On Wednesday evening I attended the Tasting of Primeurs 2016 from the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux, thanks to an invitation from Business France, at Le Méridien Piccadilly Hotel in London. Now I’m quite sure that many readers will wonder what I was doing drinking Bordeaux? Well, it is true that I don’t write an awful lot about the region, though I did write extensively about my stay at Pichon-Baron in 2015. But that lack of interest has not necessarily resulted from the wines themselves…well, not completely.
I do have plenty of Bordeaux in the cellar, but I admit that I have bought very little over the past several years. There are four reasons why that is the case. First, price. The finest wines of Bordeaux are just way too expensive. Second, if image seeps into the subconscious, then the corporate image of Bordeaux does grate a bit, and with it the idea that image and marketing somehow come first. Thirdly, for someone brought up on Bordeaux, there’s no doubt that the rest of the world of wine has just overtaken it, and left it behind, when it comes to sheer excitement. And finally, Bordeaux has been, with some notable exceptions, rather slower than most in engaging with sustainable farming and winemaking, such as organics, biodynamics and even natural wine. Of course, the above statements are not completely true, but there is an element of truth in them.
If Bordeaux still has something to offer beyond the two polar opposite markets of the wealthy Collector and les grandes surfaces, a Tasting like this should be just perfect in order to demonstrate that the region is addressing those four points above.
Le Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux is an amalgamation of Le Grand Cercle Rive Droite (founded 2002), and Le Grand Cercle Rive Gauche (founded 2013). There are currently 164 members from both Left and Right Banks of the Rivers Garonne/Dordogne, and the organisation’s stated aim is to show that there is a wealth of quality Bordeaux at reasonable prices. All members have to undergo two obligatory tastings every year, which includes a blind tasting by independent experts for each new vintage.
The vintage here is 2016. It follows a very successful year for Bordeaux, especially in terms of marketing and hype. But there is no doubt that 2015, bearing in mind that I do not like generalisations, is a vintage with two disadvantages. With the wine writers calling it the best vintage since the highly acclaimed 2010, it sparked enough interest to make it look quite expensive. On top of that, it has something in common with 2009. Some may talk of the forward, very ripe, fruit. Others may point to that tiny number in the corner of the label measuring (I use that term lightly) alcohol content.
The 2016s faced a very different growing season to the previous year, and one which initially had the châteaux owners worried. The first six months of the year were very wet, indeed much of the region saw twice as much rainfall as in a “normal” year. But come July and beyond, it suddenly became very dry. The vines got through these dry months simply because of the wet first half of the year. Even so, drought became a worry until, just at the right moment in mid-September, a little rain fell. This saw the vines move back into growth and ripening, which got them through to a generally problem-free harvest.
In prospect then, this promised to be a very good tasting. I don’t claim to be an expert at tasting wines en primeur. The tannins are the biggest problem. Not that they disguise the wine, because when the fruit is there, and ripe, and when the grapes were healthy, you can still taste that. Equally, when a wine is over extracted, or the oak is spread like thick blackcurrant jam on a thrice toasted crumpet, that will not be hidden. It is merely the fatigue factor. Practice makes perfect, and to be fair, the Saint-Chinian Tasting prepared me a little. But after a while the tannins take their toll. Bordeaux expertise is definitely earned the hard way.
I have to say that I was very impressed with the wines I tasted. Some were estates I’ve known since my early days in wine. Some were estates I’d only heard of by reputation, and some I’d never tasted before. Every property showed their 2016 vintage, and generally I liked them a lot. I think that if one can make any broad generalisations, 2016 is likely to appeal to me on account of its freshness. Freshness, meaning fruit which was ripe, more than over ripe, coupled with a nice lick of balancing acidity at a level which I felt should remain when the wines enter their drinking window. Perhaps retaining freshness was possible because although the vintage may have been very dry in it’s second half, temperatures never reached heatwave conditions, and night time temperatures dropped.
Some people liken 2016 to 1990, which might be a step too far. Others point to technical similarities with 2010. Yet others point to the very high tannins measured, even in the Merlot, and remind us that a sustained dry period before and during harvest does not always bode well. I am certainly not the one to make pronouncements other than my own personal pleasure at tasting these wines, but I can say with some confidence that I experienced a good degree of consistency across the best of the wines here.
