There does not arise many opportunities where I can taste a first growth.
This Magnum tasting traversed six Bordeaux’s from the ’08 vintage, and included a Mouton Rothschild. Its rarity in the Society’s cellar will only increase as the en primeur price climbs for it and its like.
JC led the tasting, and produced the following notes to accompany the flight:
“This was a challenging year for Bordeaux. The world economic crisis was imminent. China had become the principal buyer of premium Bordeaux following disenchantment in USA and Europe with the quality and price escalation of the 2006 and 2007 vintages. The overall weather pattern was cool and damp throughout the growing cycles. Early expectations for the wines were reserved. Robert Parker elected not to participate in the scheduled en primeur tastings. Without his endorsement the Chateaux offered the wines at lower prices but sales still languished despite being the “last affordable vintage”. (Robinson)
Climatically the winter was mild, spring was wet and early summer was cool and damp, only to be miraculously saved by a late Indian summer. Budburst was late, setting a pattern for the season. Protracted and uneven flowering followed leading to poor fruit set while the cool temperatures and rain produced mould and mildew infestations. Fortunately July was warm and dry, curtailing vegetative growth and allowing the vines to ripen tannins. More rain ensued during August and early September until a radical change in the high pressure systems brought cool, dry air into Bordeaux with warm days and cool nights extending through to late October.
Why then is the vintage rated very good, or (Parker) “excellent with a number of superb wines that are close to, if not equal to, the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages”? The benign harvest was a critical factor. More significant were the long, slow growth cycles and the low production. Seasons usually average 100 days between flowering and harvest in Bordeaux; in 2008 the hangtime extended from 120 to 160 days. “The slow vegetative cycles allowed the grapes to ripen effectively, gradually and inconspicuously” (Blatch) providing “far more nuance of flavour intensity than anyone expected” (Parker). This was also a low yielding vintage due to an imperfect flowering and mildew (and consequent necessity to green harvest over summer) and the dehydration leading up to harvest, enabling the vines to fully ripen the residual fruit.
The wines are typically dark and opaque in colour with fragrant red fruit aromatics, fresh acidity, pristine, nuanced fruit and sweet, supple tannins. The extended hangtime favoured the Cabernet Sauvignon in the Northern Medoc producing dense and vibrant wines combining both flesh and firmness. On the Right Bank the low yields have endowed the wines with intense aromas and opulent flavours. “The best are beautifully balanced, effortless, mid-weight clarets, ripe in core fruit with a splendid aromatic complexity that fills the mouth and then coats the throat on the finish. Their individuality and quality stem from an aromatic intensity and tenacity of flavour rather than a fruit concentration”. (Schuster).
The vintage was particularly successful in Pauillac, St Julien and Pomerol and it is from these communes that our cellar master has selected the wines for this tasting:
- Chateau Mouton Rothschild (83% cs 17% m) (Parker score: 94)
- Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (63% cs, 29% m, 5% pv, 3% cf) (Parker 96)
- Chateau Pontet Canet (65% cs, 30% m, 4% cf, 1% pv) (Parker 96-98)
- Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou (85% cs, 15% m) (Parker 96-98)
- Chateau Hosanna (80% m, 20% cf) (Parker 95)
- Chateau La Fleur Petrus (90% m, 10% cf) (Parker 92-94)
Pauillac is the most prestigious commune of Bordeaux with three first growths. It comprises two distinct plateaus of deep gravels over sand, marl and limestone with a greater concentration of clay in the southern plateau. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant variety followed by Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The wines are quintessential claret in style; dry, intensely aromatic and flavoured, and renowned for their vigour and longevity. Flavours include blackcurrant and berry, earth, spice, lead pencil and the oak derived cedar and cigarbox.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild
Owned by generations of the Rothschild family since 1853. Baron Phillippe Rothschild’s enterprise elevated the Chateau to first growth classification in 1973. The 75 hectares vineyard is located on the higher plateau consisting of deep (up to 5 metres) gravels over sand and limestone and is planted 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, vines averaging 45 years. The grapes are fermented in oak (predominantly) and stainless steel vats and then matured in 100% new French oak for 19 to 22 months.
Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande
Now owned by the Rouzard family (Roderer champagne) following the sale by the formidable ambassadress of Bordeaux, May-Eliane de Lencquesaing in 2007. The Chateau has since undergone a complete renovation. The vineyard comprises 89 hectares of which 74 hectares are in production and is planted 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 8% Petit Verdot with an average vine age of 45 years. Soils are deep gravels over clay and limestone. Vinification takes place in concrete and wood vats and the wine is then matured for between 16 and 20 months in 60% new French oak.
Chateau Pontet Canet
Owned by Cognac merchant Guy Tresseron since the wine scandal forced the sale of the chateau by the Cruse family in 1975. Michel Rolland was appointed consultant in 1999. Viticulture is organic/biodynamic. The vineyard comprises 81 hectares of deep gravels over clay and limestone and is planted 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot averaging 45 years in vine age. The grapes are fermented in wood vats followed by 16 to 20 months maturation in 60% new French oak.
