Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical Tasting of Château Rauzan Ségla

March 2006


In the 19th century Château Rauzan Ségla, the Margaux Second Growth, was rated as one of the top half-dozen clarets. In the 1885 classification of the Médoc it was placed immediately after Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, and Mouton, and – when Mouton was promoted to a First Growth in 1973 – automatically headed the fourteen remaining Second Growths.


Ironically, it did not at all measure up to that exalted status in that period. The vineyards were very run down, wine-making was on the slovenly side (many a Cru Bourgeois came up with better-balanced wines), and the only consolation was that prices were very low: almost at the “cheap and cheerful” level.


But the potential was always there. In the early 1980s Emile Peynaud – the oenologist who transformed wine-making all over the world – was brought in as consultant and made immediate improvements, even if he was not given much time to pursue these very far. Nonetheless, he managed to fashion a truly great wine in 1986 (I re-tasted it blind only a week or two ago, and was vastly impressed) – the last vintage for which he was responsible.
There was then a bit of relapse until the Chanel group took over ownership in 1994 and embarked on a slow but thorough transformation of the whole estate. Long overdue replantings were carried out, with an increase in the dense, structured Petit-Verdot; the winery was completely refurbished; a second wine (“Ségla”) was created, allowing less successful (but still good) barrels to be relegated from the definitive château; ruthless selection was practiced at harvest time, both in the vineyard and at the winery; and the wine-making itself was transformed.


In the 1960s and 1970s I used to taste Rauzan-Ségla on a regular basis but never got a clear idea of the wine’s true personality. Reasonably good wines appeared from time to time, more by accident than by design, and the Merlot – which nearly always gives lots of juice – tended to dominate over the Cabernet-Sauvignon. At best, there was a kind of typical Margaux floweriness that emerged, hinting in an unemphatic way at what might have been had things been different.
So when John Kolasa recently arranged a tasting for me of all the vintages vinified by the new team it was a genuine revelation. For the first time in decades it was possible to see why Thomas Jefferson, surely one of the greatest judges of claret of all time, wrote of Rauzan-Ségla that “this is what I import for myself”!


2004 RAUZAN-SEGLA ****(*)
The colour is of almost maximum depth while the nose, silky and velvety, shows great Margaux subtlety and nobility, conjuring up luscious black fruits, truffle, fig, and tobacco. Raspberry and wild strawberry show too after a while.
The excellent flavour is dense and chocolaty, with hints of morel mushroom, damson, and prunes; it is long and harmonious with superb ripe tannins. A great Rauzan whose first phase of maturity should span 2013-25 and show its very best traits around 2030-40.


2002 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA ***(*)
The lustrous colour is as deep as the ’04, while the spicy aroma is lushly fruity and excitingly opulent. Damson, smoked meat, truffle, and raspberry mingle to produce an amazing, faintly decadent smell in which the Petit-Verdot grape can be picked out.
The flavour, at present, is more subdued, being sinewy, a little gritty, even a touch ascerbic (a passing phase, I’m sure). There’s a hint of broken stones. Though the aroma is altogether more expressive than the flavour the wine does round out, and open somewhat, in the course of an hour. Should show its best side around 2013-30.


2001 CHATEAU RAUZAN-SEGLA ***(*)
Not quite as dark, and with a faint brown tinge, the ‘01 has a full, seductive nose of red fruits and spices, with a gust of peony and sweet almond for good measure. The Merlot is much to the fore in this sample, while the commune character shows in a pronounced floweriness.
The flavour is stylish and elegant but faintly dry at the centre. You can taste the terroir, with hints of stone and grit. Easily the most closed up of the first three, it seems sure to last longer than the ’02, needing some eight years to knit together with a good 15-20 of improvement to follow.


2000 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA *****
The robe is both deep and vivid, the nose full and opulent, with a plethora of flowery scents (carnations, peony, and oriental spices). A fabulous aroma, sensuous yet disciplined, almost as perfumed as a Richebourg. There’s a vertiginous depth to this nose, with its gorgeous truffly aspect.
It’s so expansive an aroma that I go back and sniff again, finding more and more to it: red rose, nectarine, saffron, cinnamon, and all manner of lusciously ripe fruit.
The flavour is balanced and very intense, with a reprise of nectarine at the core of its red and black fruit depths. The taste is sustained and truffly. A great Rauzan- Ségla that will evolve steadily for many decades.


