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 is the final segment, in which he offers an overall assessment of the 2014 Bordeaux vintage.
The final numbers proved to meet expectations of UGCB president Olivier Bernard, who reported some 20,000 participants coming to taste 2014 barrel samples: the highest number of participants since the 2009 barrel tastings in 2010, he said.
Customers certainly have dollar signs in mind.
Bernard, who is also owner of Domaine de Chevalier, reiterated a call to chateaux to release wines at a “sensible price” for Eurozone countries, which should allow a favorable exchange rate to provide a discount for buyers elsewhere (including us in the United States).
“If Europe is a buyer, then the U.S., U.K., China and Japan will purchase 2014 futures,” Bernard said. Well, we shall see.
As for the quality of the vintage, it was good to read positive feedback from fellow wine writers across the globe.
Take veteran Danish taster Izak Litwar. He remarked that “not a single bad wine” was to be found in the Left Bank, with especially strong performances in Pessac-Léognan, Pauillac and Saint Estephe. Like others tasters, he appreciated the tonic aspect of the whites – both sweet and dry – given the high acidity of the vintage. And although the Right Bank was not as homogenous in quality, “some stunning wines have been made there.”
It is always reassuring to find fellow writers who agree with you, too. For example, the great Bordeaux-based author and critic Jane Anson agrees with me that two of the very best barrel samples were Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol and Montrose in Saint Estephe. And we both were impressed with Langoa Barton, in one of its best from barrel performances ever.
At a blind tasting of Margaux wines, almost everyone in the room – from over 10 different countries – marveled at the strong performance of Château Labegorce.
For veteran Swiss wine writer Yves Beck, 2014 comes off as a “very good year” with some “great wines”.
According to Paul Pontallier of the famous Château Margaux, “It is not quite as good as 2010, 2009 or 2005, but it is the best of the very good recent vintages.” Many observers agree with that notion.
Perhaps Niko Dukan of Croatia put it best: “Bordeaux certainly needed 2014, especially after the extremely difficult vintages before.”
As a lover of wines with vivacity and freshness, I particularly recommend the vintage and my message to Total Wine buyers is you can seek out 2014 with confidence. The team at Total Wine will work hard to get you a very broad selection, so you will be able to find whatever style (and price point) you want.
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
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. In this segment, he offers his assessment of 2014’s Bordeaux reds.
As we understood from vintage reports, high acidity and tannin are hallmarks of the barrel samples tasted in both white and red, with an exceptional Indian Summer tending to favor Cabernets, both Sauvignon and Franc. So, it’s a Cab year, right? Well, hold your horses.
Let’s start with the Merlot-driven Right Bank. The word “freshness” describes the best wines here, which may not please palates in search of dark colors, higher alcohol and extracted oak tannins. Happily for lovers of vivacity, it was harder to make those wines in 2014.
Take for example the premier grand cru classé Saint Emilion Château Pavie Macquin – which in 2009 reached 15.5% alcohol and tasted heavy-handed. In 2014, it came across as downright fresh and delicious. By the same token, Château Corbin – an excellent grand cru classé – delights the senses, with 13% alcohol and remarkable freshness plus Saint Emilion style richness. I prefer it to the impressive 2010, which clocked in at 15% alcohol. My two overall Saint Emilion favorites: Château Canon and Cheval Blanc. Other successes include Clos Fourtet, Berliquet and Canon La Gaffeliere.
Pomerol barrel samples seemed more homogenous than in Saint Emilion. Having the right soils that would permit Merlots to ripen as slowly as possible into the Indian Summer was important as was leaf-clearing in August to maximize ripening. Clearing leaves off the vines heightens exposure to the sun. It can be a risky practice. What if vintners clear the leaves and then a heat wave grills the grapes? Luckily that did not happen in August and leaf-clearing did the trick for some estates.
Vieux Château Certan, for one glorious example, ranks as one of best wines of 2014, Left Bank included. As owner Alexandre Thienpont remarked: it took two days of September sun to equal one day of August. “It was a cool year, but the grapes ripened slowly,” he remarked. The Merlots were rich, perfumed, vinous yet bright. Thienpont says that 2014 is not necessarily a Cabernet vintage. Tasting his fantastic barrel sample proved his point.
The ultra pricey Petrus was excellent, exuding underlying grip and power with violet floral lift. Former director Jean Claude Berrouet along with son Olivier, who is director, said that 2014 reminded him of the 1975 for the tannins and the 1978 for the late summer. He stressed the need to not use too much new oak (50%) and to be gentle with extractions to get quality tannins.
