Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

The 2005 Vintage on the Right Bank Part 1 – Continued

November 2006

VERTICAL TASTING OF CHÂTEAU CANON

 

Canon has long enjoyed the status of Premier Grand Cru Classé, placing it among the elite of Saint Emilion. None the less, its performance has been patchy, despite its great potential. Former owner Eric Fournier was an immensely likeable man who clearly strove to make the best possible wine. But it appears that resources were lacking.


The owners of the Chanel group bought the property In 1996 and gave John Kolasa the task of setting everything in order. An immensely dynamic man dedicated to excellence, he oversaw the refurbishment of the winery and the gradual restoration of the vineyard. The total surface area is 22 hectares, though only 17 are in production at present. What is described as a “superb plot” has been acquired from the next-door property of Curé Bon and will, in due course, lead to further improvements in the wine.


In 2002 a new reception system for grapes was inaugurated, thus allowing the incoming fruit to be selected with still greater care. As of then, no unripe or rotten grapes, no debris such as leaves and twigs, need any longer be included in the crush. In 1997 a second wine, Clos Canon, was created, which meant that less successful (but still respectworthy) vats could be diverted from the grand vin. As a result, production of Canon itself has dropped to 30-40,000 bottles, with Clos Canon accounting for 20-30,000 bottles. Needless to say, the relegation of a large part of total production has led to big improvements in Château Canon.


Taking over a wine estate from scratch must be a little like an outside conductor assuming control of a new orchestra. Even if the conductor is brilliant his great prowess may not show immediately. Why? A badly-run orchestra is demoralized and disunited, just as a neglected or under-capitalised château will be badly run-down. Some musicians (read plots of vines) are out of practice or below par. One or other sections of the orchestra (plots of vines or grape varieties) are weaker than others. Some play out of tune. At the château, vines may have degenerated or barrels grown mouldy. The real change dates from the 2001 vintage, as we shall see..

 

1997 CHÂTEAU CANON *

’97 was a very average vintage and it is not surprising that the colour is brownish and weak. The nose is soft, balsamic, and on the frail side, and suggests plum jam, chocolate, cigarbox, and clove. The flavour is light, mature, and lacks concentration. Clean but scrawny, gently spicy, it’s the kind of wine to drink with (say) lamb’s liver with onions. Drink up by around 2009.

 

1998 CHÂTEAU CANON **

The colour Is deeper while the nose, if closed, carries more than a hint of Canon roundness and smoothness. Blackberry and plum are to the fore, clove and chocolate lurk in the background. The wine tastes of plum, blackberry and prune but is a bit light for so great a vintage. But if it’s inexpressive at present there is scope for improvement. The wine should develop well, if unspectacularly, between 2010-20.

 

1999 CHÂTEAU CANON **(*)

Though ’99 is a lesser year this has more colour and an altogether fuller aroma that is almost sumptuous. Juicy and ripe, it smells of black cherry, truffle, coffee, and clove. The very good flavour lacks a little concentration but is harmonious and reasonably persistent. A worthy effort in this light vintage, it should be drunk around 2008-16.

 

2000 CHÂTEAU CANON ***

The blackish colour is much richer and the round, smooth aroma has a real nucleus of ripe black fruits and truffle. Though glossy and gently opulent, the wine also exhibits the classic restraint that derives from good structure.

The amply fruity flavour is elegant and balanced and, while optimum concentration has still not been attained, there are good tannins on the longish aftertaste, with good minerality too. A promising, if not great, 2000, which needs six or so years to open up, after which it will develop well for 8-10 more.

 

2001 CHÂTEAU CANON ***(*)

At last a colour dark and intense enough to be worthy of Canon: a rich black-purple. The fine aroma is round and, if closed up, exhibits true Canon density and richness. Black fruits dominate, with a hint of cigarbox, and the wine steadily expands, showing complexity and balance.

 

The fresh, harmonious flavour is a perfect meld of Cabernet and Merlot fruit, with the former contributing black fruits, the latter prunes, molasses, and coffee. The velvety aftertaste lingers, with a clayey aspect, and the tannins are fine-grained. A Canon for the longer haul, to enjoy around 2010-30.

 

2002 CHÂTEAU CANON ***

That this Canon gets a higher rating than Canon’s ’98 effort shows what progress has been made in a mere four years. The colour is solidly dark, the nose – if not complex – is enticingly fruity and fresh. It smells of black cherry, violet, carnation, and chocolate.