1999 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA ***
The colour is dark, the nose soft, smooth, and harmonious: black cherry, fig, truffle, raspberry. An enticing, luscious aroma. The flavour is medium full (as one expects of a ’99), chocolaty, with good clean cherry and raspberry fruit. The agreeable aftertaste is saved from blandness by a rasp of tannin. Five years’ cellaring will bring this lightish but harmonious wine to a maturity that ought to last until 2025.


1998 CHATEAU RAUZAN-SEGLA ****(*)
There’s a particularly lustrous quality to the colour, which glitters like rubies on black silk. The nose is broad, dense, and luscious – showing both Margaux and Cantenac traits (a lot of the vines are in Cantenac). Black cherry intermingles with saffron, cinnamon, and truffle scents. The wine’s power, depth, and intensity seem effortless.
The flavour matches the nose, with masses of black fruit intensity on the long, lushly ripe finish of crème de framboise. Superb ripe tannins give rigour and backbone. This will be a joy to drink in 6-8 years but true maturity won’t arrive before 2025 or thereabouts and will persist for 20 or more years.


1997 CHATEAU RAUZAN-SEGLA ***
The colour is vivid, with some browning, the nose lusciously fruity, with plenty of spice and specifically Margaux succulence. It smells of raspberry, cinnamon, cherry, and oriental spices. The delicious flavour is not of maximum concentration but is well balanced, with a clovey spiciness on the fruity finish. To enjoy around 2010-20 (but drinkable now).


1996 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA *****
This is a colour to make a claret lover’s heart beat faster: deep black-purple with oxblood rim, giving off crimson flashes when the glass is shaken. The nose is simply splendid, emitting intense gusts of black cherry, strawberry compote, cinnamon, saffron. This is the smell of a great wine at the start of its majestic progression towards full maturity.
The flavour is so voluminous it rolls in the mouth, but fine tannins, and fresh fruity acidity, give structure and sinew. Even if the flavour is still fairly closed you cannot miss the perfect harmony on the long, sweeping aftertaste, with its noble Margaux terroir character.
This could be enjoyed now if decanted hours in advance; but it will be so much better in 7-8 years’ time; better still over the 8 that follow: and best of all around 2020-35+.


1995 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA ***(*)
As dark as the ’96 but less brown, this has an explosive nose, scorched and weighty, of black cherry jam, raspberry, cinnamon, truffle, and molasses (the latter from super-ripe Merlot). A huge hot-vintage aroma, burly, roasted, commanding.
The flavour is rich and round, with pronounced (low-acid) Merlot character. Imagine cherry compote spiced with saffron and you’ll get the idea. Stylistically, this stands apart from the rest, with its gamey approach. An old-fashioned Médoc, in the 1950s style, it can be enjoyed with (e.g.) venison over the coming 15 years.


1994 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA ***
The colour is solid for this average vintage and the aroma is rich, homogeneous, and spicy, with good Margaux character. The dominant aromas are of red fruits, carnation, pencil shavings, and ripe damson.
The flavour is still gritty at over 11 years, but fresh and fruity, even if the tannins are faintly dry. While it will develop for another 10-12 years it will never attain the relative balance of the ’95, never mind the exquisite harmony of the ’96. Would go well with roast pork stuffed with prunes with a rich, spicy brown sauce. A good effort given this was the new team’s very first vintage after the takeover and that ’94 was not a particularly good vintage.

 

***


Prior to the Chanel era it was impossible to form a clear picture of the innate properties, the essential personality, of Château Rauzan Ségla. Over the second half of the 20th century the vineyards were not well tended and the wine-making was often slovenly. In the early 1980s, to be sure, Peynaud started to effect dramatic improvements (his last vintage, as stated above, was magnificent) but it was not until John Kolasa and his associates began work in 1994 that a systematic transformation was set in train. From 1996 onwards we witness the slow emergence of Rauzan Ségla in full majesty.


What strikes me is the opulence and lusciousness of the aromas – a fascinating medley of floweriness, oriental spice, truffle, ripe black fruit and, at the very core of the bouquet, a delectable silky sweetness suggesting raspberry and strawberry. There’s something of the finesse, combined with great tensile strength, of Lafite; but also a fleeting hint of the silkiness and spice of Romanée-Conti. But at bottom the wine remains quintessentially a Margaux – and uniquely Rauzan-Ségla.

 

© Frank Ward 2006

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