THE GRAND CERCLE des Vins de Bordeaux en Primeur 2016 Tasting

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The Grand Cercle tasting of en Primeur 2016 Bordeaux took place in the grand setting of the second floor terrace of Le Meridien Piccadilly on March 15th 2017.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ‘en primeur’ concept, this can be described in two broadly different ways: producers and brokers might tell you it is a chance for interested buyers to get their hands on the latest vintage of Bordeaux’ most sought-after Château before before they have even been bottled, and at the lowest prices they will ever be. Sceptics might tell you it is a marketing trick to bring in much needed cash and interest to the Château at a slow time of year. I would say it is a bit of both.

There has been a lot of noise going on in the trade press recently about 2016 being a ‘miracle vintage’ – and this is just the sort of spin that tends to bring out the sceptic in me – indeed, Le Grand Cercle’ described in their press pack the wet and miserable spring, then dry summer from June, followed by much-needed rain three months later in September. In their words: ” Who, last may, would ever have believed in a vintage year after an unprecedented record amount of rainfall?”

All that said, the spin worked, and the result was a packed terrace full of tasters eager to see if it was true. I even put on a tie for the occasion (ties are not great at tastings, you have to keep them in check so as not to spit on them) – I think this may be an indication of my assessment of the vintage! .

Grand Cercle Tasting 2017

Bordeaux Tasting à l’anglaise (with ties)

So was this a miracle vintage? Producers I spoke to agreed that the last great vintage in Bordeaux was 2010, and without exception compared 2016 to that vintage. I tasted 25 or so wines, white as well as red, and not an unripe or lean one among them (you rarely get to say that about Bordeaux). The whites were lovely, ripe wines, with a beautiful mouthfeel, and nervy acidity, the reds full of bright ripe crunchy fruit, rich but melted tannins, and mainly good levels of acidity (although some of the Merlot based ‘right bank’ wines lacked a little).

It was the Cabernet Sauvignon Left Bank wines that impressed me the most, though. I look for a combination of ripe blackcurrant fruit with tobacco and meaty savoury notes as indicators of great Cabernet wines, and all of them had this, so the descriptions below only include additional features. On this side of the river my list of favourites was:

Château Serilhan, Saint Estephe – All the descriptors above apply, with an attractive oak polish like a veneer to endear it.

Château Haut Lagrange, Pessac Léognan – 40% new oak, but integrated and wrapped around the tannins

Château Roquetaillade la Grange, Graves – Delicately oaked (25% new) with velvety tannins and potential

Château la Tour de Bessan, Margaux – Classic margaux restraint, but blessed with charming fruit sweetness

Château de Villegeorge, Haut Médoc – This had a higher Merlot content, so was a softer wine than some others, with lower acidity, but lots of charm

On the Right Bank, I found less balance, with a few low acid wines where the alcohol showed more. A certain American critic may like them! I liked:

Château Mazeyres, Pomerol – Lovely bright and creamy fruit, 14% alcohol not showing, a polished wine

Château Godeau, Saint Emilion Grand Cru – Ripe and sweet, with great depth and richness, great potential

Château Fombrauge, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé – Charming sweet fruit and spice, with 45% new oak integrating already

Château Yon-Figeac, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé – An almost delicate wine, with notes of violets, ripe red fruit, and firm tannins enveloped in 1/3 new oak

The whites were super too. In Entre Deux Mers, Château Sainte Marie refreshed me, and in Graves Château de Cerons had great balance and potential, and Château Saint-Robert was rich and satisfying.

My verdict: No spin or hyperbole, 2016 was a great vintage!

A Tasting of BA’s Club World Wines

The Bay at Night. A gratuitous photo, not particularly related to the content of the article, but a testament to the quality of my wife's photographic skills.

The Bay at Night. A gratuitous photo, not particularly related to the content of the article, but a testament to the quality of my wife’s photographic skills.

