Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical tasting of Château Angélus

April 2015. In the universe of wine, Château Angélus was a dark misty planet in the mid-1980s, just coming into view in the telescopes of wine-tasters. It became a shooting star in the 1990s, and in the noughties was transformed into one of the brightest stars in the Bordeaux constellation, achieving Premier Grand Cru “A” status in 2012. This placed it in the company of such vinous supernovas as Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Ausone and (also co-opted in 2012) Pavie.

a

These four are now seen, officially, as the very greatest wines of Saint Émilion.

a

In 1987 Hubert de Boüard, proprietor of Angélus, and his colleagues, laid on a tasting for me at his Château, then a humble Grand Cru Classé. I was asked to taste samples of the 1986s and 1985s from a total of twenty Châteaux – Angélus itself and various neighbours in the A.C. All were Grands Crus Classés of Saint Émilion (that classification sounds very grand but usually meant “of respectworthy quality”). About a dozen proprietors were present; I was the only taster. They stood around throughout the two-hour tasting, murmuring quietly among themselves, while I, wholly concentrated on the samples, just got on with the job in total silence. At the end, they all converged on me, anxiously demanding to know what I thought.

a

In those days – nearly three decades ago – the standard of wine-making at many Saint Émilion châteaux was still very uneven. But this tasting showed that some progress was being made, even if standards fell well short of those of today, and that at least some of the lessons of oenology were being learned. I thus was able to tell them frankly that a majority of the samples showed a distinct improvement on earlier vintages of the same wines. What the tasting also showed, I added, was that in these parts 1985 was a much better year than 1986, possessing as it did better colour, more fruit, and superior balance.

a

Already I felt that Hubert de Boüard, then only 31 years old, was destined to be that grouping’s chief moving spirit. You sensed that, with his clear mind, he fully recognized the A.C.s’ problems – old-fashioned views, old-fashioned methods – and was himself already making noticeable improvements at his own property, though he’d only been in charge there for just two years. He was also mapping out a blueprint for success for the region.

a

This showed in the tasting, his samples being among the very best in both years. They were strikingly pure (not always a common trait in those days), very fruity, and balanced. Their only defect being the excessive use of new, noticeably toasty, oak (that error, which persisted for quite some years, was gradually put right).

a

Photo : Courtesy of Château Angelus.

Photo : Courtesy of Château Angélus.

a

I remember him as a clear-eyed, alert person, sharply intelligent, progressive-minded, and open to any good idea, whatever the source. The unparalleled ascent of his own property, from mere run-of-the-mill to near-perfection, is the fruit of thirty years’ unceasing effort. His natural gift for lateral thinking had been underpinned by his time as student of Emile Peynaud, the Einstein of oenology (See my article : Emile Peynaud (1912-2004) – Giant of Oenology), and by the periods he spent with wine-making confrères in Burgundy and other regions, something that clearly opened his mind to the wider world of wine and wine-making.

a

Back to the present day.

a

Hubert de Boüard had travelled from Bordeaux to attend the tasting. He had much to impart about the innumerable lessons he’s learned in the course of those three decades – decades full of unceasing effort but also of great fulfilment. “The three most important factors in wine-making? Harmony. Harmony. Harmony,” seemed to be his most vital message. ”The quality of the tannins”, he went on, “is the determinant factor when it comes to wine’s longevity… And the management of extraction is another key factor. The wood’s very important too. It protects against oxidation, and allows one to reduce the use of sulphur. But wood should never dominate.”

a

On the Cabernet-Franc grape, that accounts for around 47% of Angélus’s acreage: “It should have a minimum age of 25 years – we have ten hectares that are over 60 years’ old – and it’s very sensitive both to rain and to drought.” It’s susceptible to mildew and needs to have just the right proportion of clay in the soil, between ten and fifteen percent.” More Cabernet Franc will be planted in the years to come.

a

(My own reflections on the Cabernet-Franc: while the Merlot is widely seen as “the” Right bank variety, there’s as much Cabernet Franc as Merlot (and sometimes more) at several of the most illustrious properties in Saint Émilion. At Cheval Blanc, for example, it accounts for fully 60% of acreage, 55% at Ausone, 35% at Figeac, and 25% at Canon. Few others have less than 20%. Underestimated in the Médoc, partly because it ripens a little less well there, the Cabernet Franc is viewed with increasing respect all over the Right Bank.)

a

A tireless worker, Hubert de Boüard has also been extremely active on the organizational side of wine, having served in key organizational roles in various Bordelais wine-growers’ associations. In addition, he’s worked as wine-making consultant in Pomerol, the Médoc, elsewhere in France, and in Spain, The Lebanon, South Africa (where he also owns a vineyard), and Thailand.

a

Hubert de Bouard. Photo : Courtesy of Château Angelus.

