Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, tasting the 2011 Bordeaux vintage and visiting select châteaus.
I'm still working my way through the 2011 red Bordeaux this week, though I've now moved into the second half of the tasting; Pomerol and St.-Emilion. As with the Left Bank Cabernet Sauvignons, the Right Bank Merlots continue to show a distinctive briary edge to the structure, giving them a lightly chewy feel. But when there's enough fruit, the wines are generally pure and fresh and I am happy with the way they are showing overall.
And as I continue to grind through 400-plus samples, I need to keep taking some mental acuity breaks amidst the vines themselves. Following are notes on a few visits in the Médoc that I made throughout the week.
I had been looking forward to a stop at this tiny Haut-Médoc property since the wines caught my eye in blind tastings. One of the "off-the-radar" properties I noted in the 2009 vintage, Domaine Andron must have caught someone else's eye too: It was just sold to an unnamed Chinese investor in mid-November.
The 17-acre estate is run by Jean-Michel Dubos, the former winemaker from Château Beauséjour-Duffau-Lagarosse. With salt-and-pepper stubble and a wide smile, Dubos looks the part of experienced, contented vigneron. And despite his Right Bank résumé, he seems very much at home in the hardscrabble town of St.-Seurin-de-Cadourne in the upper Médoc.
"Well, the encépagement [blend selection] is easy here," he said with a twinkle in his eye, noting that the estate's vines are planted to a majority of Merlot, along with 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. "Just like back home."
This is no large, glittery cru classé property on the main drag. Instead it's a rather small estate, located on a side road and housed in a slightly outdated structure, where some rooms are filled with clutter, others empty. Dubos is excited for the new ownership though, which has already put plans in place to increase the size of the winery structure as a whole while also renovating inside.
Despite the lack of visual sizzle, the wine continues to show potential. Situated just between châteaus Sociando-Mallet and Charmail, Domaine Andron draws its fruit from two parcels on opposite sides of the town featuring similar gravelly/clay soils on slightly rolling terrain. Hand-harvested fruit arrives at the winery in small baskets, atypical for a Haut-Médoc estate where larger harvest baskets and perhaps more indiscriminate handling of the grapes occurs. Fermentation occurs in wooden vats, with lots of manual pigéage (punching down of the cap) as well as remontage (pumping over). But while Dubos likes to extract, perhaps a result of his Right Bank upbringing, he takes measures to ensure balance in the wine.
"The tannins were more present in 2011 because there wasn't the same maturity as we had in '09 and '10," said Dubos. "So a little less pigéage and remontage. You have to work with the vintage. If you extract too much, the grape tannins override the oak tannins from the élevage. If you do too little, the oak tannins take over. I want a balance between grape tannins and oak tannins. They need to work together."
The 2011 Haut-Médoc is nicely focused, with a light briary edge indicative of the vintage, along with charming plum and currant fruit (a formal review based on an official blind tasting is forthcoming). The 2012 Haut-Médoc is plusher, rounder and easier in mouthfeel, but with the same bright, vivid plum and currant fruit profile. The 2011 is hitting U.S. retail shelves now at around $30 and it's an excellent value. If you're looking to go off the grid of well-known wines when looking for a tasty Bordeaux, this is a good place to start.
Thanks in part to its distinctive label, Château Calon-Ségur has a place in more than a few Bordeaux lovers' hearts. It has a pedigree of being one of the best wines in St.-Estèphe, taking the appellation's chalky austerity and adding distinctive bass notes of smoldering charcoal and black fruit with a decidedly perfumy edge to boot.
The property, which totals a hefty 136 acres, along with its sister property Château Capbern-Gasqueton (a cru bourgeois with an additional 224 acres) was sold in 2012 to the life-insurance subsidiary of French banking group Credit Mutuel Arkea, for an estimated $212.5 million. Videlot, a Bordeaux wine group owned by Jean-François Moueix, is a minority partner (Moueix is generally considered to have put the deal together). The sale was forced by the passing of owner Denise Capbern-Gasqueton in September 2011; when her daughter and nieces inherited the estate, France's oppressive inheritance taxes forced their hand.
While it might be easy to complain that large corporate structures dominate the ownership of Bordeaux's greatest estates resulting in a lack of "soul" in the wines, that would be easily and overly dismissive. If you want to excel in Bordeaux, you can't simply maintain status quo. Competition is fierce and there's an arms race among the châteaus, both technologically in the winery and organically in the vineyards as they pursue quality and precision in their wines. That takes resources and, frankly, a bank is a good resource to have.
But it's one thing to just pump in money, it's another to do it smartly. The new team at Calon-Ségur seems primed to handle the task. Vincent Millet handles the winemaking while Laurent Dufau takes over as general director. Dufau, 46, was installed by the new ownership and this is his first winery gig, though he has a long résumé running a négociant house; business chops and connections on the Place de Bordeaux are nice to have. Millet, 47, already has a grounding at Calon-Ségur, having started at the estate in 2006 after spending eight harvests working with Paul Pontallier at Château Margaux. With the change in ownership, the duo seems bent on dusting off the château's old-school and aloof reputation. There's a new tasting room under construction—one with a skylight—replacing the dark and stuffy one, with plans to complete in time for the 2013 en primeur campaign. The winery will be renovated and updated as well, with an emphasis on new, smaller fermentation vats for more select parcel vinifications—nearly all the vats are currently 8,900 liters or more in size, but the new lineup will feature tanks ranging from 2,500 to 7,500 liters.