Other top Pomerols included Château La Fleur Petrus for its refinement and tannic edgea, and smooth and delicate finish; Château Trotanoy for its darker fruit, foreboding nose and mid-palate juiciness leading to a rather muscular finish; the fresh, suave yet also substantial and structured La Conseillante and a rich, nuanced and bright Clos L’Eglise.
Among economically priced wines: a surprisingly strong performance from a usually under-performing Château La Cabanne.
Image courtesy Laure Marie Ducloy
Regal Left Bank, but not all Medocs are created equal
While I co-hosted a cru bourgeois tasting in Ventimiglia (Italy) shortly after en primeur week with François Nony, owner of Château Caronne Sainte Gemme, he remarked that one needed to appreciate how August rainfall varied across Medoc appellations. It was greater for example in Margaux (82mm) as opposed to Saint Julien (52mm) and Saint Estephe (61mm). Could that explain why Margaux seemed a bit more hit-and-miss than its more northern neighbours? The very best Margaux did not seem to reach the heights of the very best Pauillacs and Saint Estephes.
The most successful Left Bank wines managed to combine power with subtle elegance, fully integrating the vintage’s high acidity, including a supreme Château Latour (perhaps the very best from the Left Bank), a refined and subtle Lafite Rothschild, a brooding yet nuanced Mouton Rothschild, a thoroughly charming Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, and perhaps my favorite “luxury brand” from the Medoc, when factoring price: the momentous and thoroughly refined Château Montrose, whose barrel sample was smooth, nuanced and deep, sustained by vivaciousness coming from the vintage’s high acidity. It reminded me of the 2005 en primeur but with more charm, and even with some robustly ripe aspects of the 2009, with greater freshness. If the price is right, I am buying six bottles sans hesitation. Other fine examples include Lynch Bages, Grand Puy Lacoste, Beychevelle and Langoa Barton, which may be the best I have ever had from that estate.
The Medoc features countless bargains as well, from an excellent Château Pibran – ripe and with tannic grip – to a smooth, savory and red fruit fresh Château Lanessan.
Smooth and supple Graves – for the most part
In the Graves region, the barrel samples seemed slightly patchier than in the Medoc, but most were good to very good. Château Haut Brion reigns supreme. Its 14.25% alcohol is balanced by relatively high acidity, making it fresher than La Mission. Its nose exuded crushed tobacco freshness with red and black fruit, preceding a palate that was subtle yet full bodied, with high tannin and acidity – and I loved the frank and long tonic finish.
I admired the structure and aromatics of Château Haut Bailly. The barrel sample highlighted the tannic structure, but aging will soften the wine into something special indeed. More evidently appealing – and perhaps the red of the region, when factoring in price – is Domaine de Chevalier. Its barrel sample gave off a lovely expression of ripe, red and black fruit in a lively attack leading to a medium plus body, marked by vivacity and high-intensity flavors. Château Smith Haut Lafitte continues a happy trend towards greater freshness combined with ripe tannins – and less new-oak flavors. Successful economically priced brands include a smooth and fresh Clos Floridene and a fresh and a more-seriously-structured-than-is-usual Château Carbonnieux.
Top Ten Reds (When Budget Is Not An Issue)
Château Montrose: Very smooth, nuanced and deep yet sustained by vivaciousness no doubt coming from high acidity. The barrel sample reminded me of the 2005 en primeur, but with more charm. It also had ripe aspects similar to the 2009, but with greater freshness. If the price is right, I am buying six bottles without hesitation – and you should, too! Only 47% of the harvest went to the first wine, made up of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot with 13.7% alcohol and being aged in 60% new oak. Wine of the vintage category. 94-96
Château Latour: This reminded me a bit of the 2004 but with more power and greater ripeness. Some tasters with more experience compared it to the 1996, which, readers may recall, also featured a fine Indian Summer after a cool August. And yet, numbers indicate riper fruit in 2014 as compared to 1996. The wine exuded a veritable cornucopia of cranberry freshness, dark cassis and a touch of blackberry, ripe and powerful, with tannic backbone and grip on the subtle yet broad mid-palate. The briskness on the long finish coming from high acidity gave the wine elegance and lift: a tour de force and perhaps the very best barrel sample of the Left Bank. 94-96+
Château Mouton Rothschild: Tobacco and cassis on the nose. Rich, powerful and ample – as a first-growth Pauillac should be! Here we have some differences of opinion when I tasted it along with merchants and fellow wine hacks. While some are not as excited about Mouton in 2014, I found the barrel sample memorable as it combined foreboding tannin from a vintage like 1986, as director Philippe Dhalluin noted, with more evident ripeness, somewhat like the 1996, but larger-scaled – and made from better vineyard selection than from the 90s era. Something special is afoot here. Made with 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc. 93-95
