A Boot-full of Wine Tasting Notes from Italy (and beyond!)
8 February 2011
Just off the plane from London and the Institute of Masters of Wine Annual Claret Tasting of the 2006 vintage, I thought I would pen my thoughts while they are still fresh.
The Annual Claret Tasting has a long history and dates back to when the IMW was the Vintners’ Company, one of twelve Great City of London Livery Companies. It is held annually in Vintners’ Hall, a wonderful venue worth a visit in its own right if you are ever in London.
The 2006 vintage in Bordeaux was a difficult one, and was always going to struggle in the shadow of the stellar 2005 vintage. In summary, bud break was late and flowering affected by coulure (failure of fruit set). April frosts were followed by variable temperatures over summer, with June/July being very warm and August very cool, but worryingly, also damp. The heat returned in September, and then heavy rain hit in mid September. Dry conditions then returned till harvest in October.
Therefore, there was some water stress to contend with (which, with the earlier frost damage, reduced yields), fluctuating temperatures (the cool August led to uneven ripeness), the risk of dilution due to the rain near harvest, and for some, the risk of rot. The last concern was compounded by the fact that many did not spray for rot given the warm July, and no leaf thinning (or green harvesting, which usually go hand in hand) was done due to the smaller yields and earlier heat. These conditions produced a real test of terroir.
In terms of soil types, and in particular relating to water delivery to the vine, the current state of thinking is that the quality of soils relate to their ability to deliver a modest level of water even in dry conditions, yet be free draining enough not to be affected by too much water in times of excess.
So in the best sites, 2006 has the potential to be a great year. In other areas, there might be dilution effects due to the rain, or lack of phenolic ripeness in those forced to pick early and quickly due to the risk of rot, with Merlot particularly at risk.
Though there were 96 wines at the tasting, and I got through 45 of them, I will not outline tasting notes for all of them – that would be just too boring! I thought instead I would outline my approach to the tasting, and share some of my discoveries.
On to the tasting….
So, here we were, in this beautiful, grand setting, in a Hall filled with Masters of Wine, who know Bordeaux like the back of their hand. Where to start?
The tables were laid out thus – one table for the slightly more southerly regions of Pessac/Graves, Haut Medoc and Margaux, another for the northerly St Julien, Pauillac, St Estéphe and Médoc, a third table for right bank St Emilion and Pomerol, and finally, a (small) table for (5) First Growths.
This is what I decided to do – taste 5 or 6 examples from each region, looking for similarities and differences. I would then try 5 or 6 from another region. I paid special attention to the potential differences between left and right banks, ie Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot dominant wines, using two glasses to taste representative samples of each at the same time.
For the First Growths, I decided to try a good producer from the exact same region (where I could, a Second Growth) and then try the relevant First Growth, again, in a pair.
What did I learn from the tasting? Well, there are some very smart 2006 Clarets out there. But there certainly are a few that show the dilution effect mentioned above. Some were very sulphurous on the nose, possibly indicative of the late need to spray on several occasions for rot, though I cannot be certain of this.
Some wines showed incredibly high levels of alcohol – 14% – reflective of warm conditions during parts of the growing season. Perhaps the earlier ripening Merlot based wines were more likely to show this tendency to a greater extent, if not picked early to avoid problems with rot.
Quality variability was at times striking, though most striking when the First Growths were compared against ‘lesser’ counterparts. They inevitably showed more power, more length, more complexity, more finesse, or indeed a combination of all of these.
Let me share just one example. On tasting the Château Lafite-Rothschild, I found it initially closed and rather austere and angular. Certainly there was less of the powerful fruit than the Mouton-Rothschild. It had nonetheless good complexity, and the essence of Cabernet fruit, with tomato leaf notes, cassis fruit, and firm tannins. Though not exactly underwhelmed, I wondered about what all the fuss was about. Then, as is my usual practice at tastings, I waited for the flavours to dissipate so that I could move on to another wine…. I waited and waited… I cannot remember when I have had to wait as long – the persistence of flavours was amazing!
The art and science of distinguishing between Left and Right bank wines is a real mug’s game. Cabernet and Merlot are not as distinctive in Bordeaux as they are in Australia. However, I came to the conclusion that palate weight rather than structure of the tannins was more helpful for me.
As for the distinguishing features of each region (like telling a St Julien and a Pauillac apart), I found picking them even more difficult.
Quality based on the classification system too is difficult to gauge. The Cru Bourgeois Château Chasse Spleen being the most obvious example.
Here are a few of the 2006 Bordeaux wines that caught my eye:
Château Brown (17.25). Mocha notes to start, with blackcurrant fruit breaking through on the subdued palate – clearly needs time.
Château Belgrave – 5éme Cru Classé (17). Tomato leaf and capsicum on the nose, herbaceousness on the palate without being too ‘green’. Blackcurrant fruit, the essence of cabernet.
Chateau Lascombes – 2éme Cru Classé (17.5). Deep and dense, great “line” (to borrow Len Evans’ term, which I mean to imply lip to throat flavour presence) despite predominant Cabernet fruit.
Château Rauzan-Gassies – 2éme Cru Classé (17.25). A bit sulphurous to start, but soon blew off. Delicate (in this case in keeping with the reputation of Margaux), and good structure.
Château Rauzan-Ségla – 2éme Cru Classé (17.25). Perfumed nose (again, in keeping with Margaux), rich with cassis, evident also on the palate. Lovely mouthfeel.
Château Chasse-Spleen (17.25). Capsicum and blackcurrant nose and palate with firm but not overwhelming tannins. A beautiful mid weight Cabernet dominant wine that still needs time.
Château Gruaud-Larose – 2éme Cru Classé (17.75). Well proportioned wine with leafy Cabernet notes and enticing spicy complexity. Elegant mouthfeel.
Chateâu Pavie-Decesse – Grand Cru Classé (18). Big nose of coffee and dark red fruit. Menthol hints add complexity to a bold palate, ripe tannic grip.
Chateâu Trottevielle – Premier Grand Cru Classé (17.75). Again, coffee evident on the nose. Rich full palate of currant fruit.
Château Figeac – Premier Grand Cru Classé (17.75). Strong Cabernet – perhaps Franc – notes without being ‘green’, fresh and lightly tannic.
Château Clinet (17.75). Inviting nose of rich redcurrant, kirsch and plum fruit, with a lovely round palate.
Château Gazin (17.75). Less ‘heavy’ than the Clinet, with a menthol, even eucalypt lift, to a cassis driven palate, very persistent.
The vintage was thought to be at its best in Saint Julien and Pauillac (not represented above – perhaps I just chose the wrong examples to taste in the limited time available) and in the free-draining gravel slopes of Saint Emilion and Pomerol (better represented by wines that created an impression on my palate above).
For the record, all the First Growths scored gold medal points, each impressing for various reasons – the Haut-Brion for its complexity, the Margaux for its power and length, the Lafite for its modesty yet persistence, the Mouton for its incredible depth, and the Cheval Blanc for its ballet of flavours on the palate that just went on and on….
Ciao for now!