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The Future in Your Hands: 2012 Bordeaux En Primeur

Barrels of Bordeaux wine resting in the cellar.

A challenging growing season to say the least, the 2012 vintage for Bordeaux will be a story of survival of the fittest.  A cold and wet spring poured a deluge twice the norm on the budding vines, affecting flowering and setting. July brought moody rains, encouraging disease and causing spotty ripening. Two weeks into July, the sun came out with no relief until August had almost passed by, at which time nature again turned a cold shoulder to the vines, weeping on the struggling fruit during a late, chilly harvest.

A difficult year? Absolutely. Pass on En Primeur? That depends. While market trends have shifted some buyers away from Bordeaux, and is still showing definitive weakness, there are some highlights worth considering. Good terroir can produce good wine, even in bad years, if handled properly and tended intelligently. This year, then, will be one in which expertise will be rewarded, and those resting on laurels, or simply hoping for the best, will fall and fail.

Nature smiled on certain grape varietals in the 2012 vintage, including Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  Thus, dry whites basically did well in 2012, and Merlots seem to be performing favorably, especially Pomerol and St.-Emilion wines. Rather difficult challenges were set up for some of the reds, especially those predominantly composed of Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauternes was especially hard-hit in 2012, and larger, renowned Châteaux, including d’Yquem, announced that they would not produce any grand vin from the tenuous vintage. This news did not bode well for the other Châteaux in the region. There are always exceptional cases, so we must ask, did 2012 bring anything really special to the table?

The 2012 Château Margaux found the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon ever in the mix at 87 percent. With moderate term potential, the popular dense structure, dark fruit, and high tannins may end up building a lovely glass.

The 2012 Château Palmer Margaux is put together nicely, with another densely structured sip built of 48 percent Merlot, 46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 6 percent Petit Verdot. This wine is looking to be a true gem of the vintage and worthy of investment for the right reasons.

Nowhere is the possibility of a good wine from a bad year more likely than from Château Mouton-Rothschild, where the legendary terroir yielded a rich, extravagant wine boasting big fruit and sweet tannins at this stage. The 2012 Mouton appears poised to deliver an extraordinary result that is built for the long haul. Château Lafite-Rothschild produced a more elegant, classic style in 2012 with a precious 38% of the harvest making it into the blend. While production of the 2012 Lafite is much lower, the wine is being offered at an attainable price for the first time in years. Wines from St. Julien, such as the 2012 Château Saint Pierre, and the Château Talbot, have shown rounded, lushly endowed wines with promise.

Why risk the money in such a difficult year? As with any investment, being both smart and lucky are in the mix, but the obvious answer is to apply known factors to access wines produced in limited quantities that may emerge as stellar sips. The added impetus comes from purchasing such wines at the best price, two years before bottling.

As the wines continue to build character in the barrel, and each additional tranch firms up the price, they await the final test. No matter what the experts, negociants, retailers, and journalists say, the real deal comes from the smiles on the faces of investors tasting the results of a good decision.

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A Visit to Chateau Latour-Martillac

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With Tristan. Empty white wine Barrels waiting for 2012 vintage

On August 2, 2012, I visited Chateau Latour-Martillac in Pessac-Leognan  for a tour and tasting with Tristan Kressman, one of the principals of the Chateau, the other being his brother Loic. The Kressman family has owned and operated the vineyard since the 1930’s.  The Chateau first appears to be a fairly compact physical structure with the singular exception of a large “Tour” or tower at the front.  From this vantage point,  the interior of the Chateau grounds and production facilities are hidden from the eye.  As one rounds the structure and turns into the interior courtyard , a much larger production/warehouse facility or “chais” is revealed.  It is a charming spot on a slope with a nice look-out to the Pessac hills sloping toward the river.

Chateau Latour-Martillac is one of my favorite Chateau because their wines represent to me the essence of the Pessac-Leognan terroir at a reasonable price.  The reds display the classic Pessac flavors of cedar, charcoal, cigar-box and powerful dark fruit.  The whites are often  flinty and tightly wound but are bound up in wonderful melon and fig fruit flavors and aromas.  In top vintages, the  whites have the structure to age up to 20 years.

