The Graves region is considered the birthplace of Bordeaux wine. Over time, vines planted on the outskirts of the city of Bordeaux expanded south to the river Garonne to form the Graves area. The name comes from gravel, the main type of soil in the region.
The classified growths or “cru classe” of Graves consist of about 500 hectares under vine, representing about 10 per cent of the vines in the region. Reds dominate over whites in terms of hectares planted, and while the reds are better known the whites are excellent (the 2007 vintage featured in last week’s column).
A tasting of 1998 Cru Classe de Graves reds in London revealed a vintage just entering an ideal drinking phase. But these wines could also be cellared for another three to four decades.
Graves was recognised as an official classification only in 1953, despite the fact that some of the estates were founded up to 700 years ago.
The most famous of the Graves reds is Chateau Haut-Brion, one of the prestigious five First Growths classified in 1855. Haut-Brion is the only one of the five from the Graves area. The soil is high in gravel known as Gunzian with a subsoil of clay and sand.
Because of its reputation, Haut-Brion is expensive. The 1998 vintage sells for about USD 450-500 a 750ml bottle. Jean de Pontac established the estate in 1533, and it currently has 48 hectares under vine. The 1998 vintage is 59 per cent merlot and 29 per cent cabernet sauvignon, with the balance cabernet franc. The merlot drives the wine, providing a sense of ripeness and opulence.
It has a pristine nose displaying an essence of black olives and black tar pebble minerality, followed by an abundance of black fruits with a slightly savoury touch plus soft tannins. It has an intense dark cherry colour.
The American banker Clarence Dillon bought the estate in 1935. A feature of Haut-Brion is the consistent line of winemakers from the same family: Georges Delmas was chief winemaker from 1921 until he retired in 1961, when he was succeeded by his son Jean-Bernard, who in turn was succeeded by his son Jean-Philippe in 2003.
Other Graves reds from 1998 are not as expensive as Haut-Brion and represent excellent value for people keen to drink mature Bordeaux.
Chateau Carbonnieux was founded by Benedictine monks in the 13th century, making it one of the oldest estates in the region. The 1998 vintage is 65 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 35 per cent merlot. The wine receives one third new oak. Eric Perrin, owner of Chateau Carbonnieux, said 1998 was a classic vintage. “Everything came slowly. I love 1998,” he said, recommending that people drink it now “because the tannins have softened”.
The 1998 Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere by comparison was just arriving in the window of drinking readiness. It is 50 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 40 per cent merlot, with the balance cabernet franc. The fact that 60 per cent of the wine is aged in new barrels explains the higher tannic grip. The wine offers aromas of blackcurrant and camphor mint along with mineral hints.
The Domaine de Chevalier’s history dates back to the 16th century. It makes one of the great whites of Bordeaux so its reds tend to be under appreciated. The 1998 vintage is 65 per cent cabernet sauvignon with 30 per cent merlot and the rest cabernet franc. Great vintages of this red need 30 to 40 years in the cellar so this felt like a youngster, with a savoury nose and pleasant dryness with an edge of marmite mixed with dark fruits like plum and black currant.
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte has adopted a unique “bio precision” approach to winemaking. They promote a balanced vineyard ecosystem through the planting of hedges, organic compost, and using horses to plough the property. Scotsman George Smith acquired the estate in 1720, which explains the addition of Smith to the name. The 1998 has pleasant savoury edges in the mouth and a full rich mouthfeel. Fabien Teitgen has been the chief winemaker since 1995. The estate was one of the pioneers of the “Prooftag” concept to guarantee the authenticity of its wines. A tag on the neck links with a QR code reader on a computer or mobile phone to provide information about the wine.
Chateau Pape Clément was left out of the 1953 classification and had to wait six more years to be admitted to this august group. It is believed to be one of the oldest wine estates in Bordeaux, dating back to the early 14th century when Pope Clément established it. It is 60 per cent cabernet sauvignon with the balance merlot, and 70 per cent of the wine is matured in new oak. It displays a rich texture with lots of tannic grip from the new oak.
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