Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé in Zurich
Another wonderful tasting in Zurich set up by Vinum magazine – this time together with the Association de Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Émilion, which counts 54 members of the 63 properties currently permitted to use the designation – 37 of which were presenting their vintages 2013 and 2014 at the tasting. A full list of the estates presenting their wines at the tasting can be found at the bottom of this post. It came as a bit of a surprise for me, originally, that only two vintages – and one of them being very much “less-than-optimal” at that – were on offer at the tasting, but this was agreed-upon by the Association together with the members. And it yielded a few genuine surprises! And for those interested, there was a seminar conducted by Bordeaux expert Rolf Bichsel at the start, featuring six wines (all from the 2011 vintage, which has a bad reputation but which I personally tend to enjoy) chosen to exhibit the various soil types of the AOC and to facilitate the discussion of the same. Great stuff.
But first, about Saint-Émilion….
Pomerol and Saint-Émilion are, together, both the most well-known and most important of the Bordeaux appellations found on the “right bank” of the Dordogne, which is one of the two rivers that flow through the region (the other being the Gironde, the “left bank” of which is rightly famous for the most legendary of the Bordeaux Châteaux: names like Lafite, Latour and Mouton Rothschild). The best wines from these two appellations command prices as high as (or even higher, in the cases of such overachievers as Château Petrus) any of the best properties defined in the infamous 1855 Classification, which concerned itself exclusively with the estates of the left bank.
There are some important differences between the right and the left. Geology and soils are the most important, but what most people are aware of is the fact that, generally, the “main” grape found in most of the wines is different. On the left bank, it is Cabernet Sauvignon that usually sets the pace. On the right, most of the time it is Merlot – and sometimes it is Cabernet Franc. All three of these grapes – plus Malbec (known locally as Cot and certainly better known when found in a bottle from Argentina), Carmenère (now more famous from Chile) and Petit Verdot – are permitted in the red wines of all of Bordeaux, but the proportions vary from region to region.
Merlot is important for the right bank, particularly, because of the soils and the climate – and the wines that result from this oft-generous grape are, likewise, often easier to enjoy, and sooner, than their cousins from the Gironde.
Saint-Émilion is quite special in Bordeaux for reasons beyond grape and beauty: it has some of the most diverse soils of the region as well. From the limestone and clays of the plateau near to the town of Saint-Émilion itself, over sandy soils and loams at the bottom of the slopes to the stony, alluvial and sandy soils of the valley, there are many possibilities of expression for winemakers in the appellation.
The Rules of the Appellation
- The appellation is only for red table wines.
- Main grapes are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Cot (Malbec) and Merlot.
- Petit Verdot may also be used, but may not exceed 10% of the final blend.
- Yields are fixed at 46 hectolitres per hectare.
- Natural minimum alcohol of 11.5% abv
- Wines are released in February of the second year after the vintage. Current vintage is, then, 2015.
Rolf Bichsel chose his wines very well to illustrate the soils and differences within Saint-Émilion. Many people generally think of the appellation as fairly homogeneous, but this certainly isn’t the case – in particular the limestone and clay influences can bring about a marked difference in the resulting wines. The vintage was 2011 – not a “great” one by any stretch of the imagination. But, with over five years of ageing behind it now, the wines were very interesting to try.
While Rolf, himself, is already an affable man, this was strengthened in my eyes by his presentation of the wines and his thoughts on the development of Saint-Émilion over the last couple decades. He feels that the appellation has, particularly from the 2011 vintage, finally returned to expressing the grapes and the soils, instead of trying to rake in high scores from influential critics. This is something I like to hear, and I felt that the wines he selected (from his own cellar, if I understood correctly) went a good way to backing up his ideas.
Always presented in pairs, the estates he chose were:
Château la Commanderie: from the plateau, with plenty of fossil-bearing limestone known in German as Muschelkalk. Lots of cherry and cassis, coffee and chocolate. Nice density, some moderate, ripe tannin and good freshness, very nice length.
Château les Grandes Murailles: 100% Merlot planted on limestone and clay soils. Quite a contrast to Ch. la Commanderie, above. Sleek and vertical with lots of expressive red fruit. More restrained, with somewhat stalkier tannin and less freshness, but more elegance. Harmonious, but ethereal – also running to garnet at the rim. The finish is carried by cherry candy.
