The performance of Pauillac and its Cabernet-based first-growth reds remains the best indicator of vintage quality for most Bordeaux fans, and today I continued my tour through the upper Médoc's Cabernet country to check out the 2012 vintage at Châteaus Latour and Mouton-Rothschild.
While I was here to taste the newest wine, it struck me that 2012 also marks the first vintage that Château Latour will not sell right away during the en primeur season. The château shocked Bordeaux and drew criticism from some quarters when it announced it was no longer selling its wine as futures.
Some people assumed that meant Château Latour was leaving the Place de Bordeaux and eschewing the négociant system entirely, and in the closed, often clubby world of Bordeaux, that amounts to scandalous behavior. In actuality, Latour is simply waiting to sell its wine until it feels the vintages are ready to drink (it recently released some 1995 as well as more recent vintages of the second wine and third wine), and director Frédéric Engerer is taking great pains to explain the château's decision.
"Bordeaux can have two systems," said the intense Engerer. "It can have en primeur for the châteaus that need it and it can have a system like what we are trying. You can't tell me that Bordeaux doesn't have the commerce system, the resources, professionalism, capacity and connections to handle two systems of distribution and sales that cohabitate."
"We think what we are doing is better for the consumers. We store the wine perfectly and then there is a lower markup: 10 percent through the négoce, rather than 15 percent that is typical during en primeur," Engerer said. "So if we release $10 million of stock, the trade instantly gets $1 million. Seems fair to me, no? I don't see why there is this resistance. Besides, you the journalist said drink the wine in seven years, or 10 years. So we're releasing it at the right time as far as the press is concerned."
As for the wine, Engerer noted that even though the wines are not being offered immediately through en primeur, the winemaking and blending process remains the same and the 2012s being shown are virtually the final blends that will eventually be bottled.
"Honestly, I felt more relaxed during the vinification of '12 than I did during '11," said Engerer. "The '12 is a bit stricter than '11 but I see more aging capacity in '12. I don't see a big qualitative difference between '11 and '12, but they are different in style. The overall temperatures at harvest were cooler in '12, so the texture of the skins was crunchier than '11 and I think you feel that in the wine."
"Between July 15 and Sept. 15 we had [1 inch] of rain. No other year in recent memory had less than [1.5]," he said. "The hydric stress was really severe in '12. So we vinified the parts within parcels where the stress was most severe together, to monitor the pumping over and extraction different from the rest of the lots."
"The speed of harvest was critical due to the window of sanitary conditions," Engerer explained. "But you can't pick fast and then sacrifice sorting because you have fruit coming in faster than you can sort. So, we picked fast but kept the fruit cooled separately in cold trailers and then sorted as we normally would. We actually got that idea from Château-Grillet, where keeping Viognier cool and picking fast is important. It keeps the fruit fresh, keeps the integrity of the skins. It really works and it was important to do in '12."
The third wine of the estate is the Château Latour Pauillac Pauillac de Château Latour 2012, and it will eventually be released in 2017. The approximately 55/44/2 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is sleek and stony, with cherry pit and plum notes and a light brush of savory through the finish. It is an unadorned Cabernet that is all pure fruit with a light mineral edge.
The second wine, the Château Latour Pauillac Forts de Latour 2012, will be released to the market in 2019. The 76/22/2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot is rather bright in style, with plum pit, Campari, damson plum and black cherry fruit flavors, a strong violet note and a lovely, brisk, iron-framed finish. It's very, very racy.
The grand vin, the Château Latour Pauillac 2012, will be released in 2021. Basically a 90/10 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend (there is less than 1 percent of Petit Verdot included), this is tight and sleek, with a core of cherry, Campari and red licorice that is very tightly coiled. There is lots of brisk iron and savory coursing through the finish, with clear angles to the structure, though they all move in unison. This should settle in, but the 2012 is likely to be a very linear, slightly rigid Latour all along. It will lengthen and expand, but the lines will be there, rather than absorbed as in 2009 or '10. Nonetheless, it manages to set the benchmark for Cabernet in the Médoc this vintage, as it should.
As we finished the tasting, Engerer was animatedly talking about organic and biodynamic growing at Latour. When I asked if more producers in Bordeaux are asking Latour for advice on making the shift, he paused.