The flavour is full, smooth, and satiny (real Canon traits) and densely fruity. There’s a flick of elderberry on the delicious aftertaste, which also carries a hint of graphite. Good balance. Enjoy over the coming 15 or so years.

 

2003 CHÂTEAU CANON ***

This has a full, hot-vintage aroma of damson jam, dried morel, chocolate, and cinnamon. The roasted character of this smell should not obscure the presence of a great deal of fruit, even if it’s of the more jammy kind. Each sniff packs quite a punch.


The flavour is full and chewy, with lots of dense fruit and good fatness, and surprisingly fresh and appetising for so oven-hot a vintage. The tannins are very much in evidence but are not abrasive. The spicy finish makes me think of certain clarets from hot vintages in the ’40s and ’50s.

A burly Canon to drink over the next 15-18 years, perhaps with roasts accompanied by rich gravy or game with forest mushrooms.

 

2005 CHÂTEAU CANON ****

Unfiltered samples from great vintages are usually richly coloured but this “robe” is spectacular anyway: it looks like undiluted crème de cassis. The nose measures up to the appearance, being vast, creamy, and very round. A splendid, super-concentrated smell that leaps out of the glass.

 

The velvety flavour fills the mouth with concentrated fruit. Black fruits dominate, but you can pick out truffle and pitch too, and there’s soon a hint of molasses – a sign that the Merlot grapes were extremely ripe. Bilberry dominates on the lingering, strikingly fresh aftertaste, which has silky tannins. Despite the sumptuous flesh, the wine is precisely defined and has a tonic quality which will keep it buoyant for 35-40 years at least. The tannin levels are exceedingly high; but they’re so soft that they won’t prevent the wine being accessible for at least part of its youthful phase.


2005 came along at just the right time for the new team at Canon. They performed brilliantly in earlier great vintages, notably ’98 and ’00, but their wine-making and general organizational skills were not matched by the state of the vineyard and equipment. By 2005 these two factors had been transformed so it was possible to make full use of the perfect conditions that were obtained in that vintage.

 

John Kolasa and his team have brought off the considerable feat of setting a major château on the path back to former greatness – exactly as they have done at Château Rauzan Segla in the Médoc.

 

 

Next, to Cheval Blanc to taste the 2005. Like Figeac, Cheval Blanc can be difficult to judge when very young simply because the predominant Cabernet Franc grape (roughly two-thirds of the acreage) is more tannic and structured, and less voluptuous, than the Merlot. Pierre Lurton, who makes the wine, says that it cannot be truly great if it does not contain a high percentage of Cabernet Franc (see my article on the C.-B. vertical In February ’06).

 

This variety works much better on the Right Bank than on the Left (few Médoc proprietors are inclined to praise it) and in Saint Emilion and Pomerol it brings subtlety, finesse, structure, and tensile strength to the wines. It is no coincidence that Ausone, by common consent the other very greatest Saint Emilion, is also upping its plantation of Cabernet Franc. The soil of Cheval Blanc, which is on the very border with Pomerol, is a mixture of clay, gravel, sand, and crasse de fer – rotting iron ore. The latter can impart truffly aromas and flavours. The Cabernet Sauvignon ought in theory to perform wonderfully on such soil; but the late oenologist EmiIe Peynaud planted it at Cheval Blanc but found, he told me, that it did not work.

 

2005 PETIT CHEVAL (55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc) ***

Nearly opaque, Cheval Blanc’s second wine has a suave, subtle aroma of black fruits, cinnamon, peony, and red rose. The flavour is solid, vinous, and surprisingly weighty for a second wine, with firm but ripe tannins. The roasted aftertaste is powerful and persistent, with a prune-and-coffee finish. An impressive wine in its own right, it should show best around 2012-20.

 

2005 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC *****

The colour is still darker and more nuanced, and the archetypical Cheval Blanc nose is densely concentrated and conjures up black cherry, damson jam, sweet prune, and the finest coffee. Opulence and spice are found, too, on this smooth, many-layered aroma.


The flavour is very fresh, richly concentrated, and velvety. Black cherry, damson jam, sweet prune, and the finest of ground coffee come to mind. The fantastic structure is as full of compressed energy as a steel spring and is truly monumental. The aftertaste is long and rolling, the firm tannins being wholly ripe and totally in harmony with the fruit. So rich and complex a wine is bound to be closed up at this early stage; but it is impossible to miss the flawless proportions and underlying bedrock of flavour. Billionaires will doubtless start drinking this before the decade is out. But 14 years will pass before it even begins to reveal its full majesty; and 10-30 more before everything it has can be fully comprehended and enjoyed. This could be another ’82.