Did the Grand Cercle address my issues with Bordeaux? Certainly these are not estates which mimic the Grand Cru Classés in aloofness and self-satisfied superiority (although the aristocratic uniform of the Bordelais was occasionally in evidence on certain older, patrician looking, grey haired, gentlemen). Whatever their outfits, a greater sense of modesty was more evident than perhaps I expected.
Naturally prospective prices were not given for these wine samples, but it is clear that prices are generally reasonable. The suggestion that Bordeaux is over priced does not fairly apply in most cases here. The grander wines of the region dominate our consciousness to such a degree that it is easy to forget that these wines may often be a good bit cheaper than the fashionable Jura, Bierzo, Adelaide Hills or Swartland wines we buy.
And whilst natural wine is a rare (though not non-existent) phenomenon in the greater Bordeaux region, organics is now fairly widespread, and even biodynamic practices, once the domaine of a few like Pontet-Canet, are on the rise. Producers, often where a younger generation has taken over (these being predominantly family estates), are also re-thinking many of the vineyard and cellar practices brought in during the era of bold and brassy wines designed to please a market whose pendulum is starting to swing in the opposite direction, as palates gain in sophistication once more. One of the stated tenets of the Grand Cercle relates to ethical practices, which apply equally to the vineyard, the winery and to the business of selling the wine.
You never know, but in a few years we will probably all be talking about experimentation and innovation becoming rife in Bordeaux. There’s already a little, if you know where to look. Producers just need the confidence to make themselves stand out in one of the largest viticultural regions on the planet.
As I said above, each wine producer showed their 2016, and generally chose one other vintage to highlight how their red wines develop. Some also showed a white wine. I’m not going to write extensive notes for each producer I tasted. Those are the bits I generally skip when Decanter has its vintage overview. Too many identical adjectives, or if not, increasingly strained attempts to find different ones, would be my result. So if I’ve got something worth saying, I’ll say it, especially about whatever additional vintage was shown. I think you’ve got the idea that I enjoyed stretching myself and, as a result, that the wines were appealing. Where no vintage is stated I am discussing the 2016 red wine.
Ch Dalem (Saillans) – Brigitte Rullier-Loussert has run Dalem since the 2003 vintage. There is a maximum of 50% new oak, the estate is certified organic, and the 2016 was fresh with a certain lightness, which was appealing (though of course the colour is dense). The tannins are not harsh in any way.
Haut-Carles (Saillans) – The Droulers family farm just seven hectares, almost all Merlot (with 5% Cabernet Franc and more recently planted Malbec). This tasted more tannic and structured than the Dalem, despite the Merlot, and the tannins were certainly mouth coating, but it had a lovely nose, very attractive.
Ch De La Rivière (La Rivière) – The most famous estate in Fronsac, and one I recall being able to purchase in French hypermarché in the 1990s. This is altogether a larger estate with around 67 hectares planted, most of that being to red varieties. The 2016 white was very refreshing and herby, a nice blend of 67% Sauvignon Blanc and 33% Sauvignon Gris. I liked it a lot. The 2016 red had nice concentrated Blackcurrant fruit. The fruit in the 2011 was surprisingly juicy and sweet scented, and very drinkable.
Ch Villars (Saillans) – The tannins were quite tough on the 2016, yet the fruit was nicely soft. The 2015 was rounder and fatter on nose and palate, but the same softness in the fruit was evident. The aim here is elegance, and although the ’15 is labelled as 14.8% alcohol, the 2016 is expected to be more like 14.4%.
Ch Sainte-Barbe (Ambès) – This is a 27 hectare property run by the De Gaye family, currently seeking a UK importer. There is a real château here, an attractive chartreuse built in 1760, designed by Victor Louis, who designed the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux. The vignoble is mainly planted to Merlot, with a little Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, plus Petit Verdot. Ambès is actually situated right on the tongue of land between the Dordogne and the Garonne as it forks into the Gironde Estuary.
Sainte-Barbe is not currently organic, but aims to follow sustainable viticulture. The 2016 red was fruity and pleasant, and not very tannic. A red from the 2012 vintage still quite dark in colour, but had a lovely pure scent and was very satisfying. Drinking now, but will improve over five years, for sure.
Production here is around 45,000 bottles. It’s the kind of Red Bordeaux which I think would pass under the radar of most wine critics (I suppose if it didn’t they’d have a UK agent). I think that such an estate is doing very well to be part of the Grand Cercle, standing beside some illustrious names. These are really just the sort of wines Bordeaux needs to promote. It sounds patronising to call it good honest Bordeaux, because that is once how such a phrase would have been intended. But this is a well made “petit château”, and it should be credited as such.