Château la Serre: more Muschelkalk on the plateau. A very restrained nose, but with very good body, good, firm tannin, good balance and a slightly warm finish. There is a nice edge of herbs on the palate to temper the black fruit, and some appetising acidity. Very nice wine.
Château Fonplégade: vineyards on the slopes and more clay in the soils. There are some big, firm tannins here, and they are pretty astringent. The wine is tighter and has a bit more heat and less acidity. Cherry cough syrup and coffee on the palate, it presents a pretty compact package. The estate is now organic, but in 2011 it was not.
Château la Dominique: gravel with a fair bit of sand make up the soils. This wine was also a bit restrained, with some lovely notes of dried herbs and black truffle. Very good length, neither broad nor particularly vertical. It’s more of a spear, really, staying tight all the way to the finish, but with some real focus.
Château Péby Faugères: an organic estate located on a clay and limestone slope, with a bit of silt and chalk thrown in. 100% Merlot. A very expressive wine with deep blueberry, blackberry and plum, but with a very nice note of mint before the coffee emerges. Round and structured, the finish was, nevertheless, a bit shorter than expected and slightly astringent. The presence on the palate was superb, however: completely uniform from the gums to the uvula!
A typical “walk-around” tasting set up, each property with their own table. Many estates were represented by the owner(s) or family members, which is always a pleasure – especially when they are directly involved with the winemaking.
The Vintages Presented
2013 – a tough, tough year
The 2013 vintage was universally difficult in Bordeaux, with many saying it was the worst vintage for 30 years. Considering that both 2012 and 2011 before it were also bad, this made things extremely challenging for most producers, and particularly for the small ones.
Why was it so bad? Rains during flowering resulted in the loss of a large part of the harvest; the high humidity and lack of sun in September meant that rot was a big problem. Merciless grape selection was necessary to make wines of good quality, combining with already low yields to force quality-conscious producers to make even less wine. Full ripeness was seldom achieved.
2014 – better
By comparison, a much, much better vintage for nearly everybody, but still not without challenges. It started early and well after a mild winter, bringing optimism to everybody in Bordeaux. The summer ended up being quite poor, with clouds and rain leading to poor ripening. Anxiety set in. September redeemed things, being one of the warmest on record – and permitting careful producers to harvest fully-ripe grapes, particularly if they harvested late. Cabernet Franc, in particular, did well.
Well, to make a point about the vagaries of vintage variation, let us consider briefly the wines of Château Dassault, about which I write later. The 2013 vintage produced just 38 000 bottles and yields were 17 hectolitres per hectare. The 2014 vintage – being better – resulted in 60 000 bottles made and yields were 21 hectolitres per hectare. The 2015 vintage – and it should be noted that 2015 was, nearly everywhere in Europe, a fantastic vintage with near-perfect conditions for ripe, healthy grapes – allowed the estate to produce 93 500 bottles from yields of 33.5 hectolitres per hectare. I haven’t tasted it, but I have no doubt that it is not missing any concentration whatsoever despite having yields nearly twice as high as 2013.
With those kinds of differences, it is easy to imagine the difficulties producers can land in – particularly with multiple successive poor vintages.
But What Made an Impression?
What indeed? Here’s the thing: in easy vintages, identifying quality estates can be a real challenge because even mediocre producers can make great wines. If you need evidence of this, look no further than 2005 in Bordeaux, where even producers making wines retailing for €6.00 to €8.00 in Germany bottled wines that were worth buying by the case and cellaring for several years. However, if you want to see which estates can make great wine, it always pays to try the less-auspicious vintages. 2013 was, by universal reckoning, a vintage that ranged from challenging to abysmal. Making even a good wine required immense fortitude, severe selection of grapes, and careful attention in the cellar. The results of such painstaking work can be truly great, even in bad years, but the volume of production is never high.
