Union Des Grands Crus

Dinner at Lascombes with Michel Rolland: Bordeaux Day 3

Amateurs party on weekends…Pros throw down Mondays with Michel Rolland

Post by Chris Caughman | Monday, March 29th

After completing our third full day of speeding recklessly down the medieval cobblestone streets of St. Emilion and chasing down every Right Bank chateau that would take us, we finally made our way up the D2 to the sprawling expanse of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.  Regal chateaux rise from the rocky-soil vineyards, dot the horizon and refuse to let us forget we are anywhere other than where we are.

An incredible string of appointments with legendary Left Bank producers, including four First Growths (don’t worry, Latour. . .we’ll get to you

Ch. Lascombes

"And a martini. Shaken, not stirred."

later), finally came to an end with dinner at Chateau Palmer for part of the team, while the rest of us made our way to Chateau Lascombes in the heart of the Margaux commune. And oh yeah, rock star consulting winemaker Michel Rolland happened to be there.

A tour of the Chateau with our host, Karen, revealed the details of all-things-Lascombes. Chateau Lascombes has been producing wine apparently since before anybody can remember, but took its magnificent current form when purchased by an American company, Colony Capital, in 2001.  Under the direction of General Manager and the maybe nicest guy you’ll ever meet, Dominique Befve, Lascombes boldly ripped up 12 hectares of cabernet sauvignon. With the guiding philosophy that terroir will dictate varieties, the vineyards were replanted with merlot, which now accounts for 50% of the vineyards, alongside 45% cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot (unique to Lascombes in Margaux).  Our tour led us through the cellar, where we ogled the Chateau’s library collection with vintages dating back to 1892, and concluded in the tasting room for a true highlight of the trip.

Barrel room at Lascombes

The barrel room at Ch. Lascombes doubles as a discotheque!

We were presented not only the 2009 Chateau Lascombes to taste, but first the single-variety bottlings of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot that combine to make for the final cepage.  This is truly a rare and special experience from a Bordeaux producer, showing Lascombes’ commitment to education and openness about winemaking . . .and obviously it’s

amazing to play Bordeaux winemaker and note what each variety brings to the table. Merlot for rich fruit and softness; cabernet for power and tannin; petit verdot for color, density and earthy complexity.  The finished product displays deep, layered aromas of rich, but not overly ripe black fruits, mocha and earth.  The palate boasts gorgeous, round velvety structure that shows balance, power, length and definite indications of a long life to come.

When we finished raving to one another about our experience (“dude. . .THAT was awesome”), we were invited to the dining room for Champagne, appetizers, and a chat with M. Rolland about the 2009 vintage.  Although the term “vintage of the century” gets thrown around a lot, Michel says this time it might actually be true. He prefers 2009 to 2005, pointing towards the harmony and definition of tannin as the determining factor. The tannins are “so integrated, so silky that they’re good to drink today, three years from now, and 20 years from now!” The last time Michel Rolland felt this strongly about a vintage?  Yup, you guessed it: 1982.

Simply Irresistible – Dinner at Ch. Palmer

Simply irresistible: Dinner & tasting at Ch. Palmer

Post by John Perry | Monday, March 29th

Ah, Monday.  Officially the beginning of en primeurs, and as per our usual M.O. we hit the ground running.  Appointments were stacked back to back to back to back and a hectic pace was kept all day (complicated by horribly wrong directions as well as excruciatingly slow restaurant service, but that’s an entirely different story).  After careening at break-neck speeds up and down the Left Bank, I can’t begin to tell you how much I was looking forward to sitting down to a long, pleasant dinner.  That our meal would be enjoyed at Chateau Palmer, a fantastic bastion of high-quality wine in Margaux, made it even sweeter.

I had the pleasure of visiting Palmer last year and was quite impressed with Chateau Palmertheir 2008 efforts.  At this point in the trip, I’ve had a handful of Margaux wines (mostly terrific I might add) and I was definitely looking forward to what Palmer would pull off for 2009.  My fellow sales team members Alex Lallos and John Sweeney as well as the president of JJ Buckley, Shaun Bishop, accompanied me at the Chateau.  Our tasting was conducted by Bernard de Laage de Meux, a director at the Chateau who would also be our very charming host for the remainder of the evening.  The two wines, 2009 Alter Ego and 2009 Palmer, were outstanding and a real step up from the 2008s that I had enjoyed so much last year.  Bernard informed us that they experienced an easy vintage at Palmer- no extreme fluctuations in weather during the growing season that allowed for a slow and steady ripening of the grapes and the result was optimum maturity.