POMEROL and LALANDE DE POMEROL
Clos Vieux Taillefer (Libourne) – A good 2016, but a very attractive 2014 too. That wine had a nice bright colour, a nice Merlot nose and was remarkably soft. It is fair to point out that each producer chose which second vintage to bring, but the 2014s tasted here were all attractive. Having just read the notes from the 2014 Cru Bourgeois Tasting in Decanter this month, I think there will be much pleasure to be had from this less fancied vintage.
Ch Vray Croix de Gay – A Pomerol estate which some pundits have rather ignored in the past, this estate, and its more widely seen but less famous sister, Château Siaurac (in Néac, Lalande de Pomerol) have converted, or are under conversion, to biodynamics (since 2014 for the 3.67 hectares of the former, with a slower conversion for the 46 ha of the latter). “Vray Croix” had nice, plump Pomerol fruit, whilst Siaurac seems to echo this, albeit not quite so concentrated.
Paul Goldschmidt still owns a majority stake in these properties, but François Pinault’s Artemis Group are an investor. The estates also benefit from the technical direction of Penelope Godefroy (ex Latour agronomist) with help from Jean-Claude Berrouet (ex Pétrus, but with considerable experience of biodynamics from his own Irouléguy estate). These properties seem to be moving forward quite quickly, in quality as well as in viti-vinicultural philosophy.
SAINT EMILION GC/GCC
Ch Rol Valentin (Saint-Emilion) – This is another quite small vineyard, just 7.3 ha run by Alexandra and Nicolas Robin. Merlot here accounts for 90% of the blend, supplemented with Cabernet Franc, which they like a lot. As well as a promising 2016, the 2014 was interesting. Labelled at 14.5% alcohol, it was nevertheless balanced.
Ch Le Prieuré is another wine in the Goldschmidt/Artemis stable. Following the move to biodynamics at their other properties, here they hope to implement biodynamics fully over the 6.24 ha at Le Prieuré by the 2018 vintage. The vineyard is not large, but is quite spread out, which has certain advantages, if making it harder to work. The proportion of Merlot in the 2016 is 80%, with the rest being Cabernet Franc. I found softness and spice under quite big tannins (depending on vintage this wine spends between 12 to 16 months in oak, 50% of which will be new).
Ch Yon-Figeac (Saint-Emilion) – This had a very dense colour and glycerol legs as thick as a tree trunk, with big tannins, quite big in the attack, coating the tongue thoroughly. 14.5% alcohol too. But the 2014 was paler and had a lovely fruit-driven bouquet. There was elegance there, and only 13.5% alcohol. Perhaps my lack of experience is affecting my judgement if I say I really enjoyed the 2014 but found the ’16 harder to assess?
MÉDOC/HAUT-MÉDOC and MARGAUX
Ch La Cardonne and Ch Ramafort (Blaignan) – La Cardonne was one of my earliest Bordeaux experiences. It used to be an old Oddbins favourite in their glory days. It’s a largish estate, 35 ha, about half of which is Merlot and the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon, with a little Cabernet Franc. The château is situated just north of Potensac, and southwest of Blaignan, about four or five kilometres north of the border with Saint-Estèphe and the Haut-Médoc.
The wines of this part of the region are often criticised on two counts – over extraction and poor oak handling. I wouldn’t level that criticism at La Cardonne. The tannins here coated the mouth and tongue more than some, but there was definitely good fruit underneath. I also thought the 2010 was very good. Mind you, two of the most eminent voices on Red Bordeaux tasted at this table before and after me. I’d have loved to know what they thought?
Ch de Villegeorge (Avensan) – This estate is run by Marie-Laure Lurton, who was on hand to pour the wines, along with those of her Margaux property, Ch La Tour de Bessan.
I thought the 2016 Villegeorge was very well made and attractive. Soft and gentle, but not lacking personality. The varietal split, 56% Merlot/44% Cabernet Sauvignon, is more even than at La Tour de Bessan (where in 2016 Merlot makes up 77%, and the remainder is Cabernet Sauvignon with a tiny but significant dollop of Petit Verdot). There’s a certain lightness here which does not indicate lack of substance, more elegance.
