Category Archives: France – Bordeaux

Château Lalande-Borie, Saint Julien, Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2012

($37):  It’s not often you see Cru Classé Bordeaux that’s ready to drink for under $40.  Although you won’t see Cru Classé on the label, Château Lalande-Borie was formerly a part of Château Lagrange, which was classified as a Cru Classé in 1855, which means that technically, it still is.  Jean-Eugène Borie, the then managing director of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, persuaded the Cendoya family, the then owner of Château Lagrange, to sell him a portion of their vineyard.  Borie upgraded the vineyard, put his magical touch on the winemaking and renamed it Lalande-Borie.  The 2012 is just starting to come into its own.  Earthier and bigger than Château Ducluzeau, it is still a mid-weight wine with a glorious “not just fruit” character.  It shows its Cru Classé stature beautifully.  Juicy and fresh, it’s a pleasure to drink now.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 2, 2019

Château Ducluzeau, Listrac – Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2015

($27):  Château Ducluzeau is a sleeper, in part, because the production is small, about 5,000 bottles annually.  The 2015 is an extraordinary value, well worth the search.  Owned by Bruno Borie’s mother (he’s the managing director of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou), it is uncommonly suave for a wine from Listrac.  It’s a Merlot-heavy (85%) blend, which likely explains at least part of its fleshy smoothness.  It’s fruit-forward without being fruity.  And indeed, as it sits in the glass, gorgeous savory nuances emerge.  Its polished tannins allow you to drink it now, though I suspect given the family’s reputation for fabulous wine, it will evolve beautifully over the next decade.  Do not miss this bargain.
91 Michael Apstein Jul 2, 2019

Terroir in Bordeaux

Part of my enthusiasm for wine, and I’m sure other’s as well, is that the character of the wine is, or at least should be, a reflection of where the grapes were grown.  For me, this is a fabulous expression of Nature and an almost magical one at that.  Wines made from the same grapes grown in adjacent vineyards, separated sometimes by only a narrow dirt path, can often taste very different.  This concept can be difficult to appreciate because the producer’s winemaking technique can overwhelm the influence of place.  When tasting two wines from different locales made by different producers, the question becomes, is it the producer’s hand or the locale that is speaking?  So, for consumers to appreciate and understand the potential of what is known as terroir, or what noted wine writer Matt Kramer called, “a sense of place,” it is essential to compare wines from different places made by the same producer.

The concept of terroir is universal, and not just for grapes.  The Europeans have hundreds of appellations for a variety of foods because they know that certain areas excel in growing certain products.  We in the U.S. have fewer legal, geographically-determined appellations for foods, but still recognize the concept, as with Florida oranges, Vidalia onions, or Washington State apples.  We all know that some people’s homegrown tomatoes taste better than those of others.  Maybe they were better “farmers,” but maybe their backyard was better suited, for some reason, for growing tomatoes.

For wine, Burgundy is ground zero for this phenomenon for historical reasons.  French inheritance laws stemming from the Napoleonic era mandated an equal distribution of land among the heirs, which meant that, over time, many people wound up owning small patches of vineyards.  For many of these farmers, it made little economic sense to make and market wines from such small holdings, so they sold their grapes or newly made wine to firms, known as négociants, that finished the winemaking process and marketed the wines.  As a result, these producers, such as Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour or Maison Joseph Drouhin, wound up making and selling wines from many different sites within Burgundy.  Since the winemaking of each négociant is the same or at least similar for all their wines, one can easier discern the incredible differences between two wines whose grapes might have come from vineyards separated by that dirt path.

This phenomenon is not restricted to Burgundy.  Bruno Borie, President of Ducru-Beaucaillou and related properties, showed me during a recent trip to Boston that it is alive and well–and very important–in Bordeaux.

Of course, terroir is alive and well in Bordeaux.  Everyone knows that the wines from the commune of St. Éstephe are very different from those of neighboring Pauillac or from Margaux.  But how about within an individual commune?  I’ve heard many times from the Bordelais themselves and have read reliable authors who have said that the best wines in St. Julien come from those properties that can “see the estuary,” that is, those châteaux that are the furthest east, bordering the Gironde River.  And indeed, though there are exceptions, those properties closest to the water, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and the Léovilles (Poyferré, Las Cases, and Barton), to name a few, make wines that are generally more elegant than ones located further to the west, the inland St. Julien, such as Château Gruaud Larose, Château Talbot, or Château Lagrange.  So, is it the winemaking or the location, i.e., “the hand or the land,” that is responsible?  With an exceptional and unique tasting, Bruno Borie gave us the answer by showing three wines from the 2015 vintage made by the same team.

A little history puts this tasting into perspective.  The Borie family, who have had a presence in the Médoc since 1870, have been making wine at Ducru-Beaucaillou since Bruno’s grandfather started leasing the vineyards in 1941–what a time to embark on a new project in France!  Bruno’s father, Jean-Eugène, eventually purchased the property in the 1960s and ran it until Bruno took the reins in 2003.  Bruno recounts how in 1970, his father lamented after church services to the patriarch of the Cendoya family, the owner of Château Lagrange at the time, that he (Borie) was surprised by the recent sale of a piece of Lagrange, hinting that he would have been interested in purchasing it.  Cendoya responded by saying that they had more to sell.  Bingo!  Quickly thereafter, Jean-Eugène had purchased what is now Château Lalande-Borie, located in the western part of the commune, quite a distance from the Gironde, relatively speaking.  Then in 1995, as part of his upgrading of Ducru, Jean-Eugène introduced a “second” wine, La Croix Beaucaillou, which since 2005 has been a separate wine made from a separate vineyard that lies half-way between Lalande-Borie and Ducru-Beaucaillou itself.  La Croix is still technically a second wine because some of the lesser lots from Ducru find their way into La Croix, but Bruno emphasizes that 90 percent of La Croix comes from its own discrete vineyard.

We had in front of us the three wines from three different areas of St. Julien.  Going from west to east–inland to the estuary–was Château Lalande-Borie, La Croix Beaucaillou, and Ducru-Beaucaillou from the 2015 vintage.  Although the blends of the three wines were slightly different, with more Merlot and less Cabernet Sauvignon in Château Lalande-Borie (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) compared to 60% Cabernet Sauvignon in La Croix and 90% in Ducru, the fundamental difference among the wines was elegance.  The texture of the wines became finer and finer moving from the west towards the river.  It was like the difference between wool, lambswool and cashmere.  Moreover, there was less apparent fruitiness and more savory and mineral-like flavors moving from west to east.

Borie explained that “the ecosystem”–he avoided the term, terroir–of each vineyard determined the character and finesse of the wine.  Near the estuary lies a collection of stones and gravel that came originally from both the center of France and the Pyrenees Mountains.  He insists it’s this mix of deposits combined with perfect exposure and drainage that provides the elegance and mineral-like component of Ducru.  He explains that in the middle of St. Julien, there are little streams that cut through the Médoc, which dictate the climate.  The soil contains a bit more clay which imparts more body–at the expense of elegance–to the wines.  In the inland or western part of the appellation, the soil is newer, geologically speaking, with more sand, which for him explains why the wines have less complexity.

The message was clear to me.  The conventional wisdom is true:  The finest wines from St. Julien come from vines that can see the estuary.  A large thank you to Bruno Borie for the chance to learn this for myself.