The wines have not found a huge press or consumer following in the U.S. and this has helped keep the prices down to earth.  It is a friendly and welcoming Chateau with a  very nice visitor’s area that features the history of the Chateau and sells the wines to visitors.  The wine is made under the direction of the two Kressman brothers, a full time oenologist (Valerie Vialard)  and Denis Dubordieu.  Dubordieu was the white wine consultant for Chateau Latour-Martillac for ten years and is now involved with the red wine as well since the 2006 vintage. Annual production of the grand vins is about 15,000 cases  from 42 hectares.  80% of this production goes into the red wine and 20% into the white wine. The red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The white is usually about 65% Sauvignon Blanc and the rest of the wine is made with Semillon.

After the tour, we tasted a vertical of the red and the white. Below are my notes and few Parker numerical scores.

Grand Vin Rouge

2001 Chateau Latour Martillac Secondary flavors of cedar and cigar now becoming more pronounced in this wine. Ready to drink now.

2005 Chateau Latour Martillac Still displaying the brute force of the vintage.  Mouth tightening concentration and tannins envelope this wine in a package bound for long-term development.

2006 Chateau Latour Martillac Pleasingly concentrated and well put together for the vintage.  The first vintage under Dubordieu.

2008 Chateau Latour Martillac Excellent freshness and concentration.  A value vintage since it was released during a difficult economic environment.

2009 Chateau Latour Martillac A beauty.  Sweet and perfectly integrated tannins bound up in glorious fruit.  A great wine from this estate and meant for long term cellaring. RP 94

2010 Chateau Latour Martillac Bottled in May and showing it.  Has the fruit  concentration of 2009 , one  will have to see if the tannins and oak round out as nicely as the 2009. RP 90-92

Grand Vin Blanc

2005 Chateau Latour Martillac Blanc Just coming out of its shell now.

2008 Chateau Latour Martillac Blanc Powerful acid and fresh fruit but  less complete than the others whites.

2009 Chateau Latour Martillac Blanc Packed with great fruits characteristics and framed in wonderfully intense acid. Will age for a long time. RP 94

2010 Chateau Latour Martillac Similar to the 2009 but with perhaps a touch less fruit.  Also build to age. RP 90-93.

-Lars Neubohn

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An Evening with Mark Gaier & Clark Frasier

From Left: Clark Frasier & Mark Gaier showcasing one of their amazing culinary creations!

On December 7th 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, the Chef-Owners of renowned Arrows Restaurant and MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine.  Mark and Clark demonstrated an unforgettable five-course menu for De Gustibus Cooking School’s Glorious American Cooking class.  The delightful menu included their Mushroom Pie and ethereal Cider Poached Salmon.  Trailblazers of the farm-to-table movement, their cooking styles showcase the pure, clean flavors of the ingredients that they use.  Each dish was delicious and sumptuous without feeling heavy, evidencing the true mastery of these great Chefs.

The featured wines were provided by importer Frederick Wildman & Sons and included NV Champagne Pol Roger Reserve, 2010 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Les Caillottes and 2008 Potel Aviron Morgan Cote du Py.

After the class, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark and Clark and ask them some questions about their culinary careers and wine preferences. The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier is below…

WC: Based on what I’ve read, you guys are trailblazers of sustainability and the farm-to-table movement.  What was the driving philosophy or inspiration behind the Arrows garden that you founded back in 1992?

Mark: The initial reason was necessity because we couldn’t find the produce that was good enough for our restaurant.  We had been in California before Maine and had access to nice fresh ingredients.  In New England, in the late 80s, it was still really difficult.  There were only a few local farmers and they were growing things and doing an okay business, some of them did a great business, but they couldn’t supply our restaurant with quite enough produce.  It was unreliable.  We felt that we needed to go with the spirit of the people that lived here 100 years ago and just grow what we needed. People used to be self sufficient in many ways and now of course most people aren’t.  We thought that with a restaurant like Arrows and five acres of land, we could have an incredible garden and it really worked out.