This is when, unfortunately but logically, capital reserves become extremely important as well. A producer selling wines at an average to low price is going to have enormous difficulty in bad years making a wine that is good, simply because it can be a financial death warrant to produce so little wine and they likely don’t have the financial resources to wait out the hard times. Luck plays a role and the skill and foresight of the winemaker and vineyard manager become paramount. One bad vintage is tough enough, but after several mediocre to bad vintages in a row (see 2011-2013) times can get really hard. A large producer or a producer making wines with a high retail value is generally in a much better position: they can afford to produce less wine of a higher quality for a vintage or two because they are not living hand-to-mouth.
Interestingly, it is often the underrated vintages that can become truly interesting with bottle age. It is far, far too early to say where 2013 is going to go, but here are some of the producers who made excellent wine in both 2013 and 2014 – wines that were by no means identical, but which were exceptional, interesting and, above all, a pleasure to taste. I would love to have a case or two of all of them in my cellar.
Located adjacent to the renowned Château Angélus, this estate has just under seven hectares of hand-harvested vines planted on clay and limestone soils, owned by the families Pradel de Lavaux and de Boüard de Laforest. The wine is 100% Merlot, something that remains quite rare in Saint-Émilion (less rare in Pomerol), but which is, nevertheless, occurring with increasing frequency. It is also aged 100% in new barriques. Around 20 000 bottles are produced each year.
2013 – Oh, what lovely fruit! Plenty of blackberry, black cherry and black currant, with some subtle raspberry to shore things up. Tannins are smooth and surprisingly ripe, the wood influence is quite perceptible but not overbearing. Fine and with good, sleek length.
2014 – Ah, very elegant and possessing excellent balance of fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin. Berry fruit is very fine and the tannin as well. This is a wine made for subtle pleasure, and one of the most enjoyable of the vintage that I tried.
Visit Château Bellevue online at www.chateaubellevue.fr
Laurence Brun – who was presenting the wines herself at the tasting – runs both Château Dassault and Château Faurie de Souchard together with Laurent Dassault. Both estates were showing wines that were excellent for the vintages. Nevertheless, Château Dassault made the greater impression – particularly with the 2013. The vines come from 24 hectares of vineyards on primarily limestone soils.
2013 – Made with 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 85% new French barriques for between 14 and 18 months. Despite the vintage, this wine was powerful and structured. Fruit was dense and fine, and the finish was good. Tannins were firm, yet ripe. Honestly, I would not have thought the vintage was difficult if I had not already known. One of my favourite 2013s at the tasting – and indeed, one of my favourite wines.
2014 – Made with 70% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 70% in new French barriques for between 14 and 18 months. This wine had excellent dark fruit concentration, supple tannin and very nice acidity, with a finish that seemed just a tiny bit hot, though that was likely due to the youth of the wine and the barrique influence.
Visit Château Dassault online at www.dassaultwineestates.com
Château Franc Mayne
Hervé Laviale was showing his wines with panache, affability and, honestly, tremendous salesmanship. And the wines were more than worth the effort. The estate’s vines are planted on clay, limestone and sandy soils. Merlot makes up 90% of the blend, with Cabernet Franc as the 10% partner.
2013 – Wonderful freshness and a filigree expression, fine structure and good length. There is a lovely basket of red fruit to greet you and the tannin is supple enough to let you enjoy this wine immediately. Lovely and elegant!
2014 – An absolutely delicious wine – balanced, fine, excellent black and red fruit with smooth, ripe tannin. Lovely, elegant and expressive. This was the complete package.
Visit Château Franc Mayne online at www.chateau-francmayne.com
Château Jean Faure
Olivier Decelle – owner of Mas Amiel in the Languedoc – bought this property in 2004, and has revitalised it. Pomerol (and Petrus) are just a brief walk away, and the estate is, quite literally, the neighbour of Cheval Blanc. The soils are virtually identical: a thick layer of clay and sand over the limestone. And if I had to walk away from the tasting with wines from only one Château, this would have been it. They were of a different character than everything else that I was able to taste – I don’t want to say they were better, necessarily, but they were exceptional.
The wines are 50% Cabernet Franc, 45% Merlot and 5% Malbec, aged for 18 months in wood, 60% of it new.
2013 – here it is, the style of wine for which I often search and seldom find. There is tautness here, a kind of tensile strength communicated through vibrant acidity coupled with healthy fruit and fine tannin. The wine is absolutely vertical on the palate, elegant and with good wood integration. Fruit, freshness, firm and with finesse, what more could you want?