There are two ways to afford to travel in Club Class on a long haul flight. One is to get a proper job (and by this I mean one not in the wine trade) and pay the full price, the other is to marry someone who works for an airline. On a recent trip to California I was afforded the luxury of just such an upgrade on a BA flight (so you see which of the options I chose). This was worth it both for the bed it provided, which can only be described as a magnificent, jet lag eliminating, luxury, and the quality of the wines offered. On a similar scale, the wine would rate as more of a very welcome treat, but it was perfectly suited to relieving the monotony of long-haul flight, and a welcome change from the pleasant, but uninspiring Cotes de Gascogne Colombard I usually encounter on aircraft

I didn’t set out with the intention of trying to assess any difference that altitude has on the wines, but they don’t mess around on BA, and Taittinger Brut Reserve NV was served as soon as we had sat down, and the whole way through the climb, so a sort of impromptu comparison took place. This Champagne is a long-time favourite of mine, creamy but not too much so, toasty but not overdone, with Chardonnay elegance shining through; excellent, and perfectly balanced, at sea level, even better at 18,000 feet, and downright superb at 36,000 (or was that the second refill talking)?

I tasted (that is tasted properly, before drinking with lunch) all 4 wines on the list. All were well selected, with a well-deserved place on the list.

Ravioli and Sancerre

Ravioli and Sancerre

Sancerre 2013, Château de Thauvenay was a high fruit version, with pineapple and ripe acidity no grassiness in evidence.

Clos Pegase Carneros Chardonnay 2012 was beautifully peachy, with a rich, creamy butterscotch palate and sherbet acidity, but definitely moderate by Californian standards, and a good food pairing with a duo of salmons.

Flor de Campo Pinot Noir 2012, Central Coast, California, is in fact from the south of the state, near Los Angeles, but cooled by that Pacific fog which pervades the coast, and creates cool climate conditions. This showed an expected attractive ripe red fruit, a hint of spice, chocolate oak, but not overdone, and great balance, restraint even.

Steak and Medoc

Steak and Medoc

Château des Cabans 2011, Cru Bourgeois Médoc was poised, with ripe berry fruits and a hint of violets, earthy, mid-weight, and with spicy oak. Although Cabernet dominant, it showed quite fluffy tannins, which went very well with my steak.

A memorable flight, lovely wines, great company, good food (it’s not every day you get to say that about airline food), and a start to a California experience that culminated in a visit to Ridge, described elsewhere. All you have to decide is which route to take to Club Class. A difficult decision; both options have attributes in common, of which troublesome but rewarding might be the best summary.

Visit to Ridge with the legendary Paul Draper

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The panorama from Ridge, with the famous mist in the background

A visit to California to stay with friends in Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco, started with the principle that this was a wine drinking, not wine tasting trip. No vineyard visits, just barbecues, some sightseeing, and a bit of healthy imbibing. So of course, when we realised that our friends lived about 20 minutes away from Ridge Vineyards, we called and made an appointment straight away. For my sins, I worked for Steven Spurrier in the early 80s while his wine ‘empire’ was still extant in Paris, so from this, and subsequent study, I was quite familiar with the quality of Paul Draper’s wines, and the effect that the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting had on Ridge and the other ‘kids from the sticks’ (as Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena put it at the time), although I am not quite old enough to have been there for the tasting. I could hardly miss the opportunity just on a principle.

This is why they call it 'Ridge'!

This is why they call it ‘Ridge’!

The following day, on a beautiful sunny September afternoon, the 4th in fact, we travelled the Montebello Road to the winery. The various parts of the Monte Bello vineyard are at elevations varying from 1300 to 2700 feet, and you really see why they call them the Santa Cruz Mountains as you travel upwards; the road is a succession of hairpin bends, as you would expect in a mountain, not so much in a vineyard.

