Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

2004 Clarets Part V

October 2005

 

At the Second Growth Château Pichon-Lalande there’s nobody from the wine-making side around but the wines have so much to say for themselves there’s no need for human intercession.

 

2004 CHATEAU BERNADOTTE ** Cru Bourgeois

The aroma is rich and pulpy (this baby wine exhales grape-pulp the way a human infant smells of milk) and full of ripe berry fruit. The flavour, at this early stage, is grainy, unformed, and a bit raw. The acidity has cut but is not green. This will be fine around 2010-16.

 

2004 CHATEAU PICHON LALANDE ****(*)

The nose of this wine – one of the blackest of the vintage – speaks volumes. Big and concentrated, it is firm yet velvety, with tremendous structure. Damson, bilberry, sloe, and liquorice can be picked out. It’s smoky too, and truffly. Not concocted to seduce, this sample conveys a sense of total veracity.


The flavour is compact and precise, with great tensile strength. Medium-toast oak imbues the ample Pauillac fruit with a subtle touch of cinnamon and coffee. Very long, this is a classic claret that stays in command of your palate for a long time. Like many other top ’04s, it is very mineral.
Ideally, it should be left aside for 15 years, after which it will improve in yearly increments for 25 more.

 

Some have suggested, darkly, that clarets from the previous year, 2003, lack freshness and will dry out or simply implode. This is not my impression. Re-tasted now, the ’03 Pichon Lalande is simply splendid. Still impenetrably dark, it has a huge, very Pauillac aroma, with a balsamic aspect, and a swelling, forceful flavour that makes me think more of its very masculine neighbour, Pichon Baron, than this more feminine Pauillac. I’m convinced the ’03 will evolve majestically over the next 30 years or so.

 

The name of the man who makes the wine at Château Mouton-Rothschild changes every decade or two (naturally enough) but one thing has been immutable over the past 30 years: it has been virtually impossible to meet him face-to-face. Now this has changed. The present incumbent, Eric Tourbier, is there to receive me when I arrive at this fabled property.

 

He is a slim, scholarly looking man with a serious mien, but with an almost imperceptible twinkle in his eye. Before we taste he tells me of minor, but crucial, changes that are being wrought at Mouton. “We’ve been reducing the percentage of Cabernet-Franc because we want to give the wines more structure. When the Cabernet-Franc’s ripe it gives elegance and freshness; but as a variety it only ripens fully once every three years.”

 

By contrast, the proportion of Petit-Verdot (a vine I have long championed) is being increased. “About 5% would be right for Mouton, not more – at present it’s 3%”. They try to achieve overripeness in all varieties, M. Tourbier says, and usually have a few days’ cold maceration before fermentation proper starts up. There’s also a welcome trend here to reduce the percentage of new oak. Only 25% is used for Armailhac, 30% for Clerc Milon, and 92% for Mouton itself.

 

One curiosity: a new employee, specialist in ampelography – the study of vines – discovered that the Clerc Milon vineyard actually contained a plot of Carmenère, a very old variety thought to be virtually extinct. Like the Petit-Verdot, it gives extra complexity, M. Tourbier remarks. Of 2004 as a vintage: “Very easy to vinify and very well balanced. Like ’98 and ’96.”

 

The label of Château d'Armailhac which depicts an enamel statuette of Bacchus, the original of which stands in Château Mouton-Rothschild's celebrated wine museum.

 

2004 CHATEAU D’ARMAILHAC, Pauillac ***(*) (57% C.-S., 18% C.-F., 23% M, 2% P.-V.)

Spectacularly dark to the eye, spectacularly profound on the nose, this has a weighty, ultra-concentrated aroma of black fruit jam, liquorice, and violet. The flavour is as massive as the nose signals, with lots of ripe, vibrantly pure fruit. The wine is buoyant, despite its great volume, the aftertaste very persistent. I know how violets smell but not how they taste. After relishing this wine’s finish I feel that I do know now! Drink 2020-40.

 

2004 CHATEAU CLERC MILON **** (51% C.-S.. 42% M. 5% C.-F.. 1% P.V.)
This ebony wine has an explosive, Mouton-like aroma of black and red fruits, cinnamon, truffle, and violet, with a gush of nectarine at the rear. Cigar and coffee show too. The wonderful flavour is a cascade of various ripe fruits and the vital, intricate flavour is as long as one’s patience – which is endless when confronted by such a wine as this! The tannins are as firm as they are ripe and give an agreeable furriness to the finish (possibly due to the 1% Carmenère). 12 years to open then 25 of evolution.