My advice for consumers is to buy as much of these 2015s as your budget will allow. The Ducru-Beaucaillou (97, $200) showed its Cru Classé stature with its extraordinary silky texture and a broad palate of flavors without a trace of heaviness. I’d leave this beauty in the cellar for another decade to let it develop as I know the wines of Ducru-Beaucaillou do.  The Lalande-Borie (91, $38) is enjoyable now, but I suspect it will continue to evolve over the next decade.  I’d give the La Croix Beaucaillou (93, $60), another five years before pulling the cork.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir or Ducru-Beaucaillou at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 22, 2019

Château Léoville Poyferré, Saint Julien (Médoc, Bordeaux, France) 2015

($117):  In a word, show-stopping.  Léoville Poyferré has really upped their game beginning with the 2010 vintage.  They made significant changes in the winery that year, installing smaller fermenting vats to allow them to have even more precision in fermenting grapes from the different vineyard parcels.  Their 2015 has all the power and opulence Léoville Poyferré has been known for, but with an extra level of elegance that, in my mind, had been lacking in the past.  This is a great young wine combining dark fruitiness and wonderful earthy, mineral flavors. It has exceptional length and grace.  Having just come from a 15-vintage vertical tasting of their wines, I would cellar this one for another decade.  Although $117 is a lot to pay for a bottle of wine, compared to other Cru Classé Bordeaux, it is well-priced for what it delivers.  And it’s only $80 at Zachy’s in Scarsdale, New York, according to wine-searcher.com, which makes it a bargain.  
97 Michael ApsteinJan 29, 2019

Château Lagrange, Saint-Julien (Médoc, Bordeaux, France) 2015

($55):  The 2015 vintage for red Bordeaux is, by and large, wonderful.  In general, the wines deliver ripe flavors accompanied by sufficient structure  — tannins and acidity — that prevent them from falling all over themselves.  Château Lagrange, which has just gone from strength to strength over the last two decades, made an impressive wine in 2015.  A lovely herbal component balances the red and black fruit flavors.  The structure is apparent and welcome without intruding.  Its charm and grandeur are apparent in its graceful finish.  Yes, it’s enjoyable now, but this wine should evolve gracefully over the next decade or two so save room in the cellar.  Château Lagrange is always one of the best values among the Grand Cru Classé of Bordeaux, and the 205 is no exception, because it is a large estate and it still fails to have the reputation that it deserves.  With wines like their 2015, that situation won’t last for long.
93 Michael Apstein Nov 27, 2018

2015 Bordeaux: A Vintage to Buy

The wines from Bordeaux are definitely not the darlings of the breed of new-wave sommeliers whose wine lists are heavy with “natural” wines, orange wines, or selections from obscure areas–which all too often turn out to be obscure for good reason.  But, despite their lack of sex appeal, Bordeaux wines remain benchmarks for Cabernet- and Merlot-based reds, as well as Sauvignon- and Semillon-based whites, whether dry or sweet.  And the 2015 vintage reminds us why.

Turning to the other gorilla in the room–price. Everyone “knows” that Bordeaux are painfully pricey and really only for the 1-percenters.  However, while that may be true for the top 30 or so properties (which have become collectors’ items for the very wealthy), there are hundreds of somewhat lesser known–and some rather well-known–properties whose wines are moderately priced or actually affordable.  These are the 2015s to snatch up.

The reputation of a vintage–not just in Bordeaux, but most wine regions–is made by the reds.  In 2015, the reds are outstanding.  That said, both the dry and sweet whites are delicious now, so they should not be overlooked.  My assessment is based on a recent tasting of 70 bottled and ready-for-market wines–not barrel samples–organized by the Union des Grands Crus, an organization that represents 133 of the top properties in Bordeaux.

Let’s start with the reds.

The weather determines the quality and character of a vintage.  Without getting too geeky, the weather during the 2015 growing season was very nearly ideal, warmer and sunnier than usual, but lacking the heat of 2009 (or, heaven help us, 2003, which was just brutally hot, producing some correspondingly hot and heavy wines). The weather in 2015 produced reds that are fleshy, juicy, and amazingly, very fresh, despite the warmth of the growing season.  The wines are not alcoholic, hot, or over ripe.  Dare I say, the reds have a Burgundian sensibility—they are flavorful without being heavy.  Indeed, they are balanced, showing vivacity and energy.

Importantly, the ripeness of the wines did not blur the boundaries of the appellations as sometimes occurs.  St. Estèphe tastes like St. Estèphe and different from its neighbor, Pauillac, which is as it should be. For the most part, the tannins are supple and the wines easy to taste, even at this youthful stage, which may make people think that they will not develop with bottle age the way great Bordeaux does. Although predicting how wines will develop is fraught with difficulty–and sometimes error–the 2015s have marvelous balance, similar to the 1985s, which suggests to me that this “friendly” vintage will evolve very nicely.  As easy as they are to taste now, I’d plan on cellaring them for a decade to allow their complexity to bloom.

The prices I have listed below are averages taken from Wine-Searcher.com.  Prices for some wines are not available (n/a) because they have sold out and have not been re-stocked by retailers yet.  In those cases, I have listed the last global average as calculated by Wine-Searcher.com to give the reader an idea of what to expect.  However, the range of price for any given wine can be enormous, depending on the exchange rate when the merchant purchased their supply and what, if any, they have left over after filling customers’ orders for futures, so it pays to shop around.  Wines in bold represent excellent value in my opinion.

In some vintages, the Left Bank (Médoc) Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines excel, while in others the Merlot and Cabernet Franc-based Right Bank wines from St. Émilion and Pomerol are standouts.  Practically speaking, there were so many excellent wines across the region in 2015 that those kinds of generalizations are not really helpful to the consumer.  My favorite reds, all scored at 95+ points, are scattered among all the major appellations.  These include the explosive and velvety Château Rauzan-Ségla ($104) in Margaux, the mineral-y and long Chateau Pichon-Baron ($149) in Pauillac, and the floral and herbal-tinged Château Canon (n/a, $209) in St. Émilion.  Also outstanding but more affordable are the fleshy, but not flashy, Château Rouget ($50) from Pomerol, and the graceful and layered Domaine de Chevalier ($72) from Pessac-Léognan, which are steals in light of their quality.

Just behind this set, and evaluated in the 92-94 point, range are Château La Lagune ($61), Château Lascombes (n/a, $79), Château Giscours (n/a, $66), Château Brane-Cantenac (n/a, $70), a fabulous pair from the Mouton Rothschild team, Château Clerc-Milon (n/a, $83) and Château d’Armailhac (n/a, $50), Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion (n/a, $35), Château Haut-Bailly (n/a, $121), Château Clos Fourtet (n/a, $107), and Château Phélan-Ségur ($49), another bargain.

One of the benefits of the 2015 vintage is how well lesser known properties did.  These properties, often, but not always, from slightly less well-situated sites, benefit even more from the warm sunny weather that marked the vintage.  In this group, Château Bouscaut (90; n/a, $28) and Château de France (91; $25) from Pessac-Léognan made extraordinary reds in 2015.  From the Left Bank, grab as much of these as you can:  Château Beaumont (90, $20), Château Fourcas-Hosten (90, $20), Château Chasse-Spleen (92, $34), an extraordinary value, Château de Camensac, (91, $38), Château Cantemerle (92, $35), an extraordinary value, and Château Citran (90, $24), an extraordinary value.

Shifting to the dry whites from Graves and Pessac-Léognan, they are certainly charming now, but lack the backbone of the reds (which suggests that judging the vintage by the reds actually makes sense in 2015).  Nathan Guillen, a representative of Château Pape Clément, remarked that the weather favored Sauvignon Blanc over Semillon in 2015, which explains the added punch in many of the dry whites.  I suggest buying the dry whites and drinking them over the next few years–with a few exceptions, as always.  The top wines among the big names to me were Domaine de Chevalier (92, $97) and Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte ($100), whereas Château de France (90, $25) gets my vote as the best value dry white.