PD & GW4

PD, GW, and 100-year old Carignane

We arrived at Monte Bello to be greeted by Paul Draper himself; three hours of fascinating insight into the famous estate followed. At the hopper above the winery, 100 year-old Carignane grapes were just being delivered into the de-stemmer, so we got to taste our first grapes of the 2014 California vintage. Paul described 2014 as one of the earliest in Ridge’s history, which is why grapes had been arriving in the winery since a week before. He thought the harvest would be just about finished by the third week of September; usually they wouldn’t have started until then.

...and in the cellar

…and in the cellar

Ridge are still at the top of their game. PaulDraper, always open minded, talked with enthusiasm about textural changes effected in the wine by the occasional fining they do; single parcel fermentation for each vineyard and combining the best, far too complicated to detail here; the advantages of air-dried over kiln-dried oak, and its cooperage, and the importance of grapes at moderate sugar levels. The wines are organic in all but name, and are currently getting certification for the Monte Bello vineyard. Paul has always used the minimum possible intervention, including only natural yeasts, and minimal sulphur, focussed on quality, rather than a label. That said, Ridge’s labels have always featured more winemaking information than almost any, and now include ingredient labelling; it’s lucky they don’t fine often, as the general public don’t like to see egg white as an additive (but that doesn’t stop them including it on the label when they do). Paul talked with fondness about the early days in the 70s, before the boom, when they used to import top Bordeaux like Lynch Bages and Leoville Lascases in barrel and bottle at Ridge in order to keep the cash coming in. I was even allowed to spit on the drain in the floor of the winery, as we used to do on tasting trips in Burgundy and the Rhone in the 80s. I, if no one else, derived a huge amount of childish pleasure from the looks of horror from my friends as I did it. Paul, like the seasoned professional he is, stood well clear of me.

More humidity, this time in the cellar...

More humidity, this time in the cellar…

We tasted 2013 Monte Bello in barrel in the cellar cut into a limestone ravine in the 1880s; it still has six months left to mature in barrel, and seemed very well balanced, dry, dark fruited, smoky, oaky, yes, but not sappy as I sometimes find. Promising. We tasted a 2014 Zinfandel, picked on 29th August, and still in the fermentation tank; I don’t consider myself expert, but I am familiar with tasting fizzy, sweet, semi-alcoholic fruit juice. My friends, though, were bowled over. ‘It’s like Port’, said one of my hosts; I began a wine lecture on Port production and why she was right, but happily I was quickly stopped by the groans of the audience.

All tastings should look like this

All tastings should look like this

We moved back up to the newly built tasting room. Paul introduced the 2011 vintage, which was largely something of a disaster in many parts of California; one of my favourite euphemisms, ‘challenging’, often used to describe miserable vintages in France, was even used to describe the Californian summer that year. At Monte Bello, though, they escaped the cold fog which poisoned the summer for many vineyards, as their elevation put them above it. We tasted:

2011 Monte Bello Chardonnay – Oak toast and smoke showing, edging towards butterscotch. Lovely ripe tang, but alcohol a little visible for me.

2012 Geyserville Zinfandel – Fresh, with black cherries raisins, and great balance, fluffy tannins, a freshness.

2012 Lytton Spring Zinfandel – Smokier, more complex: aniseed, pepper, lovely.

2011 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Smoke, spice, aniseed, black fruit, cool climate, but ripe, with bright acidity, mineral, almost salty. Superb.

And another treat:

1985 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Wood smoke, leather, Christmas cake, burned sugar, tannins still there, but smooth, the wine fading a little; graceful in age.

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‘The Judgement’ at Ridge

We talked of the ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting in 1976. It should be remembered that Steven intended to show that California made good wine, not to enact a competition between France and the US, but the first places achieved by Chateau Montelena in the Chardonnay section and Stag’s Leap in the Cabernet was dramatic: Californian wine had arrived. It then progressed on a path of excess into ‘cult winery’ and 200% new oak territory, but Ridge continued and continues on its path of moderation, minimal intervention, and traditional winemaking with modern equipment, and long may it do so. Thank you sincerely, Paul Draper, for a fantastic afternoon of wine tasting on a tasting-free holiday!