By Panos Kakaviatos for Total Wine
We asked our friend Panos Kakaviatos of Wine Chronicles to recount his days this year
at en primeurs week (or “wine futures” week) to help bring our readers to latest information on the 2014 vintage from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley and Port. This segment is on Bordeaux whites.
A few years ago, I enjoyed a horizontal of the 2000 vintage of white Graves at Domaine de Chevalier and was struck at how some estates with higher acidities did better than others. 2000 was not a particularly successful vintage for whites. In contrast to 2014, the summer was too hot to produce vibrant wines and most were better enjoyed in their youth. So wines made from earlier picked grapes suited the vintage better – but that did not mean that the wines were necessarily very good. They conveyed freshness – but also underripe fruit.
By the same token, in 2014, acidity alone does not ensure a great white.
In 2014, the potential pitfall was the opposite. Summer was cool and that ensured high acidity. But then again – in contrast to 2000 – it was important to pick late enough to avoid too much Sauvignon Blanc varietal character or even under-ripe aspects that high acidity can accentuate. That was the message that Olivier Bernard gave to me, as I tasted his magnificent Domaine de Chevalier white.
The barrel sample of Domaine de Chevalier proved to be one of the most successful white Graves, exuding fine balance and tension, with just the right amount of new oak at 40%. “We waited long enough for the grapes to ripen properly so that the acidity did not prevail and make the wine taste too varietal,” explained Bernard.
Another excellent white, La Mission Haut Brion illustrated the success of Semillon Blanc in the vintage, which balanced out the more evident zing of the Sauvignon Blanc. Even better is the equally very expensive Château Haut Brion, with more subtle notes of stone fruit.
The logic of picking at the right time worked beyond the Graves region with fine showings in the Medoc, above all at Château Margaux whose white wine may be the best ever at the estate, director Paul Pontallier said. Ripe fruit, coming from September maturity, buffeted the remarkable acidity.
More accessible for mortals with more modest pay checks, successful whites include Château Clos Floridene, with citrus and mineral aspects, a smooth texture, medium body and medium flavor intensity: textbook white Graves, with a medium and bright finish. Château Haut Bergey is lovely too, exuding ripe fruit with a creamy and rich texture and red apple like acidity that lends lift on the medium finish. Some of the whites treaded a line between varietal nature and optimal ripeness, such as Château Olivier, which proved fresh and clean – but in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc varietal fashion. It will certainly please many a palate.
Although the high acidities sometimes made me feel like the Sauternes barrel samples I tried were more like Loire Valley late harvest wines, the appellation was by and large uniformly successful.
Steve Webb of Bordeaux Gold almost every year says that a given vintage is the best ever. You’ve got to hand it to him! But there was “a bit of emotion” tasting these wines, he said. “At the top level, it was sublime, as the vintage had such a cool summer, which is great for white wine grapes, bringing that bright, fresh acidity.”
What finally balanced the acidities was isolated rainfall in September and October: bursts of rain that set off botrytis, according to Bordeaux Gold partner Bill Blatch. “The final rain burst, in mid-October, was outstanding, as the heat went up to 27 degrees at the end of October,” he said.
For me the best are the usually large-scaled and richer-in-style stickies, such as Châteaux Suduiraut, de Fargues and La Tour Blanche. For bargain hunters, seek out Château d’Arche, which was particularly savoury in 2014. Lovers of Barsac will find particular pleasure from the sheer elegance in Châteaux Doisy Daene and Coutet – to take two examples. I did not get a chance to try the various barrel samples of Château Climens, but that will be done in June.
It was not a year of maximum residual sugars, Blatch stressed, averaging between 130 and 140 grams, hence a “beautifully balanced vintage,” he said. By contrast, the 2009 vintage had an average closer to 150.
So 2014 does not come off as a particularly rich style of Sauternes. A case in point is none other than the precocious vineyard that is Château d’Yquem, which certainly has tremendous energy, but I am not sure that it falls into the league of 2001 or even 2010. I was reminded more of a Barsac style. It was marvelous of course, as the barrel sample conveyed white pear and citrus notes, and subtle botrytis spice in the form of ginger, white pepper and touches of black tea. But the high acidity made it more linear and “high toned”. For director Pierre Lurton, it was the highest acidity he has ever seen at 4.9 grams per liter, to match the 135 grams of residual sugar.
