Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Bordeaux 2003 Part III: Graves – Pessac – Léognan

Graves – Pessac – Léognan

September 2004

The Médoc used once to be called the Graves (which is perhaps why the leading Graves Château Haut-Brion was included in the 1855 classification of the Médoc). The name is now restricted to wines produced in the Graves region to the south of Bordeaux. For quite some years now, however, the very top châteaux have used an even more specific name – that of Pessac-Léognan, the most northerly part. Some of these properties actually lie within the boundaries of Bordeaux itself – the city that Stendhal called “the most beautiful in France”.

A tasting of many of the best Pessac-Léognans was laid on for me by Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier. This showed that, while Pessac-Léognan did not enjoy the same excellent conditions as the Médoc in 2003, the most ambitious proprietors did all they could to produce the best possible wines.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BAILLY ***

Often referred to as the “Pomerol of Pessac-Léognan”, because of a certain softness and suppleness allied to elegance, Haut Bailly has a fine complex nose of contained power: raspberry, cinnamon, plum, damson, freshly sharpened pencil (the impact of toasted oak on Cabernet-Franc grapes). The briary flavour is fresh and elegant, with a hint of green paprika. A faint hardness, verging on stalkiness, is registered, but the wine has so much extract that it seems sure to attain balance, if not perfect harmony, over the next 20 years or so. A good rather than a great Haut-Bailly.

2003 CHATEAU MALARTIC LAGRAVIERE ***(*)

The rich aroma of black cherry, cigarbox, truffle, and wild plums exudes distinction and promises lusciousness and depth. The flavour matches up to this and leads into a big succulent middle palate that is vital and decisive. This is a balanced, forceful wine, still in bud, with tannins of the ripe kind. It should be at its best around 2013-25.

In the 1980s the late owner, Jacques Marly (a charming host with a droll sense of humour) brought in his friend Emile Peynaud as consultant. Peynaud recognized the property’s huge potential and did his best to effect improvements. As at Pontet-Canet in that era, though, his advice was not always heeded in full. Only in the last few years have various long-overdue improvements been made and today Malartic is emerging as one of Pessac-Léognan’s finest estates.

2003 CHATEAU OLIVIER

This has a big, assertive mineral scent of dried fig, graphite, and blackberry. It is all of a piece but a bit rustic. The flavour is fullish and rich (Olivier is nearly always a hefty wine) and there is an initial freshness to the fruit. But the sample quickly turns astringent when exposed to the air, drying out the mouth like rhubarb. If the nose promises good things the flavour is more reticent. Judgment is reserved.

2003 CHATEAU PAPE CLEMENT

One of the blackest, Pape Clement has an expansive, balanced aroma of blackberry, truffle, molasses, and swarf (iron filings). This is a promising nose. The promise is not fulfilled on the palate, though, despite good body and richness of fruit. Behind the wine’s datelike density lies the kind of bitterness found in burnt prunes. And there is something spurious about the density of the finish, as if the wine had been partly saigné (when some of the juice has been run of the freshly-pressed grapes in order to achieve greater concentration).

Pape Clément is a great estate and the wine, at its best, is one of the most stylish and best-balanced in Pessac-Léognan. Other tasters have been more enthusiastic so it may be that the sample was out of sorts. Time (and a second tasting) will tell.

2003 CHATEAU SMITH HAUT LAFITTE ***(*)

Subtle and understated, the aroma suggests plums, autumn berries, graphite. A delicate smokiness provides its own aromatic tracery in parallel. The flavour is similarly understated and subtle yet has ample grit and sinew. The truffly aftertaste is very much in harmony with the nose and is long and nuanced. There is a haunting quality to the smoky finish. This is a serious wine with a good classic structure. If a cat has nine lives I foresee this as having three: the first, closed-up for 8 years; the second, 10-12 years’ of ostensible maturity; the third: a stylish apogee lasting at least five years.