Château Lafite-Rothschild: Breed and elegance define Lafite in 2014. And that should surprise no one. I recall tasting the 2005 from barrel, subtler than many other wines tasted. At the time, director Charles Chevalier said that marathon runners do not reveal their best so early in the race. Indeed, 2014 is quite an accomplishment at this estate. Notes of cedar and cassis and an ultra silky palate combine with impressive structure for the long haul. It will be interesting to see which Rothschild could “come out on top”, but they are neck in neck, with their respective styles showing well. 93-95
Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande: One of the most successful wines of the vintage, exuding orange rind like freshness, cassis and lots of crackling red fruit. It conveys an overall sense of purity and elegance, with loads of juiciness on the full-bodied palate, as well managed high-tannin and high-acidity lending structure and lift on the long finish. Tasted with fellow hacks and members of the trade at the château, we were all impressed. 92-95
Château Ducru Beaucaillou: Like Léoville Las Cases, this wine is more Pauillac like with noticeable tannin. But it has a silkier texture often detected at this estate. The attack envelops the palate, certainly full-bodied, with pure expressions of ripe red and dark fruits. The barrel sample showcases more structure than charm, but there is much depth and an echoing finish. The 90% Cabernet Sauvignon has high tannin that barrel aging should soften into something quite special. 92-94+
Petrus: Petrus reminded me of the 2005 en primeur. Perhaps not quite as vivid, but it displays a similar combination of fresh and bright red fruit, and substantial yet suave tannin that gives the wine structure for the long haul. There is an overall impression of sheer elegance – and addictive drinkability (how I wish it were more accessible!) – leading to a long, sneaky finish. A most impressive showing of Merlot that is not over extracted, and being aged in only 50% new oak: wine of the vintage candidate. 94-96
Vieux Château Certan: Certainly along with Montrose on the Left Bank, this counts as a top candidate of 2014. Why? De-leafing was carried out in specific vineyards to enhance ripening during the uneven summer. A cool vintage, said owner Alexandre Thienpont, but a long ripening process that lead to fine maturity – and very smooth tannins but never too glossy in texture. The Merlots are rich, perfumed, vinous and bright and nearly 20% Cabernet Franc lends backbone and length. The texture is silky and substantial at the same time, and the balance is excellent with high acidity (nearly 3.7 grams per liter) and alcohol (13.5%). Gorgeous. 93-95+
Château La Conseillante: As with neighbor Vieux Château Certan, this estate de-leafed to accentuate ripening in the summer, which was cool and only moderately sunny. Merlots were picked in late September, so that the fruit would be ripe enough but not overripe (due to the cool August). The high quality was so uniform that very little second wine (only 12% of the harvest) was made. La Conseillante conveys lovely fresh red and black fruits, from cranberry to ripe plum, with crackling freshness. The mid-palate is marked by excellent concentration and so one has the impression of a full-bodied wine that remains vivacious and with verve, leading to a lifting and long finish. Bravo! Aging in 75% new oak, with 78% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc and 13.5% alcohol. 92-95
Château Haut Brion (red): Slightly lower alcohol at 14.25% yet same high acidity as La Mission, this comes across as fresher and more suave, which is usually the case when comparing the two. The nose conveys crushed tobacco freshness with clean red and black fruit. The palate is subtle yet full bodied, with lovely balance achieved among high tannin, acidity and ripe fruit. I love the frank and long tonic finish. Should turn out to be superb with barrel aging. 93-95+
Tasting barrel samples comes down to intuition and experience. How is the texture on the palate? Grainy or silky? Coarse or so polished that it seems to lack character?
Tasters who travel from around the world to Bordeaux each year have grown accustomed to tasting barrel samples. And they understand that a barrel sample is like a prenatal wine.
Consider the fact that much Bordeaux is only bottled after it ages for over one year in barrels. When the en primeur tastings occur, the wine has not yet finished its required aging in oak before bottling. And bottling means birth. That’s when a wine is actually born as a final product. Once in bottle, that’s it. Smart buyers of quality Bordeaux understand that their bottles need to age longer in their cellars for the wine to improve. Furthermore, as Château Phélan Segur manager Fabrice Bacquey explained over lunch: aromas from barrel samples are mainly primary, so tasters are not looking for bouquets. Aromatic complexity comes in later stages in the wine’s life.
Tasting barrel samples, and asking how the wine will be in, say, 15 years, is almost like asking someone to pull out a crystal ball. Yet, barrel samples deliver valuable clues.