2014 – the succeeding vintage offers more herbaceous notes which are delightfully appetising, complexity is there, but oriented a bit farther from the fruit spectrum in spite of the wine’s youth. A fascinating wine, I’d love to see how it develops over the next ten years.
You can visit Château Jean Faure online at www.jeanfaure.com
Extremely Honourable Mention
Owned and run by Denise and Stephen Adams, this property is certified organic and currently under conversion to biodynamic practices. The estate prides itself on the diversity of its clones and rootstocks, as well as its vineyard work. The wines are 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, and they are superb. Limestone, clay and sand make up the soils, and there are 27 separate parcels on terraces and flat spaces that are worked. The 2011 was in the seminar and I have written about it above.
2013 – great fruit concentration and density, with good, fine tannin. The wine is in excellent balance with a subtle, mineral finish. Top form!
2014 – as if the 2013 didn’t offer enough fruit depth and concentration, the 2014 is even more focused. The black and red fruit here is simply excellent, the tannins are firm and ready for the long haul. Everything is in balance, however. Outstanding stuff, and with a good finish.
You can visit Château Fonplégade at www.fonplegade.com
The Classification of Saint-Émilion
This is a somewhat complicated topic that I shall endeavour merely to summarise.
Unlike the “left bank” classification of 1855, Saint-Émilion has voluntarily undertaken a classification that permits – indeed, that DEMANDS – regular revision. The latest revision was in 2012, the results of which are listed below.
Saint-Émilion has, beyond the basic AOC, four different levels of quality beginning, somewhat interestingly, at Grand Cru. To be Grand Cru, one must follow the rules of the appellation and be located within the geographical boundaries set out for it.
The next step up is Grand Cru Classé (some 63 estates) followed by Primeur Grand Cru Classé B (16 estates) and, finally, Primeur Grand Cru Classé A (four estates). Hopefully you have noticed that the tasting about which I have written concerned only the Grand Cru Classé, and only the members of the Association – which includes all but nine of the estates entitled to using the designation Grand Cru Classé.
The classification itself is based on a points system. Half of the points allocated come from tasting the wines, while the rest come from details about the soils, viticulture, winemaking, and market reputation. Currently, the act of assessment is in the hands of the INAO, which is a governmental body. The tasting panel is chosen from a broad range of experienced professionals who are, nevertheless, also schooled specifically for the task. All châteaux desiring Grand Cru Classé status needed to provide samples of the previous 10 vintages, which were assessed by the tasting panel.
The Classification of 2012
4 Primeur Grand Cru Classé A Estates
14 Primeur Grand Cru Classé B Estates
63 Grand Cru Classé Estates
Premiers Grands Crus Classés A
Château Cheval Blanc
Premiers Grands Crus Classés B
Château Beausejour Duffau -Lagarrosse
Château Beau-Sejour Becot
Château Canon La Gaffeliere
Château La Gaffeliere
Château Larcis Ducasse
Château Pavie Macquin
Château Troplong Mondot
Château Trotte Vieille
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé
This is a list of all the estates permitted to use the term Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé on their labels, as of the classification of 2012. Members of the Association de Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Émilion are in italics. Attendees at the tasting are also in bold-face with the châteaux that I enjoyed the most marked with an asterisk (*).
Château Balestard la Tonnelle
Château Cap de Mourlin
Château le Chatelet
Château Clos de Sarpe
Château la Clotte
Château la Commanderie
Château Côte de Baleau
Château la Couspaude
Château la Dominique
Château Faurie de Souchard
Château de Ferrand
Château Fleur Cardinale
Château La Fleur Morange
Château Franc Mayne*
Château Grand Corbin
Château Grand Corbin-Despagne
Château Grand Mayne
Château les Grandes Murailles
Clos des Jacobins
Couvent des Jacobins
Château Jean Faure*
Clos la Madeleine
Château la Marzelle
Château Moulin du Cadet
Clos de l’Oratoire
Château Pavie Decesse
Château Peby Faugères
Château Petit Faurie de Soutard
Château de Pressac
Château le Prieuré
Château Quinault l’Enclos
Château la Serre
Château Tertre Daugay
Château la Tour Figeac