Following my recent trip to Bordeaux, I published a report on the 2019 vintage. I commented, “Last week I experienced Bordeaux at its absolute best: an exceptional selection of the 2019 vintage primeurs, the excitement and bustle of harvest time, full of nervous energy and expectation, and some of the kindest hospitability I have experienced in 35 years in the trade, possibly unsurprising as I was the first overseas buyer many of them had seen for 6 months… It served as a reminder that few other regions in the world make wines that can age for 50 years or more and still have youth, vibrance and give extraordinary pleasure” So now it's time to share some of those experiences.
Despite Covid-19 restrictions, nearly every Chateau in all the major appellations opened their doors to me in appreciation of the effort I put in to taste the 2019 Bordeaux vintage on site, even though, as many commented, most of the wines have all sold through! It amounted to nearly 3,000 kms of driving (not wishing to fly or take the train) but it was worth every bit of it. The traditional primeur tastings in April are intense and fast. With almost 500 wines to taste in a week there is little time for small talk and contemplations. I visited some of our major Château friends and was able to give time to each one individually either in the cellar or over a meal. In return, proprietors, winemakers and directors opened their doors and gave up a lot of their time despite the intensity and pressure of a new vintage and the 2020 harvest in full flow. It is not often that you get two hours with the technical team at Ch Cheval Blanc tasting a vintage and discussing the individual wines, vineyard plots and so much more. The same goes for Ch Margaux with Philippe Bascaules, one of the wine world greats and yet so humble in his role both at this the most graceful of first growths and as advisor to California’s Ingelnook estate owned by film producing legend Francis Ford Coppola. I also had extended tasting time at Latour, Mouton, Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan, La Conseillante, Les Carmes Haut Brion and many others.
I knew I was in for a good week at the end of my first morning. Having expressed my interest in St Emilion Grand Cru Classé Ch Pressac to Bordeaux wine writer Jane Anson’s husband Francis, a resident négociant, he promptly invited proprietor Jean-Francois Quenin to be present at our meeting and laid on a 13 vintage vertical of these wines going back to 2007. It was fascinating and showed the huge strides this property has made both in style and quality and the 2016 vintage particularly captured my attention. We then sat down to a light lunch and I had my first blind wine of the week, a sensational 1996 Ch Mouton Rothschild. It doesn’t get much better than that. This was quite startling in quality, having unfortunately wrongly identified it as 1995, it had the characteristic drive and precision of high class Cabernet fruit but there was a glorious plumpness and richness that I hadn’t remembered. Succulent, gamey and mature, it’s delicious now. But no panic, this wine will go on and on.
Day two and the Pauillac bonanza continued. Lunch today was with Ch Lynch-Bages’ proprietor Jean-Charles Cazes. For the last two years, extensive work has been undertaken to develop a new chai and cellar. Sadly this isn’t yet complete due to current building restrictions so we ate at their delightful Café Lavinal in the Bages village, a project developed by Jean-Charles’ father Jean-Michel. We sat in the square in the sunshine and enjoyed coq au vin and a glass or two of 1996 Ch Lynch Bages which fortunately wasn’t served blind. However, I’m sure I would have guessed it because it reflected the vintage perfectly: so fresh and uplifting, it was full of brightness and energy with lovely graphite and bright sweet dark fruit flavours. The Café Lavinal is a must visit for anybody visiting Pauillac, serving unpretentious, delicious food and some excellent wines, including many by the glass.
The evening was no less disappointing, with our great friend the négociant Sebastien Moses. We dined at Bordeaux’s hottest restaurant “Garopapilles”. This is a place where menus don’t exist, you get what the chef decides, and each guest’s plate is different. When we are free of Covid, this will be a great place to come and share some extraordinary dishes. Our meal was the perfect accompaniment to the excellent 2000 Ch Pontet-Canet, a wine showing the intensity and structure of the 2000 vintage and the bold power of this famous estate neighbouring Mouton Rothschild.
Following my fest of Médoc wines, it was time for the Right Bank, and St Emilion and Pomerol. I spent a quite amazing four hours with Nicolas Audebert at Ch Berliquet, the relatively unknown 10ha St Emilion Grand Cru classé owned by the Werthemeir brothers’ (of Chanel fame), who also own Ch Canon. This recently acquired jewel has a beautiful old windmill and the finest view in the commune looking across to Canon, Angelus, Quintus and many more great names….We enjoyed lunch on the terrace contemplating the view and were served food form the newly completed kitchen, a real treat. Our aperitif was from the latest property in the family portfolio, the Domaine de L’Ile rosé from the Provencal island of Porquerolles, followed by one of my favourite vintages of all time, 2005 Ch Canon. The next wine was supposed to be blind but luckily the chef, who acted as sommelier too, spilled the beans as he poured my glass. It was a 1982 Ch Rauzan Segla which was quite simply amazing. Sweet, gamey and full of aged tertiary fruit flavours, this bottle has wonderfully fine silky tannins and is fully mature. It would be a crime not to drink now. A truly exquisite glass from an era when nobody discussed yields and selection, everything went into the vats.And who can question such a policy when the end result is a wine of this quality! In the evening I was ready for a break and a relaxing Tapas supper overlooking the St Emilion sunset at Ch Troplong Mondot’s newly completed rooms did just the job. I might have had a refreshing glass or two of Domaine Vacheron’s Sancerre blanc, but don’t tell the Bordelais!