 

Several kilometres separate Cheval Blanc from Château Ausone and the exposures and terroirs are very different. What the two properties have in common is: the capacity to attain true greatness (they are universally accepted as the greatest of all Saint Emilions); enormous longevity; and a very high proportion of Cabernet Franc.


Alain Vauthier, the owner of Ausone, tells me that he is increasing the percentage of Cabernet Franc to 60%, with a possible further hike to 65% at a later stage. A questing man, not inclined to rest on his laurels, he has also carried through experimental plantings of such esoteric varieties as Carmenère (an old variety that, after almost disappearing, is making a modest comeback on both banks); and the Petit-Verdot.

 

Like a growing number of his confrères, he does a cold maceration prior to fermentation, and the fermentation itself is carried out in large wooden vats, which are renewed every eight or nine years. The wine is then matured in 100% new oak casks with a medium toast.

 

A big, rangy man with frank hazel eyes and a pleasantly unassuming manner, M. Vauthier says that the version of Cabernet Franc found in the Loire (Chinon, Bourgeuil, etc.), while able to produce good wine there, is very different from the Bordeaux version and does not perform well where planted there. (I find myself wishing that I could give him blind tastings of a number of top Loire reds like ’76 Clos de la Dioterie!).


The alcohol levels of Ausone have been increasing by 1-1.5° per decade for quite some time now, and currently hover around 14° – a level more typical of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When asked to comment on this he insists that Ausone is so concentrated, and so well-balanced, that no problem arises from this.

 

2005 CHAPELLE D’AUSONE (70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% each Petit Verdot and Carmenère)

This richly-pigmented wine smells of pomegranate, black fruits, and such aromatic red flowers as carnation, peony, and rose. The focused scent leads into a smooth flavour of gentle intensity in which sloe dominates. Younger vines often have higher – or more overt – acidity than old ones, and this shows in the very crisp finish. Drink 2009-14.

 

 

Harvest scene at Château Ausone one of the 2 greatest of all St. Emilions.

2005 CHÂTEAU AUSONE (55% Cabernet Franc, 45% Merlot) ****(*)

The colour has the unmistakable depth and lustre of a great wine and the nose, too, has all the hallmarks of greatness, with its fusion of power and restraint, complexity, harmony, and precision. The aromas intermingle and meld in a fascinating manner. Black fruits dominate, with some raspberry sweetness, and the oak – used with a light hand – imparts a subtle gingery nuance. Though the alcohol level exceeds 14° this does not detract from the wine’s finesse.

Ausone’s structure on the palate is as sinewy yet smooth as a ballerina’s body: there is no heaviness but all the muscle one could wish for, as well as buoyancy and grace. The mineral flavour is crammed with fruit, without heaviness, and the aftertaste is long and incisive, with the kind of acidity found in ripe damsons. The acidity is, if anything, just a little too assertive on this occasion (though the level is technically perfect, I’m assured). A memorably focused wine, as sculpted as the Winged Victory, this will evolve for a good 40 years.

An extraordinary year when even the simple wines are exceptional” is M. Vauthier’s comment on the 2005 vintage.

 

These days Château Pavie is shy of showing samples. However, I was duly given an appointment and arrived at the property with high hopes of having an instructive tasting of this controversial property’s recent vintages. I was led through the vast, state-of-the-art winery (it looks like the interior of a space station) and caught sight, in the far distance, of a line of sample bottles. This made my heart beat faster. At last, a chance to assess Pavie’s performance since the takeover some years ago! Alas, I was steered past those bottles and brought to a halt before a single half-bottle sample. This, it transpired, was not the 2005 but the preceding vintage.

 

2004 CHÂTEAU PAVIE

The colour is of maximum depth – nearly jet black with purple highlights – and the suave, super-concentrated aroma suggests crème de myrtille, violets, new oak, and oaky spice. The flavour is condensed, initially very smooth, with a texture that is almost inhumanly polished. There’s a noticeable lack of viscosity on the palate. Then an odd thing happens: the flavour swiftly turns as dry as dust and one has the sensation of having a mouthful of ashes. In 35 years of tasting I have had no comparable experience.