Hubert de Boüard. Photo : Courtesy of Château Angélus.

a

Answering questions about ever-increasing alcohol levels – most recent vintages of Angélus have dosed 14 -15.5 ABV – he said that alcohol levels were indeed a problem in Bordeaux but added: “I’d prefer my wines to be ripe rather than green.” He admitted, though, that higher alcohol had more to do with the hand of man than with global warming.

a

To my mind, this question of ever-increasing alcohol levels urgently needs to be addressed. It is an undeniable fact that, as Peynaud himself remarked, high alcohol can partly mask wine’s subtler aromas. Alcohol, which is sweet in its own right also “intensifies the sweet taste of sugar” he wrote. Angélus in most recent vintages contains around 3 grammes of residual sugar per litre.

a

a

2012 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS **** (14% ABV, 55% M, 45%CF)

Well-coloured, this has a soft, understated aroma, refined and subtle, wholly without any jarring notes. Very harmonious, it sends out wafts of ripe plum, damson, and raspberry, soon joined by the scents of peony and carnation. There’s no feel of high alcohol; indeed, the nose is delicate, ethereal and strikingly fresh. The flavour is balanced, with suggestions of damson and liquorice, with an acidity of the sort found in ripe black fruits. The ripe tannins contribute a subtle graininess and the firm finish promises a good 20-25 years of steady improvement. As clean-cut and facetted as a crystal vase, it’s much in the classic style.

a

a

2011 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS ***(*) (14.5% ABV, 60% M, 40% CF)

Faintly darker, the ’11 possesses a fuller, broader scent that’s also woodier and less taut. Very different from the first wine, it smells like a meld of black fig, Victoria plum, graphite (Cabernet-Franc), and swarf, with intimations of crushed stones and sand. A touch of raspberry insinuates itself onto the palate, and there’s a reprise of the plummy notes. After a while, the lightly-toasted oak releases notes of cinnamon and dried orange peel. A slight obduracy on the finish indicates that the wine needs a few years to open up. Less elegant but fleshier than ‘12, it should be at its best 2020-30.

a

a

2010 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS ****(*) (15.5% ABV, 55% M, 45% CF)

Dark almost opaque, this has a round, fleshy aroma, full of fruit, that evokes black cherry, damson, crushed stone, peony, iron filings, and cinnamon (the latter from light-toast oak).

a

I even think fleetingly of red rhubarb, not because of its acidity but because of its intensity and very specific scent. It’s a dense smell but without heaviness. These elements carry through to the palate, which expands to include raspberry jam and sweet prunes, with a distinctly ferruginous accent. Firm, but without aggressivity (I have an odd image of the jaw of an affectionate dog clamped around one’s hand, with no threat of injury!). This is a poised, even feminine wine, with lovely lift and an almost Burgundian finesse on the finish, leaving fugitive hints of chocolate, clove, and gingerbread. Tasted blind, it could be mistaken for a Vosne-Romanée. You could drink it now, but it will improve beyond recognition over the 20 or so years to come.

a

Though preferring wines with relatively low alcohol (12-13 % ABV for example) I have to acknowledge that this fresh and vital wine doesn’t smell or taste particularly alcoholic, despite its almost freakish 15.5% ABV. How that high level will affect its ageing potential remains to be seen.

a

a

2009 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS *****(*) 14.5% ABV (60% M, 40% CF)

If the ’10 was nearly opaque, this is wholly opaque but lustrous (blackness without lustre is a danger signal). It smells like a compound of black cherry, sweet black fig, venison, iron filings, and bitter chocolate. It’s a huge aroma, dense and round, yet with classic restraint, the latter indicating that the wine will slim down in the course of maturation. The flavour, too, is weighty and rich, emergent elements including truffle, graphite, and elderberry (sureau in French) and unsugared blackberry jam. This is a tremendously structured wine, built like a Pauillac, that’s dry on the finish but without astringency. Its tannins are firm but not rough. A serious, hot-vintage wine in the 1920s style, it could well be truly great in 30-40 years’ time.