As we arrived, Bernard kindly offered us some Champagne to refresh our palates.  The NV Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle that was poured was just what the doctor ordered – seriously kick-ass Champagne!  With cleansed palates and a full appetite, we moved into the adjacent dining room.  The first wine of the flight was one of the more unique wines that I’ve had during this trip.  Bernard called the wine “a history of the late 19th century” and it was a blend of Syrah from Hermitage in the northern Rhone with some of the wine from Palmer’s 2007 vintage.  Apparently, this was a regular practice before it became illegal to do so under the strict appellation control system.  Although now this wine can only be labeled with the generic ‘table wine’ designation, during the 1800s you could frequently find wine designated as Hermitage-Bordeaux.  Palmer continues the practice today, though makes a ridiculously small number of cases that are sparingly doled out.  Fascinating to say the least, and a wonderful complement to the mushroom and garlic risotto first course.

As we waited for the second course to be served, Bernard poured us blind on another wine and asked us to guess the vintage.  We narrowed it down to the mid 1990s (’95 as it was later revealed) and it was amazing how fresh and vibrant the wine looked.  Another wine was poured blind a few minutes later and at first I thought that maybe Bernard had grabbed the same decanter because the wine looked remarkably similar in color.  Upon further inspection, it was slightly less dense and saturated with some lighter ruby showing up on the rim and it was time again to guess the vintage.  Alex nailed it like a pro- the 1990!  From a decidedly riper vintage, the ’90 was stunning on all levels.  The aromas were enchanting and complex (in fact, Bernard mentioned that he even picks up notes of aged Sauternes in this wine, and with my eyes closed the slight whiff of citrus made that easily apparent).  On the palate, this was silky smooth, voluptuous and rich- an absolute pleasure.  When more was offered it was impossible to say no!

Alas, the evening had to come to an end.  After a round of espresso and some more engaging discussion, we made the short stroll to our car as the full moon shone down from above.  It’s nice to know that despite the insane schedule that we keep it’s still possible to slow down for a moment and enjoy some of the finer things in life.

PS: Check out this…interesting musical interpretation of the 2009 vintage at Ch. Palmer.

First Impressions of the Big Five

First Impressions of the Big Five

Post by Chuck Hayward | Monday, March 29th

They are called the Premier Grand Crus, the First Growths— a Bordeaux Best of the Best, designated as such by the famed Classification of 1855 (with a certain exception made in 1973). These five revered wineries— Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild— produce some of the most sought after and coveted wines by enthusiasts and collectors from across the globe. And I was about to taste them all!

There has been much debate about the 1855 Classification and whether it’s

The JJB Team at Chateau Margaux

still valid today. Many wineries further down in the classification are now producing wines that are considered superior to those made by the Premiers— and you can be assured that the JJ Buckley staff have been hacking away at that old chestnut over the course of our visit! But this is not the time nor place to rehash the argument. I can say, though, that these wines are something special.

Interestingly, however, the ways these grand estates present themselves and their en primeur wines is sometimes anything other than grand. In the case of Chateau Haut Brion, we tasted the new wines in a beautiful salon. For Lafite it was an unadorned conference room and at Latour, we tasted quietly in a lab.

Whatever the setting, the wines from the “big five” were exceptional, each with its own, unique personality. Margaux stood out for its almost rustic qualities. Lafite impressed me with its restraint and elegance, while at the same time avoiding any unripe qualities or a sense of dilution.

For those who favor power, Latour, Mouton, and Haut Brion will be at the center of the First Growth conversation in this vintage. All three offered up rich, mouthfilling flavors that never ended. These are big wines but do not become cloying or ponderous thanks to fully integrated acids and the barest of tannins to support the thick fruit.

The key observation for all the Premier Grand Crus is that each wine, while being fully expressive, seems to offer a sense of restraint and the feeling that there is much, much more to come down the road. Tasting them young is like being in a boxing ring, knowing that my opponent is holding something in reserve that’s later going to put me on the ropes.

Well, if it’s going to be a Premier Grand Cru that clocks me, then just ring my bell.

Quel surprise! Dinner at Chateau Reignac

Quel surprise! Dinner at Chateau Reignac

Post by Alex Shaw | Sunday, March 28th

Sometimes wine has a way of really surprising you.