This estate was run for many years by Eschenauer. In those days the wines were lamentable. Peynaud wrought beneficial changes in the mid-1980s but the real leap forward dates from the arrival of the new owners, M. and Mme Cathiard, a decade or so ago.

Domaine de Chevalier, which in 2003 has a “noble, ripe, smooth aroma of great elegance.”The white, too, is exceptional.

2003 DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER ****

Well-coloured if not as dark as some, this wine has a noble, ripe, smooth aroma of great elegance (the last is a hallmark of this estate). The first wave of scents conjures up violets and autumn berries and shows great precision. What might be called core aromas – black fruits, forest humus, wet earth – are soon in evidence.

The flavour is in concord with the nose, though more closed-up, with noticeable smoothness and fatness. Damson, raspberry, and prunes mingle on the earthy, refined finish, with a suspicion of elderberry at the very end. A slight tannic hardness can be picked out but, given the wine’s ample fruit, this should melt away as the solid elements in the wine fall out as sediment. Those who buy now will be especially glad to have done so around 2012-25.

Of other reds, BOUSCAUT has an attractively soft, pulpy nose and plenty of ripe fruit on the palate. But it tastes as if some green fruit got in as well, for the finish is a little raw. LATOUR MARTILLAC is big and weighty (as it always is) but the sample is oxidized. As oxidation mars the palate, I did not taste it.

I also tasted some of the whites. At their best, these are great dry white wines that can age for 30-40 years or even longer, showing great minerality and conserving their spring-water freshness for decade after decade. Here in the region they always decant the best ones, not least when they’re very old. They retain their vitality so well, indeed, that a 40-year-old can taste as if it’s only four! The malolactic fermentation is always suppressed in order to ensure good acidity. Most are fermented in oak barrels and batonnage (a Burgundian technique) is practiced. This provides for the thick lees inside the barrel to be stirred up at regular intervals so as to extract more flavour (tea-drinkers who stir the teapot are using the same approach). This is why some of the samples described below are cloudy.

2003 CHATEAU SMITH HAUT LAFITTE BLANC **(*)

Cloudy, with a full, intensely grapy aroma of greengage and fresh fig. The honeyed nose is round and pulpy (I think of greengage jam) and the slightly singed sub-scent must come from toasty oak. The flavour is luscious and enticing: fig, rhubarb, tart greengage. Some minerality can be detected on the longish finish, which is just a little tart. The latter effect is odd in so hot a vintage (scorching sun consumes acidity) so it is possible that some acidity has been added. If so, this is a pity. A life span of at least 10 years is sure, but it will probably last longer.

2003 CHATEAU OLIVIER BLANC *(*)

Crystal clear, Olivier has a firm, assertive aroma – very Sauvignon – of apricot, orange blossom, honey. Its innate richness and fullness are given focus by an austere stoniness. The flavour is orangey – the very acidity is like that of an orange – and the viscous aftertaste is mineral. I find lychee on the very finish. This is fat, fleshy wine, a bit lacking in rigour, not unlike the more heavy style of white Burgundy in structure. Drink 2010-18.

2003 CHATEAU MALARTIC LAGRAVIERE BLANC **(*)

Full of suspended matter – due to recent batonnage – this looks like a glass of grapefruit juice. The full, sulphury nose suggests this too, but behind the transitory smell one registers an amplitude of rich Sauvignon fruit. It is a smell that promises plenty of body and great vitality.

Grapefruit and lemon dominate on the palate and the finish is distinctly lemony. Though closed and a little amorphous (this will pass), the wine anyway leaves an impression of fullness and underlying complexity. As I put the glass aside, still writing down my impressions, I catch some of that special minerality of chalky-limey soils full of marine fossils. This should improve for at least 15 years.

2003 CHATEAU LA TOUR MARTILLAC BLANC **

Orange blossom, honey, and lanolin can be picked out on the big, round aroma. The flavour, which is corpulent, has great vigour too, and tastes of oranges and apricots. Both earthy and mineral, the finish is just a bit short. The sheer exuberance of the fruit, though, makes it quite attractive. It should be good with grilled lobster around 2010-18.

