Visits to a range of Bordeaux chateaux showed that 2016 was an exceptional vintage. For publication in the week starting 10 July 2017.
Bordeaux is difficult to comprehend without years of tasting and research. One way is to focus on an area, and this column proceeds from this position, acknowledging the benefit of focus. This column considers the wines of the Cru Bourgeois and the Medoc.
Château Ramafort has the distinction of owning what is probably the biggest cellar in Bordeaux. Andrew McInnes said the cellar, built in 1990 and known locally as “The Cathedral”, holds more than 2.5 million bottles and enables the company to cellar 10 separate vintages. The idea is to release wines as they become ready to drink, and supply specific clients around the world with aged Bordeaux.
McInnes described the process as a “just-in-time” source of supplies for restaurants and specialist wine shops. Chateau Latour studied the design of the cellar about three years ago when it decided to end its en primeur business.
Château Ramafort is in the northern Médoc commune of Blaignan about eight kilometres beyond the St-Estephe appellation. Grape-growing began in the 17th century. Half of the vineyard is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance Merlot, and vines have an average age of 30 years.
Wines are made in a fruit-forward style, McInnes said, with ripe dark fruits balanced by a medium to full-bodied palate. The wines offer perfumed aromas of violets and gentle spices, with silky tannins. Barrel samples of the 2016 vintage suggested this would be one of the best for many years. McInnes described the 2016 as having the best characteristics of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, regarded as the previous best in the region. “It has the brightness and appeal of the 2009 and the body of the 2010.”
Nearby Château Laffitte Carcasset is a much smaller operation and makes about 200,000 bottles a year. Winemaker Pierre Maussire said about 80 per cent of the 2016 vintage was sold en primeur. The eighteenth-century chateau, situated in the middle of the gravelly plateau of Saint-Estèphe, is surrounded by magnificent vineyards and chateaux.
Maussire said the soils were like the layers of lasagne, with sand on top of gravel, which was atop clay. The 2016 we sampled was “probably better than the 2009 vintage,” he said. It contained “the best Merlot” he had ever grown. All of the 2016 wines were sold en primeur in two days, a reflection of their quality. The estate also stores wines in 700-litre amphorae as well as traditional oak barriques.
Château Laffitte Carcasset has produced wine since 1790 after Joseph Laffitte, who managed the king’s financial affairs, purchased the estate and planted vineyards. In 1955 Viscount Pierre de Padirac bought the property and improved the vineyard, helped by his son Philippe. The family recently sold the chateau and it was being prepared for the new owner when I visited. It is in an excellent location in the centre of Saint-Estèphe next to some of the best-known names in the area.
In recent years Domaines Rollan de By has become one of the most respected Cru Bourgeois estates. Jean Guyon bought two hectares in Bégadan in 1989 and has gradually expanded his holdings to 90 hectares, encompassing Château Greysac, Château de By and Château du Monthil.
A highlight of the estate is the beautiful collection of sculptures which align the entrance road, and which reflect the beauty of the wines. Jean Guyon’s son Matthieu said wines were a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with about 10 per cent of Petit Verdot for freshness and intensity of colour. All wines are charming and elegant.
Chateau Charmail in the Saint-Estèphe appellation has almost 28 hectares of vines that surround the beautiful chateau. The property pioneered a form of cold maceration, also known as “cold soaking”. The technique is a way to extract colour and flavour from grape skins prior to fermentation. Extraction also occurs during fermentation, but many winemakers believe cold soaking brings out more beneficial aspects of the grapes.
Grapes are chilled to stall fermentation. The length of time varies according to the winemaker’s goals and the grape variety. The winery also uses a machine to sort berries in water, whereby unripe berries float and ripe ones sink. Wines are not filtered. Owner Bernard d’Halluin purchased the estate from Olivier Seze in 2008.
Three in four bottles are exported to Europe and some parts of Asia. Bernard d’Halluin believes 2016 will be a magnificent wine – “the best of Charmail for many years” — describing it as a “blue wine”. “You can tell a great vintage by the bright blue colour of the vineyard workers’ hands after they pick.” About 95 per cent was sold en primeur in May.
Charmail is near the banks of the Gironde River. The influence of the river means temperatures tend to be milder in the summer, and the river protects the property from hard winter frosts. Frost can have disastrous effects on vines in this area, and some predict the 2017 vintage will be much smaller than 2016 because of frosts.
Château Cissac has not used insecticides for five years on its 70 hectares of vines in Cissac-Medoc. Winemaker Laurent Saint Pasteur has been making wine there since 2001 and has high hopes for the 2016 vintage. He is so dedicated to his vines that he lives in the vineyard: “I live and sleep Cissac.” He described Cissac wines as “classic” Medoc in terms of the cepage, the oak treatment and production methods. They are elegant, refined wines that benefit from cellaring for at least half a decade.
Winemaker Anthony Yaigre at Château Beaumont in Cussac Fort Medoc also has high hopes for the 2016 vintage after we tasted barrel samples. “Our wines really become approachable after half a decade in the cellar.”
The aromas of a barrel sample of 2016 Chateau Mongravey Margaux were so pungent and beautiful they could be detected from metres away. Owner Karin Bernaleau said this vintage would be “superb” when fully matured. The chateau has received glowing reviews from many of the major critics.
Footnote: An innovation to attract the youth market featured at Vinexpo in Bordeaux last month. The SoYoung company supplies wine in 250ml bottles – the same size as a soft drink container, with a quick-release ring-pull cap similar to a can. The SoYoung logo says “just pull and drink”.
Six wines are available – two each of sparking alcoholic reds and whites – plus a red and white sparkling grape juice with no alcohol. Two of the alcoholic drinks have 11 per cent alcohol and are designed for consumption during the day. The other two have 5.5 per cent alcohol and are intended for drinking at night. All wines come from Portugal though the company is based in China with offices in Hong Kong and Portugal. More details can be found at www.soyoung2.cn.