Smallest commune of the Medoc but with the highest ratio of classified terroir of any region in Bordeaux. Soils are a mixture of gravel, (but with less depth than in Pauillac), sand, limestone and clay. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant variety followed by Merlot and lesser plantings of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The wines exemplify subtlety and balance. Aromas and flavours are similar to Pauillac, perhaps more floral, and not as intense nor as concentrated.
Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou
This Chateau has been owned by the Brest-Borie family since 1941. The family also owns Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac. The vineyard comprises 75 hectares of well drained gravels covered with substantial stones. The vineyards are planted 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot with an average vine age of 50 years. Vinification takes place in stainless steel vats with malolactic fermentation transferred to concrete vats. The wine is then aged in 75% to 90% new French oak for between 18 and 20 months.
This is the smallest region of Bordeaux situated west of St Emilion. The prime estates are located on the plateau which consists of a complex amalgam of clay, gravel, sand and iron ore deposits. Merlot is the predominant variety followed by Cabernet Franc and the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Wine style is determined by site and producer but in general tends to be rich and sensual with aromas and flavours of plum, chocolate and exotic spices.
This Chateau was originally part of the Certan property (then Chateaux Certan-Giraud), acquired by the Giraud family in 1956 (renamed Chateaux Grand) and then sold to Jean-Pierre Moueix in 1999. Renamed Chateau Hosanna, the vineyard is a mere 4.5 hectares and is planted 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. The vineyard, located at the top of the plateau, has gravel and red clay soils. The grapes are vinified in stainless steel tanks and then aged for 12 to 14 months in 50% new French oak.
Chateau La Fleur Petrus
This Chateau is also owned by the Moueix family. The vineyard is situated on the northern edge of the plateau adjacent to La Fleur and Petrus. The vineyard comprises 18.7 hectares and is planted with 91% Merlot, 6% Cabernet France and 3% Petit Verdot on gravelly, clay soils. Stainless steel vats are used for fermentation/maceration. The wine is aged for 16 to 18 months in 50% new French oak.”
Other points to note from the opening discussion – Mouton used 100% new oak; the Pontet was Parker’s wine of the vintage on the Left bank; while Hosanna was the superstar from the Right Bank.
And then on to the tasting itself, with all the wines customarily served blind in 60ml pours:
2008 Chateau La Fleur Petrus – Deep dark carmine. There was some bottle variation across the group, but I saw a lightly scented, somewhat reticent wine. Aromas of purple fruit, cedar shavings, spice and vanilla. The longer it sat, the more of a late bloomer it was. In the mouth, a sweet and crisp attack, mouthcoating, with a fresh finish. Bright fruit flavours through the mid-palate, densely-packed. Vibrant and primary. I scored this Gold. I liked this wine. Who could not?
2008 Chateau Hosanna – Deep dark carmine. A beguiling scent on this wine. Rich, layered and complx. Dark fruit, ripe smoky and opulent, dense. Savouryness and spice. Touch of sous bois. Sweet attack in the mouth, smokey, spicy and long. Heat on the back palate. Meaty. Some cocoa and tobacco. The sweetest wine of the flight. I scored this Gold.
2008 Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande – Deep dark carmine. A lean and metallic note on the nose. Bright red fruit. Pink roses, sweet floral. Shows prominent oak and quite lifted. Lean on the palate too. Red fruits, quite short. Floral. Leafy. Some cassis, and pencil-lead. Others saw green olives, which was interesting, if somewhat unappealing. I scored this Silver. I kinda disliked this.
2008 Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou – Deep dark carmine. I saw cardboard box, elegenat spice and warming characters, then some fellow tasters declared the bottle faulty so we swapped to another. The wine I had a second look at was sweet, perfumed, with vanilla and sweet red fruits and lanoline. Quite delightful and fine. Youthful and exuberant to taste, with crisp red fruits. An crisp finish, quite long. Violets. I scored this Gold, and it was my second wine of the night.
2008 Chateau Mouton Rothschild – Deep dark carmine. Forward, rich and developed on the nose. Unique. Complex, with oak, pencil lead and dark fruit. Structured, dense and brooding. Some forest floor characters, cassis and cocoa. To taste the wine was lean and long, with a fresh acid profile, quite developed, with the softest texture of the flight. Additional flavours of charred oak, sous bois, olives, plums and smoke. Twenty two tasters rated this as their favourite wine. But not me, to my embarrassment. I just scored it Gold.
2008 Chateau Pontet Canet – Deep dark carmine. This was why I came, it seemed. Rich dense fruit on nose. Quite tight. I smelled currants. There was oak. Very powerful. Some blood and road dust, as you do, and firm. On drinking, there was richness and density up front, and well structured fruit throughout. Fantastically integrated tannins with the fruit. Primary still. Poised and absolutely delicious. I scored this wine Gold and it was my Wine Of The Night (WOTN)
On review, there was so much elegance across the lineup. More impressive that the ‘05’s tasted last year.
I took the wines home to have another look at the kitchen table, along with some of the empty bottles. Some faded on the trip across town, but the La Fleur, Pontet and Mouton stayed the course for deliciousness and engagement.
A fantastic education in fine wine!