The 2015 sweet wines, Sauternes, which are always undervalued, are delightful to drink now. Remember that a little bit goes a long way with these, so half bottles (375 ml) are extremely useful as they will serve 4-6 people easily.  I suggest serving them as desert or with cheese, since their flavors often clash with sweet deserts.  My favorites were Château Coutet (93, $41) because of its extraordinary energy and verve even in a riper year, and Château Guiraud (92, $47).  The biggest surprise–and a spectacular value–was Château Bastor-Lamontagne (90, $25).  But, frankly, I’d be happy drinking any of them from the 2015 vintage–it’s a “can’t miss” (or, “point and shoot”) kind of vintage for Sauternes.

Indeed, it’s a “point and shoot” kind of vintage for the reds and dry whites as well.

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Email me your thoughts about Bordeaux at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 31, 2018

Château Rollan de By, Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2012

($40):  A Merlot-dominant blend, the Château Rollan de By has been classified as a Cru Bourgeois, a group of 200+ properties lumped just below the Cru Classé level, Bordeaux’s top strata.  For me, the wines from these estates, such as Château Rollan de By, offer Bordeaux’s greatest value. Still available at retail, this wine, at 5 years of age, is marvelous to drink now, showing a combination of dark fruit and savory flavors, wrapped in suave tannins. Thankfully lacking a block-busting profile, this mid-weight wine relies on elegance and a “not just fruit” sensation for its allure. 91 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Château Coutet, Barsac (Bordeaux, France) 2014

($44): Sweet wines, such as this one, need to be judged on their verve and acidity, not just their luxurious richness.  On that count, the 2014 Château Coutet is a winner.  It has plenty of energy to balance its honeyed character so it’s not cloying at all, but rather refreshing.  And long.  I prefer to serve these luscious sweet wines with cheese or by themselves as desert.  Paired with a sweet course often detracts from both the food and the wine.  Half bottles (375 ml) of are especially useful since one will serve four easily.
95 Michael Apstein Feb 14, 2017

Château Phélan Ségur, St. Estèphe (Bordeaux, France) 2014

($40): Under Véronique Dausse’s management Château Phélan Ségur has catapulted into the top ranks.  Her team produced a positively gorgeous wine in 2014.  Though refined and polished, it retained the attractive gritty earthiness that makes the wines of St. Estèphe so engaging.  At $40 a bottle, it is one of the best buys of the vintage.
94 Michael Apstein Feb 14, 2017

Domaine de Chevalier, Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux, France) 2014

($58): Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier, believes that the wines from Pessac-Léognan should be “feminine, not a powerhouse.”  In keeping with his philosophy, Domaine de Chevalier red is never a block-busting powerhouse.  But it’s always a majestic wine.  The 2014, while less concentrated and less dense than others from Pessac-Léognan, is exciting to taste.  It’s a magical combination of fruit and savory notes enveloped in supple tannins.  It has a Burgundian-like character.  Indeed, the phrase I often use to describe red Burgundy, “flavor without weight,” comes to mind.  It’s rare to find a wine of this caliber at this price.
94 Michael Apstein Feb 14, 2017

Château Coufran, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2014

($18): Château Coufran, an oddity on the Left Bank because of its high proportion of Merlot, combines a leafy earthy component with fine tannins in their 2014.  It’s a steal.  And just because Coufran is not a “classified growth” (that is, it was not classified as Grand Cru Classé in 1855) do not dismiss its ability to develop with age.  I recently had a bottle of the 1982 Coufran, which was wonderfully fresh and complex.
90 Michael Apstein Feb 14, 2017

Château La Lagune, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2014

($40): A wine from a Chateau listed in famous 1855 Classification of Bordeaux — a so-called Classified Bordeaux — for $40 is a rarity.  Especially when it’s not the Chateau’s “second” wine, but actually their “grand vin.”  Château La Lagune has always been under-rated, delivering more than its price suggested.  Their 2014 is no exception.  Smooth and delectable, it delivers that alluring “not just fruit” character without being flashy.  Suavely textured, it’s easy to taste now.  But fine tannins and its harmony means it will evolve gracefully over the next decade or two.  If you’re just starting a cellar, this is a Bordeaux to buy by the case.  Even if you already have a cellar, I’d find room in it for a few bottles.
93 Michael Apstein Feb 14, 2017

Bordeaux’s 2014s: An Excellent, Well-Priced Vintage

The press regarding the 2014 vintage in Bordeaux, written in the spring of 2015 after the “en premieur” tastings (a week long series of tastings of “representative” barrel samples in Bordeaux) was lukewarm.  The vintage was damned with faint praise (e.g., “It’s the best of the lesser vintages,” or “The best since 2010,” which of course isn’t saying much, given the trio of mediocre vintages, 2011, 2012 and 2013).  Hence, I approached the annual Union des Grands Crus (UGC) tasting in New York City last month with a lack of enthusiasm.  At this tasting, 89 major chateaux pour ed 102 of their 2014s, which, unlike the wines sampled during “en primeur,” were finished wines, bottled and ready for sale, not barrel samples.

What a pleasant surprise!  It turns out that 2104 is, in fact, an excellent vintage in Bordeaux across all three categories:  Reds, dry whites and the sweet wines.  It’s rare for all three categories to succeed in the same year, but they did in 2014.  Thankfully, it’s not a “vintage of the century,” which is usually characterized by ripe–sometimes over ripe–wines with lots of oomph.  Rather, it’s a classically proportioned vintage, showing the elegance and finesse of Bordeaux.  Tannins and acidity provide structure without being aggressive, making the wines approachable.  But do not interpret that to mean that the wines will not develop with bottle age.  Their balance indicates they will.  Importantly, the prices are amazingly good.  One of my favorites of the vintage, Château La Lagune, is widely available on retailers’ shelves for about $40 a bottle.

Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier, one of the top properties in Pessac-Léognan, and president of the UGC, described it as a “cool vintage,” characterized by a colder than normal summer.  Superb weather in September made the harvest.  A cooler vintage theoretically favors Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines since that grape remains on the vines later than the earlier ripening Merlot.  To my mind, however, the Right Bank Merlot-predominant wines from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol were equally successful this year.

Producers to whom I spoke had a difficult time comparing the 2014 with previous vintages. Frédéric Vicaire from Château Coufran, a top-notch Haut-Médoc estate, described 2014 as “a classic Bordeaux vintage.”  He felt it was similar to 2004, while Bernard thought the wines were similar to those from 2008.  Panos Kakaviatos, an acclaimed wine writer and Bordeaux expert, echoed Bernard’s comparison to 2008.  John Anderson, another writer with great experience tasting Bordeaux, felt the wines were similar to those of 2001, another vintage in which all three categories turned out superbly.

Other producers compared the vintage to the highly rated 2000. Véronique Dausse, Managing Director of Château Phélan Ségur, a superb property in Saint-Estèphe, thought for a while, and then with a smiling Gallic shrug, said that she could not compare it to another vintage. She felt it was a vintage with unique character.  I agree.  To me, the wines are not up to the superb quality of the 2000 vintage, but they are definitely better than those produced either in 2004 or 2008, because they are just a touch fleshier, while still exhibiting an alluring herbal character.  Indeed, the 2014s remind me a bit of the 1978s.  The growing season was similar to that year, a cool summer and a vintage saved by September weather.  If the 2014s turn out like the 1978s everyone, consumers and producers alike, will be very pleased.

