Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward


March 2020. A tasting of 2015 clarets was recently held in London under the auspices of the Institute of Masters of Wine. It included all of the five First Growths of the Médoc and two of the four Premiers Grands Crus Classés of Saint Émilion. It confirmed that 2015 is an exceptional vintage for claret.


Herewith a selection (about one-third) of the ninety-eight wines on show.





Light in colour, ditto in constitution. The nose is soft and fragrant, reminiscent of prune, rose petals, and chocolate. It’s soft on the palate too, with underlying elegance, and only medium long. Its tannins are still faintly abrasive and it needs 7-9 years to open up.



Often compared to a Pomerol in style, Haut-Bailly is darker and richer on the nose, with what the French call a good attack. It smells like a meld on black cherry and damson, with a hint of molasses (doubtless from very ripe Merlot). The same traits show on the palate, with good follow-through and a trace of agreeable bitterness and clovey spice on the finish.



This dark sample has a lovely expressive aroma that’s both fruity and flowery, with the sweetness of fully ripe grapes. Cherry and red rose come to mind. The medium full flavour is focused, with a firm finish, and nicely balanced. However, it does not show the forceful, emphatic vinosity and concentration so typical of this great property – a de facto Premier Cru – but is perhaps in a diffident phase that will pass in time.



This lustrous wine possesses a rich, concentrated aroma, glossy in a California style, suggestive of blackcurrant, black cherry, and liquorice. The flavour – the fullest so far – is intense, sweetly ripe, and packed with fruit. Full and juicy in the mouth, it delivers a reprise of the above elements, with the addition of something sloe-like. The finish is long and sustained. Very good indeed.



If Haut Lafitte is in the modern (California) style, the approach here is deeply traditional, or rather classic. This is reflected in its lower alcohol level – 13.5 ABV compared with SHL’s 14.5. If less opaque, its colour is more modulated. The nose is extremely nuanced (read complex), suggesting plum jam and cocoa, and of great refinement. The finish is long and comes in waves, with fine fruity acidity giving extra definition. A splendid wine for long keeping.



Vivid as to colour, this has a strikingly pure aroma, all of a piece, of raspberry and black cherry. The flavour is lovely too, being silky, harmonious, and refined. I find myself thinking of Chambolle Musigny in Burgundy. (different grape, different region; but many wines , despite such differences, can show stylistic affinities). Though no doubt eminently drinkable early on, this needs a good decade to open and will continue to evolve long after that.






The forthright Cabernet-based aroma of black fruits, coffee, and graphite tells you emphatically that you’re no longer in Pessac-Léognan. I think fleetingly of Giscours, which is in fact not far from Cantemerle. It’s noticeably full-bodied, with plenty of substance. That’s not surprising, given that the two Cabernets and the dense Petit Verdot account for nearly three-quarters of the grape mix. Should develop well without ever reaching the heights.





Margaux used to lag far behind the other top Médoc communes, with the notable exception of Château Margaux itself, Palmer, and (since the mid-1990s) Rauzan Ségla. The situation has changed completely in recent years, during which period a majority of its classed growths have been greatly improved.



Rich in pigment, Brane Cantenac exhales an expressive aroma of black cherry and Victoria plum with typical Margaux floweriness. You can even pick out a specifically Cantenac succulence. This is classic in every sense, exhibiting both density and restraint as well as being beautifully balanced. The tannins at the core of the ample fruit are exemplary, being firm without hardness. They will soften in time without loss of tension. Outstanding.



Solid in appearance, Issan has a full, creamy nose that’s round and expressive, to which the 35% Merlot contributes a distinctly carnation-like scent, with the 65% Cabernet-Sauvignon giving thrust and vinosity and an undertow of blackberry and chocolate. It’s notably viscous in the mouth, with excellent balance and an elegant earthiness on the persistent finish. A wine that fuses charm with an ample volume.



Nearly opaque, Giscours has a solid, almost burly aroma, suggestive of black cherry, blackberry, and chocolate. The flavour evokes those same fruits with the addition of damson. There’s scarcely a whiff of oak, which nonetheless helps brace the fruit, and the harmonious flavour shows real persistence. A well-crafted wine that will evolve beautifully in the decades to come.



This full, blackish wine emits a blast of richly vinous scents so assertive as to turn one’s thought to Pauillac. Damson notes mingle with those of chocolate, graphite, and pitch. Weighty in the mouth, it shows the sweetness of fully ripe grapes and tastes rounder than the aroma suggests. A very good solid wine with an underlying exuberance.



Similarly dark, this sample smells like a mix of blood orange and damson jam. The warmly rich flavour shows good poise and a degree of complexity, though the tannins are just a bit dry, perhaps under the influence of the oak. A well-crafted wine.