And of course, since wine is made in the vineyards first, the property's terroir is getting a dust off as well, with a program Millet started when he arrived in '06. The 136 acres are divided among 40 parcels, covering three rolling hills of differing soil types; sandy gravel, clay gravel and straight clay. Vine density has been slowly upped to 4,000 plants per acre, a slow and steady process after many areas in the estate over time had dropped to 2,400 to 3,000 vines per acre.
"We took the best material from the estate to a nursery to propagate for us as it's easier for them to not only produce large amounts of vine material that an estate this size needs, but they can also test for any virus," said Millet. "That way we can respect the patrimonie of the vineyard, it's history, while respecting the genetic diversity we have and updating to the best possible vine material."
There's been a shift in the wines in recent years too, with Millet pushing the grand vin to a minimum of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (prior to '06 it was often half Cabernet Sauvignon with half Merlot), while the second wine, Marquis de Calon, is a minimum of 80 percent Merlot. The élevage has shifted a bit as well, with the grand vin now seeing 100 percent new oak for an extended 20 months (pre 2006 vintages saw 50 percent new oak for 12 months); the second wine sees just 30 percent new oak with a short 17-month élevage. And lastly, the grand vin no longer contains any production from the neighboring Capbern-Gasqueton vineyard, but instead relies only on the best parcels of Calon-Ségur proper, with an even stricter selection down from the typical 70 to 90 percent of the crop that went into the wine pre-'06.
The 2008 Château Calon-Ségur St.-Estèphe shows the estate's typical dusty tannins, with currant, warm tobacco leaf and chestnut notes and a fine-grained finish. It's with the 2009 Château Calon-Ségur St.-Estèphe that the changes seem to kick in, with dense briar, currant paste and tobacco notes backed by a warm ganache edge on the finish, with more polish and none of the dusty notes of earlier years. The 2010 Château Calon-Ségur St.-Estèphe is the only hiccup for me among the recent vintages, as the wine lacks the energy and drive of the vintage in general, and I find it marked by pronounced savory and pepper notes with a charcoal-framed finish. There's ample fruit here but it's decidedly gamey overall. The estate is back on form though with the 2011 Château Calon-Ségur St.-Estèphe, which is sleek and fresh, showing the briary edge of the vintage and a bright, pure cherry paste core with a nice racy edge on the finish. Still in barrel, the 2012 Château Calon-Ségur St.-Estèphe is sappy, bright and vivid, with friendly purple and black fruits and a nicely buried chalky edge for balance on the finish.
There's a lot going on at the historic estate and as the winery gets its new bells and whistles, it should be fun to watch Calon-Ségur enter a new era of quality.
Even though it's located on the main road through the town of Margaux, it might be easy to drive by Château Malescot-St.-Exupéry without stopping. It's a spiffy little château for sure, but it lacks the pomp and circumstance of say Châteaus Palmer or Margaux. No worries, Jean-Luc Zuger doesn't seem to mind.
"I'm the owner, the winemaker and I sleep here at night," he said plainly. "Maybe that's rare in the Médoc, for one person to be all those things together, but I'm fine with it."
Zuger seems cut from Rhône cloth more than Médoc, with a Cornas-like beard augmenting his professionally rugged look. He speaks matter-of-factly, accentuating a sentence here and there with just a simple shrug. Don't let the straight-ahead demeanor fool you though—Zuger is quietly making on of the top wines in the Margaux appellation, with a stellar performance in 2010 (to be expected) backed up by ahead-of-the-pack wines in the difficult '11 and '12 vintages (where you see who really passes the test). There are normally 8,300 cases made of the grand vin in each vintage.
Zuger, who started at Malescot in 1994, manages his 74-acre estate with a relatively hands-off approach. The cellar is gravity flow, but hardly modern—it was built in the late-19th century—"It was the most modern cellar in the Médoc at the time, and it still works fine today," said Zuger. Hand-harvested fruit is stored in a cold room for a day before a short cold soak. Fermentation begins with indigenous yeast, which Zuger feels strongly about.
"Once you add yeast, you changes things. You can't speak of terroir and then add outside yeast," said Zuger.
Zuger also uses more remontage than typical, moving 1.5 to 2 times the volume of the vat daily. Malo is then done either in tank or barrel depending on when it starts on its own. The 16- to 18-month élevage is done with 90 percent new oak, along with bâtonnage (stirring of the lees in barrel) and minimal racking, but without fining or filtering (unless a lot shows some microbial activity, in which case it is lightly filtered).
"Because the wine always goes into the barrel at maceration temperature, it absorbs the wood better. The bâtonnage may help with that as well. So, despite the nearly all new oak, you don't feel it. For balance, it's better for the wine to be balanced early in the élevage," said Zuger.
"But I do want more extraction," said Zuger when I noted the pursuit of balance through the élevage seems to contrast with the extra remontage. "Margaux is often called the most elegant, most feminine wine of the Médoc. But I like women with character."
The 2011 Château Malescot-St.-Exupéry Margaux shows a bit of its wood still, with alder and singed sandalwood notes, but the core of dark cherry, plum and currant fruit is pure and more than enough of a match for the oak, with high-toned spice and lilac notes as well. This finish is long and has a nice smoldering feel. Once again it's one of the top Margaux bottlings of the vintage.
"The tannins are a little less precise in '11 than '09 and '10 but the fruit is pure. I like the wine, but I can see how it will be easy for the market to forget '11 after years like '09 and '10," said Zuger with an air of resignation.
To that end, Zuger dropped his price dramatically in 2011, down to 28 euros ex-cellar from 50 euros ex-cellar for the 2010 (U.S. retail is about $60 for the '11 versus $130 for the '10).
"But we needed to do that," said Zuger, with his typically plain speech. "For the market," he added, with a shoulder shrug.