Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates – I

September 2014. Three days in Pomerol & Pauillac. And a Sideways Glance at a few Infant 2013s.

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PART I – POMEROL

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In April of this year thousands of wine writers and members of the wine trade flocked to Bordeaux to taste the 2013s – a vintage they already suspected was “disastrous”, or simply downright bad.

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I was not among them.

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At that stage the only ’13 claret I‘d tried was the Mouton Rothschild 2013, sampled at a vertical tasting in London in February. I found it very good, within the context of the vintage.

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I travelled to Bordeaux three months later, in late May, not specifically to look at 2013s but to visit a few great estates that had always been among my favourites. While happy to sample any 2013s that came my way while there, my main purpose was just to see how things were going at this château or that, and to get some idea of what these various pathfinders were up to in the second decade of the 21st century.

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What impression did I gain from the score or so 2013s I DID taste? All were very good; and while most had a light structure everything was in balance. Their colours were generally excellent, there was no lack of terroir character, even specific château character, with ample fruit and just the right levels of fruit, acidity, and tannins to guarantee harmony. None of the châteaux I visited had over-extracted.

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In point of fact, 2013 – when it comes to the best properties – is probably the best VINIFIED vintage in Bordeaux’s history: it was one of the weakest vintages of all time, but fashioned with unparalleled attention to detail, with all stops pulled out the make the best – and the best is very good indeed – of a bad job.

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This led me to believe that, of those who’d earlier tasted nearly all the leading wines in that decried vintage (many hundreds of wines), the redoubtable Jeannie Chou Lee M.W. was the one who’d made the wisest assessment:

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The wines, she wrote, “were not just pleasant but balanced and elegant. I would happily drink many wines over a meal… The vintage is an important and meaningful one for the industry”, in contrast to wines created for “body-building competitions.” In the difficult 2013 vintage, she went on, those producers who worked with nature found another kind of balance, creating “slim, focused and refreshing wines.”

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Don’t get her – or me – wrong.

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The 2013 vintage is by no means great. But the best châteaux came up with balanced wines, if not of maximum concentration, that will give a lot more pleasure in the short to medium term than most of the truly great wines from top years like 2005, 2009, and 2010, which still need 30, 40, even 50 years to peak.. Of course, when the latter reach their true apogee they will demonstrate, in the most emphatic way possible, their vast superiority.

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From this point onwards my comments on 2013s should be taken piecemeal. I stress once more that this brief review cannot possibly be seen as portrait of the 2013 vintage.

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My short visits starts in the tiny appellation of Pomerol, a commune which, at its best, gives sweetly ripe, round, wines with considerable depth and inherent grace. Probably the tiniest of all of Bordeaux’s very greatest properties is Château Lafleur, whose mere 4.5 hectares of vines boasts 11 different soil types (various mixes of sand, gravel, and clay, according to proprietor Jacques Guinaudau), showing “the same complexity as Cheval Blanc.” He can even cite the number of the vines: “24,800 plants, with 24,800 different ages! Some give one glass, some one bottle. A very large palette of expression.”

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We’re standing beside the château as we talk. It’s a small, drab building of faded limestone with peeling grey shutters. Many vines are aged 40 to 80 years but there are also some infant ones. To illustrate this he points to a scrawny plant that, like a human baby, can hardly hold up its head. It’s only two-three years old.

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Jacques Guinaudau, youthful proprietor of Château Lafleur, surveys his precious acreage of vineyard, one of Pomerol's most illustrious wine estates. The modest château can be glimpsed in the background.

Jacques Guinaudau, youthful proprietor of Château Lafleur, surveys his precious acreage of vineyard, one of Pomerol’s most illustrious wine estates. The modest château can be glimpsed in the background.

In Pomerol as a whole the Merlot dominates. But not at this tiny, eccentric estate. This very special vineyard is planted with 44% Merlot, true; but the remaining 56% is Cabernet-Franc. “The Cabernet-Franc was forgotten in the last century. It’s the main grape at only three right bank châteaux: Cheval Blanc, Ausone – both in Saint Emilion – , and us.”

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“Pomerol is flat… But it’s not flat. There are little ripples. It’s left bank conditions here, rather than right bank. We need water stress to stop growth and reduce yields. In 2013 we had to take crucial decisions very quickly. Every year, there’re positives and negatives. In ’13, anyway, no rot.”