 

2004 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***** (69M C.-S., 15% M. 13% C.-F., 3% P.-V.)
Though perhaps the darkest of all the ’04s I’ve tasted it contrives to be one of the most lustrous. The full, majestic aroma could only be Mouton: dense and voluptuous, velvety and very round, it also has a complex, finely-wrought structure that promises great longevity.


The oak is scarcely perceptible. The flavour is huge, too, but beautifully proportioned, conjuring up damson jam, sweet prunes, coffee, and chocolate. Elderberry shows too. Despite its sheer weight the wine is so fresh you feel you could enjoy it already (such great wines can, indeed, be wonderful to drink in infancy, before they close up again).


The aftertaste seems never to end. An enormously complex, beautifully balanced wine that should be left aside for 20 years and drunk (by a lucky future generation) over the 40 that follow.


If the 2003 Mouton seems likely to turn out like the ’45. I can see the 2004 evolving along similar lines to the unforgettable ’49 – one of the most exq
uisite wines I have ever drunk. “Perfect balance,” commented M. Bouvier, with the quiet matter-of-factness of an artist who knows that he has just surpassed himself. “Flawless,” I murmur. There is nothing else to say.

 

As I leave, M. Bouvier is paying tribute to the men who tend the vines that give wines such as these. “These men know each and every plot utterly. They know what treatment they need, they know when they need picking. The value of these people can never be fully grasped…”

 

 

A tasting of eight vintages awaits me at Château Grand Puy Lacoste, a wine which fuses Pauillac power with Saint Julien smoothness and succulence (my notes on this vertical tasting will appear in this column shortly). Owner François Xavier Borie is one of the friendliest proprietors in all Bordeaux. Lively and intelligent, with a winning smile, he is closer to his wines than most. “We have very deep gravel, so the roots at Grand Puy Lacoste go very deep.”(François Xavier’s own roots are very deep too: his family have been Médoc proprietors for generations).

 

2004 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ****

The shimmering black-purple colour suggests what this wine smells like: black cherry and damson. At the core of the aroma are still denser scents – date, liquorice, truffle (the latter probably deriving from very ripe Merlot). Like all great young Pauillacs, it has both rigour and verve.

 

The flavour is glossy and seductive yet has plenty of structure, its various elements being in perfect harmony. The dominant taste is of damson jam, with truffle as extra nuance. The finish is very prolonged, the tannins in evidence but not abrasive. The gently grainy aftertaste is very mineral. A dozen years from now will mark the start of a maturity that will go on for a good quarter-century.

 

In the 1980s I attended a tasting of 30 or so vintages of Château Pichon Longueville “Baron”. This was to mark the acquisition of the property by the Axa insurance group. It was in a very run-down state in those days and the wine had been mediocre for decades. Vast sums of money were invested by Axa and the wines began to improve, even if some of Axa’s earliest efforts smacked of over-extraction. In the last decade or so, however, quality has been exemplary.

 

2004 CHATEAU PIBRAN ***(*). Cru Bourgeois, Pauillac

The colour is that of an utterly ripe blackberry and the nose, too, suggests this berry, as well as blackcurrant, damson, and sloe. The aroma could scarcely be more intense yet it’s fresh and lively too. The flavour seems to bend in the mouth (like toffee when bitten into), spilling out sloe jelly, blackcurrant, and liquorice wood. The richly textured finish has refined terroir character. Drink 2012-24.

 

2004 TOURETTE DE PICHON ***(*) Second Wine of Pichon “Baron”

This has a vast, velvety Pauillac nose of leather, bilberry coulis, cigarbox, sloe, and truffle. There are hints of blood and oriental spice as well. The flavour measures up to this, with its meld of fig, black fruits, and graphite. A splendidly built wine to start on in 8-9 years and continue for 12 or so thereafter.

 

If a second wine is as complete as this how will the grand vin be?

 

Château Pichon Longuesville "Baron" one of the most grandiose of the Médoc's wine château.

This black, brooding wine could be a Mouton or a Latour to judge from its appearance. The nose, too, has First Growth authority and presence. Complex, full, and velvety, it is so round as to be positively globular. It smells of sloe, bilberry, cigarbox, and truffle.

The extraordinarily smooth, complex flavour is cross-hatched with diverse but complementary tastes. The powerful aftertaste, as decisive and finely-modulated as the last chords of a great symphony, is as hard as steel and soft as velvet. A wine to have and to hold: to hold for 14-16 years and to have over the following 20.

