parcels and lots.

“For this harvest, I hope!” said the good friend and former co-worker of Berrouet, holding his hands up in mock prayer.

Cheval-Blanc totals just over 91 acres of vines, with 86 in production. (A small portion of the vineyard is replanted on a regular basis to keep the average age of the vines up around 40 years old.)

“We didn’t change anything in the vinificaton for ’10, because we normally do a very slow, easy pump over anyway,” said Clouet, bucking the trend of many of his colleagues who eased off on their vinifications in ’10, due to the vintage’s overt structure. “We stopped doing délestage [draining the vat and then pumping it over the top of the cap of grape solids] in ’09 as we now try to get a very gentle extraction all the time. Respecting the purity of fruit, capturing what is there when we pick, is what we’re aiming for. We want freshness, but we are also very attentive to not picking up any green notes, especially from the Cabernet Franc.”

Comparing the two most recent vintages, Clouet was more openly enthusiastic than most in his seeming preference for ’10 over ’09.

“The ’10 is more like ’05, and ’09 is more like ’98,” he said. “We certainly love the two styles of ’10 and ’09, but for aging, we would much rather have the acidity of ’10. This is the biggest difference between the two years.”

Cheval-Blanc is yet another estate that is paying far more attention to the second wine now than it did in the past. “Probably starting in ’98 and then certainly with the new technical team in ’08, the goal is to make a second wine that is equal to a St.-Emilion Grand Cru Classé. The first vintage was ’88, but in the first few years, the wine was simply from the lots that would have previously been bulked out. It’s not that way anymore. The selection for the second wine is always done in the winery,” said Clouet. “We vinify each parcel separately and then start the élevage lot by lot. In January we start to decide the blends.”

The Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion Le Petit Cheval 2010 is a blend of 60 percent Merlot and 40 percent Cabernet Franc, and represents 22 percent of the estate’s crop. It’s super silky, with lush plum and fig notes and a broad swath of tobacco flowing through the very rounded finish (91–94).

The Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2010 is 60 percent Cabernet Franc and 40 percent Merlot, the exact opposite of the 2009 grand vin; it represents 62 percent of the crop. It’s lush and very rounded, with lots of muscle and heft, but great polish and pose to the gorgeous boysenberry, plum and fig notes. It’s super creamy on the finish, with bittersweet cocoa, violet, mint, anise and tobacco in reserve (95–98).

As Cheval-Blanc shares the same owner as the famed Sauternes estate Château d’Yquem, a sample of that was presented as well. Yquem technical director Francis Mayeur has been in charge of the winemaking since 1983, bridging the ownership eras of the Lur Saluces family and Arnault, and their contrasting style preferences for the wine.

“The élevage has been shortened a little, down from 36 to 42 months to about 30 months, so we can reduce the amount of sulphur. More freshness and more length is what we’re looking for,” said Mayeur.

“2010 was a cool, dry year, especially in August and September, which is unusual for Sauternes,” said Mayeur. “The early passes through the vineyard gave us fresh, clean fruit, and then with some rains in early October the botrytis kicked in and spread quickly.” Mayeur’s team made a total of six passes through the vineyard to select botrytized fruit, and he notes the harvest was the latest on record since 1988.

The Château d’Yquem Sauternes 2010, a blend of 87 percent Sémillon and 13 percent Sauvignon Blanc, is tropical and inviting, with lush mango, fig and papaya aromas followed by pineapple and creamed banana. The long tangerine finish is flattering and very open now, but the length is clearly there (93–96).

While on the Right Bank, I also made stops at châteaus Ausone and Pavie. Though both source grapes from the limestone plateau at the top of the appellation, the two estates are the ying and yang of St.-Emilion. Ausone represents the mineral-driven, slightly austere style and Pavie the flamboyant, flashy fruit style. My reviews of their wines will appear later this week along with full tasting notes for hundreds of additional 2010 Bordeaux, based on my large-scale blind tasting and some additional château visits. So stay tuned.

All of James Molesworth's blogs and tasting notes can be found in the complete 2010 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting Package.

Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  April 2, 2011 8:20am ET
James, how is this early nice weather affecting the grapes in Bordeaux. Early budbreak? Fear of frost?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  April 2, 2011 11:02am ET
Karl: They were definitely getting a jump start on Spring while I was there - the forsythia was in full bloom everywhere, for example. Yes, frost is a always a risk through April, but no one seemed overly concerned.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  April 4, 2011 8:20pm ET

I have thoroughly enjoyed your fresh perspective on the Bordeaux beat. Certainly, anything but conformist, although I imagine over time your takes will evolve, perhaps even extending your drink windows.

My question is totally off subject. Have you visited any of the 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape's lately? I just opened a Vieux Telegraphe La Crau 2000 and for my palate, it could not have been opened at a more ideal moment in its evolution. The wine is still quite full bodied with loads of fruit, but perfectly (and I'm not sure the word perfect does this aspect justice) integrated. Integration is its most impressive aspect, but it also has all the finesse one would hope for in a 10 year old Chateauneuf.

Know you're busy elsewhere, but curious of your thoughts.

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  April 5, 2011 9:13am ET

Thanks for reading. Don't worry, I'll be stretching out the drink recommendations for the '10s - they will be long lived wines....

As for '00 Châteauneufs, the vintage featured a large crop, and the wines lack the razor definition of the '10s or backbone of the '05s. Now, at over 10 years of age, they are hitting their stride and drinking very well indeed. I am drinking mostly '00s and '98s these days, while trying to hold off on the '01s and certainly the '05s...

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