Even tasting dozens and dozens of wines in an average week at JJ Buckley, and easily 50 to 100 a day here in Bordeaux, occasionally we are taken completely unawares by some new discovery.  This happened to five members of the JJ Buckley staff at Chateau Reignac on Sunday night.

Reignac is an unclassified chateau in the parish of Saint Loubes, which makes

Tasting room inside the tower at Reignac

consistent wines many of us have tasted on several occasions back in the states.  At our visit to Reignac, owner Yves Vatelot boasted of the gravelly soil and fantastic terroir which produces the Reignac fruit, stating that if the classifications were done today, Reignac would certainly qualify.  And at dinner, he would prove it.

Following a tour of the spectacular grounds and barrel room, we tasted through the current vintages (2009, 2008 and 2006) of Reignac Blanc, Chateau de Reignac (2nd wine), Reignac and Balthus, their premier cuvee composed of 100% Merlot.  Our staff was impressed by the concentration of fruit, smooth tannins and overall complexity of the wines.  The 2006s and 2008s were developing very nicely, and the 2009 showed the potential to be stunning, high-scoring wines, able to compete with some of its finest classified Bordeaux brethren.

Cory Gowan, me, and Yves Vatelot

After the tasting we dined in the 16th century chateau with Mr. Vatelot and his wife, Stephanie.  Starting with 2001 Reignac Blanc (fantastic), we moved on to red for the main course, and two decanters emerged from the kitchen for a blind tasting.  We all agreed they were likely late 90s Bordeaux, but there was much debate about which wine showed better— one having the more complex and compelling nose, the other having a bit more structure and depth of flavor on the palate.  We got the vintage right— 1998, with the first being Reignac.  And the wine it was tasted against?  1998 Chateau Margaux!  The table had been split over their choice, and we were all shocked at how well the Reignac compared to this first growth.

This enjoyable exercise continued as two more decanters emerged from the kitchen.  We again settled on possibly late 90’s or 2000, and the table was again split over which wine they preferred.  This time it was 1999, and the two wines turned out to be Reignac… and Chateau Lafite-Rothschild!  We now sat with several glasses in front of us, sipping on two fantastic first growths and two stunning vintages of Reignac.  Just amazing.

The charming and gracious M. Vatelot continued the evening by blind tasting us on two more wines, which turned out to be 2001 Lascombes (also under the guidance of M. Vatelot and stunning) and 2005 Pape Clement, a 98-point Parker wine that many have called THE wine of the vintage.  All of the wines that evening were just fantastic, and the Reignac easily stood shoulder to shoulder with its more famous (and significantly more expensive) neighbors.

Sometimes it’s very good to be surprised.

Pack Your Good Liver: Tasting With A Negociant

Pack your good liver: Tasting with a negociant

Post by John Perry | Saturday, March 27th

I thought that by coming to Bordeaux for the tasting of the 2008 vintage last year I would feel more hip to the experience on my sophomore trip. But it’s still an impressive (and intimidating!) sight to enter a room with hundreds of bottles of wine lined up on a table – all to be opened and tasted.  This is how we spent a couple of hours on Saturday evening on a return visit to one of our negociants. The sheer volume of what was presented to us I remembered all too well from the previous year. Believe me, it takes some strength to come out of one of these on top!

This year we started in a tasting room dedicated to wines from the 2009 vintage, with a handful of 08s thrown in for comparison.

At Barrieres Freres

"Take one down, pass it around, 99 bottles of wine on the wall..."

Although there were hundreds of bottles, it was not quite as jam packed as last year. There were spaces on the table for 2009 samples that had yet to arrive, and more space in the location in general, allowing for a slightly more relaxed experience.  Corks were popped and we dug right in.  Of all the 2009 wines that we tasted, I was particularly impressed with the offerings from Margaux (d’Issan, Brane Cantenac, Malescot) as well as St. Julien (Beychevelle, Lagrange).  Phenomenal aromas, big and round on the palate, terrific structure and length- whether this is indicative of the vintage in general remains to be seen, but for me things were getting off to a fantastic start.

An American wine writer happened to be visiting the negociant at the same time we were there and he was welcomed to join us in tasting.  It was a pleasure to get a perspective from outside our group, and as things often do around here the discussion boiled down to quality and price.  What will the market for 2009 Bordeaux be like?  Whatever the outcome, there was the sentiment that Americans don’t want to get burned by the Bordelais…we don’t want to see the wines we purchase now on the market for the same price or less two years down the road when they come stateside. I had a similar feeling last year, though having a child born in 2008 made me desire the vintage regardless of quality and where the pricing would go. I have a similar stake in 2009 as I would like to document a unique moment in my life with this vintage. Fortunately, the quality that I’ve experienced thus far makes these a very compelling purchase.