Top Ten Whites (both dry and sweet)
Château Haut Brion: A gorgeous white in the making. More subtle on the nose and palate than La Mission. Subtle notes of stone fruit. Suave and sap filled on the palate, with balancing brightness. Almost unbelievable that this wine has 14.75% alcohol! The low acidity balances it out. Rich and powerful yet crisp on the long finish. Made from 68% Semillon and 32% Sauvignon Blanc, aged in 55% new oak. Only 620 cases expected to be produced. 94-96
Château La Mission Haut Brion: The aromatics are intense and focused, with mineral and citrus. The high-acid tonicity balances the warm ripeness. Indeed, château representative Turid Alcaras explained that the planned blend was altered: they went from 17% Sauvignon Blanc to 28%, to give the wine more zing. The rest of the blend is of course Sémillon. Just 560 cases. 93-95+
Domaine de Chevalier: One of the most successful white Graves, outpaced by Haut Brion, but far less expensive. The barrel sample exuded such fine balance and tension, with just the right amount of new oak at 40%. Refined yet high intensity pure flavors of citrus and stone fruit. It has a smooth texture with vivacity coming from the acidity. Bravo! 93-95
Château Smith Haut Lafitte: Rich and even a bit heady, but with lovely juiciness and pure citrus and white fruit flavors on the mid-palate leading to a tonic, lifting and long finish. Tasted with similar notes at a trade tasting and at the château. 92-94
Château Malartic-Lagravière: The high acidity is nicely balanced with ripe fruit. The overall texture is rather expansive, with mid-palate sap and a very creamy and smooth feel. It has a medium-plus finish that comes across simply delicious. 91-93
Pavillion Blanc of Château Margaux: Margaux produced an outstanding white in 2014, which director Paul Pontallier said is his best ever. It is hard to disagree, as the 100% Sauvignon Blanc manages to combine verve, richness and depth. The famous French wine critic Michel Bettane told me that it is one of the very best examples of Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux and I agree. Just 35% of crop from the estate’s white wine vineyards were used to make the Pavillon Blanc, so careful selection and fine ripeness truly balanced the high acidity in this vintage. Bravo! 93-95
Sauternes and Barsac
Château d’Yquem: The high acidity lent particular freshness to the 2014 barrel sample of this most legendary wine. So much so that it reminded more of a Barsac. It was marvelous of course, with distinct white pear and citrus notes, and subtle botrytis spice in the form of ginger, white pepper and touches of black tea. But the high acidity made it more linear and “high toned”. For director Pierre Lurton, it was the highest acidity he has ever seen at 4.9 grams per litre, to match the nearly 135 grams of residual sugar. Barrel aging will “fill out” the body, to bring more opulence, but I do wonder if Yquem’s hallmark expression of delectable botrytisized fruit concentration and opulence was just a bit in second gear in 2014. 93-96+
Château Suduiraut: This estate always makes full-throttle and opulently styled Sauternes so I tend to like it more in cooler vintages – and 2014 is no exception. There is an enveloping feel to the palate, rich as expected and then – pow! – a reassuring brightness that brings lift to the long finish. Spicy and fruity throughout, this is top flight Sauternes in 2014. 92-95
Château de Fargues: De Fargues’s 15 hectare vineyard is located just about two miles southeast of d’Yquem and is planted with 80% Sémillon, and 15% Sauvignon Blanc. It tends to be less precocious than its more prestigious neighbor and that suited the vintage’s later pickings perfectly, leading to an opulent style with even more botrytis spice than Suduiraut, but also a touch cooler in aspect. Another top flight sticky. 92-95
Château Doisy-Daëne: I did not get a chance to taste through the barrel samples at Climens. The blend is never complete there during en primeur week so I look forward to assessing it later in 2015. Perhaps my overall favorite Barsac is Château Doisy-Daëne, which exhibits particularly bright ripe fruit (white peach, pear) along with hints of citrus, from kiwi to lime. The brisk nature of the barrel sample makes me think that it will be particularly easy to drink, but there is underlying structure for the longer haul. 92-94
Check out my full notes in wine-chronicles.com.