Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical Tasting of Château Ausone

April 2005

 

By common consent Château Ausone, first Growth of Saint-Emilion, shares with Château Cheval-Blanc the distinction of being that appellation’s very greatest wine. The two are looked upon as the peers of the five First Growths of the Médoc and of Pétrus in Pomerol.

 

Ausone is easily the smallest of the eight, with just seven hectares of vineyard. Even tiny Pétrus is bigger, with 60% more vineyard, while Château Lafite is nearly thirteen times larger. To cap it all, Ausone’s yields are the most modest of all, at 28-38 hectolitres per hectare – a level more typical of Burgundy than Bordeaux. Annual production averages 24,000 bottles.

 

But it is not just its rarity that makes Ausone so sought after, it is also its unique style. No blockbuster, but sometimes able to improve for a century or more, it is a fusion of intensity and finesse, of sensuality and restraint, of delicacy and tensile strength.

 

Ausone is located on the Saint-Emilion slopes, at the far end of the commune from Cheval-Blanc. It faces both east and south and, while never massive, is always fuller-bodied than Belair next door, which is only partly on the slopes and faces due south. In addition, Ausone has more clay in the soil, which gives extra body. The wine is made from equal parts Merlot, which confers weight, viscosity, alcohol, and spice; and Cabernet-Franc, source of delicacy, finesse, and a degree of tannic structure.

 

The wine is matured in 100% new oak barrels in the Château’s magnificent 16th-century cellars, which were excavated from the living rock beneath an old cemetery. The roof is supported by massive, rough-hewn stone pillars, which gives the place the look of a roofed-over Stonehenge.

 

Ausone was jointly owned for generations by the Dubois-Challon and Vauthier families and was, it has to be said, badly run for many years. The late Alexis Lichine, pioneer wine writer and himself a Bordeaux château owner, blamed this on “lack of care, particularly the practice of ageing the wine in old barrels”. Then some twenty years ago Pascal Delbeck, then in his early twenties, was brought in to set matters right (his name had been put forward by Christian Moeuix of Pétrus). He immediately reduced yields, replaced the old barrels, and reorganized the estate.

 

And started making infinitely better wines.

 

In the middle of the 1990s the Vauthiers acquired outright ownership of Ausone (I never quite understood how this came about) and Pascal Delbeck, now the owner of Belair, was replaced by the ubiquitous Michel Rolland, who has vinified Ausone ever since. The wine world held its breath at the time of the changeover, waiting to see what would happen to one of the world’s greatest and most individual wines.

 

Wild horses (not even a Cheval Blanc) would have kept me away, therefore, from a vertical tasting of Ausone hosted by the Masters of Wine earlier this year. Ten vintages were shown, from 2002 to 1978, and Alain Vauthier was present to give an account of his experiences and answer questions.

 

One of the many intriguing things that emerged from the tasting is that, while no two winemakers could be more different than Delbeck and Rolland, the style of the wine does not seem to have changed a great deal. True, the colour may be slightly deeper, the wine a fraction more full-bodied, but I could detect no dramatic change. Indeed, the Ausones made by Delbeck tasted by me in their infancy were strikingly like the most recent vintages fashioned by his successor when roughly at the same stage.

 

One thing that has not changed, however, is Ausone’s proneness to turn brown relatively early. The 1995, the first wine to emerge under the new regime, already has a noticeably rusty tinge at just under ten years’ of age.

 

This is surprising, given the presence of 50% Cabernet Franc, a variety which, while not as dark as many others, resists browning better than most (and certainly better than its deep-hued cousin the Cabernet-Sauvignon). I have tasted pure Cabernet-Franc from the Médoc going back to the 1970s, not to mention Chinons made wholly from that variety, from vintages back to 1947, and all kept an intense blue-purple “robe” with virtually no browning at all.

 

A possibly illuminating comment was made by M. Vauthier in the course of the tasting. The clones of Cabernet-Franc available in Saint-Emilion in the 1950s were of very poor quality, he said. This seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that Ausone was not always as good as it might have been over a long period. But he clearly believes that the variety could bring about improvements in its modern, and clearly superior form, for he and his team are considering planting a higher proportion of Cabernet-Franc.