One thing the vintage is not–and everyone to whom I spoke agreed on this point–is over ripe.  The wines are beautifully proportioned, not flamboyant or boisterous.  Yes, there are some that are over extracted and overdone, but of the 51 reds I tasted, only one showed a high level of alcohol.

Although others have characterized 2014 as a “Cabernet year,” I found exceptional wines in all of the sub-appellations represented at the UGC tasting, making it difficult to say that one area “did better” than others.  Standouts in Saint-Julien, for example, were Léoville Poyferré ($68, 94 points), Léoville Barton ($71, 94) and Langoa Barton ($46, 92), whose fleshy wines were alluring.  Similarly, Jean-Dominique Videau, winemaker at Brainaire-Ducru ($49, 92), and Matthieu Bordes and his team at Château Lagrange ($38, 92), were equally successful balancing fruitiness, structure and herbal notes.

In Pauillac, Château Pichon Baron ($105, 96) produced a wine with amazing concentration and grace that is, at this stage, one of the top wines of the vintage.  Similarly, Château d’Armailhac ($45, 93) had a wonderfully dense and mineral-y quality enrobed in polished tannins.

The biggest surprise came in Saint-Estèphe where the young wines are often difficult to taste because of their tannic structure.  Château Phélan Ségur, which under Dausse’s management has catapulted into the top ranks, produced a positively gorgeous wine in 2014 (94). Though refined and polished, it retained the attractive gritty earthiness that makes the wines of St. Estèphe so engaging. At $35 a bottle, it is one of the best buys of the vintage.  Similarly, Château Lafon-Rochet’s 2014 (93) conveys the earthy gravely quality of the appellation while exhibiting an uncanny elegance.  Another bargain at about $35 a bottle.

There are a bevy of 2014 reds from Pessac-Léognan to recommend.  Olivier Bernard believes that the wines from Pessac-Léognan should be “feminine, not a powerhouse.”  Their inherent ash-like nuances remind me of Burgundy.  Chateau Haut-Bailly’s 2014 ($80, 93) has marvelous concentration without being flamboyant, still conveying the earthiness of the region.  Bernard’s Domaine de Chevalier 2014 ($58, 94), a majestic wine, while less concentrated that Haut-Bailly, conveys just as much.  It’s flavor without weight, a description I often use for Burgundy.  Château Malartic-Lagravière ($46, 92) is another example of the graceful exoticness that the wines of Pessac-Léognan achieved in 2014.  More muscular, but still not over the top, Château Smith Haut Lafitte ($74, 93) continues their streak of winners in 2014.

The commune of Margaux had a wealth of riches in 2014.  Château Brane-Cantenac ($51, 93), with suave tannins and a dark core, reflects the grandeur these wines can achieve.  Similarly, Château Giscours ($48, 93) hit the bull’s eye with density and energy.  Château Rauzan-Ségla, ($63, 94) fractionally less dense than Brane or Giscours, impresses with its glossy elegance and finesse.  As usual, Château d’Angludet (91) delivers far more than its price (~$35) suggests.

The Haut-Médoc appellation provides bargains in 2014.  Château La Lagune ($40, 93), smooth and delectable, delivers that alluring “not just fruit” character without being flashy.  With remarkable length and elegance, the often under-appreciated Château Cantemerle (92) is a steal at ~$30.  So is Château de Camensac ($25, 92) because of its herbal quality and polished tannins.  Château Coufran ($18, 90), an oddity on the Left Bank because of its high proportion of Merlot, confirms to me that plenty of properties did well with grape.  It combines a leafy earthy component with fine tannins.  It’s a steal.  And just because Coufran is not a “classified growth” (that is, it was not classified as Grand Cru Classé in 1855) do not dismiss its ability to develop with age.  I recently had a bottle of the 1982 Coufran, which I purchased upon release for about $5 (the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $11.50 today).  The wine was wonderfully fresh and complex.

Four examples from Saint-Emilion demonstrate that the Right Bank also succeeded in 2014:  The fleshy and seductive Château Beau-Séjour Bécot ($51, 92), the refined and elegant Château Canon ($74, 93), the gorgeously mineral-y Château Canon-La-Gaffelière ($64, 95) and stylishly balanced seemingly endless Château La Gaffelière ($55, 94).

The toasty and exotic Château Bon Pasteur ($70, 92) and the structured fleshinss of Château Gazin ($59, 94) confirm that wines from Merlot-dominant Pomerol turned out well in 2014.

Bernard emphasizes that the cool vintage explains why the dry whites excelled across the board.  My notes were repetitive with praise–you can practically point and shoot depending on the style you prefer and your wallet. Château Bouscaut ($35, 90) is crisp and refreshing.  Château de Chantegrive ($15, 90) manages a touch of creaminess atop its crispness.  An outstanding buy!  Château Olivier ($35, 93) managed to combine spice, pungency and creaminess.  Both Château Louvière ($28, 91) and Château de Fieuzal ($44, 92) marry creaminess with an attractive bite whereas Château Pape Clément ($135, 93) and Château Smith Haut Lafitte ($95, 94) deliver more power and richness without losing vibrancy.  Domaine de Chevalier ($93, 96), an “OMG” kind of wine, combines everything perfectly as usual.

Aline Baly, whose family owns Château Coutet in Barsac, says it took a lot of patience–and hand wringing–in 2014 because the botrytis necessary to shrivel the grapes and make outstanding sweet wine, hit sporadically.  With a broad grin, she beams, “The anxiety was worth it. It’s a great vintage.”  I concur.  Again, point and shoot.  But don’t miss the energetic Château Coutet ($44, 95), the lush and lively Château Doisy-Daëne ($41, 92) the ripe and nutty Château La Tour Blanche ($39, 92), the apricot-tinged and lively Château Suduiraut ($64, 94) and the luxuriously rich Château Guiraud ($45, 93).  The prices listed are for full (750 ml) bottles, but remember, a half-bottle (375 ml) of these sweet wines easily serves four.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Bordeaux in general and the 2014s in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

February 1, 2017

Château Lassègue, St. Emilion Grand Cru (Bordeaux, France) “Les Cadrans de Lassègue” 2012

($29, Jackson Family Wines): This, the second wine of Château Lassègue, a property in the Jackson Family portfolio, is a marvelous buy.  More polished than many second wines, it conveys a savory, almost funky — in a nice way — complement to its bright fruity flavors.  The distinction with the first wine is in its ever so slightly coarser texture.  That said the tannins are still fine, which makes easy to recommend for current drinking with robust meat, such as lamb chops.  This is classy Bordeaux at a bargain price.

91 Michael Apstein Aug 30, 2016

Château Climens, Barsac (Sauternes, Bordeaux, France) 2002

($74): As the table of guests sipped this sweet wine with a cheese course they fell silent.  Animated conversation drew to a halt — all that was heard was “ah” or “wow, this is good!”  Sweet wines in general, and Sauternes in particular, are an under-appreciated category.  The 2002 Climens, one of the stars of Barsac, an appellation that is included in the broader Sauternes appellation, has developed gorgeous layered flavors of honey and dried fruits.  It expands in the glass. Its racy invigorating acidity, not its sweetness, is what makes it such a joy to drink — your palate never tires of it.  Perfectly balanced, neither cloying nor syrupy, it’s a treat with cheese or as dessert.  A half-bottle will serve 4 to 6 people easily.
96 Michael Apstein Jul 12, 2016

2013 Bordeaux: Like Wagner’s Music, It’s Not as Bad as It Sounds

In November 2013, Alan Sichel, chairman of Bordeaux’s guild of wine merchants, told Bloomberg Business, “No one will be excited by the 2013 vintage [in Bordeaux].” That comment turned out to be high praise compared to how others in the trade described the vintage–“a catastrophe”–at the time. With that background, it was with trepidation that I approached the annual Union des Grands Crus tasting in New York, an event at which about 100 of the major Bordeaux properties present finished and bottled wines to the press and trade.