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“Nothing changed here in the second half of the 20th century. The Robin sisters, relatives of ours, who ran Lafleur from 1946, bought their first tractor in 1975. And their first pump. Probably from the same supplier! When we arrived everything was dusty but pure.

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“We’re here to serve the vines. When the terroir’s great it’s not up to man to make drastic changes. The ideal alcohol level for us is 13.2°. You can’t get perfect ripeness below 13.0°. Balance, harmony, are the keys. ..

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“All our pickers are local. 16-20 of them. They’re followed by a supervisor, to make sure they understand the task. We renew 25% of our casks each year, buying them for Lafleur but running them in first at our other property, Grand Village. It’s close to Fronsac, and is classed as Bordeaux Supérieur. The vineyard area totals 18 hectares, 16 of which are devoted to red vines (80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc). The white comprises 50-50 Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon”. The new barrels purchased for Lafleur are initially “tamed” at Grand Village, whose wine is stored in them initially for a year or so, before the casks, their woody aggressiveness muted, are transferred to Lafleur.

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2013 GRAND VILLAGE

A lightish purple, this has a Merlot-dominated aroma of damson, cherry, and carnation/red rose, with a fugitive hint of oak. Elderberry scents bring an insinuatingly savage accent. Crisp and vital in the mouth, it finishes on a tannic note. Should drink well around 2016-20.

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2013 G ACTE 5 ** (70% M, 30% CF)

A richer colour, fuller nose, smelling of black fruits and berries. Notably pure. The flavour is quite rich – certainly richer than Grand Village – with a fullish, clean-cut aftertaste of satisfactory concentration. Well-balanced in a medium-full mode. 2017 to 2020 and beyond.

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2013 PENSEES DE LAFLEUR (59% M, 41% CF) ***

The second wine of Lafleur, Pensées was created in 1987 (no Lafleur was made in that year). Solid colour, the darkest so far. The nose is vital, with specific Pomerol traits (suavity, finesse), suggesting peony, black cherry, leather, a hint of truffle. Typical Pomerol sweetness and grace. Long on the palate, still showing malic cut, with a slight dryness on the finish that’s sure to melt away in time. A bit more contact with the air suffices to bring out the wine’s innate roundness, even voluptuousness, its Merlot flesh lent sinew by the Cabernet Franc’s firmer structure. Needs at least 4 years to open, and will improve for a minimum of 6-8 thereafter.

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2013 CHÂTEAU LAFLEUR ****(*) (45% M, 55% CF)

A limpid black-purple, this has a noble, very round aroma of black cherry, cherry stone, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and peony. A hint of raspberry inserts itself after a moment. It’s so homogeneous that it seems simple until you register the lurking complexity. Fine concentration of M/CF – and specifically Pomerol – fruit on the palate, and distinctly ferrous. Within the soft but well-muscled Pomerol flesh there’s a solid core of fine tannin that will guarantee long life. I think fleetingly of Chambolle les Amoureuses… Very long, nobly proportioned, it gives a reprise of cinnamon (from the oak) on the finish, with iron from the subsoil lending extra grip.

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Should be let untouched for a dozen years, sampled occasionally over the next 15; then enjoyed at its best around 2040 and beyond.

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2013 LES CHAMPS LIBRE ** (100% Sauvignon Blanc)

A pale green gold, this has a vital Sauvignon nose of gooseberry and greengage, with a hint of rhubarb. Lemony acidity. Coiled like a spring, it shows immense vitality, exhibiting copybook varietal character (not surprising, as it comes from Sancerre clones). A tinglingly fresh, very mineral wine that cries out to be aged for another 2 years at the very least, after which it should improve for a further 6 or so.

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Pomerol, which boasts only 800 hectares of vines, is one of the most difficult wine regions in which to find your way around, despite its tiny surface area. The narrow roads twist and turn, and are indeed so serpentine that you can sometimes actually SEE the château you want to visit, a mere hundred or two metres away, but can’t work out how to get your car there as the twisting roads and serpentine hedgerows don’t seem to will it.

