Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

2004 Clarets Part IV

October 2005

 

2004 LA CROIX DE DUCRU (Ducru’s Second Wine) *** (50% CS. 50% M)
This flowery, graceful wine smells mostly of raspberry, peony, and cherry. One is struck by the sheer poise of the classic, structured Cabernet-Sauvignon fruit which (at present at least) dominates over the fleshier Merlot. On the palate, subtle and harmonious. Drink around 2010-24.

The bold delineations of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou.

 

The flavour confirms this impression. Crammed with the noblest fruit, with an inner core of prunelike density, the flavour presents suggestions of cherry, sloe, damson, and truffle before delivering a rush of nectarine sweetness on the finish.

 

The finest of tannins discipline the sumptuous fruit, to which a growing minerality gives a fine-grained aftertaste. This is so well put-together that it will doubtless be delicious when only a few years old (the ’70 Ducru was one of the most delectable young clarets I’ve ever drunk when only a few years’ old) but it will in fact improve for 30 years and more.

 

I made my first visit to Ducru some 30 years ago and had the privilege of eating dinner there with the late proprietor, the immensely sympathetic Jean-Eugene Borie. I mention this to the maître de chai, Remi Lusson, who told me that he himself had almost certainly decanted the old vintages that we’d enjoyed during the meal. A mine of Médocain stories and lore, which he tells in his rolling Médoc accent, M. Lusson is a man I’d like to spend more time with on my next visit.

 

One of the wise men of Bordeaux is Anthony Barton who, for some two decades, has run Langoa Barton and Léoville Barton and vastly improved both. When he took over from his highly-engaging uncle Ronald, the Langoa building (there is no Château Léoville Barton) was in a run-down state and much needed to be done, too, in the winery and vineyards.

 

And much has been done in all three areas since the mid-1980s. Today, all agree that Langoa more than justifies its Third Growth status while Léoville Barton is hailed as one of the greatest of all clarets.

Anthony has always been convinced that claret prices should remain at affordable levels, even at top quality estates like his, and opening prices for both Barton wines have always remained at a modest level, even when the wine press has awarded them the highest points. This clear-sighted attitude has earned him a loyal following all over the world, not just the English-speaking part of it. He’s a witty talker, too, and anecdotes flow from his lips like fine claret from a crystal decanter.

 

One of the biggest changes for the better during his many years in Bordeaux (which have not eroded his elegant West-Irish accent) is, he says, the new approach to bottling. In the past it was all very casual indeed. “Some châteaux would start in December, have a break of several weeks for New Year, and then start up again a month or two later. Now it’s all done in three weeks. Here, we still vinify in wooden vats but we do have temperature control. And now we can afford to eliminate the less satisfactory vats from the Château bottling… “2002 was a very small harvest, with poor flowering and coulure. In 2003 we had two types of grapes: small grapes and very small grapes! 2004 was marked by very high yields.” The wine I now taste shows that those high yields were rigorously reduced to obtain excellent concentration and superb balance.

 

2004 CHATEAU LANGOA BARTON ****

The colour is of maximum depth and intensity while the noble, harmonious nose is of optimal density with great freshness and vitality. Crème de cassis, violet, and peony are to the fore and there’s all the Saint Julien subtlety and breed one could ask for.


The flavour has an almost Pauillac weight (Latour is almost next door, after all) and is long, intricate, and balanced, with a wealth of damson and blackcurrant fruit. There’s a hint of raspberry too. In the glass, the flavour grows more and more velvety and the excellent tannins accentuate the refinement of the long finish. I foresee a middle-phase maturity lasting through 2013-20 followed by a good decade and a half of true maturity suited to grown-up lovers of great red Bordeaux.

 

The 2004 Léoville Barton looks magnificent – even denser and more sumptuous than Langoa – but this particular sample does not show well on nose or palate and is quite simply out of condition. As I am tasting it at the very end of a long visit, and another visit looms, there is no time to arrange a fresh sample. So judgment has to be deferred.


This is frustrating. Léoville Barton is always, without exception, superior to Langoa, so an unflawed sample of the 2004 Léoville Barton would almost certainly have shown itself to be one of the greatest of recent decades.

 

 

PAUILLAC

 

The firm of Borie-Manoux, based in the city of Bordeaux, owns a string of excellent properties all over this vast region. The jewels in the crown are Château du Domaine de l’Eglise (Pomerol), Château Trottevieille (Saint-Emilion), and Château Batailley (Pauillac). In the past, quality was often variable, even in top vintages. As if in compensation, prices were usually well below those of the competition. That being said, I remember a number of really delicious bottles from this source, notably the ’49, ’78, and ’86 Batailley and some Trottevieilles from the ’50s and ’60s.