After wrapping up in the first room, we were invited into the second tasting room, smaller with a semi-circular table.  At least we presumed there to be a table as every square centimeter was covered by our evening’s work. It was an intense experience last year when there were just four of us there to taste.  This year, there were eleven of us crammed together like kids in a candy shop.  We had bottles on the table from the mid-90s through 2007 and what a blast! One person would try something they really liked and I would rush over to try it too.  Then I would hear about another amazing wine across the room and I had to rush over and try that one!  Of course, not every wine is the most amazing thing ever, but even when we came across average bottles or outright duds it was still very enjoyable to get that much palate education in one fell swoop.

By the time we were finished we were all famished and in need of some serious food. None of us had really eaten save for a baguette, prosciutto, pate and cheese at a tasting eight hours earlier and it was definitely time to go.  So without further ado, we were off with yet another successful and wonderful tasting at this negociant in the books!  Au revoir, see you next year!

Haut-Brisson & Tertre Roteboeuf – Bordeaux Day 2

The mission begins: Ch. Haut-Brisson & Tertre Roteboeuf

Post by Andy Frieden | Saturday, March 27th

Following a good night’s sleep after our turbulent flight from SFO, we set out on the road for our first look at the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. Hitting the Right Bank in a convoy of three rental cars, Saturday began auspiciously with a negociant tasting (see John Perry’s post “Pack Your Good Liver” for that adventure!), followed by visits to Chateau Haut Brisson and the venerable Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf.

Barrel room at Ch. Haut Brisson

Tasting in the barrel room at Ch. Haut Brisson

First stop: Chateau Haut Brisson in St. Emilion. On a roll of late with their “La Reserve” garnering accolades from Robert Parker, the main vineyard for Chateau Haut Brisson shares the same gravel soil profile with Chateau Monbousquet. Since employing Michel Rolland as consulting winemaker, the winery has grown from their initial eight hectares to 13, with plans to purchase three additional hectares in St. Emilion in just a few months.

The vineyard is planted to about 80% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 5% cabernet franc. Three cuvees are produced here – an entry level wine called “Les Graves,” the estate blend Chateau Haut Brisson, and the “La Reserve”. We tasted three vintage verticals of each of these wines and each perfectly represented Right Bank terroir, with dark purple color pretty perfume of black fruits and some crushed flower blossoms along with Michel Rolland’s signature silky texture.

I had an interesting discussion with the director of the Chateau, focusing on how soil profiles affect flavors and texture in wine. Haut Brisson has three distinct soil profiles and each leaves its mark in the finished product. Gravel rocky soil seems to impact flavors and aromas, giving rise to graphite, fresh pavement, and pencil lead notes, whereas sandy soil imparts power and clay soils give rise to a wine’s density.

Our next stop was at Tertre Roteboeuf where we met owner and winemaker Francois Mitjaville, a true Renaissance man and one you are not

Tertre Roteboeuf

Tertre Roteboeuf

likely to forget having met.  As we arrived, a sudden rain shower halted our plans for a vineyard walk, so Francois ushered us inside to a parlor room filled with antiquities and a coffee table stacked high with art books. We sat for awhile and listened as he spoke fervently about the emotional aspects of winemaking, contrasting this with what he sees as a focus on making powerful wines by the “new guard” of Bordeaux winemakers. His philosophy and passion for both wine and life are as captivating as the 150 year old paintings that adorn his walls.

Francois looks at wine from a completely different perspective than any vintner I have met in my 20 years in the business. He calls his philosophy of winemaking ‘emotional’, again in contrast with a ‘power’ approach. His young wines aren’t super dark, black, or inky purple in color. Rather, they are more ruby red or mahogany, with a savory perfume and soft tannins. He makes wine that reveals the terroir of each vintage and allows the wines to express this terroir as naturally as possible with little manipulation.

Two wines are made at Tertre Roteboeuf, the estate wine being the Chateau labeling and a Cote de Bourg wine called ‘Roc de Cambes’.  The estate vineyard is on the backside of the Pavie Hill, protected from the north and westerly winds that come with cold and wet weather. This sweet spot offers a gentle, even growing season and allows for a harvest two weeks later than his neighbors. Both wines show a more feminine finesse and possesses nuances rarely seen in a Right Bank wine today.