Clark: For most of the year, the garden sustains almost all of the produce for Arrows, about 90-95%, and about 20-30% of the produce for MC Perkins Cove.  It’s a lot. It’s the real deal and not just for show.  It is three quarters of an acre and one of the most intensely cultivated pieces of land you’ll ever find.

WC: Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up opening a restaurant in Maine?

Clark: We were trying to open a restaurant in Carmel, California and it kept falling through.  We had a backer, but Carmel is really expensive.  One day, Mark’s friends called and asked if we would like to buy this restaurant.  Mark said, “Yeah, sure, but we don’t have any money”.  They really wanted to give us the option to buy and encouraged us to come check it out.  So we loaded up everything we owned, got in the car and drove across the country.  We said, “What the hell, we’ve really got nothing to lose.”

Mark: I knew the restaurant because I had lived in that area of Maine before, I frequented the restaurant, but never really thought I would buy it.

WC: Can you tell me about the wine list at Arrows?  What is the philosophy behind the wine selections?

Clark: The wine list is split to a large degree between French and Californian wines, with maybe 1/3 devoted to other international regions.  We have a particular depth in Bordeaux because Mark and I like Bordeaux and because we can’t keep enough Burgundies on hand, mostly due to demand.  The Burgundies fly out the door so fast.  We used to have about 700 selections on the list.  We paired that down during the recession and made the list leaner and cleaner.  We have two cellars with a lot of capacity. We’ve tried to make the list as accessible and interesting as possible. We try to have a lot of interesting, lesser known wineries and eclectic options.  We still love Bordeaux, so we keep collecting those and try to have a fair amount in that area.

WC: What was your biggest challenge in getting Arrows established in Ogunquit 23 years ago?

Mark: The location was challenging, because it is very seasonal in Southern Maine.  We’re not in a town, but in the countryside and in sort of a middle class resort area and Arrows evolved into a really upscale restaurant.

Clark: And if you will, the prejudice of Maine, that Maine is for lobster rolls, blueberry pies and down-home and it took people time to acclimate to the idea of a “Great Country Restaurant” which is what Arrows became.  Rattle people’s cage, and present a really interesting restaurant that’s not in New York or New Orleans or Chicago, not in the city.  This was a pretty wild concept and it still is.  In the Americas, people still don’t really look to the countryside for their restaurants.  I think that was a really interesting challenge.  And frankly, at that time Boston was a real backwater with just a couple of good restaurants.  There was Jasper’s and Aujourd’hui, and that was about it.  That’s why the Zagat guide kept having us as the most highly rated restaurant in New England.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Mark: Working for Jeremiah Towers and Mark Franz at Stars [in San Francisco], had a strong influence on us.  We consider them mentors.

Clark: The story I told during class about living in Beijing and the seasons.  And Mark and I travel all the time.  That really not only influences our food, but for example, all of the uniforms at Arrows are hand made in Thailand.  All of the plates, a lot of the things at the restaurant are made for the restaurant from our travels.  The food and the whole sensibility are influenced by our travels.  We both really enjoy reading historical things, that’s really influenced us a lot.  For years we’ve done dinners that revolve around historical menus: Renaissance, Belle Époque etc.

Mark: Reading, research and travel are all elements that inform our cooking.

Clark: And then of course, the people who work with us have a big influence. Justin Walker has worked with us for 15 years and has had a real impact with ideas like foraging.  Mark and I don’t really forage, we’ll go out with him, but he’s the expert.

WC: Do you have a favorite wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Mark: I love Champagne.

Clark: We both love Champagne.

Mark: That would definitely be a favorite.  For me, Champagne and then Burgundy.  I like Burgundy more than Bordeaux. Clark prefers Bordeaux. I really love Burdundies…Drouhin is a favorite. For Champagne, I loved the Pol Roger earlier.

Clark: We love the Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill, which a friend brought for New Year’s one year, a huge Methuselah sized bottle.  We love rosé Champagnes too, especially Billecart-Salmon.

Mark: That’s probably my favorite producer, especially the rosé.

Clark: Gosset is another favorite Champagne producer. I love Bordeaux, old and young, but it really has to do with the food for me.  I like lighter wines now, as I get older, which is really odd.  I always liked big wines, and now I’m more into light, food-friendly wines.

