Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

2004 Clarets, a classic vintage for classic Châteaux

Part I : The Right Bank

Bordeaux had another record harvest in 2004, the equivalent of a staggering 700,000,000 bottles. Where yields were at maximum possible levels the wines are dilute and lack fruit. But at châteaux with outstanding vineyards, where production was kept to an absolute minimum and picking occurred at just the right time, many wines are of mind-blowing quality. Certain of the classed growths of the Médoc surpassed themselves, coming up with wines of exceptional greatness (words I do not use lightly).


The French Wine Review tasted literally thousands of ’04 clarets from all over this vast region, which now has over 110,000 hectares of vines. According to them, many basic Bordeaux Rouges are “totally without interest” while many other categories are “very heterogeneous” or “gave only disappointments”.


I pass on these comments to give a notion of the overall picture, having myself tasted very selectively. My own five-day visit to Bordeaux in late May 2005 was devoted entirely to a few Pomerols, most of the very top Saint-Emilions, and a fair proportion of the classed growths of the Médoc. The following article, therefore, does not purport to evaluate the vintage as a whole but is rather a vinous diary, a piecemeal description of the wines – or rather samples – shown at the châteaux visited by me. It should be observed that most of the châteaux mentioned below are pace-setting estates.



My short but gruelling odyssey (tasting, when detailed notes are being taken, is as demanding an occupation as performing acrobatics on a high wire!) began in Saint-Emilion, where 10 of the 12 First Classed growths were assembled for me at Château la Gaffelière. The bottles were completely hidden, their identities not being revealed until after the tasting was over.

One of the best was a wine that has performed variably over the decades:



An intense, very deep black-purple, it has a full, brooding aroma, of unmistakeable old-vine depth, of black cherry jam, blackcurrant, graphite, cinnamon, and liquorice. The flavour is lushly fruity, with a great deal of complexity and the kind of delicious acidity found in a perfectly ripe plum. Real nobility shows on the sustained, very pure aftertaste, on which is found not the slightest hint of stalkiness or unripeness. Weighty but with plenty of lift, this splendidly structured wine needs 8-9 years to open up and will improve for a further 15-18.



Nearly black, tightly structured and very dense (no loose Canon, this!) the ’04 has masses of ripe Merlot fruit, some of which is close to overripeness but with no hint of anything farmyardy. Assertive, broad, and voluminous, it sends off whiffs of black cherry jam, truffle, bilberry, and sweet prune. There’s a hint of wet clay too.


Tannin is immediately apparent on the palate, which is more austere than the nose. Good acidity vitalizes the weighty flavour, which is gritty and earthy. A burly wine with body and grip, it will mature in stages, reaching its apogée around 2015-30.


Darker than the Château’s ’03, this has a fine, lively nose, quite grainy, hinting at Assam tea (a typical trait), black fruits, violet. There’s a faintly lactic element, not unlike bilberries in yoghurt. A hint of nectarine arrives after 15 minutes.


The flavour is only medium-full and is dominated by black fruits though with a touch of nectarine too. The aftertaste is a little short, with some ascerbity, but lengthens out in contact with the air, and the black fruit aftertaste shows mounting minerality. 8 years to open then about 15 of further evolution.



Very dark, this has a dense, super-concentrated aroma, slightly cooked, of black fruit jams, peony and raspberry. New oak woodiness and spice do not overwhelm the ripe-grape sweetness of the fruit. The flavour is rich and vital, though with a slight bitterness at centre, with both Cabernets and the Merlot in evidence as individual elements. The aftertaste is persistent, with a clayey element, and has a lot of thrust. 8 years to open then 15-16.



Like the ’03, this is in the Wagnerian mode, being explosively rich, superripe, and loaded with crunchy tannins, yet luscious too. Black cherry, ripe fig, and truffle dominate on the nose. This is a burly, luscious, rich aroma, which soon shows a touch of black olive for good measure.


The flavour is luxuriantly rich too, with prunes and liquorice emerging, but mouth-drying tannins at the centre sound a warning note. The long aftertaste is gritty and very tannic and there’s a distinct earthiness, even stoniness, on the forceful, uncompromising finish. This is Gaffelière in a Montrose mood. It has masses of luscious fruit but there’s a rigidity too, that makes it hard to judge at this stage. One thing is sure: at least 10 years are needed for some of the hardness to abate. The next 15-18 years will make or break the wine.



Even in such deep-hued company this is exceptionally dark and the huge, homogeneous aroma is very round, close-grained, and weighty: torrent of black fruit melded with dark chocolate.


This impression carries through to the palate, which is slightly ferruginous, very chocolaty, and marked by a clovey spiciness. Sturdy and voluminous, almost clumsy, the flavour has a porty density. At this early stage one is both attracted and repelled by the overwhelming force of the wine. Resolution will be achieved in about a dozen years and the wine should coast along smoothly for the following 15-20.