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We passed Château l’Eglise-Clinet a couple of times without registering the fact. The building itself is so drab you scarcely register its presence, while the sign outside it is of no help at all. All you can read is “POMEROL” and nothing else. That’s because the actual château name is covered with leafy branches.

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As we passed it third time a sudden breeze disturbed those branches that had been obscuring the lower half of the panel, to reveal (in much smaller letters) the crucially important name “L’Eglise-Clinet”.

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We’d arrived.

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Owner M. Denis Durantou arrived too, a few minutes later, exactly on time. A neat, lightly-built man with soft, intelligent eyes and tousled grey hair, in an open-necked shirt. With the slightly absent air of somebody halfway through a hundred diverse tasks, he led us into the tiny property and we were busy tasting almost before we register the glasses that had appeared, as if by magic, in our hands. What was afoot were wines with lots of legs (quip!).

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2013 CHÂTEAU L’EGLISE CLINET I ****(*)

From the barrel.

The robe, that of ripe black cherry, flashed and glittered in the semi-darkness. The aroma, of real nobility, was round and juicy and redolent of black cherry, bilberry, and very ripe blackberry – a lovely nose of perfect maturity, dense but with lift. The flavour, sweet bilberry in the ascendant, was tinglingly fresh and lip-smackingly tasty. A lovely wine – so seductive you wanted to take a bite out of it. The utterly ripe tannins were in perfect harmony with the fruit. A sense of utter naturalness, an unforced concentration of pure Pomerol fruit. At best, I’d think, around 2022 – 35, but doubtless eminently drinkable over the coming few years.

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Denis Durantou, owner of l'Eglise-Clinet, outside his property. The Château's name is barely discernable on the faded sign behind him.

Denis Durantou, owner of l’Eglise-Clinet, outside his property. The Château’s name is barely discernable on the faded sign behind him.

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2013 PETITE EGLISE (Second wine of l’Eglise-Clinet) ***

A lovely rich colour and a big juicy aroma of red rose and damson. The flavour suggests – indeed insists upon – wild cherry, damson, and redcurrant, with strands of raspberry and cinnamon on the finish. For the second time that day, I found myself thinking of Pinot Noir. Grinning mischievously, and in a challenging way, M. Durantou pointed out how unusual it was to taste a second wine after the grand vin. 

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We now went back to l’Eglise Clinet, with a sample from a different barrel.

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2013 CHÂTEAU L’EGLISE CLINET II ****

Slightly paler than the first sample, this had a soft aroma, a bit tighter and more brooding than the first, suggestive of darker fruits. (I ask M. Durantou: “Is there more Cabernet-Franc in this?” “Yes,” he replied).The flavour is a touch harder, too, with a distinct tannic bitterness on the finish. Less impressive, more suggestive of possible foibles in the vintage, than the first sample.

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Our short visit came to an end with a few unspoken questions (unspoken because M. Durantou was as rapid in his departure as in his arrival). But several more came to me later: How had he managed to extract such lovely fruit in sample No 1? How do older vintages of this famous wine taste?

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We now make our way to Vieux Château Certan (VCC), to meet up with young Guillaume Thienpont, nephew of the owner of the near-legendary Le Pin, and son of Alexandre Thienpont, who runs VCC. The father Alexandre greets us with great civility before passing us on to his son, Guillaume, who has the enormous responsibility of looking after the Le Pin vineyard. Without further ado, this modest, well-spoken young man conducts us to Le Pin estate, where we take a look at both vineyard and winery.

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The cubistic winery, rather Californian in aspect, looms over the vines, looking somehow massive yet also surprisingly small. But as we soon discover, it’s very much like an iceberg in the sense that only a small part of its bulk is visible above the surface; by far the larger part is below ground.

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The vineyard is a revelation – and a surprise – to me. I had somehow obtained the impression that, in the year the vineyard was bought 1979, the vines were extremely young. This had puzzled me deeply, since when I opened my last bottle of 1982 Le Pin at the turn of this year, to share with Andrew Jefford, I’d found it to possess the characteristics of old vines. “Had I tasted the wine blind” I wrote then, ”I would have guessed – because of its mellowness – that it had come from vines of at least 40 years of age.” (Oeno-File”, March 2014).

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It now transpires, it seems, that I was right.