Lunch the next day was with the charismatic Frédéric Faye, wine director at Ch Figeac. Similarly, to Lynch Bages, they are in the midst of a three year building project and so lunch was not at the property, but outside at a nearby restaurant. The visit started with a tasting of the exceptional 2019 vintage which bears the hallmarks of a truly great wine and justifies its reputation as one of the wines of the vintage. During lunch I had the chance to revisit the 2018 vintage, a wine of great poise and complexity. This was followed by the intensely structured 2010 which reflected the importance of Cabernet in the blending of this great estate’s wines. The 2010 is still youthful and has many years left in it. I for one can vouch for the longevity of the estate’s wines as the last time I dined in the cellars at a dinner in celebration of the old cellars and in preparation on the new chais we had a 1982 and very memorable 1949!
In such a special week, it is unfair to highlight a particular moment on my trip, but one dinner in particular will remain with me for a very long time, it was so special on all accounts. I arrived at Domaine de Chevalier to be greeted by a beaming Anne and Olivier Bernard who had just got back from hospital where their son Hugo’s wife had just given birth to baby Lucien, named after Olivier’s grandfather the founder of the family empire. At that moment I knew I was in for quite some night, Olivier is always the most hospitable of hosts but I had an inkling he might move up a gear or two on such an occasion…..and I was not to be disappointed. We started with the now discontinued Veuve Clicquot 1982 vintage cuvée “Carte d’Or”. Golden amber in colour with a brilliantly fine mousse, it was sweet, yeasty and amazing with canapés of Foie Gras. I had a head start for the blind tastings to come as I am experienced to Olivier’s tricks. Having selected a year or number he then sticks to it and serves wines from different decades ending in the same number throughout the evening. The white wine served with our scallops was most definitely older, but appearing more youthful with a touch of caramel and orange peel zest, a 1972 possibly, although unlikely if the red wines of that vintage are anything to go by, could it really be a 1962 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, my birth year? I don’t often get emotional over a bottle of wine, but this was such a special glass and a touching gesture. It was still so youthful and vibrant, and the taste will stay with me forever. Another red from the same 1962 vintage followed, although without a label. When organising his cellar some years ago, Olivier had written a note on the bottle which was now faded apart from the number 62 and the faintest Graves, the cork was no more help. A fun wine if not in the peak of condition, but no matter as another corker was to follow: 1982 Ch Haut Brion. Deeply flavoured with cedar, pepper and iodine, it had a bite of freshness. Layrered and complex, the flavours lingered and lingered. I cannot thank Anne, Olivier and their second son Adrien enough for such wonderful hospitality not to mention how stunning their 2019 red and white both are.
There is no better place to finish a week’s tasting in Bordeaux than in the company of Veronique Sanders at one of Pessac-Leognan’s finest estates, Ch Haut Bailly. This is a favourite property of mine ever since my first Château lunch as a newly appointed wine buyer back in 1993 with friend and English wine merchant Mark Walford and Veronique’s grandfather Jean Sanders. A property Jean rejuvenated in his 40 year tenure before selling at the end of his life to the American banking magnate Bob Wilmers which marked the start of a new era, under the guidance of Jean’s Granddaughter Veronique who has been the driving force behind the latest phase in Ch Haut Bailly’s development. That day almost 30 years ago we had a memorable bottle of 1966 and I remember Jean showing me a copy of a 1920s wine list on the mantlepiece which listed Ch Haut Bailly at the same price as the first growths! I have had so many occasions to experience the Sanders’ kind hospitality, this time I was able (at a distance) to get a glimpse of the soon to be completed cellar which is an environmental masterpiece and will surely set a mark for many others to aspire to. Over our relaxed lunch on the terrace by the vineyards, I was able to revisit the exceptional 2016 vintage which has the hallmarks of a future great and a wonderfully mature 1985.
I left with a tinge of sadness, this had been an exhilarating week appreciating the finer qualities of the primeur 2019 vintage, the joys of great old Bordeaux and some very kind hospitality indeed.