2004 CHATEAU PAVIE ***(*)

As black as night, Pavie has a vast, slightly scorched (medium-toast oak) aroma of damson, truffle, raspberry, peony, and black treacle. It exhibits a kind of refined decadence found in certain Pomerols. The dynamic flavour of black fruits, liquorice, and prunes is bolstered by firm but not hard tannins and there is no hint of stalkiness (every single underripe grape must have been rigorously excluded). If a bit over-the-top this full-blooded wine is very impressive, and could be described as a Right bank caricature of a Richebourg from Burgundy! (it also reminded me of the Pomerol Château Rouget as it was in the ‘70s). Apogée around 2015-30.



Also very dusky, this has a silky, intense aroma, very focused, of flowers and fruits, and displays elegance and restraint. A very polished nose, with no extraneous elements, with finely integrated oak.


The flavour of ripe berries is smooth and balanced and the black fruit aftertaste has an appealing freshness. Poised and incisive, this silky wine grows increasingly flowery (an elusive hint of wisteria can be picked out) and the tannins, while faintly dry, seem to be of the ripe kind. A beautiful Beauséjour to forget for a decade or so and rediscover, with mounting pleasure, over the 15 years that follow.



Another huge, explosive, weighty aroma brimful of fruit and spice (black fruit, fig, prune) that’s just about as voluminous as a wine can be without being a port. But despite all this power there’s a freshness too. Flesh and muscle abound in the mouth, with the ample fruit well-supported by structured tannins. The aftertaste, while forceful, has both freshness and buoyancy, and it leaves the palate coated with a ripe vinosity. To be enjoyed with game around 2015-35.



Tasting blind, I am struck by the clay-limestone impression on the nose (Clos Fourtet grows on such soil) and the presence of some old vines gives an attractive mellowness to the full, assertive aroma of tea, bilberry, and raspberry. The flavour, too, is richly fruity, with the Merlot (85%) dominating but with both cabernets making their presence felt. The aftertaste is creamy but a certain stalkiness shows, too, suggesting that some of the tannins were not entirely ripe. The wine will certainly develop over a quarter-century or so but may never reach full harmony.



At the end of the tasting I gingerly examined my palate the way an athlete probes a sprained ankle. It felt as if it had been scoured, even lacerated, by the tannins. 2004 and 2003 are very different years in these parts but what they both have in common – at this exalted PGCC level – is splendid colour, lots of substance, and sometimes brutally assertive tannins (in some cases like espresso coffee made from burnt beans). As a result, the Merlot grape shows little refinement.


Now the Merlot at its best is capable of real finesse – as witness Pétrus, which is close to 100% Merlot – and, while not deficient in tannins, never has the almost architecturally tannic rigour of the Cabernet-Sauvignon. As a grape it should never lack tannin but nor should tannin dominate, as it does in many ‘04s and ‘03s, with a consequent loss of subtlety and finesse. The tug of war between finesse and brute power in these wines will be fought out in the bottle. One quality will prevail in some, the other in the rest.



At Château Cheval Blanc their second wine, Petit Cheval, is delightful in 2004, with its vibrantly fresh, fruity aroma of black fruits and pomegranate and a glossy, persistent flavour to match. Elegant and savoury on the palate, with more than a hint of true Cheval Blanc distinction, it will delight all but the most demanding judges in a few years’ time, with its authentic (if light) Cheval-Blanc-style scent and flavour. When the grand vin looms, though, this Petit Cheval shies away.



Intensely coloured, this has an elegant, vibrant aroma, velvety and strikingly pure, of black cherry with stone, truffle, dark chocolate, and violet. The oaky element is scarcely noticeable, due to the deft use of very lightly toasted oak. This combination of great intensity and restraint is a hallmark of exceptional wines.


The flavour is noble (no other word will do) and intensely fresh and concentrated. Black cherry, graphite, smoke, and date mingle on the palate which, while very closed, exhibits great tensile strength. The sinewy aftertaste has an elegant minerality and suddenly expands to give a lovely aftertaste of ripe black cherry and raspberry. Made from 55% Merlot and 45% Cabernet-Franc, this Cheval Blanc has the edge on the other PGCCs because of its more finely-tuned structure and its sheer finesse. A dozen years should be allowed to pass before a bottle is breached; it will then evolve for 15-20 more.


They cropped thin at Cheval Blanc in ’04, I was told, and they carried out three green harvests. Only half of the yield of 45 hl/ha went into Cheval Blanc itself, the rest being divided equally between the Petit Cheval and a generic wine.