Ch d’Arsac (Arsac) – is a Margaux estate run by Philippe Raoux. It’s a large estate of more than fifty hectares, a couple of which are planted to Sauvignon Blanc for white wine. The 2016 white has a certain simplicity from being 100% Sauvignon Blanc, but it has a lovely nose and a little weight and gras, so it is not at all one-dimensional. The 2016 red is quite dark and has a very strong scent of Merlot on the nose, more plum, even cherry, than blackcurrant. The 2014 was also attractive again, here.
Philippe Roux is also responsible for the “Winemakers’ Collection”. Every year a winemaker is invited to create a wine, without any restraints or conditions, from Arsac fruit. Previous invitees have included both Michel and Dany Rolland, Denis Dubordieu, Zelma Long and Alain Raynaud (who is now President of the Grand Cercle), to name but a few. For 2016 we have Winemakers’ Collection Saison 11 – Hubert de Boüard. De Boüard probably needs no introduction and he will be familiar from his flowing locks and his significant achievements at Château Angélus in Saint-Emilion.
Here, he’s fashioned a very nice fruity white made from Sauvignon Blanc, and a dark coloured red which currently has a brooding nose, but a gentler palate, not as big, nor tannic, as the nose perhaps suggests, and with a smooth velvet texture already. Both are pretty successful, with the Winemakers’ Collection 2016 red being somewhat more powerful to my palate than the d’Arsac from the same vintage.
GRAVES and PESSAC-LÉOGNAN
Ch Roquetaillade La Grange (Mazères) – This estate, at the southern end of the Graves, comprises what were once the original vineyards of the imposing Château Roquetaillade. Château Roquetaillade, which I have visited, was completely restored (sic) by Viollet-le-Duc and one of his pupils, a M. Duthoit, in the 1860s. The restoration is characteristically heavy, but the château is nevertheless a brilliant example of the famous Viollet-le-Duc style, and the interior is very impressive in that context.
I recall having some wines from Roquetaillade La Grange many years ago. Since then a lot of work has been undertaken in these vineyards by the three members of the owning Guignard family, Bruno, Dominique and Pascal. The white here is an interesting blend of 60% Sémillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Muscadelle. The latter variety is quite rare in Bordeaux dry whites now, and I’d guess that 20% is a reasonably high proportion. It suffers if over cropped, but when well grown it adds a nice white peach note, as it does here.
The 2016 red is quite light, with Cabernet Sauvignon dominating Merlot, both in the blend and on the nose. The 2009 was pleasantly lower in alcohol than some wines of this vintage, just 13%. Whatever issues of ripeness this could signal in cooler vintages, this was a refreshing ’09. I’m not trying to puff up these wines more than they are worth, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Ch Haut Lagrange (Léognan) – A small (7.5 ha) vineyard run by Francis and Ghislain Boutemy, producing around just 6,000 bottles of white wine and 40,000 of red per year. The 2016 white, an equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon, was presented as a cloudy sample, the only one of the day. It had a very unusual nose, intriguing, and was nicely fresh on the palate. It sees 20% new oak, but this seemed to add something, rather than detract.
The red was almost bright cherry in colour, very vibrant, with a nose of very fresh red and black fruits which were almost crunchy on the palate. Its alcoholic content somehow tasted lower than the 13.5% I was told the sample probably contained (a turn up for the books – producers are more often inclined to under estimate alcohol these days).
Ch de Myrat (Barsac) – Although Barsac is technically a separate appellation, its wines are entitled to be labelled as Sauternes, and De Myrat was classified in 1855 as a Cru Classé of Sauternes. It may not be the most well known of the Sauternes and Barsac crus but it is amazing value. One might go so far as calling it ridiculously cheap, as almost all but the most famous wines from this appellation invariably are. Both 2016 and 2010 showed freshness, rather than any unctuous botrytis character. Tropical fruits with honey, but very fresh rather than heavy or very concentrated. Sémillon dominates just 8% Sauvignon Blanc, and 4% of 25-year-old Muscadelle.
These are generally considered wines to drink after perhaps a decade, if you want to keep them. But the 2010 seemed very nice, and the 2016 refreshing, albeit a shame to open on release. It was a nice way to end the Tasting. Living with someone who does not really like botrytis wines, I forget how marvelous Sauternes (and Barsac) can be, though I don’t think this wine would fail to please if you are looking for freshness over concentration.