2003 CHATEAU COUHINS LURTON ***(*)

The limpid green-gold colour has a special subtlety found only in extremely well-made whites from good vineyards. Excellence shows, too, on the splendid nose of baked apple, elderflower, and acacia honey. Chalk and limestone from the soil are in evidence on the fullish, facetted flavour, which is vigorous and very mineral. Good malic acidity gives a cutting edge. This is a splendidly balanced wine, straight and true, with plenty of length. Not the faintest hint of artifice. Most bottles will doubtless be drunk up within 5-6 years. Those with the patience – and longevity – to wait 20-30 years will be richly rewarded.

2003 DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER BLANC ****

Slightly cloudy (batonnage again) this Chevalier has a complex aroma of great nobility, a composite scent of greengage, white truffle, white peach, yellow apple, rhubarb. There is a stony aspect too. One rarely encounters so balanced a bouquet. I can hardly wait to have the wine in my mouth.

The luscious flavour delivers the complexity and sappiness promised on the nose and the minerality grows apace. The wine contrives to be seductive and incisive at one and the same time (no easy feat) and the very long, nuanced aftertaste comes in waves, each longer than the one before. This is a great white Chevalier to relish in 8-9 years and cherish in 20-30.

The best wines were made in September!” declaims Olivier Bernard as I respectfully place my glass on the table.

Haut-Brion and other wines in the same ownership were tasted by me at the Château itself. As usual, it was worth the journey – even if you had to go there on foot!

2003 CHATEAU LAVILLE HAUT BRION **** (88% Semillon, 12% Sauvignon)

The limpid green-gold colour has that special richness and luminosity of great whites that have been fermented in new oak casks that have been toasted very lightly. Assessing it by colour alone one could easily take it for a top Puligny-Montrachet. The majestic aroma conjures up fresh fig, honey, pineapple, and vanilla. You have an impression of exceptional roundness, lusciousness, freshness.

On the palate, the dominant taste is of Muscat grapes (which is odd given that the wine contains no such variety) but fig and greengage can be picked out too. It is very much in its shell but there’s a lot of minerality. The oak, by contrast, is barely noticeable – a sign of the restraint with which it has been used. The ample flesh and high alcohol mask the wine’s innate structure and might encourage some to drink it soon. But while doubtless accessible from the end of this decade its real apogee won’t arrive for 15 or more years.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BRION BLANC ****(*) (52% Semillon, 48% Sauvignon)

The colour is similar but even richer while the nose shows a somewhat different slant: lemon, grapefruit peel, honey, rhubarb. The flavour fills the mouth with succulent fruit, with pear and grapefruit to the fore, and there is a distinct chalkiness. The aftertaste is long and very fresh even if noticeably low in acidity. But there is plenty of flesh on the weighty finish, which is very mineral. This is fuller and richer than Laville Haut-Brion. It is a wine so harmonious that you could start drinking it in only 5-6 years but it should improve over several decades.

These two famous whites are as luscious as ripe melons so it might seem strange for me to refer to them as closed-up. But that is what they are. Their great volume and fatness serve to mask the muscle and sinew that is present but not apparent. There is an impression of sweetness too, even though both contain only negligible levels of residual sugar. This derives from the high alcohol and low acidity. It is an impression which will diminish as the wines age. Great wines that are voluminous to a fault when young nearly always slim down as they mature. I am certain that this will be the case here.

Now the reds…

2003 LA CHAPELLE DE LA MISSION HAUT BRION * (second wine of la Mission)

The elegant nose suggests cherry, elderberry, red rose, carnation. The flavour, of medium body, is deliciously fresh and fruity, raspberry-like with satisfying length. It does though turn a little dry at the end. A worthy, uncomplicated wine to drink around 2008-15.