A right bank insider tells me that he’s tasted four examples of the ’05 Pavie and that each one was completely different. “They don’t know what they want,” he states flatly, adding: “When I tasted the ’98 Pavie recently it was completely dried out.” Unfortunately, owner M. Perce doesn’t receive visitors so it was impossible to delve into the matter.

 

The new generation of Bordeaux proprietors has benefited hugely from the vast progress made in oenology in recent decades. Many outdated attitudes have been discredited and useful innovations adopted. A lot of owners have toured the world, some of them even putting in a stint at new world wineries. Today, many of them have a truly global view of their discipline.

 

I found this open attitude in young M. Mony, manager and heir apparent at Château Grand Mayne, one of the better known of the innumerable Grands Crus Classés of Saint Emilion. But first let me put you in the picture.

 

Some years ago I visited an avant-garde proprietor in the Médoc at harvest time. He took me into the vineyard and had me taste a few overripe Cabernet-Sauvignon grapes, to demonstrate his assertion that overripeness in this variety imparts greater complexity and minerality to the wine. He was right, to judge from the taste: it was more intense, and more mineral, than a normal grape, without the “farmyardy” character one finds in overripe Merlot.


Learning that Grand Mayne had 10% Cabernet-Sauvignon, I asked N. Mony if he ever let the grapes get overripe. I half-expected him to be unaware of the phenomenon I’d experienced. But he answered immediately. “Oh, we’ve tried that at Grand Mayne, of course, but it doesn’t work. On this estate overripe Cabernet-Sauvignon is not as balanced as when it’s at normal ripeness.”

 

Cellars at Château Grand Mayne.

 

2005 CHATEAU GRAND MAYNE**(*)

The colour is as deep as most ’05s while the big, velvety aroma is enticingly fleshy in a uniquely Saint Emilion way. Fresh berries and jams dominate, with hints of cigar-box, truffle, and underbrush. In short, a rich, round, almost syrupy aroma of the hedonistic kind.


It fills the palate with dense, succulent fruit, with the viscous, satisfying aftertaste conjuring up damson, molasses, liquorice, and prunes. This will be a joy to drink young, slightly cool; and will give mounting pleasure over the 15-18 years that follow.


Like Cheval Blanc, Château Grand Corbin Despagne is only metres away from Pomerol and shows some Pomerol-like traits. This is not least due to the plentiful blue crasse de fer found in the vineyard. There are no fewer than 53 distinct plots, says owner François Despagne, and all are worked differently to enhance their personality. The grape mix is 74% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, with tiny traces of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. The average age of the plants is not particularly high; but some plots are a century old (such plants often give extra depth).

 

2005 CHÂTEAU GRAND CORBIN DESPAGNE ***

The broad, vigorous aroma, of black fruits and truffle does, indeed, have a Pomerol-like smoothness and grace but also shows Saint Emilion body and weight. The flavour is big, dense, and tannic, with liquorice and prune lurking behind the smooth, sensuous fruit. Oaky spice shows on the long, assertive finish. A very attractive wine to relish around 2015-30.

 

The last visit In Saint Emilion was to the tiny Château La Clotte, where a mere four hectares of vines cling to the steep slopes just below the town of Saint Emilion. 80% of the vines are Merlot, with 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet-Sauvignon. The eastern exposure gives maximum exposure to the sun, says Mme Chailleau, the owner.

 

The steep slopes at Château la Clotte's modest - but illustrious - 4 hectares of vines.

The Chailleau family acquired the property in 1912 but for many decades it was not much of a paying proposition. “It was in pretty poor shape when I took over in 1990,” Mme Chailleau says with a grimace. “Here at La Clotte we try to reflect the character of each vintage as closely as possible. And of the wine too. For us, it has a very particular kind of fruit, la finesse…”

 

2005 CHÂTEAU LA CLOTTE ***

The expansive nose of violet and black fruits is strikingly smooth and ripe and one is struck by its roundness and purity. On the palate, there’s so much sensuous fruit that it seems to bulge inside the mouth, even if the oak is a bit too assertive. The aftertaste is full of energy, a little stony, and there’s a flick of raspberry sweetness on the smoky finish. If likely to peak in about eight years, it’s sure to improve for at least a dozen more.

 

The ’03, tasted immediately after, was in a better mood even if less complete as a wine. Rich, roasted, and creamily smooth, it had a rotund, lush flavour that coated the mouth with toffee-like savour.

 

© Frank Ward 2006

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