To my surprise, the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux is not a catastrophe. Far from it. But a great year for reds? No. Continue reading 2013 Bordeaux: Like Wagner’s Music, It’s Not as Bad as It Sounds

Château Durfort-Vivens, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) “Vivens” 2009

($38): I highly recommend the second wines of the top estates in Bordeaux, especially as the prices of the grand vins make them unattainable for most of us.  Vivens from Château Durfort-Vivens is an especially attractive one. Château Durfort-Vivens, classified as a 2nd growth in the Médoc classification of 1855, is regaining its former stature under the guidance of Gonzague Lurton, part of the family whose name implies excellence in Bordeaux.  The 2009 Vivens delivers the ripeness of that vintage without being overdone or flamboyant.  Enrobed in the plush tannins that are the signature of Margaux, it is “forward” and easy to enjoy now, yet has adequate structure so it doesn’t come across as a “fruit bomb.”  It finishes with a hint of earthiness that adds complexity.
92 Michael Apstein Feb 2, 2016

Château Lagrange, Bordeaux Blanc (France) “Les Arums de Lagrange” 2013

($34): There’s magic in this wine.  Fresh and precise, it conveys citrus notes and engaging bit of spice.  It maintains plenty of richness, which is buttressed by freshness and vivacity.  The pungency of Sauvignon Blanc is more apparent here since the proportion of that variety has been increased at the expense of Sémillon and Sauvignon Gris.  Since only 240 bottles came to the US market, it will be hard to find, but worth the effort.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2015

Château Lagrange, Bordeaux Blanc (France) “Les Arums de Lagrange” 2014

($35): The 2014 vintage was the first that came entirely from Lagrange’s new plantings.  Compared to the 2013, the 2014 is slightly more intense without losing any elegance or precision.  It conveys a marvelous combination of floral notes, grapefruit rind-like punch and even a hint of white pepper.  There’s less varietal Sauvignon Blanc character and more minerality speaking.  It dances on the palate, combing richness and freshness.  It sings!
94 Michael Apstein Dec 15, 2015

Château Magdelaine, St. Emilion (Bordeaux, France) 2010

($102): Château Magdelaine, one of only two properties in St. Emilion owned by the Pomerol-focused Moueix family, has always been one of my favorites from that appellation.  The 2010 is particularly appealing with a glorious and impeccably balanced mixture of floral, fruity and mineral components wrapped in fine firm tannins.  This young wine needs time — a decade or more — but you will be happy it’s in your cellar.  Of note, in September of 2012, Edouard Moueix, who manages the property, announced they were incorporating the property into the other Moueix-owned St. Emilion and its neighbor, Château Belair-Monange, and keeping the latter’s name, so the 2011 vintage is Magdelaine’s last.
95 Michael Apstein Dec 1, 2015

Château Phélan-Ségur, St. Estèphe (Bordeaux, France) 2008

($54): The wines from the 2008 vintage in Bordeaux are overlooked because they were firm upon release and were followed by the opulent and immediately appealing 2009s and then the refined and stylish 2010s.  But, as is always the case, talented producers, such as Château Phélan-Ségur, make excellent wines even in less revered years.  And this is one very good, easy-to-recommend 2008.  With refined dusty tannins and a gorgeous texture, it still conveys the earthy character of St. Estèphe.  It would be perfect with a grilled steak tonight, but given its balance and structure, there’s plenty of room for development, so there’s no rush.  And given the prices of the classified Bordeaux and even the top Napa Valley Cabernets, this 2008 is a bargain.
93 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2015

Château Bourbon La Chapelle, Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2012

($17): This, the second wine of Château Castera, a property classified as one of the Cru Bourgeois of Médoc, shows the value of Bordeaux.  The current owners acquired Château Castera in1986 from famed Bordeaux merchant and property owner, Alexis Lichine.  The last 30 years have seen enormous renovations in the winery and the vineyards that explain the current high level of quality, even of their second wine.  Located north of St. Estèphe near the Atlantic Ocean, the wine is harmonious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) and Merlot, which conveys an earthy character buttressed by a pleasantly firm structure.  Though easy to drink now, it is not an “aperitif” wine, but rather a good choice for lamb chops or steak.  A great buy!
87 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2015

Château de Taillan, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2011

($21): This property, classified as a Cru Bourgeois, a category that accounts for less than 5 percent of all the properties in Bordeaux, reinforces the idea that Bordeaux is, indeed, the place for value-packed red wines.  Less weighty and fruit-focused than California Merlot, this blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc has a beguiling combination of fruitiness and earthiness supported by firm, but not aggressive, structure and uplifting acidity.  It’s easy to recommend for drinking this fall with beef. Another bargain whose quality vastly exceeds its price.
88 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2015

Château Tour de Pez, St. Estèphe (Bordeaux, France) 2012

($23): This is the kind of wine that made Bordeaux famously popular in the past and could be the kind to revive people’s interest in Bordeaux.  Unusually charming for a young wine from St. Estèphe, it leads with herbal aromas followed by plenty of intensity without pandering to over ripeness.  Indeed, the non-fruit flavors — minerality or earthiness — explain its appeal.  Despite its power, it is refined.  The tannins are unusually polished for a St. Estèphe, making the wine ideal for current drinking with a steak hot off the grill.
90 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2015

Château Haut-Bacalan, Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux, France) 2012

($40): This wine shows that Bordeaux need not be super expensive nor put in the cellar for a decade or two before pulling the cork.  Its slightly burnt ash character identifies it as a wine from Pessac-Léognan, the prestigious subregion of Graves.  Like fine Bordeaux, it’s not just about fruitiness, though it has plenty of that.  Firm, but polished tannins add structure and make it a better choice for grilled meat this summer than for sipping as an aperitif.   But there’s no rush to drink it because its balance and harmony suggests it will age gracefully and develop more nuances over the next five to ten years.
90 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2015

Château de Sours, Bordeaux (France) 2010

($20, Old Bridge Cellars): Although the producer is always the most important information on the label, sometimes the importer’s name makes me sit up and take notice.  For example, if Jeanne Marie de Champs’ name were on the back label, I would buy the wine.  Similarly, when you see Old Bridge Cellars on a bottle, it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy it. Château de Sours, located not far from St. Emilion and Pomerol, but sporting a simple Bordeaux appellation, delivers more than its pedigree suggests.  This Merlot-based blend leads with slightly earthy aromatics that you’d expect from that grape and follows with a lovely combination of red fruit-like flavors and herbal savory notes.  Mild tannins allow you to enjoy this refined wine now with broiled lamb chops.
89 Michael Apstein Oct 14, 2014

Château Lassègue, St. Emilion Grand Cru (Bordeaux, France) “Lassègue” 2005

($150, Sovereign Wine Imports): The 2005 vintage was exceptional in Bordeaux, and, indeed, throughout France.  The weather was perfect throughout the growing season.  The right amount of sun and the right amount of rain at the right time brought the grapes to perfect maturity.  Harvest occurred under sunny dry conditions so the grapes came to the winery in ideal condition. Château Lassègue, recently acquired by California’s Jess Jackson group, decided to hold back this wine, their top of the line bottling, until they felt it was ready, which explains why it’s their current release.  Very aromatic — the aromas fill the room when you pull the cork — it shows the beauty of Bordeaux.  The superb balanced combination of ripe fruit flavors offset by herbaceous earthy notes delights the palate.  A lovely subtle bitterness in the mouth-watering finish cries for food.  Glossy, but firm tannins, allow you to drink it now with simply grilled lamb chops — a simple preparation allows the complexity and glory of this wine to shine.  As enjoyable as it is now, it still has plenty of evolution to go, so there’s no rush.  Save some space in your cellar for this graceful wine.
93 Michael Apstein Sep 9, 2014