Francois Mitjaville & Alex Lallos

Francois Mitjaville shows Alex Lallos how to gesture in French.

As we began our tasting, I noticed that his wines are indeed lighter in color as Francois indicated. The delicate perfume and the body and texture of his wines alludes more to a fine Grand Cru Burgundy than the dark, inky purple color of wines made in the modern Right Bank style. They are distinctly delicate, supple and fleshy in the mid-palate. Francois says he has no problem with lighter color and thinks nothing of what anyone says about the choices he makes in producing his wines. This is in direct opposition to the prevailing trend toward dense powerful wines that get the attention of wine writers. Francois refers to his wines as ‘rustic’ and certainly there is a certain spicy savory component of dried tobacco leaf and black tea, along with an earthy truffle note.

We tasted the 2008 and 2009 vintages of both wines. The ’08’s are showing great now and will be bottled

Pavie Hill

Tertre Roteboeuf vineyard, backside of Pavie Hill

in August. The 2009’s are more powerful and just finished primary fermentation eight days ago! All of Francois’s wines have a silky texture to them that is alluring and provides a refreshing alternative to wines that are darker in color.  As a treat, Francois went into his cellar and brought out a 1985 vintage to show us how well his wines age.  This 24-year old wine is still showing a vibrant ruby red color with Francois’ signature savory bouquet of fresh red currant, cigar tobacco and tea leaf with subtle notes of cedar, saddle leather, and black truffle.  The palate was surprisingly fresh and juicy with a core of cherry fruit along with cigar box and earthly truffles and an absolutely fantastic way to conclude our visit here.  Cheers!

Thuning Up The Palate – Bordeaux Day 2

“Thuning” up the palate

Post by Alex Lallos | Saturday, March 27th

Here we are in Bordeaux once again! As I sit here with some (extremely rare) spare time, trying to recall what little French I can, it feels good to be back for my third go-round of en primeurs tastings. Especially so considering that there has already been a lot of talk about the 2009 vintage as compared to my previous two trips for the ’07 and ’08 vintages. These should prove to be an excellent reference point going into this highly touted (and frankly heavily hyped) vintage.

After arriving in Bordeaux around 3:30 in the afternoon on Friday we settled down to regain our bearings (read: 30 minutes to throw our luggage down and grab a shower) following our bumpy ten-hour

Bad Boy

Bad Boy - Good Merlot

flight before heading off to taste some wines with local friends and have a casual dinner. (See “Eating Here Is Half The Fun”.)

Day Two (Saturday the 27th) was jam packed right from the get-go.  Our group of ten (up four more people from last year!) ate a quick breakfast at our hotel and sped off with alacrity to our first official tasting of the trip at Thunevin. Here we tasted a dozen or so wines made by Jean-Luc Thunevin, the official self-proclaimed “bad boy” of Bordeaux. (Just a note: This guy is on his game for sure, currently making some of the best and most highly sought after wines in Bordeaux.) We started our visit with Jean-Luc by tasting through a few of his non-St Emilion wines, including Bellevue Tayac (Margaux), Clos de Beau Pere (Pomerol), and Thunevin-Calvet (Roussilan, Southern France).

We then headed to Jean-Luc’s house in downtown St Emilion where we were received by his wife, Murielle. We were there to taste Valandraud (Thunevin’s baby), which debuted in 1991 and recently has been on a tear, being one of the most consistently high scoring and sought after “garagiste” wines in St Emilion.  The property is a minuscule 2.7 hectares planted to 75% merlot with the remainder cabernet franc and a tiny bit of malbec. No expense is spared on this wines and it shows.  We also tried the 2009 Virginie de Valandraud (the 2nd wine of Valandraud) along with 2009 La Dominique (Thunevin consults since 2006) and 2009 Fleur Cardinale (maybe the best bang for the buck in Bordeaux). Last but not least, we tried the 2009 Valandraud, which was absolutely stunning.

I won’t get into tasting notes quite yet but I was ultimately surprised to find that the 09s were (as reported) dense and concentrated yet fresh with all the stuffing (tannins, structure, length, color, fruit, and all the rest). Jean-Luc assured us that it was important not to over extract in 2009 because the wines will have extraction given the pedigree of the fruit itself. We will see over the next week who got it right and who dropped the ball. Stay tuned!