WC: If you could drink one wine every day, what would it be?

Mark: Bubbly.

Clark: Yeah, I could drink Champagne every day.

WC: What is your current favorite ingredient to work with?

Mark: That’s a tough one. Probably the mushrooms that we’ve foraged lately.

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Getting Acquainted with Bordeaux

Bordeaux vineyard overlooking the village of Saint-Émilion.

Named for the beautiful port city on the Garonne River, the Bordeaux wine region is the pinnacle of prestige, producing the most celebrated and desired wines in the world.  The region has a long and rich history of vine growing and winemaking, with written record dating back as far as the first century!  From the Atlantic Ocean, the region spreads southeast along the banks of the Gironde Estuary, eventually branching off into the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers with vineyards sprawling from their vital shores.

Situated at 45° latitude, Bordeaux has a temperate, maritime climate, due to the influence of the Gironde Estuary and the region’s close proximity to the Atlantic.  On the coast, giant sand dunes and evergreen forests aid in the moderate climate and protect the vineyards from powerful ocean winds.   All of these environmental factors combine and result in mild weather year-round.  The springs are usually pleasant with plenty of rain, ensuring water supply for the growing season, and summers are generally sunny, hot and humid.  The temperature typically remains warm with nice coastal humidity well into the fall.  This temperate climate, strongly influenced by the ocean and rivers, has the potential to vary greatly from one year to another, which is why knowledge of each vintage is so important when considering the wines of Bordeaux.

The red and white wines of Bordeaux are almost always made from a blend of different grape varietals.  The reason for this is directly related to the variant weather patterns and climatic differences between years.  The various grapes each have a different reaction to the weather, so by planting different grapes and blending their wines, winemakers can make good wine even if the weather was bad during the growing season.  The main grapes used for Bordeaux’s red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and for the white wines of the region, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

For any wine lover, it is a worthy investment to spend some time getting acquainted with Bordeaux, its various areas and wine styles.  Not only does it produce some of the most exquisite and age-worthy wines, Bordeaux has also had an enormous influence on winemaking styles and techniques throughout the world, most notably in the “New World” regions of California, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

Areas and Appellations

Bordeaux is divided into three main areas: the Left Bank, the Right Bank, and the area between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, called Entre-Deux-Mers (meaning ‘between two seas’).  There are three levels of Appellation Contrôlée (AC) status in Bordeaux.  The Generic AC status is at the base of the pyramid and can be given to wines produced anywhere in Bordeaux.  Generic appellations include Bordeaux AC and Bordeaux Supérieur AC.  District AC is the next step up and can sometimes be the highest status possible for certain areas, such as Entre-Deux-Mers.  A District AC can encompass multiple Commune ACs.  For example, the Haut-Médoc is a District ACs, which covers a handful of the most prestigious communes.  Commune AC status is at the top of the pyramid and is the highest designation in Bordeaux.  The only exception is Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AC, which is superior to the commune status of Saint-Émilion AC.

The Left Bank

The Left Bank of Bordeaux hugs the western shores of the Gironde Estuary and the Garonne River.  This area is divided into three main district appellations, from north to south: Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Graves.  The Médoc AC and the Haut-Médoc AC lie west of the Gironde, and the Graves AC is south of the city of Bordeaux and lies west of the Garonne.

The Left Bank is renowned for long-lived, red wine blends in which Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape varietal, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc make up a lesser proportion.  Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the gravel and clay soils of the Left Bank, which support water drainage, and the very best wines come from the vineyards with more gravel content.  Five commune appellations are famous for producing some of the finest Cabernet blends in the world:  Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux within Haut-Médoc, and Pessac-Léognan in Graves.

The Left Bank is also home to the infamous white wine appellations, Sauternes and Barsac, known for their sublime botrytis-affected dessert wines.  These luscious, sweet wines are made from a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The Sémillon grape is thin-skinned and therefore highly susceptible to botrytis mold under the right conditions – misty and humid autumn weather.  These grapes are carefully hand-harvested and produce luxuriant, sweet wines that are high in refreshing acidity.