1. Tannin management
Tannin is one such clue. A hallmark of red Bordeaux, tannins come from the grape skins and pips of the grapes. As grape juices ferment in full contact with them, tannin extraction occurs. And like tea, you can over extract or under extract. You can have poor quality or you can have great quality – or something in between. As fellow wine writer Adam Lechmere explains:
“Tasting Bordeaux from barrel is all about tannin management. Tannin makes up the structure of the red wine and can be a good indicator of a wine’s ability to age. It should be present and it should be ripe and tasters should be able to detect fruit underneath.”
Ripe tannin is essential – and that means ripe fruit. So Bordeaux barrel samples will give off primary aromas that can indicate levels of ripeness in grapes when they were picked. Tasters seek notes that can vary from green as a grasshopper to over-ripe baked prunes. Obviously the better aromas are in between – and what tasters appreciate are fresh and ripe and clean fruit aromas that can develop later in the wine’s life into a complex bouquet.
Contrary to what some people may think, barrel aging is not meant only to lend oak flavors to wine. No, barrels are first and foremost used as an effective form of slow oxidation. Why slowly oxidize the wines? Tannin! It can taste dry and astringent in barrel samples. So the slow, gentle oxidation of wine during the barrel aging decreases astringency and adds suppleness. It also enhances and stabilizes red wine color.
And no serious taster who assesses up to 75 wines in a day (I think 100 is far too much) forgets to bring lip balm. The tannins also can dry out one’s lips! And if you catch anyone going to a tasting with a white shirt, you can tell that that person is a neophyte.
Acidity is yet another essential factor in wine, as it can add notions of freshness and vivacity in the right amount. If too little, the barrel sample will taste flat and lifeless. If too high, it will accentuate the astringency of the tannin and make your mouth pucker – not a particularly pleasant sensation. The high levels of acidity in both reds and whites in 2014 were felt. As Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier explained: “You needed to ensure very ripe fruit in 2014, so that it could balance the high tannin and high acidity of the vintage.” Thankfully, many of the barrel samples assessed in the 2014 vintage proved both balanced and delicious.
4. White Wines
Acidity and fruit ripeness are the main factors when tasting white wines from barrel because white wines do not include grape-based tannins that red wines have. Olivier Bernard produces both red and white, and he explained how important it was for vintners to pick grapes later for whites as well – again to balance out high acidities and to prevent what he calls “varietal character.”
Sauvignon Blanc, one of the two white grapes used to make white Bordeaux, can taste simple when not optimally ripe – and the high acidity of 2014 can accentuate that simple “varietal character.” Some of the less successful white barrels samples tasted slightly under-ripe because producers may have brought in the grapes a bit too early. So when tasting white wines, one looks at the balance between acidities and ripeness. Of course, for those wines that are barrel aged (not all white wines are), tasters assess the influence of the barrel on taste as they do for red wines.
5. Oak flavors
Indeed, the potential flavor influence of oak is essential, primarily for red barrel samples, as aging in oak integrates aromatic compounds from the oak with the wine’s intrinsic aromas. These compounds can positively contribute to a wine’s richness and flavor complexity. Or not. So tasting from barrel also means looking out for the flavor influences of oak aging.
Late harvest Sauternes and Barsac wines can be the most difficult to taste from barrel, as tasters often focus too much on sweetness. What is important is to assess all aspects of these barrel samples: how high is the acidity and how well does it balance the sweetness of the vintage?
6. Being flexible
It is important also to be flexible in judging barrel samples. Sometimes the blend is not final – what the estates have you taste is an approximation of what that final blend will be. In any case, it is meant to be a representative sample of what will be bottled.
No one has a crystal ball. Fine Bordeaux can be a mysterious and magical drink. It can evolve in bottle for years and tasting scores of barrel samples per day in Bordeaux in a single week or even two weeks never is an infallible measure of how your wine will age in bottle. For these reasons, tasters often offer approximate ranges rather than single scores when grading barrel samples.
7. Palates aplenty
Finally, we are entering an era where no single critic dominates wine appreciation. You should be your best critic, by buying and trying the wines yourself. In conclusions to my blog for Total Wine, I include comments from fellow wine writers from around the world who regularly attend the Bordeaux en primeur campaigns to bring international perspective to the 2014 vintage. One finds over time that opinions vary. I tend to appreciate wines with vivacity, which combines ripe fruit with cool and fresh aromatics, giving the impression of more life to a wine. In that sense, I really like 2014 in many cases. Others prefer higher levels of richness, higher alcohol and more oak like notes. It is a question of taste above all.