a

In an age when even top clarets are drunk in infancy, this may suffer critically, in the next 5-10 years, in comparison with the more accessible 2010. A Titian compared with a Botticelli.

a

a

2008 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS *** 14.0% ABV (58% M, 42% CF)

A bit paler, with a pinkish rim, the ’08 has a charming, fragrant aroma that makes me think of a Côte de Beaune Burgundy, exhaling as it does scents of purple and red cherries, rose petals, and raspberry. It’s a smell that’s delicate but not fragile, precise and subtle. After a moment or two I register vanillin too (from the very clean oak). Light and elegant on the palate, but in no way insubstantial, it has a sweet, gently woody flavour and a refined, longish finish. This is masterly winemaking in what was clearly a difficult vintage, the wood endowing the wine with a subtle intricacy. Very drinkable now, it will be still more delicious around 2020-28.

a

(Reminds me in style of the light but exquisite 1992 Château Margaux tasted recently – another case where finesse was seized from the jaws of lightness).

a

a

2007 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS ***, 13.5% ABV (62% M, 38% CF)

A shade darker, the ’07 has a slightly meaty, even gamey aroma with a cutting edge, that also incorporates dates, saltpetre, elderberry, and salty liquorice. I find myself thinking, initially, of a fine Cornas. Soon black fruits and ripe berries make their mark and a more clarety character emerges. On the palate it’s lean but not scrawny – maybe lithe is a better word – with good wild-berry fruit mingling with liquorice, with a twist towards coffee-and-chicory on the finish, which carries a faint hint of underbrush. A dark horse of a wine, noticeably different in style from all the others, which needs some four years to settle down, with a good 8-10 years of further improvement. I can see this working well with a tender fillet of venison with forest mushrooms…

a

a

2006 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS ***, 14% ABV (62% M, 38% CF)

This blackish wine has a round, somewhat jammy (in a good way) smell, rather fleshy, with ripe-grape sweetness and an exotic element. A bit unsettled to start with, it expands in the glass, emitting hints of black cherry jam and wood. A shade hard on the palate, with an espresso-like aftertaste which scours the tongue. One feels the tannins are of both the vinous and oaky kind. This is the only wine in the entire tasting that’s even slightly on the heavy side. At present, the nose is better than the palate. It should show better in about five years, and will then improve for another half-decade. Would work well with hearty stews, well-hung game, or cheese.

a

a

2005 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS *****, 14.5% ABV (62% M, 38% CF)

All the top ‘05s have a special look: nuanced, intense, glowing. That’s the case here. The lovely, complex aroma promises greatness; its flavour and aftertaste deliver it. On the nose – a very ’05 nose – optimum concentration, lovely balance and true finesse, with suggestions of ripe Victoria plum, graphite, peony, and carnation. Plenty of flesh, but flesh articulated by muscle – and no excess fat. In the few minutes it takes to jot down my first impressions the wine has already generated more sub-aromas, some so subtle as to defy description. In the meantime that great aroma has expanded to incorporate black cherries and berries.

a

It’s all of a piece in the mouth: generous, satiny, of effortless harmony. Truffle and blackcurrant join the other scents and tastes, and middle palate and aftertaste are very fresh indeed (you feel you could drink it already, even if it has decades of improvement ahead). A beautifully proportioned wine with a lovely texture, or mouth-feel, with a long, firm finish that delivers a sudden spasm of raspberry at the very end. Real maturity won’t arrive in less than 8-10 years and it will continue to evolve for a further two decades at least. Great.

a

a

2000 CHÂTEAU ANGELUS *****, 14% ABV (60% M, 40% CF)

Lovely colour, with a blackish tinge, blue-purple at the rim. The aroma has that special authority found only in great vintages. It trumpets harmony and perfect ripeness: black cherry, damson, graphite. Its kinship with the equally great ’05 is immediately apparent. The flavour is profound, promising undreamt of depths, and (as with the ’05) delivers a gush of cherry sweetness as I take my first mouthful. There’s a sudden shift to raspberry and chocolate, with many lurking subsidiary flavours and a stippling of fine tannins. In short, perfect, noble fruit supported by a framework of classic proportions with a mineral twist at the very end. This great wine can be drunk now, of course; but it will be so much better in 8-10 years. Those privileged to drink it around 2030-40 will gasp their appreciation the loudest.

a


© Frank Ward 2015

a a

Advertisements