The Right Bank

The Right Bank of Bordeaux lies east of the Gironde Estuary and the Dordogne River. Here, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grape varieties, with small amounts of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grown as well.   This area is home to the important commune appellations of Saint-Émilion, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Pomerol, Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac.

Saint-Émilion, the namesake of the charming, picturesque town is the most significant of these appellations.  Within Saint-Émilion, the vineyards cover a range of soils and produce a variety of wine styles.  The appellation can be divided into three different areas, each with a special soil type.  To the northwest, the gravel and limestone soils are more conducive to Cabernet Franc vines.  To the southeast, the elevated plateau has high limestone content and produces the finest Merlot dominated blends. Many of the wines classified as prestigious Saint-Émilion Grand Cru come from the limestone rich vineyards of these two areas.  These wines are marked by complex red berry qualities, opulent tannins and cedar notes that develop with age. The third growing area is located at the base of the elevated plateau and is composed of sandy soils.  The wines from this area are lighter-bodied with relatively lower price tags.

The Pomerol appellation lies in close proximity to Saint- Émilion and boasts intriguing, rare wines that come at a higher cost.  These wines offer rich notes of blackberry and a unique spiciness.  The prestigious vineyards of Pomerol include the legendary Pétrus and Le Pin.

Finally, the Right Bank’s greatest value wines come from the appellations of Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, which are to the west of Pomerol.

Between the Rivers

The Entre-Deux-Mers appellation lies in between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers and produces Bordeaux’s dry white wines from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The important commune appellation of Saint-Croix-du-Mont is located here, making divine sweet wines that are similar to Sauternes.

Bordeaux’s Classification System

Bordeaux’s well-known 1855 Classification has remained intact to this day, despite many changes to the individual estates (châteaux) and their properties.  It all came about in the event of the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris when Napoleon III requested an official classification of Bordeaux’s best wines.  The wine brokers got together and devised a system, based on their own judgment as well as market values, which organized 61 châteaux into five classes according to importance, first through fifth growths.  Bordeaux’s Chamber of Commerce then presented the 1855 Classification at the exposition and it has been in place ever since.

Under the 1855 Classification, all of the red wines are from the Médoc appellation, with the exception of Château Haut-Brion, from Graves. It is an undertaking to memorize all of the château and their classifications, but the five First Growths (Premiers Crus) are relatively easy to remember:

Château Lafite
Château Latour
Château Margaux
Château Mouton-Rothschild (classified as Second Growth until 1973)
Château Haut-Brion (Graves AC)

The classified white wines were all from the Sauternes appellation, with Château d’Yquem given Premier Grand Cru Classé status, followed by 11 First Growth châteaux and 14 Second Growth châteaux.

Later Classifications

In 1932, the Cru Bourgeois classification was introduced, which includes 200 plus estates and is essentially the status just below Fifth Growth.  The three Cru Bourgeois classes: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois, are meant to be updated every ten years or so.  The wines of Graves were classified in 1959, and, unlike the 1855 Classification, each listed wine is simply awarded Cru Classé status.

Saint-Émilion has a unique procedure in which classifications are built into the appellation system.  The Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation is divided into the following:  Premier Grand Cru Classé, Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru.  Every 10 years, the châteaux in the region can submit their wine to be considered for initial Grand Cru classification or for reclassification.

Consumer Tips

As consumers setting out to explore Bordeaux, there is a wealth of knowledge to wrap our heads around.  It is important to have a general understanding of the various areas and wine styles of the region because this will help in choosing bottles that are to your taste.  For those of us who fall in love with Bordeaux, it may be worthwhile to delve a bit deeper into more specific knowledge of the great vintages, the châteaux and the classification system.

If you’re just getting acquainted, start out with a selection of red wines from both the Left Bank and Right Bank.  There are many reasonably priced Bordeaux wines out there that are perfect for exploring and comparing Cabernet Sauvignon-based Left Bank blends and Merlot-based Right Bank blends.  Pop a bottle open with your next meal, or set up a side-by-side tasting comparison of wines from the two areas.  And don’t forget to try the delicious, refreshing, dry white wines from the Entre-Deux-Mers.

CLICK HERE to browse our entire selection of wines from Bordeaux.

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