 

A quick look at the ’03 and ’00 “Baron” shows both to be truly great wines. The ’03 has all the virtues of a super-hot vintage without any of its defects while the ’00 is, quite simply, an example of perfection. Both will improve for decades.

 

In 1987 I visited Château Pontet-Canet where Guy Tesseron, one of the proprietors, showed me the new stainless steel fermentation vats that had been installed in the previous year. “We sleep more easily now,” he told me all those eighteen years ago. “It’s much less likely that anything will go wrong with this modem equipment, especially when we have total temperature control.”

 

Jean-Michel Comme, the cellar-master, tells me now that the whole thing has been changed back again. The expensive stainless vats have been removed and concrete vats, coated with a tartrate solution (which makes them impermeable), put in their place. Pumping has been abandoned and all movement of must and wine is done by gravity.

 

2004 HAUTS DE PONTET * (Second wine of Pontet-Canet)

The aroma is so vital it leaps out of the glass, dashing gouts of black fruits and berries into your face. The flavour is fresh yet sinewy, the vinous aftertaste clean-cut and decisive. Though very closed at this moment, it is well-balanced and will drink well for a decade and more.

 

2004 CHATEAU PONTET-CANET ***(*)

Nearly as black as Mouton (its near-neighbour), this has a big, round, expressive aroma of ripe fig, berries, and black cherry jam. These initial scents are soon fortified by a whiff of red rose, peony, and chocolate. As with many other top ’04 Médocs, there is a meld of opulence and rigour.

 

The flavour is altogether more closed. One can, nonetheless, discern a vast amount of concentrated fruit. New elements include coffee, smoke, and liquorice. The sinewy aftertaste signals the presence of tannins that will bolster the fruit in the decades to come. Middle-maturity ought to last between 2017-30 with the wine at its very best 2030-40.


“We feel that the ’04 Cabernets are the best we’ve ever made,” M. Comme declares. “The vineyard’s a low-vigour one and even in ’04 the yields were no more than 46-47 hectolitres per hectare. We did a very soft extraction and a very long fermentation…”

 

Château Lynch-Bages is a Fifth Growth Pauillac that deserves promotion to a Third or even Second Growth. Sadly, the samples of its various ’04 wines presented to me are out of condition. Knowing how superbly well-made the wines are I defer judgement to a future date.

 

 

SAINT ESTEPHE


It may seem ludicrous to give a separate heading to this commune, given that only one property is mentioned (a last-minute hitch precludes further stopovers). But this property performed so well in 2004 that it can serve as a symbol of this entire area.


“As a vintage 2004 is more consistent than 2004,” says Philippe de Lagaurigue, the man who makes the wines at Château Montrose. He is a calm, methodical man who deliberates carefully before he speaks.

 

“It was less hot in ’04, of course, and the ripening of the grapes followed a more normal pattern. September brought ripeness, as in ’02, and the weather was less extreme. This gave wines that are less extreme too.

 

We’re right next to the river. The river brings moisture, freshness. And our clay retains that moisture. And the river makes it cooler at night as well.”

 

2004 DAME DE MONTROSE ***, second wine of Montrose

As dark as you’d expect Montrose itself to be, this has a delightfully fresh, intense aroma that unreels a whole sequence of black and red fruit scents as well as violet and liquorice. The medium-full, sinewy flavour has a longish, distinctly clayey aftertaste with firm damson and blackberry accents. A wine with all manner of Montrose traits save for the ultimate completeness of the grand vin. It will afford deeply satisfying drinking around 2010-20.

 

2004 CHATEAU MONTROSE ****(*)

No ’04 Médoc is blacker than this and the noble, expansive aroma is both velvety and firm, brimful with totally ripe, concentrated Cabernet-Sauvignon fruit. Both extravagant and restrained, it is a throbbing artery of Montrose extract. There are no sharp edges, no extraneous elements. But masses of life force.


Though the excellent flavour is somewhat closed it is so pulpy, so crammed with ripe berry and cherry fruit, that you feel you could take bites out of it. The masterful, specifically Saint-Estèphe savour has such sweep that it seems to carry you along like a surfer on a wave. The fresh acidity – no doubt due to the cooling effect of the Estuary – is exceptional. It may not be as weighty as the fabulous 2003 but it is surely just as great in its own, more incisive, less burly way. And it will still be virile in the second half of the 21st century.

 

© Frank Ward

 

Back to : 2004 Clarets Part IV

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