Château Faizeau, Montagne-Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux, France) “Sélection Vieilles Vignes” 2010

($25): Montagne-Saint-Emilion, a “satellite” appellation of Saint-Emilion, lies adjacent to the north of that revered appellation.  The wines from this satellite are never as grand or complex, but then again they’re never as pricey.  Indeed, good values, such as Chateau Faizeau, are everywhere in Montagne-Saint Emilion, especially in a great year, such as 2010.  With this wine, mild savory notes marry fresh fruity ones.  It’s a good marriage, especially since fine, almost silky, tannins allow you to enjoy it tonight.
90 Michael Apstein May 13, 2014

Château Lestage Simon, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2010

($20, Advantage International):  A Cru Bourgeois, which is a classification level just under the Cru Classé, Château Lestage Simon is an excellent example of what Bordeaux does very well.  It balances plenty lush fruit flavors (a predominance of Merlot speaking) with hints of savory notes and a lovely austerity.  Open it a few hours before you plan to drink it with a succulent steak or leave it in the cellar for a couple of years to allow the tannins to mellow. 88 Michael Apstein Feb 11, 2014

Chateau Greysac, Medoc (Bordeaux, France) 2009

($20):  Château Greysac, a consistently value-packed wine, is one of the most widely available Bordeaux in the U.S. marketplace. The 2009 is particularly successful because the fleshy ripe fruitiness and power of the vintage marries nicely with the savory, slightly bitter notes characteristic of wine from the Médoc. In short, it’s a terrific choice tonight for steak frites.  But don’t think this wine is a flash in the pan.  Greysac from great vintages, like 2009, develops gorgeously—I’ve just had a 1982 Greysac, (another great vintage) from my cellar and it’s a winner. 89 Michael Apstein Dec 10, 2013

La Bastide Dauzac, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 2010

($39): When consumers consider Bordeaux, they rightly remember the names of the chateaux more than the names of the people behind them.  Well, the name André Lurton is worth remembering because the Lurton family has a spectacular track record of producing excellent wines from a variety of properties all over Bordeaux.  André Lurton’s daughter manages Château Dauzac, a classified Médoc from the commune of Margaux.  La Bastide Dauzac, the property’s second wine, is a great success in 2010 with a wonderful balance of herbal flavors and fresh red-fruit notes from the roughly 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend.  Moderate tannins give welcome support without being intrusive.  Enjoy it now with a steak while young and vibrant, or cellar it for a decade and savor the added complexity it will develop. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 10, 2013

Clos Floridene, Graves (Bordeaux, France) 2011

($33):  White wine from Bordeaux is undervalued and overlooked. Don’t make that mistake with this charming example. It has a near magical combination of a pleasantly grassy pungency beautifully balanced by a lanolin-like creaminess. Truly mouth filling, it’s long and graceful as well.  An energetic vibrancy keeps you coming back for another sip.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 10, 2013

Château Graville-Lacoste, Graves (Bordeaux, France) 2012

($18, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants): Though I reviewed this wine earlier this year, I just tasted it again and realized I should repeat my earlier recommendation because it’s an especially good choice for the Thanksgiving table.  It’s a perfectly harmonized amalgam of lanolin-like texture (from Semillon, which comprises a majority of the blend), with the brightness and freshness of Sauvignon Blanc.  A weightier wine than many white Bordeaux, it is still an excellent aperitif style wine as well as a fine option for the table.
90 Michael Apstein Nov 26, 2013

Léo de la Gaffelière, Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux, France) 2011

($19, Luneau USA / Nicolas Wines): Château La Gaffelière is one of the leading properties in Saint-Emilion, making sensational wine year in and year out.  As the competition at the top end of Bordeaux continues, the top properties make ever increasing severe selections to maintain the quality — and price — of the top wine.  Wine that doesn’t make the grade goes into the Château’s second label.  Well, as the prices of the second labels increase, the Château feel increasing pressure to maintain their quality by creating a third wine, Léo de la Gaffelière, in the case of Château La Gaffelière.  But the third string of a great team can still play a strong game.  This third wine is definitely worth your attention. Red fruit flavors mix with herbal notes and dance across the palate. The tannins that support the plushness are especially fine for a third wine and make it easy to enjoy now.
89 Michael Apstein Nov 26, 2013

Château de Cruzeau, Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux, France) 2010

($27, Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits): This wine exemplifies why Bordeaux remains a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wine.  It’s not just about the fruit, of which there’s plenty.  But the real excitement comes from the non-fruit flavors of earth, herbs and ash, plus the slight bitterness in the long and fine finish.  The moderate tannins are polished and fine, which, along with extraordinary freshness, makes the wine engaging now.  Drink it now or over the next year before it “closes up” or plan on cellaring it for a decade.  This refined wine is perfect for a holiday feast that includes a rib roast.
91 Michael Apstein Nov 26, 2013

Château Lamothe de Haux, Bordeaux (France) 2012

($12, Bayfield Importing): White wines from Bordeaux, such as this one, are underappreciated and hence, offer great value.  The 2012 Château Lamothe de Haux, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (40%), Semillon (40%) and Muscadelle, delivers a lovely grassy bite — Sauvignon Blanc speaking — atop a creamy texture, thanks to the Semillon.  The Muscadelle delivers enchanting fruity aromas.  Its freshness makes it work as a stand-alone aperitif while its substantial body makes it a good choice with turkey this Thanksgiving.  As a dividend, it has a surprising long finish considering the price.
88 Michael Apstein Nov 26, 2013

Château Nicot, Bordeaux (France) 2009

($10, Wine Brokers International): It is ironic that, at the same time Bordeaux is criticized for becoming a luxury commodity, it is producing terrific bargain wines like this one. Attractive herbal elements harmonize with plenty of dark fruit flavors. A subtle, fleeting bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal. Plush tannins make it perfect for current consumption. Buy it by the case–or two. Ten bucks! 89 Michael Apstein Dec 18, 2012

Château Recougne, Bordeaux Supérieur (Bordeaux, France) 2009

($16, Vintus):  As always, this “simple” Bordeaux is satisfying and a great value.  The herbal nuances that accompany the mixture of fruit flavors are what make it so appealing.  It has the length and grace you’d expect from a more expensive bottling.  Delightful now, I’d have no reservation about holding it for at least a decade because I’ve had 30 and yes, 40 year-old bottles of this wine that are stunningly good. 89 Michael Apstein May 8, 2012

Château Tour D’Auron, Bordeaux Supérieur (Bordeaux, France) 2009

($16, Vintus Imports):  Château Tour D’Auron is a château controlled by the well-regarded and talented Milhade family, who produces a bevy of fine wines from all their properties.  This “little” wine exemplifies why Bordeaux is so popular.  Supple and polished, it has the concentration of the 2009 vintage.  Subtle savory nuances complement the red and black fruit notes in this harmonious wine and make it more than just a fruit bomb.  It’s perfect for drinking now.
88 Michael Apstein Apr 24, 2012

Château Penin, Bordeaux Supérieur (Bordeaux, France) 2009

($15, Wine Brokers International):  The 2009 vintage in Bordeaux produced ripe, fleshy red wines.  Even at the lower appellation levels, such as Bordeaux Supérieur, the tannins are ripe and supple, not green, which makes these wines particularly attractive.  The 2009 Château Penin is classic Bordeaux with a satisfying combination of ripe red fruit flavors and earthy nuances.  Supple tannins and bright acidity add structure and balance the wine’s lushness. 87 Michael Apstein Feb 7, 2012