Over in Pomerol the great firm of J.P. Mouiex are not wildly enthusiastic about the ’04 vintage and they decided to buy very few wines en primeur. “In our own vineyards we carried out three crop thinnings”, Edmond Mouiex tells me, “and this involved an extra19,000 man-hours of work. There was leaf-cropping, too, more than normal. We needed all the sun we could get in 2004.” There was a lack of sun in August, he recalls, and some rain fell.


The weather was good in September but no more sun than usual – not enough to make up the lost ground. “The fruit is elegant in ’04 and the trick was to preserve it intact. We were very careful in our use of new oak so as not to overwhelm the fruit. No vin de presse has been added to the wines you’ll be tasting. When it is added the wines will, of course, show more body. We’ve decided to show you only eight wines – the pick of the crop.”


2004 CHATEAU MAGDELAINE ***, Premier Grand Cru Classé, Saint Emilion

Medium-deep in colour, this has a balanced aroma of black and red fruits of good if not extreme ripeness. A smell of sweet ripe blackberry starts to dominate. This cedes to damson on the palate, with considerable elegance showing on a longish, balanced aftertaste.

This is a well-balanced, vinous wine with good fruit and of medium length, intelligently vinified to bring out the fruit without too much extraction. They clearly terminated the vinification at exactly the right moment.


2004 CHATEAU LA GRAVE ***, Pomerol

The colour is clear but intense and the fresh, flowery aroma of carnation (Merlot), raspberry, and cherry with stone is lively and expressive, with real elegance. The flavour is medium full, mostly cherry and prune with a touch of cinnamon, and there is a ferruginous quality to the spicy aftertaste.

For medium-term drinking (2012-20).


2004 CHATEAU LATOUR ***, Pomerol

While no darker, this has a fuller, weightier aroma that calls to mind black cherry, chocolate, smoke, and morel mushroom. There is a generosity to the nose, a swell of ripe fruit, with an inner core of nectarine sweetness. The oak has been used so subtly as to be almost unnoticeable.


Medium full on the palate, with good fatness, the wine tastes of raspberry, cherry, and elderberry. The finish is distinctly tannic but not to excess. It should evolve over about the same length of time as La Grave.


2004 CHATEAU LA FLEUR PETRUS ***(*), Pomerol

Deeper-coloured by a shade, this has a lushly fruity nose, glossy and enticing, of raspberry, black cherry, and truffle. Peony and carnation quickly reinforce this scent.

The flavour – about three-quarters-full – has a good density of fruit and is vinous and nuanced. A ’04 with plenty of stuffing but no hint of over-extraction.


2004 CHATEAU TROTANOY ****, Pomerol

This has an altogether deeper and more glowing “robe” and a voluminous nose of real depth and substance which conjures up luscious black fruits, chocolate, clove, peony, and cinnamon. The flavour is solidly vinous with lots of body and an agreeable smokiness. The aftertaste is long, firm, and mineral. At best around 2015-30.


2004 CHATEAU HOSANNA ****, Pomerol

Also very dark, Hosanna exhales a lovely velvety scent of black fruits, wild strawberry, and raspberry coulis. One is struck by its vitality and verve. These traits carry through to the delectably ripe, luscious flavour of black and red fruits which leads in turn to a sinewy aftertaste with firm but harmonious tannins. Its future development should mirror that of Trotanoy.


2004 CHATEAU PETRUS *****, Pomerol

With a similar depth and richness of colour, Pétrus has a noble, superripe aroma of lushly ripe cherry, truffle, red rose, and black cherry jam with stones. Round and voluptuously ripe, it is a nose of exceptional quality.


The nobly proportioned flavour is no letdown, being luscious, pure, and complex, hinting at cherry and sweet ripe plum. Not of maximum concentration (that would have been impossible here in ’04) but exquisitely balanced and very long, with seductive charm and an enticing plumpness on the finish. The tannins, while faintly bitter at this stage, are of the ripest kind. A splendid Pétrus – a triumph in this difficult year for Pomerol – that will show best around 2020-38.



Afterwards, to Château La Croix de Gay, a Pomerol estate with 13 hectares of vines on the Pomerol plateau’s highest point, close to Pétrus, Lafleur, and l’Evangile.



This impressively dark wine has a round, voluminous aroma – very weighty – of bilberry coulis, raspberry, and truffle. The flavour is big, fleshy, and concentrated, with ample fruit counterbalanced by fine fruity acidity and ripe tannins. The aftertaste is long and rolling. To drink around 2012-25.



© Frank Ward 2005


Continued : 2004 CLARETS PART II – THE MEDOC, with tasting notes on the 2004s at Châteaux Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Palmer, Pontet-Canet, Saint Pierre, Grand Puy Lacoste, and many more. Also : vertical tastings of Château Rauzan Ségla and Château Grand Puy Lacoste.

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