Other wines are blacker; few are as lustrous and nuanced. The aroma, black cherry to the fore, also incorporates a touch of mint and is almost unbelievably velvety. It exhales subtlety and aromatic finesse, announcing a wine of exceptional poise. Even subtler aromas soon come into the picture: purple rose, blackcurrant, peony. The flavour is superb, being perfectly focused and with flawless balance. A truly great wine, full of refinement and subtlety. Will live and improve for decades on end.





In the past the First Growths coasted along, borne up by their great prestige. Even during fallow periods, and when poorly vinified (for Lafite and Margaux those periods exceeded a decade) they were still accorded a respect bordering on awe. Starting some 30 or so years ago, that primacy was challenged by the rise of the super seconds – wines that were often better vinified than the big five, even if not quite their equal as regards terroir. For that reason the First Growths had to exert themselves as never before, in order to retain their primacy. They strove with all their considerable might to keep at the forefront. That’s why they’re still ahead today.



This lustrous wine has a splendid aroma, round and perfectly ripe, of succulent black fruits, dark chocolate, peony, and carnation. You’re instantly struck by the exceptional harmony: those who fashioned this clearly exercised total control of all its elements at every stage. The delectable flavour is matched by a texture that flatters the palate, showing an almost Musigny-like finesse. It also exhibits exceptional restraint, the lovely fruit being held in by special kind of tension. A great wine.



Not as black as some, but as lustrous as any, Lafite emits a beguiling scent of ripe red and black fruits, rose petals, cinnamon, and carnation. Floating trails of numerous exquisite perfumes tantalise the nose. Both aftertaste and finish show an astonishing delicacy combined with underlying complexity. It might seem a bit on the light side at present; but it possesses all the tensile strength, and superb balance, needed to go on improving for decade on decade.



Dark but limpid, Margaux has a full, focused aroma, Cabernet-Sauvignon in the ascendant, that conjures up an array of black fruits, violet, truffle, and cinnamon. Perfectly ripe tannins support the fruit – rather as the actual Château’s façade is supported by classical pillars. A couple of shakes of the glass bring forth the smooth, almost voluptuous flesh of the Merlot grape, which melts seamlessly into the whole. Though it accounts for only 8% of the grape mix it adds an essential, if muted, but identifiable mellowness to the whole. The wine is at once solid and aerial, with an aftertaste that comes in waves, leaving an overall impression of completeness. Prescient collectors – or their children – will be drinking this with awe in 40-50 years.



The darkest of the series, Mouton has a lovely expressive nose with that unique Mouton style: rich, exuberant, voluptuous, yet also cerebral. Blackberry, black cherry, truffle, and chocolate come to mind, and one is struck by a rare fusion of force, restraint, intensity, and depth. In the mouth, a lovely velvety texture, but also with powerful undercurrents of flavour, with ample minerality and tannins that are both firm and wholly ripe. The aftertaste, of great complexity, goes on for minutes. A great Mouton.


Mouton suis!*



The nose is full and expressive, with pronounced Saint Émilion weight and volume, delivering a meld of cherry, damson, and liquorice wood. It’s distinctly briary too, with plenty of flesh – but flesh tautened by tannic muscle. And all of a piece. The aftertaste shows classic harmony and restraint, with a subtle spiciness showing on the long aftertaste.



This has the almost alarmingly rich scarlet colour of arterial blood. The nose is also intense, conjuring up blood orange, bilberry liqueur, and wild strawberries. It’s a noble aroma, all of a piece and extremely expressive even at this early stage. Before a drop reaches your lips you know it’s going to be juicy and succulent. That’s confirmed on the palate, with the lovely Cabernet-Franc and Merlot fruit given an extra dimension by the discreet touch of cinnamon from light-toast oak. All manner of delectable sub-flavours swim around within the wine’s corpus, leading into a splendid aftertaste that’s long and masterful without aggressivity. A great Cheval Blanc.


Though plenty more reds await me, I can’t resist tasting:



The pale green-gold colour has a special luminosity that suggests a special treat lies in store. This is confirmed by a nose – in fact, an actual bouquet at this early stage – dominated by pineapple and acacia honey scents, with a touch of yellow plum jam. The flavour is simply fabulous – incredibly intense yet as light as a feather. It dances on the palate like a ballerina in Swan Lake. You can also feel the wine’s great tensile strength, while registering an innate delicacy, with underlying draughtsmanship-like-precision, that makes you think of the finest of German TBAs. An exquisite, crystalline Yquem that you lust to drink now instantly, while grasping that it will evolve over several decades.


*When the wines of the Médoc were officially classified in 1855, Mouton Rothshchild emerged as a mere Second Growth. Everybody knew that it really deserved to be a First. Philippe de Rothschild, proprietor from 1922 to 1988, refused to accept that rating. Until Mouton’s promotion to First Growth status in 1973 his motto was as follows: “Premier ne puis, Second ne daigne, Mouton suis” (“First I am not, Second I deign not, Mouton is Mouton”).


>> CONTINUED : 2015 Clarets Part II

© Frank Ward 2020


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