In any vintage where Merlot shines hopes are always high for the wines of Pessac-Leognan. Situated just to the south of the city of Bordeaux it has a unique micro-climate, a touch warmer with less cooling influence from the river, distinct weather patterns and, generally, a higher level of gravel in the soil. The balance of plantings between Cabernet and Merlot gives the estates the opportunity of adjusting the blend to favour whichever grape variety has performed best in a given vintage.
An early appointment at Chateau Haut-Brion is the bright start to an otherwise dreary drizzly grey morning. There is always something slightly incongruous about emerging with little warning from a very ordinary suburb of Bordeaux into the middle of vineyards and then the grandeur of the chateau itself. An array of nine glasses is set out for each person in the calm quiet of the chateau’s orangery, as Clarence Dillon, best known for Haut-Brion and its neighbouring estate La Mission Haut-Brion, are also showing their St Emilion estate Chateau Quintus and its second wine, Le Dragon. Potentially daunting for 8am, but this is always such a consummate range of wines that we can’t wait to get started.
At 30% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon the Chapelle de la Mission has beautifully bright fruit on the nose, while the relatively high proportion of Merlot (57%) in the Clarence de Haut-Brion, formerly Bahans, makes for a supple mouthful of plums, mocha and spice.
La Mission itself is a pleasure to taste, as you would expect, however this morning it is the Haut-Brion which is definitely the star of the show. The nose is not shouting but on the palate it speaks volumes of the delights to come. It has a line of freshness running through its core which supports the weight and layers and layers of flavour, and then on to an immensely long finish. In my book this is the wine of the vintage (of those I have tasted which excludes the Left Bank First Growths) and as close to perfection as we can hope to see – it would be very interesting to taste this side by side with Cheval Blanc.
Of the two great white wines La Mission Blanc is Semillon dominant at 67%, while Haut-Brion Blanc has 69% Sauvignon Blanc so unsurprisingly the aromatics and structure are very distinct. La Mission is opulent and flattering, while Haut-Brion is bright with citrus, hints of spice and a lovely mineral drive.
(As an aside it is important to remember that this is akin to judging a person’s future based on five minutes’ acquaintance with a toddler on one particular day. Hence the importance of our buying team making multiple visits and re-tasting the wines over a number of months to get a real perspective on the vintage.)
On to Haut Bailly to be greeted by the always charming Veronique Sanders. This is invariably a Goedhuis favourite and with good reason. La Parde is a second wine which would put many more famous (and expensive) second wines to shame. The Grand Vin is a real success, (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 4% Peitit Verdot) combining the lovely fully ripe fruit and warmth of the best 2015s with tension, drive and typical terroir tannic structure. Unusually for this area Haut Bailly do not make a white wine.
Next stop is the UGC at Malartic Lagraviere, one of the more extensive tastings with whites and reds from almost every chateau present. The reds were a distinctly mixed bag and more challenging to taste than anticipated. A refreshing range of whites – a veritable masterclass in blended Sauvignon Blanc, with proportions ranging from 100% (Ch Louviere – their tiny parcel of Semillon went into their second wine this year) to Ch de Fieuzal with only 55% Sauvignon Blanc to 45% Semillon. Only Ch Olivier mentioned the 2% Muscadelle in their wine, the others making up the balance with only Semillon. Highlights of the whites included Carbonnieux, Domaine de Chevalier (to be retasted again at the chateau) and Pique-Caillou.
A quick stop off at Smith Haut Lafitte, then a tasting and lunch at Domaine de Chevalier rounded off the day and trip, before heading to the airport. Olivier and Anne Bernard are supremely welcoming, and quite simply lovely. They host a mere 120 people to lunch each day of the UGC tastings. A proper Bordelais lunch of foie gras and oysters, navarin d’agneau and a spectacular truffled brie (made by Olivier himself) was matched with an extraordinary selection of wines, from the 2006 and 1996 vintages, including large formats and first growths. Mouton 1996 from magnum was beautifully perfumed and poised, and clearly showed its seniority in the line-up. The Domaine de Chevalier 1996 in double magnum was snapping at its heels…
Back to the 2015s: Domaine de Chevalier Rouge had sweet vibrant red fruit, with striking elegance and finesse. Their white, which had shone at the UGC, showed just as well in the relative calm of the Bernards’ tasting room.
The flight home was packed with the UK trade speculating about price and points. It certainly seems to me that the Bordelais’ early excitement and the exuberance of James Suckling’s scores is not merited in every instance. However there are many extremely good and some great wines, with a purity of cool slowly ripened fruit and a lovely structure, drive and freshness that will give great pleasure and have the potential to age beautifully.