Château Lestrille, Bordeaux Supérieur (Bordeaux, France) 2009

($13, Wine Brokers International):  Here’s another bargain priced Bordeaux that shows how the lower appellations benefited from the ripeness of the 2009 vintage.  Black fruit flavor predominate in this weightier wine.  Subtle tarry elements and even a mildly chewy texture add to its appeal.  As expected from the vintage, the tannins are ripe, not astringent. 88 Michael Apstein Feb 7, 2012

2009 Bordeaux: Voluptuous Wines

They’re here!  The much-praised 2009 Bordeaux, the region’s priciest vintage, has arrived.  Representatives from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) were in New York this past week as part of their nationwide tour to give the trade the first comprehensive look at this much-heralded vintage.  Unlike a barrel tasting where tasters swirl and sip unfinished wines, the UGC tastings give representatives of the press and trade their first major chance to sample a broad array of finished, bottled wines, which will be appearing on retailers’ shelves shortly.

The UGC is an association of 132 grands crus estates located throughout all of the major Bordeaux appellations:  Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes, Barsac, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.  Importantly, the principals–owners, technical directors, or winemakers–pour the wines and are available for in-depth questions and discussions.

The tasting was beautifully organized by Balzac Communications and held in spacious surroundings–a necessity considering the number of wines and the crowd of attendees–at the Marriott Marquis.

Rave Early Reviews

The 2009 vintage in Bordeaux has received rave reviews based on initial barrel tastings conducted two years ago.  Calling it the vintage of the century has little meaning since that term is used in Bordeaux at least twice a decade.  But producers and critics have been effusive with their praise and the market responded with frenzied buying of “futures” despite stratospheric prices.

Longtime Bordeaux merchant David Milligan told me that he had initially not purchased these wines as futures for himself because of his age and a cellar full of older Bordeaux vintages, but after tasting them again, he decided that, despite the increased price, they were so outstanding that he was diving in–and hoping to live long enough to enjoy them.

Indeed, although the wines are available at the wholesale and retail level, the vast majority of them have been sold out and are no longer available at the producer level.  “It shows the long term view that the Bordelais have of the market,” noted Paul Wagner, President of Balzac Communications.  “These producers have no wine to sell, yet they are here at considerable expense to promote them and their region.”

A Lack of Consistency

Did the wines live up to the hype and expectations?  Yes and no.  And it depends very much on the style of wine you prefer.  The 2009s are perfect for those who favor voluptuous ripe powerful red wines.  In contrast, word on the street is that those who favor more classically proportioned vigorous reds should embrace the 2010s, which producers and critics are also trumpeting, based on barrel samples.

John Kolasa, managing director for both Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Canon in St. Emilion, remarked that 2009 was an “American” vintage, while the 2010s were a “British” vintage, meaning that the ‘09s would be for earlier drinking, while the more classic ‘10s would be for cellaring for the children.

There’s no question that there were some spectacular wines and there were more successes than failure in 2009.  But some wines were overblown and over-the-top.  There was a lack of consistency, unlike 2005 when you could literally close your eyes and point to select a terrific wine.

The character of the wines is always determined by the weather during the growing season, which in 2009 was perfect.  Sun and warmth with just enough rain at times allowed the grapes to ripen perfectly.  Ideal weather during the harvest meant the grapes were in superb condition, without rot or disease, when they arrived at the press.  Those ideal harvest conditions may explain why some of the wines are overblown.  Growers could wait, and wait, and wait to harvest because of glorious weather without the threat of rain.  Indeed, some grapes came in over-ripe, resulting in big, overblown wines with high levels of alcohol.  And wines high in alcohol extract more oak while they age in barrel than do lower alcohol wines, according to Kolasa.  Producers who exercised restraint, perhaps picked a little earlier, and were prudent with barrel-aging in 2009 made superb wines.  Those who didn’t were left with over ripe, alcoholic and overly oaky wines.

Lush and Fleshy Reds

The reds are ripe, lush and fleshy wines with very supple tannins and low-ish acidity.  Many are powerful but quite forward and approachable now although, like the 1982s, which were also easy to drink soon after release, I suspect the well-balanced 2009s will also develop nicely.  The ripeness and fleshiness of the vintage blurred and, in some instances, obscured the lines dividing appellations.  The wines from St. Estèphe, for example, did not have their usual earthy, slightly grainy tannins that distinguish them from the rest of Bordeaux.  Many of the wines from Pessac-Léognan lacked the distinct and engaging burnt ash quality I associate with that appellation.  On the other hand, the communes of Margaux, St. Julien and Pauillac seemed to be particularly successful in 2009, with the best wines reflecting their origins.  On the Right Bank, many of the ones from Pomerol and St. Emilion were boisterous, but still with glossy tannins.

Under-Appreciated Sweet Wines

The sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes are under-appreciated.  These wines keep extremely well for at least a week–and often longer–after they’ve been opened, which means you can easily enjoy just a glass with cheese or after and recork the bottle for later.  The 2009s showed very well, with richness tinged with apricot skin flavors.  Coutet ($75), with its cutting and vibrant acidity led the pack with Lafaurie-Peyraguey ($54) and Suduiraut ($93) not far behind.

 Pricey Stuff, but Value Exists

While the top names from 2009s are priced in the stratosphere–Lafite is selling for about $2,000 a bottle–there are fabulous buys at the lower ends of the prestige ladder.  Less revered appellations benefited enormously from the ripeness, eliminating under ripe grapes and green tannins.  And who really cares if the appellation lines of Bordeaux Supérieur are blurred?  Look for traditional over achieves from Moulis or Listrac or wines from the more humble Haut-Médoc and Médoc appellations for good value.

I’ve listed my favorites below, divided into three groups, based on the UCG tasting, a tasting of finished wines, not barrel samples, at VinExpo in Bordeaux in June 2011, or at other venues.  The wines are listed alphabetically within each group because they are very close in quality.  Indeed, the difference between my top and second tier is also small.  The third group represents particularly good values, wines $25 or less, although there are a few outstanding values in the other groups as well.  I would be happy to have any of these wines in my cellar.

95+ Point Red Wines

Branaire Ducru ($71), Brane Cantenac ($73), Domaine de Chevalier ($79), Conseillante ($237), Figeac ($269), Léoville Barton ($104), Pichon-Longueville [a.k.a. Pichon Baron] ($145), Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande [a.k.a. Pichon Lalande] ($207).

90-95 Point Red Wines

d’Armailhac ($54), Angludet ($35), Batailley ($44), Belgrave ($35), Canon-la-Gaffelière ($96), Cantemerle ($38), Clerc Milon ($65), Clos Fourtet ($111), Dauzac ($58), Durfort-Vivens ($40), Gazin ($93), Gloria ($46), Gruaud Larose ($84), d’Issan ($66), Lagrange ($63), La Lagune ($68), Langoa Barton ($70), Rausan-Gassies ($55), Rausan-Ségla ($106), Smith Haut Lafitte ($114),

Excellent Value Red Wines ($25 or less)

Citran ($22), Coufran ($24), Greysac ($25), La Tour de By ($25).

The Angludet, Batailley, Belgrave and Dufort-Vivens also represent outstanding value, albeit a higher price point.