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. In the weeks to come, we’ll relay his thoughts, tasting reviews and recommendations from his time in Bordeaux here on our blog.
When I arrived in Bordeaux on Saturday March 28, excitement was in the air. Reports about the harvest were positive. Initial reports indicated that the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) registered the highest number of merchant visits to taste 2014 from barrel since at least the 2010 tasting.
The UGCB is a useful gauge of interest for a given vintage. It makes up over 100 top Bordeaux estates including famous brands like Lynch Bages and Rauzan Segla, Figeac and Haut Bailly. It tours the United States each year – including a tasting of the 2012 vintage, co-organized by Total Wine in Florida this past January.
It also organizes meticulous tastings for the some 100+ wine writers who travel to Bordeaux each year from around the world. I always choose to be put in a group that tastes the wines “blind” – meaning that each day we may focus on a known appellation, such as Pauillac, but we do not know which wines from Pauillac we are tasting. It is also a great way to compare notes with fellow wine hacks from around the world, from China and Russia to the UK and Denmark. I then taste as many of those wines as possible again at trade tastings, where I can confirm (or not) previous notes taken.
Like other wine writers in the hectic week that is en primeur, I visit chateaux that are not members of the UGCB, including the five legendary first growths, many great wines from Pomerol including Petrus and super seconds such as Ducru Beaucaillou, Léoville Las Cases, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose. We took part in countless other tastings, including the massive grouping of estates that make up the Grand Cercle – about 200 chateaux that include less well-known appellations from Fronsac and Blaye to Listrac and Moulis.
It proved a long week. But packed with fun, too. Culinary highlights included freshly shucked oysters at the first tasting, hosted by Bordeaux négociant Ulysses Cazabonne. Once done tasting the wide range of wines they proposed, oysters and crispy dry whites were just what the wine doctor ordered.
Indian Summer promises at least a very good vintage
As fellow London-based Adam Lechmere wine writer told me at Ulysses Cazabonne: “You cannot avoid the fact that since at least September, many observers began to think that 2014 was going to be a good vintage.”
We both saw grapes being brought in during the harvest last autumn, and we appreciated how the fine late summer brought grapes to maturity.
And yet: “As a journalist, you take such claims with a grain of salt, as Bordeaux chateaux always seek to hype a vintage – and how often have we heard that a late season saved the vintage,” Lechmere said.
But 2014’s September proved truly unique. It brought 265 hours of sunshine: 31% higher than the average over the last 30 years. There were only two days of light rain (5.6mm on 8 September and 11mm on 17 September, for example in Saint Julien), with maximum temperatures during the first three weeks well above the monthly average at 79.16 to 88.7˚F.
Image courtesy Laure Marie Ducloy
Old timers may recall that Bordeaux’s 1975 vintage was met with much fanfare, too, particularly as it came after three challenging years in 1972-1973-1974. Similarly, 2014 follows 2011-2012-2013, so it was no surprise to see so much interest in 2014 just because of that fact.
The problem with 1975 was a very high tannic component that resulted in very hard wines. Even today, may 1975s are tannic beasts that have lost their fruit. By the same token, 2014’s high acidity can accentuate the sensation of tannin, which was also high in the vintage. So the vintage is not uniformly successful, as some barrel samples seemed hard and tart on the finish, with somewhat indifferent palates.
On the other hand, the 1975 comparison is simplistic on most other levels. First because 2014 is far better than 1975, which represents a bygone winemaking era of higher yields and few if any second wines. Second, as we shall see in the tasting section, many successful barrel samples combine charm, elegance, structure and freshness – and across all price points. So Total Wine buyers will be able to find gems indeed.
It is nonetheless important to strike a cautious tone at this very early stage. The French adage août fait le mout means “August makes the must.” (Editor’s Note: “Must” is a term for the crushed grapes used to make wine.) In 2014, it didn’t. Bill Blatch – who drafted a harvest report for the Bordeaux Grand Cru Union (UGCB) – told me: “There were more problems with Merlot than there were with Cabernet, because the Merlot grapes got big and were picked closer to that very indifferent summer than the Cabernets, which were able to profit more from the Indian Summer.”
And yet, as we shall see, the vintage features success stories across the region – including Merlot-dominated wines. In fact some of the best wines of 2014 come from Pomerol and Saint Émilion, even though Saint Émilion in particular proved patchier as an appellation than any of the Cabernet-dominated appellations in the Médoc and in Graves.
Stay tuned for our next entry in this series “What Tasters Seek from Barrel” to be released later this week.