Tuesday morning. Our team, minds focussed on another long day of tasting ahead thanks to some early-morning caffeine, travelled the relatively short journey from the centre of Bordeaux to Château La Mission Haut Brion to taste the Clarence Dillon stable of Fine Wines. I am so used to our travelling the long journey to the Medoc or across the river into the heart of Saint Emilion that when Esme declared 'this is it, La Mission', I half wondered if he was joking. It is practically inside the city, has a TGV line running right alongside and building sites across the road: it couldn't be more of a juxtaposition to the rolling hills around, say, Château Lafite Rothschild. However, as always the proof is in the drinking and Haut Brion & La Mission have consistently made some of the finest wines in Bordeaux.
Apparently the ambient temperature at these sites can be up to three degrees Celsius higher than in the rest of the region, thanks to the built up nature of the surrounding neighbourhood. No danger of frost being a mischief-maker here, then. As you enter La Mission you are transported away, almost instantaneously, from the surrounding city hubbub. There was a sense of calm and serenity as we waited in the quad to taste the wines. Worth another couple of pictures, I think:
Once we had settled inside our tasting room, Barbara Wiesler-Appert took us though all of the wines, noting that for both chateaux the vintage was 'truly wonderful' with an altogether hot and dry growing period with no significant rainfall for 70 days between the 1 July and the 8 September creating ripe, aromatic and concentrated grapes. In the Chateau's eyes, they had been blessed with three outstanding vintages in a row, 2015, 2016 & 2017. That comment taken with a large bucket of salt, we pressed on to see if some sort of miracle had happed in Pessac.
The second wines were very pleasing offerings to start the day with: La Chapelle de la Mission demonstrating good acidity, lively fruit and perhaps a little under-integrated tannin, whilst Le Clarence de Haut Brion had a charming nose of pencil shavings and a little incense whilst offering white spice, plum, very good acidity and pleasing tension - the latter second wine a particular success.
On to the big boys. La Mission Haut Brion had a very delicately perfumed nose, a hint of oak and fresh bramble fruit. On the palate there was fantastic grippy tannin, good acidity and beautifully fresh fruit, with a hint of liquorice, creating wonderful tension in the mouth. There was superb length in the finish with a striking mineral notes throughout - a very good wine.
Château Haut Brion was blended with 53% Merlot, 40.7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6.3% Cabernet Franc and the nose is big and opulent with pungent fruit, black cherry, damson, blackcurrant, blackcurrant leaf and a hint of oak: a really beguiling and intoxicating nose. My first tasting note on this illustrious Grand Vin is, simply, 'wow'. This is a wine that was wonderful on so many levels: there is refreshing minerality coursing through the wine and zinging acidity, leaving a stunningly clean & refreshing finish. There is superb structure to this wine with a perfect balance between tannin and acidity. There is wonderful tension between vivacious fresh fruit and a big, bold tannic backbone. This is a monster of a wine that will be superb as it develops in bottle - it has everything it needs to make a mockery of the 2017 naysayers.
We finished with a tasting of the white wines from the Haut Brion chateaux and were bowled over by the freshness and quality of the wines, in keeping with the whites we had already tasted. La Mission Haut Brion Blanc had notes of cut grass, lemon, candied fruit, gooseberry and lemon curd, with excellent acidity. Haut Brion Blanc had an alluring bouquet with hints of pineapple, lemon and light woody spice. With a mixture of 56.2% Sauvignon Blanc and 43.8% Semillon, the wine had superb freshness and acidity with some pleasing salinity, too. The palate was of fresh green apple lemon curd, pineapple and toasted oak spice. I summed up my scribblings by writing: "Zing, zing, zing. This has superb body for a Pessac white, serious weight whilst maintaining freshness and youth: Manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, in the best possible sense!" This was by some margin the finest 2017 white I tasted during primers week. We left La Mission, and the Haut Brion stable of wines in a punch-drunk state, bowled over by the reds and whites on offer at this from these great Bordeaux names. It was only 1100 but the rest of the day had a lot to live up to - and boy, did it... !
Our lunchtime appetites whetted we made our way across the river to the right bank to enjoy a spot of lunch at one of our favourite restaurants in Bordeaux, Le Caffe Cuisine in Branne. If you ever travel to the right bank then this must make it onto your list of places to eat at. Pictured above is the fish special of the day, a meaty white fish with guacamole and pureed lentils - it was sublime. We discussed our findings so far and exchanged scores to date - whether because of the superb food or thirst-quenching white wine, we were, miraculously, in agreement on what the stars of primeur week had been so far.