Only with the accession of Philippe Castéja a year or two ago has there been a great – and consistent – leap in quality. The ‘03 vintage here was the best I had tasted hitherto and the improvement is even more marked in 2004 (even if Philippe does not consider ’04 to be inherently better than ’03).

“There was no chaptalisation in 2004 and we practiced severe selection in the vineyards,” says Philippe. “We had beautiful grapes in perfect condition. We double-checked everything. Not one rotten grape, not one unripe one, got into the vats. We did a cold maceration for three or four days prior to fermentation. 2004 may not be better than 2003 but it is a true claret vintage.”

 

The tasting begins with ’04 Haut-Madran (a Cru Bourgeois) and ’04 Haut de Lynch Moussas (the second wine of Château Lynch Moussas). Both are dark, clean, and have plenty of substance, even if the latter is on the austere side. The ’04 Château Haut Bages Monpelou and ’04 Château Beau Site are both workmanlike efforts that will develop well for 12-18 years (with the former outlasting the latter).

 

2004 CHATEAU LYNCH MOUSSAS, Pauillac ***

Rich in pigment, this has a distinguished, typically Pauillac aroma of damson jam, graphite, peony, and violet. A well-balanced nose with depth. On the palate, the voluptuous fruit is tautened up by fine tannins, which also give length and grain to the finish. An excellent Pauillac to enjoy around 2012-27.

 

2004 CHATEAU BATAILLEY ***(*)

This blackish wine has a full, rotund nose with a “furry” quality and several distinct aromatic strands: crème de cassis, blackberry, sloe. It shows ample volume, harmony, and poise. The vigorous flavour chimes with this, with generous fruit of real purity and underlying elegance. Damson and liquorice can be picked out. Wines of this degree of immaculateness can only be made when all inferior fruit has been rigorously excluded from the vats. A decade will make it approachable; another 15 years will see it at its peak.


A quick look at the two wines in the ’03 vintage shows that they are evolving as predicted (see my OenoFile article on 2003 claret), having coped exceedingly well with the recent trauma of bottling. Both are stirringly rich, fresh, and balanced.

 

At Château Lafite – for many the greatest claret of all – I’m received by wine maker Christophe Congé, whose hairless skull and strong features give him an eerie resemblance to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. His first vintage at this revered estate was 1999. “The most important thing of all,” he says with a smile: “avoid making mistakes!”


He’s made no far-reaching changes, he goes on, though has perhaps brought about an increased rigour. “But there’s not a lot to do here,” he says modestly.

 

The symbol of the Lafite branch of the Rothschild family.

 

2004 CHATEAU DUHART MILON **** (72% C.-S., 28% M)

This deep-coloured wine has a splendid, suave scent of great subtlety: bilberry coulis, blackcurrant, blackberry. The oak is so beautifully integrated as to be scarcely noticeable. The flavour has a classic, disciplined character, with a meld of autumn berry and cherry fruit leading into a long, mineral finish as tightly compressed as a spring. A nobly-structured wine to drink 2015-35.

 

2004 CARRUADES DE LAFITE *** (48% C.-S.. 47% M, C.-F. 4%, P.-V 1%) Second wine of Lafite. Very dark, with a blueish tinge, this has an excellent, incisive aroma, straight and true, of sweet autumn berries and violets. The flavour, restrained but with plenty in reserve, has more than a little Lafite breed, with good structure and persistence. It should be quite lovely in 8 years or so but will continue to improve for a further 15+.

 

 

The undramatic facade of Château Lafite, "for many the greatest of all classics."

The densest of all, Lafite has a nose which is, quite simply, gorgeous, being smooth and silky, sensuous yet disciplined, and flawlessly balanced. Bilberry, violet, cinnamon, lushly ripe black cherry are among aromas that present themselves in sequence.


In the mouth, dense fruitiness/bolstered by a structure as classically balanced as the Parthenon. Cherry and berry flavours are complemented by smoke and truffle, with cedary spice emerging on a long, enticingly restrained aftertaste with marked minerality. Still in bud, but full of all manner of wonderful things, this is a great Lafite that will improve in distinct stages, each with their own special merits, for 45 years at least.

 

© Frank Ward 2005

 

 

Continued : 2004 Clarets Part V

Back to : 2004 Clarets Part III : Saint Julien

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