"No," he said finally. "But I really wish they would. Fifty percent of the fruit in the grand vin is now biodynamic; 80 percent is organic. And I find the fruit is more intense, more precise as we head in that direction. So we will keep going that way. '11 and '12 were the toughest tests we had for working organically, but we are happy with the results. Maybe it's because we converted the most difficult parcels first and so they were under organic or biodynamic for a few years already, there's no way to really know. But we do know we are going to continue in that direction and I think a few châteaus in Bordeaux should hurry and go that way as well."
Château Mouton director Philippe Dhalluin is cordial, reserved, polished. He's brought a new level of purity to the wines at Mouton and its sister properties and seems to have everything here humming along nicely. As we worked through the 2012s, he ran down the vintage, noting little discrepancy with what other producers have been saying so far.
"Right from budbreak, the vintage was heterogeneous," Dhalluin said. "And then the vineyard was uneven throughout the season. What helped in the end was the berries were so small, because of the drought, that ripening occurred despite the difficulties. We started harvest on Oct. 8 and finished with the heart of the vineyard by the 11th and the majority by the 15th. By the 18th, the rains really came, and if you weren't done by then you were in big trouble."
"But it was interesting to see that the date of budbreak, the date of flowering, of veraison, of harvest, was all within the normal range," he said. "It was the weather at that time of those events that was different. The vines did what they do normally and they ripened the fruit, but under difficult conditions. In the end, look at the blend of d'Armailhac, for example—it's basically the same as always, including Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. So yes, we did get ripe fruit in the Médoc. But selection was critical."
The Château d'Armailhac Pauillac 2012 is a 54/29/14/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blend that delivers a solid core of anise and plum, with a briary frame and a light tobacco shading that should emerge more with time. It has nice substance and weight. The Château Clerc-Milon Pauillac 2012 is a 60/29/9/1/1 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenère blend that is markedly juicier and rounder in feel, with a nice core of fleshy plum and blackberry fruit. There's a light briary edge that frames the core, with enticing savory and chalk notes chiming in on the finish. It has a touch more range and floral lift in the end than the d'Armailhac. Both of these should provide solid, ageworthy bottling (and they are often very solid relative values) for the cellar.
I asked Dhalluin if he could make as good a wine as was made in 2012 if the vintage conditions had occurred 20 years ago, but without the technology or innovations of today.
After careful consideration, he said, "That's a very good question. We could have made a good wine, maybe. But probably not a true grand vin. The tannins would have been dryer and more austere. Today, with selection and small parcel vinifications, we can really be precise. We didn't have that 20 years ago."
The Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac Le Petit Mouton-Rothschild 2012, the second wine of the main estate, is a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend with Merlot and Cabernet Franc that delivers a nice juicy, briar-framed core of plum and cassis, with savory and tobacco leaf notes already emerging nicely on the finish. The tannins are supple and this seems destined to be very approachable from the beginning, on a par with the 2011.
"For me, I even find a touch of sur maturité in it," said Dhalluin. "Again a sign of how Cabernet in the upper Médoc is different from what you'll find in Margaux or Pessac, for example. Cabernet up here really likes hydric stress, more than the other varieties and more than elsewhere along the Left Bank. Ripeness of the fruit is not the difficulty—it's managing the tannins."
The Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 2012 is an imposing 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, along with 8 percent Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc. There is lovely purity here, with a bolt of cassis right from the get go, along with flashes of plum, briar and blackberry paste too. There's a flicker of anise and then sweet spice and singed wood notes hang on the finish for now but should be absorbed soon enough. It's a decidedly more graceful Mouton than the battleships of 2009 and '10, but it's a wine that shows breed of terroir in this tricky year, while a pleasantly faint chalky thread chimes in at the very end.
The Château Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux White Aile d'Argent 2012 rounds out the portfolio in 2012. The 63/37 Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend provides lovely honeysuckle, quinine, white peach and macadamia nut aromas and flavors. It is pure and integrated already, with a nice juicy but caressing feel on the finish. As with most whites I've tasted so far from 2012, it's pure and very fresh, but with slightly less cut than in 2011, an excellent vintage for the whites in general.