February 7, 2012

Château Recougne, Bordeaux Superieur (Bordeaux, France) 2006

($15, Ex Cellars Wine Agency):  This is the kind of Bordeaux that everyone loves to find because it delivers more than either the price or the appellation suggests.  Château Recougne, one of the key properties of the talented Milhade family, is located near Pomerol on the right bank of Bordeaux’s Gironde River.  Similar to most right bank properties, Merlot is predominant, comprising 75% of the blend, with Cabernet Franc (10%) and Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for the remainder. The 2006 Recougne had a hard act to follow, coming after the excellent 2005 and performs beautifully.  Not just fruity, it delivers a gracious combination of leafy, earthy notes and ripe red fruit flavors surrounded by fine tannins.  Château Recougne, despite its lowly appellation, is a wine that develops beautifully with bottle age.  Over the last decade, I’ve had many bottles of the 1952, which continues to show complexity, suaveness and brightness.  So you can buy this one by the case and not worry that its many charms will fade. 90 Michael Apstein Sep 14, 2010

Christian Moueix, Bordeaux (France) Merlot “Encore” 2005

($15, Kobrand): If the Moueix family, who owns or controls many properties in Pomerol–including Chateau Pétrus–where Merlot is king, can’t produce an exhilarating Merlot, then no one can.  The name, Encore, is apt because after one taste you want more of this serious Merlot.  With succulent–but not sweet or overripe fruit–and balanced fine tannins, it shows the brilliance of the producer and the vintage.  It’s easy to recommend for current drinking. 88 Michael Apstein Jan 5, 2010

Economic squeeze hitting Bordeaux wines

“This could be the crash of the century instead of the vintage of the century,” quipped Coco Conroy of Château Brane-Cantenac, a second-growth property in Margaux, as she jokingly referred to Bordeaux’s 2008 vintage.

Like other blue chips, Bordeaux, the bluest of blue chips in the world’s wine market, is not immune to this economic downturn. The Bordeaux market is currently in chaos. Buyers are reluctant to step up to the plate. Prices are falling sharply. It is possible that Bordeaux’s long-established, and intricate, system of selling wines faces fundamental change.

Bordeaux has seen crisis before in the early 1970s and early 1990s. The major difference now is that Bordeaux represents a much smaller portion of the overall wine market. And back then, importers had to buy Bordeaux for their portfolios; without it, they were not credible.

Now Bordeaux represents a much smaller portion of the overall wine market. Despite its shrinking share, Bordeaux prices have risen – at least until now – like a rocket, making it much more capital-intensive than any other types of wine.

Hence it is far less important and far more risky for an importer to handle Bordeaux than it was even 15 years ago. And this year, with fewer buyers for expensive wines, many importers are shying away.

Historically, Bordeaux sales are predictable. The wines are sold en primeur, a system unique to Bordeaux, in which the wines are sold in advance – as “futures” – two years before they are bottled and shipped to retailers. (Unlike buying pork belly futures, the consumer typically wants to take delivery of the wine.) Buyers and critics troop to the region the first week of April every year to attend organized tastings of the new vintage and to assess the wines.

Once the reviews of critic Robert Parker come out, usually in May or June, individual chateaux set their prices. Prices generally move in the same direction – usually up compared with previous years – but by varying degrees depending on the reviews.

But this year, to jump-start the market, some set prices even before Parker weighed in. Most have dropped substantially. Chateau Angelus, a top St. Emilion and the first to announce prices, cut its price almost in half, to 2004 levels. Even the sought-after first growths – Chateau Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild – who always easily sell their wine and who usually announce their prices last, have already posted dramatic decreases compared to prior years. Latour’s initial price of 110 euros was less than half the 2007 price.

Impact on 2007 prices

The price drops sent a tsunami through the retail market. Many 2008s are selling for less than the 2007s, an inferior vintage by all accounts. Retailers around the country are slashing prices – and taking losses – on unsold 2007s and even 2006s. MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., just slashed the prices on its stocks of 2006s by 50 percent. Mark Wessels, MacArthur’s Bordeaux buyer, expects something similar for the 2007s. “Who’s going to buy the 2007 l’Angelus for $199 when the 2008, a better wine, is selling for $99?” he asks.

Clyde Beffa Jr., who buys Bordeaux for K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, anticipates taking a loss on his 2007s, but customers have responded to the lower-priced 2008s. He points to Chateau Leoville-Barton, a well-regarded St. Julien, for $44: “It’s hard to find good California Cabernet at that price.”

So there’s strength for some wines. Parker, whose reviews came out in late April, praised the vintage in general and Lafite in particular, causing its price to double. But up until the publication of Parker’s assessments, buyers were showing far less interest in the 2008s.

This year, Bordeaux’s en-primeur week was missing some habitually large purchasers – including Wessels and Beffa. Attendance was down overall by about 10 percent.

The weak demand and falling prices prompted some producers to consider abandoning the whole system, at least temporarily. Typically, the en primeur system shifted power toward producers; they have been reluctant to give it up because it provides owners with early sales and an ability to test the market by releasing only part of their stock. Lafite’s preliminary Parker score of 98-100, for instance, allowed them to dramatically raise prices for their remaining stocks of 2008s. But that has been the exception.

“The 2008 en primeur campaign isn’t going to work,” according to John Kolasa, director of Chateau Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Chateau Canon, a leading property in St. Emilion. He thinks the prudent thing to do is to “recognize the horrible economic situation and hold wines for a couple of years.”

Some holding back

Patrick Maroteaux, president of Château Branaire-Ducru, a top property in St. Julien, is considering a similar tack. “People are clamoring for me to reduce my price by 50 percent,” he says, “which would mean that I would be charging less for my 2008, a much better wine, than for the 2007. And there’s no guarantee that it will sell even at that price.”

A few properties, including the prestigious Chateau Pichon-Longueville (Baron), adopted this strategy in the early 1990s during a similar economic turndown. But many estates simply need the cash. Others aren’t willing to abandon tradition. Jean-René Matignon, technical director at Pichon-Longueville (Baron), expects management to sell at least a portion of the 2008 vintage en primeur.

Large-scale buyers are just as hesitant to place orders in an uncertain economy-especially at prices they may not be able to pass onto their customers-for fear of being stuck with wines they cannot sell. Volatile currency exchange rates – the dollar has fluctuated against the euro by 20 percent in the last six months – only make things worse. Yet those who fail to buy the 2008s could face retaliation from producers, who could punish them by refusing to sell them their allocation in the future.

Given its hidebound ways, it is improbable that the en primeur system even survived this long, especially given Bordeaux’s shrinking dominance of the world of wine. It served an important function when most chateaux were short of cash and wines needed prolonged aging. But now there is less barrel aging and the wines are consumed sooner. With so many other regions producing similar wines, it’s surprising that the Bordelais – but no one else – still persuade buyers to pony up two years in advance.

More reluctance

So this year’s turbulence may change the game. Fred Ek, a principal of Ex Cellars Wine Agencies, an importer based in Cambridge, Mass., and Solvang (Santa Barbara County), says importers in general are leery of putting money up front now.

“Just look at the last two years,” Ek says. “The economy is unstable. The currency risks are substantial. It doesn’t make sense to take a greater risk to capture a smaller portion of the overall wine market.”

Although it’s hard to envision Bordeaux’s long-established system disappearing entirely, the economy is accelerating the trend of some of its players abandoning it.

Bordeaux price plunge

Some initial release prices for Bordeaux chateaux in 2008 show marked drops from previous years. Prices are in euros per bottle. Currency rates have created further instability: The euro was about 1.29 for the 2004s; 1.55 for the 2007s and about 1.32 for the 2008s.


Source: Decanter, Chateau Palmer

This article appeared on page J – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday May 10, 2009