 

I hope to pursue this fascinating topic when next at Ausone.

 

 

2002 CHATEAU AUSONE ***(*) 31 hectolitres per hectare

The colour is dense and blackish and the restrained aroma shows great smoothness, with hints of damson, smoke, cocoa, and violets. Though in no way massive there is a promise of concentration and contained power. The nose expands to encompass autumn berries, flowers, and freshly-sharpened pencil (from the Cabernet-Franc).

The flavour is both elegant and sinewy, with lightly-toasted oak giving a dash of cinnamon spice to the ample wild-berry fruit. The aftertaste is of medium density but very long, with the ripe tannins complemented by the kind of fine acidity found in top Chinons like Joguet’s Clos de la Dioterie. The finish is long, subtle, and refined, with a faint aftertaste of chalk (an element in the soil). Cellar for 12-15 years; drink 18-20 thereafter.

 

2001 CHATEAU AUSONE **** 28 hectolitres per hectare

Similarly dark, with an aroma showing of typical Ausone restraint, the ’01 smells of damson, coffee, raspberry, and cinnamon. Smooth and elegant, a tough truffly, it is denser, with more matière, than the excellent ’02. This is confirmed by the riper, weightier scents that quickly emerge: blackberry and damson, a hint of iron filings.

 

The complex flavour is tight and concentrated, with plenty of sinew. A myriad sub-flavours soon develop and there is a lot of minerality. Overall, a complex, subtle, even cerebral wine, close-grained and long. The mineral impression grows apace. Should improve for at least four decades.

 

2000 CHATEAU AUSONE ***** 35 hectolitres per hectare

The blackest so far, the ’00 is also fuller, more nuanced, and more mineral than the opening pair. Broad and complex, it is strikingly fresh and very harmonious, with a composite scent of blackcurrant, damson, violet, smoke, and pencil. The 100% oak is scarcely noticeable. The aroma has a commanding presence, with nothing easy or ingratiating about it.

 

The flavour is intense yet restrained, conjuring up wild plum, elderberry, smoke, pencil (Cabernet-Franc), and liquorice-wood. Classic restraint shows on an aftertaste – gritty and very mineral – that has a datelike density. The firm but ripe tannins are going through a dry phase but there is no hardness and the wine does not lack fatness. Again, this is a cerebral wine (from a wine-maker who exults in vinous sensuality!). Lock away for 15 years and drink 2020-45.

 

1999 CHATEAU AUSONE ***(*) 33 hectolitres per hectare

A faint brown tinge makes this look roughly its age, while the aroma – easily the most evolved – is wonderfully poised, with a subtly flowery aspect (carnation) from the Merlot. Lots of Ausone magic shows in an interweave of raspberry jam, blackberry, liquorice, and chocolate. This is the first vintage to show tertiary aromas. There’s a distinctly clayey feel, too. After 15 minutes I detect a new wave of aromas: fig, truffle, graphite.

 

The close-meshed flavour is very subtle; prunes and graphite show on the long, slightly gritty finish. Lighter in structure than the previous wines (which one expects of a ’99), it is pure, elegant, and harmonious. Approachable young, it will none the less last well. Drink around 2017-35.

 

1998 CHATEAU AUSONE ***** 36 hectolitres per hectare

Much darker than the ’99, with a blackish tinge, this has a noble, broad, dynamic nose of great minerality, with pomegranate mingling with damson, prune, cinnamon, and graphite. An aroma of great authority.

 

The Merlot is in the ascendant on the palate, bringing a suggestion of fig, blackberry jam, and molasses. The aftertaste is long, complex, and with sweep, and is fleshy for an Ausone. Weightier, richer, and spicier than the ’99, with cloves showing on the finish, this voluminous wine needs 10 years to open and should be enjoyed around 2015-40.

 

According to M. Vauthier, this ’98 was not quite as great as it might have been, as harvesting occurred one week later than in neighbouring Pomerol, with some dilution due to rain.