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Guillaume Thienpont now led us into the vineyard, showing hosts of gnarled old vines, some of them from the 1960s. When the first Le Pin – the 1982 – was made “most of the vines were old,” Guillaume said. The terroir is a mix of gravel and clay, which ensures early ripening. The vines don’t grow very big. They have low vigour. I look after the vines, and the grapes are turned into wine by Uncle Jacques (Jacques Thienpont, the proprietor). The encepagement is almost entirely Merlot. “Of the roughly 12,000 vines all are Merlot save 20 plants!”

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The vineyard, a mere 1 hectare in 1982, has been expanded in stages to 2.7 hectares. Two pine trees loom above the vines, their presence a mute explanation of the name. Afterwards, we take a look round the interior of the winery, which is on several levels. There’s roof garden, with views of the vineyard below, an underground chamber filled with differently-sized vats, each tailored to accommodate grapes from a specific plot with its own specific traits. Also a small row of barrels, awaiting the tiny 2013 vintage and meanwhile housing the 2012. Average production is a modest 400 cases a year.

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We now repair to Saint-Emilion, meeting Guillaume’s cousin Cyrille Thienpont, who is in charge of Jacques Thienpont’s new acquisition in Saint-Emilion, L’If (“Yew tree”), formerly called Château Haut-Plantey. It lies just below Troplong Mondot. The dinner venue: Logis de la Cadenne, an old Saint Emilion restaurant recently acquired by Hubert de Boüard, owner of Château l’Evangile, and transformed almost overnight into an establishment so elegant and well-run that I’d be astonished if it doesn’t obtain a Michelin star almost immediately. We arrive 20 minutes before opening time but our young hosts, future heirs to several of the right bank’s most distinguished estates, persuade staff to bring out glasses for a preprandial mini-tasting on the terrace.

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Cyrille, broad shouldered and athletic looking (like most of those active in wine production) uncorks a bottle of 2008 L’If and says, with a smile, “Uncle Jacques is expanding his forest!” (Yew added to Pine). The vines, covering a total of some 7 hectares, have an average age of around 40 years. The main plot, around the château building, amounts to 5 hectares, the rest comprising six scattered parcels over four different communes. I am handed a glass of the ’12 L’If.

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2012 L’IF **** (72% M, 28% CF)

A solid blue-purple, the wine gives off a full, luscious aroma of black cherry, smoke, and liquorice, not lacking in power and force, with underlying balance. One can pick out a gentle hint of lightly-toasted oak, so discreet it’s sure to melt away in the coming years. Aromas emerge then coalesce, one of them suggestive of cocoa. The flavour is so full of ripe fruit as to give instant gratification; but quickly evolves to show more than a glimpse of tomorrow’s complexities. The finish is slightly edgy at this early stage, but seems likely to round out in bottle. Going back to it a couple of hours later, one can discern a steadily growing rondeur and depth. A full-bodied, vigorous wine that will improve for a couple of decades at least.

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“We have a lot of clay at L’If,”says Cyrille. “And we harvest four weeks later than at Le Pin. This 2012 represents only half of the production.”

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His cousin Guillaume now opens the first of two distinguished bottles of Pomerol:

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2006 VIEUX CHÂTEAU CERTAN ****

A nuanced blackberry black-purple, this has a noble, refined aroma of truffle, ripe plum, and cocoa, with a subtle hint of vanillin. The mellow flavour, beautifully balanced, moves towards blackberry jam and sweet prune, with a reprise of truffle – an element that will grow more intense as the wine matures. Drinkable now, it will steadily improve in the decade or two to come.

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2008 LE PIN ****(*)

Dark and lustrous, Le Pin has a fine, focused nose of black and purple cherries, ripe plum with stone, and damson. Notes of cigarbox and carnation soon emerge. The flavour is very collected, as if designed by a great artist, and the Merlot fruit is both intense and velvety. Medium-bodied to start with, it steadily grows in volume and weight, ending on a note of blood orange and India tea. The acidity is in perfect harmony with, and a perfect counterbalance to, the rich fruit and ripe tannins.Will last extremely well.

TO BE CONTINUED : Bordeaux Part II – The Médoc

© Frank Ward 2014

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One Response to “A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates – I”

  1. […] September 2014. In April of this year thousands of wine writers and members of the wine trade flocke… […]

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