Our next appointment was at Château Angelus, which was looking particularly glorious in the tentative lunchtime sun, with elderflower planted between the vines and roses at each end of a row, apparently using their thorns to dissuade horses from cutting corners when travelling along the rows of vines. Inside Angélus we sampled some of their partner wines, with Château Bellevue (a vineyard in the middle of biodynamic conversion) the most impressive of the offerings.
We moved into the tasting room and were delighted to be led through a tasting of the estate's wines by the owners, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal and her father, Thierry Grenié de Boüard. Meeting the men and women who directly manage and shape the wine at a Château is an excellent opportunity to gain an unparalleled insight into the particular challenges of a harvest and how they were overcome, amongst other talking points. Both Stéphanie and Thierry were very gracious in their time with us as they took us through both wines, starting with Carillon d'Angelus. With 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, all harvested earlier than usual, the wine displayed good freshness and terroir-driven minerality.
Château Angelus itself, a Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé A wine, was a remarkable offering made up of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. We were all blown away by a wine that had a beautifully seductive nose full of opulent fresh fruit aromas - when you are intoxicated by a wine's fragrance before you have had a chance to drink it, you know you are in for a treat! On the palate the wine was stunning in its youthful vivacity and freshness with rich cherry, damson, fleshy bramble fruits and a gorgeous seam of minerality. This was a tremendous wine, opulent, fresh and clean with such delicious fruit - easily one of the stars of the vintage. Interestingly, we discussed with Thierry our positive tasting of Haut Brion earlier in the morning and he noted that "Haut Brion is not far from our style at all, certainly in terms of its elegance, we are sort of kindred spirits". Glasses emptied and spittoons filled, we thanked the winemakers for their time and proceeded to Château Gaffelière.
Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal and her father, Thierry Grenié de Boüard
A five minute journey around the corner, including an unscheduled botched hill start from yours truly, and we arrived to taste Château Gaffelière which had a fantastically fruity nose of cherry, violet and damson. On the palate was rich and voluptuous fruit, some spice, a hint of oak and some minerality. Whilst this was not as laser-like in its precision as Angélus it did have good lingering acidity and is a polished offering from the château.
Our penultimate appointment of the day was at Château Canon, a firm investment favourite with us at Noble Rot and one of the most highly-rated wines across the past two vintages. The Château itself it beautiful, perched atop a plateau in Saint Emilion and walled on nearly every side. What was remarkable to hear was that for the past three years Canon haven't carried out any selection of grapes in the winery, which speaks volumes for the confidence they have in their fruit and their processes since they took over what was a Château in fairly bad shape, some twenty years ago. Canon 2017 is made up of 77% Merlot and 23% Cabernet Franc, with the same yields as last year and no frost damage at all, thanks to the south-facing slopes which protected the vines from the frosty winds which so devastated vast swathes of the right bank.
The nose of the wine was opulent with a big hit of minerality and the palate was extraordinary. This is a wonderful wine, easily the freshest of our trip so far, with delicious ripe fruit, fantastic acidity and a persistent finish that echoes the opulent freshness of the nose alongside mouth-cleansing, terroir-driven minerality. Canon really have hit the jackpot here with a wine that has everything: backbone, structure, freshness, finesse, acidity and an entrancing, long finish. For me this is the one of the top three wines of the vintage.
Whilst at Canon we tried Château Berliquet which the owners had recently acquired and moved quickly to develop the wine, and their processes, in alignment with those that have delivered such successes at Canon. A 70% Merlot to 30% Cabernet Franc blend aged in French Oak delivers a very impressive wine with very good fresh fruit, good acidity and lovely terroir minerality. We tumbled out of Château Canon nattering about how impressed we were with the wine and left for our final appointment of a very busy third day, Château Quintus.
Since being taken over and rebranded by Clarence Dillon wines who own Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, Château Quintus has been on a steady march with the aim of making some of the best wines on the right bank. The Château is situated on a hill surrounded by vines on every side with good drainage and exposure to the sun. We sampled the past four vintages of Quintus and the second wine, Le Dragon de Quintus, and the development across each vintage was clear to see, with more complexity, integration of tannins and fruit, and expression of the terroir with each passing year. The 2017 vintage for the Grand Vin had tons of fresh fruit, elegant tannins and a pleasant rounded mouthfeel. This is a château that is going places and is one to keep an eye on!
Our taste buds worn out and pens dried of ink, we made our way back to the hotel to debrief on our final full day of tastings. In our next blog post I will summarise the vintage, the things to look out for and what we thought the starts of the vintage were.