 

1995 CHATEAU AUSONE **** 33 hectolitres per hectare

This has the distinctly brown caste of maturing Ausones and looks, in fact, a little older than its years. The noble aroma shows some real maturity: plum jam, blackberries, fig, cloves, and chocolate. There is an uncanny resemblance to a Chambertin from Rousseau.

 

You can taste the sweetness of wholly ripe grapes on the flavour of plum jam, pomegranate, and cloves. At nearly 10 years it has a more sensuous side than any wine so far, being round and fleshy. There is a good tannic structure, though, and the calcareous element in the soil imparts of slight dryness. A wait of only two years ought to give a wine that is dramatically more delicious than now. That plateau of perfection ought to last a good 15-20 years.

 

1989 CHATEAU AUSONE *** 53 hectolitres per hectare

So brown it looks twice its age, the ’89 has a Merlot-dominated scent of plum, fig, truffle, and toffee (a very 1950s type of aroma). The delectable flavour suggests plum jam, cocoa, and prunes and reminds me fleetingly of a Romanée-Conti from a minor vintage. The aftertaste, though, is only medium long and is brought up short by a chalky dryness. The nose promises great things but these fail to materialize on the palate. Disappointing for this top Right Bank vintage; it will get better though. Drink around 2010-20.

 

1985 CHATEAU AUSONE **** (Magnum) 32 hectolitres per hectare

As brown as the ’89 but richer-coloured (it doesn’t look older than its age), the ’85 has a refined scent of plum jam, carnation, redcurrant, and raspberry. New aromas materialize almost at once: pomegranate, fig, prune. Faintly decadent, it calls to mind a Bonnes Mares from Burgundy.

 

The flavour, though, is resolutely Bordeaux in the old style. Though denser and more structured than the ’89, it has so much ’85 charm that one could be led into the error of thinking it fully mature. But the fruit, while delectable, has not yet ripened fully and the firm tannic structure suggests that this should be left for a further 7-8 years to acquire a maturity that ought to persist until 2025 at least.

 

1982 CHATEAU AUSONE **** 38 hectolitres per hectare

While distinctly brown, this none the less has a blacker, denser aspect than the ’85. The ultra-typical Ausone bouquet – pure delight! – conjures up plum jam, fig, cedar, saffron, and chocolate. For the first time I detect menthol (probably from the oak).

 

The chocolaty flavour has a noble harmony and a satisfying depth. A slightly dry, calcareous finish ought to abate in 6-7 years, allowing the wine to attain an attractive maturity that should persist for 10-12 more. Even if it’s not yet at its best this is the most accessible wine of the series so far.

 

1978 CHATEAU AUSONE *** 26 hectolitres per hectare

This of course is very brown yet still has a purplish tinge. The aroma, while reticent, has many nuances – plum jam, liquorice, orange peel, fig, smoke. There is an impression of gentle voluptuousness.

 

The flavour is not very dense, slightly smoky, and a little short. It suggests dried rather than fresh fruits. Like most ‘78s it falls well short of perfection yet still has distinction. Ideal with woodcock with wild mushrooms or some such dish.

 

****

 

Over the past quarter-century alcohol levels in claret have risen by around 1.5 ° (source: Bill Blatch, Bordeaux). This is due to a number of factors, including the practice of eliminating all but the ripest grapes at harvest time; warmer summers; higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; later harvest of ever-riper grapes; and the yeasts’ greater tolerance of higher levels of alcohol. At the Ausone tasting, the wines from ’78 and the ‘80s hovered around 12.5 °, while vintages from 1995 onwards approached and then surpassed 13 °. In ’01 and ’02 they rose to 13.45 ° and 13.9 ° respectively. Serena Sutcliffe of Sotheby’s said at the tasting that some of her own most sublime tasting experiences had been of vintages of Ausone from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the wines’ alcohol levels had been no more than 7-8 °.

 

That being said, the best Ausones at the London tasting were unmistakably superb and neither the use of 100% new oak nor the higher alcohol levels were in themselves obtrusive. But it is hard to resist the notion that the Ausone of today – like many of its contemporaries – would show still greater subtlety and finesse at lower degrees.

 

How to achieve that goal may well prove to be one of the greatest challenges facing modern oenology.

 

 

© Frank Ward 2005

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