2003 BAHANS HAUT BRION ** (second wine of Haut-Brion)

The colour is deeper, more concentrated, and with a more nuanced look – this suggests older vines. The nose is fuller and weightier, with a pulpy quality, and suggests berries, cherries, kirsch. As with a lot of 2003s there is chocolate, too. The crunchy tannins leave a residual hardness that might persist a good 10 years. This should be good to drink in the decade that follows.

2003 CHATEAU LA TOUR HAUT BRION ***

This dark fullish wine smells a little sawdusty – a passing smell that is dispersed by shaking the glass – and the core aromas of damson, blackberry, and blackcurrant soon achieve mastery. The flavour is dense and vinous, with good viscosity, and finishes on a note of raspberry sorbet with cinnamon. There is a sudden gush of delicious freshness on the finish – a lovely mouth feel. This very individual wine will give much pleasure from 2012 and 20 years on.

2003 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT BRION ****

Dark even for an ’03 (it is darker than the Haut-Brion that follows), La Mission has an expansive, rich, brooding aroma of liqueurs made from blackberries, blackcurrants, and raspberries. A chocolaty element quickly shows.

The flavour is big and weighty (the charged glass seems to weigh more!) and conjures up crushed raspberries, black cherry jam, ripe damsons. This is splendidly fruity, with great verve, and the stylish tannins are of the ideal kind. The aftertaste of raspberry and black cherry is long and delectable. This stylish, full wine shows great panache even if it lacks the classic austerity I associate with this estate. It has plenty of stuffing but not a specific La Mission kind of stuffing. I foresee two phases of maturity: one, around 2016-30 when it will drop random hints about its greatness; two, 2030-45 when its true majesty can be experienced to the full.

The 1989 Château Haut-Brion is one of the greatest vintages ever made at the Château. The 2003 is splendid too, though the style is very different because of the exceptionally high percentage of Merlot.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BRION *****

If not as dark as La Mission, Haut-Brion has a richer and more potent aroma of cherry compote, blackberry, and blackcurrant. It is an enticing, luscious smell redolent of the very ripest, purest of black fruits. The flavour is mouth filling and long, complex, and vibrantly fresh. The wine’s finesse and velvety texture make me think fleetingly of Richebourg, the majestic red Burgundy. The long aftertaste has a thrilling intensity and again I register an exceptional freshness.

At this stage I have written copious notes but I goad myself (tasting is hard work) into analysing a second mouthful to make sure that I am not relaxing my guard. Time to look at the tannins again, to see what they are really made of. The first impression was correct: they really are of the ideal kind: fully ripe and without a scrap of astringency. This Haut-Brion may not be the most profound of the First Growths in 2003 but it may well be the most seductive.

The Haut-Brion segment of Pessac-Léognan was exceptional in 2003 in that it was the Merlot grape that gave the best results there, not the Cabernet-Sauvignon. This induced the wine-making team to resort to an audacious strategy in this “Saharan” vintage when many of the main parameters were changed by drought and heat.

Their solution was to modify the grape-mix to give the dominant role not to the dense, structured Cabernet-Sauvignon but to the fleshy, sensuous Merlot. The latter in fact accounts for fully 58% of the composition of the 2003 wine (compared with the normal 37%) with the Cabernet-Sauvignon’s share falling from 45% to a mere 31%. The Cabernet-Franc supplies the remaining 11%.

It seems to me that this drastic departure from the norm was justified by the exceptional conditions that obtained in this precise spot in 2003. The 2003 Château Haut-Brion that resulted will no doubt intrigue and tantalise connoisseurs for at least 40 years to come.

And so will many other of the best wines from the hottest year in the history of the largest fine wine region on our planet.


© Frank Ward 2004

Back to : Bordeaux 2003 Part II : The Left Bank

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One Response to “Bordeaux 2003 Part III: Graves – Pessac – Léognan”

  1. Superbe article sur notre très jolie ville et ses vignes

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