We arrived in Bordeaux for en primeur week 2018 on Sunday and immediately travelled to meet with our friends at Vins des Crus in Bordeaux. Francis Anson laid on an impressive array of samples from the 2017 vintage and as we took our first nervous steps forward in tasting what this frost-hit and heterogeneous vintage had in store for us, and we were all very pleasantly surprised! From our initial tasting, the cru Classe wines of the Saint Julien appellation are particularly impressive so early on, in spite of the meteorological and viticultural challenges they've had to overcome.
Particular highlights for me came in the form of Beychevelle, which had very well integrated tannins, a smooth cassis core and a lovely vein of minirality running through it with a delightfully long finish, and Leoville Barton which is a superb offering from Lillian Barton and her team. The Barton had a seductively aromatic nose with cassis billowing out of the glass and a voluptuous mouthfeel with lovely fresh, ripe fruit, supple and slightly grippy tannins and even better length on the finish: a tremendously delicious wine!
Château Pape Clement was another excellent offering with a beguiling note of incense on the nose and a wine of immense structure, poise and weight on the palate.
We then retired to the dining room to enjoy a superb meal prepared by Monsieur Philippe of Chez Philippe, Bordeaux's most famous fish restaurant (it's not all hard work then!) and we were treated to a number of wines blind including two very interesting vintages of Château La Louvière Blanc, 2006 & 2010 both with a screw cap .The result was two wines of impressive freshness and vitality for their age, thanks in large part to the closure. The star of the evening though was a quite exceptional Mouton Rothschild 1999 which still felt very young but offered us all a quite wonderful drinking experience. A huge thanks once more to Antonie, Francis and Delphine at Vins des Crus for such a wide-ranging tasting and an even better dining and drinking experience afterwards!
The next morning we were up with the lark to arrive for a 0900 tasting of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a particular favourite of us at Noble Rot for its investment track record. As ever the experience at Lafite was perfectly managed (it is to wine what Augusta is to the world of golf!) and we were all impressed by what we tasted. Duhart Milon and investment unicorn Carruades de Lafite were showing very well, but the Grand Vin was most pleasing, as ever. With 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Merlot and a dash of Petit Verdot, this was a wine we expected to be typically big, perhaps unapproachable, and displaying those complex Cabernet-centric fruit notes. As it turned out, the wine was a very delicate offering with an elegant floral note with freshly-picked fruit, sweet cassis, damson, palate-cleansing acidity and minerality. This was an impressive opening to the day and it will be very interesting to see how the wines develops with in bottle.
Next we, quite insanely, drove back into Bordeaux from the Medoc to attend the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting at Hangar 14, an invaluable event where winemakers from across the region showcase their wines under one roof. We only had around thirty minutes to taste what we needed to which really focussed the mind! The standout wines for me were Lynch Bages, Léoville-Poyferré (which had a delightful nose of incense, violets, blackcurrant left and graphite backed up with rich and lively fresh fruit on the palate and a pleasing clean finish) and my star of the tasting, Smith Haut Laffite, which was succulent with notes of pencil shavings, incense, beautifully ripe damson, black plum, white pepper and really well rounded tannins with pleasing tension between acidity and tannin.
Hopping back into our people carrier to shelter from the rain we drove back out of the city to Pontet Canet which, in my humble opinion, is the most precise and attractive Châteaux in Bordeaux. The experience of visiting for a tasting is fantastic as you are taken past the fining and fermentation vats, through the chais and then upstairs to a very airy room to taste the wine whilst looking out onto the vines below.
The wine itself was laser-like clean and mineral on the nose, with hints of juniper and blackcurrant. On the palate there was pleasing freshness (we were coming to the realisation that "fresh" was becoming a buzzword of the vintage) and lingering juicy acidity. There was light spice, chalkiness, smooth tannin and a seam of minimality running through the wine and whilst it didn't have the opulent and developed fruit and considerable backbone of the 2016 vintage, it elegantly captured the terroir: a wink from proprietor Alfred Tesseron when this was put to him suggested he agreed, but with Monsieur Tesseron you never really know where you stand! Following our tasting we moved to one of the large converted barn spaces on the property to enjoy the annual treat that is the Pontet Canet lunch. We were treated to fish tartare, braised veal and the finest cheese table in all of France whilst drinking the 2006 vintage from the Château. Fired up by post-lunch espresso, we made the short hop across the road to Cháteau Mouton Rothschild.
Last year I rated Mouton Rothschild as one of my 100 point wines and so I was intrigued to see what the Château had made of this slightly tricker vintage. They experienced an earlier than usual growth cycle and a long dry summer, making for an early harvest. I thought that d'Armailhac and Petit Mouton were impressive this year with the former displaying a very pleasant black fruit bouquet, a touch of oak and good acidity & length, whilst the latter (a investment superstar it must be said) was very vibrant and youthful on the palate with a hint of oak, juicy acidity and fruit, a touch of cinnamon and very smooth tannins. The Grand Vin, Mouton Rothschild, was the first blockbuster of our trip, a wine with 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot, it had a beautifully opulent nose of fresh berry compote, delicate oak and on the palate it offering mout-filling freshness, smooth and integrated tannins, oodles of structure, and a graphite and mineral backbone. This has the potential to be an absolute monster in years to come and yet it was such a youthful and delicate treat to sample from barrel: delicious!
Following our visit to Mouton Rothschild (and not forgetting to pick up a famous poster of all the historic Mouton labels to frame for the wall at home!) we travelled to meet with our good friends Lillian Barton and Hugo Boivin from Les Vins Fins Anthony Barton at their new warehouse facility in Bordeaux where we had to opportunity to try Langoa Barton & Leoville Barton once more, as well as sample the 2016 vintage to assess its progress, as well as being able to sample a number of older vintages from petit châteaux in the region.
Our final stop of an exhaustive but ultimately eye-opening day was Châteaux Margaux, always an excellent photo opportunity:
Margaux were slightly affected by the frost, with 8 hectares damaged and 10% of production lost. Pavillon Rouge seemed to demonstrate the travails of the vintage, with a closed palate and a slightly dull finish after a fresh opening. Pavillon Blanc was tremendous and another example of the 2017 vintage being very good for Bordeaux whites across the board. There was superb acidity with hints of papaya, lemon peel and candied fruit and dramatic tension between ripeness and acidity - a very good offering. Château Margaux was a bit of a surprise for me as I assumed it would have been affected in the same way the second wine was, but I was wrong. Tannins were pleasingly grippy, there was a lovely minimality to the wine and a clean streak of fresh blackcurrant through the wine with its 89% of Cabernet Sauvignon. While the wine wasn't anywhere near as approachable as Mouton Rothschild there is excellent structure and tension lurking here and it could develop handsomely when it is bottled.
The overriding feeling from us all on days one and two were that the majority of the wines had excellent freshness and that this vintage was looking like an upgrade on 2014, dependent on the appellation. Mouton Rothschild and Smith Haut Laffite were the star-performers for me on days one and two and as we retired to the hotel we set out alarms for another early start on day three at La Mission Haut Brion.