Overall, the wines of Bordeaux are considered among the world’s finest, most popular and, in some cases, also the most expensive examples of both the New and Old Worlds.
One of France’s largest and most prestigious wine grapegrowing areas, Bordeaux is divided into the very diverse Right and Left Banks by the Gironde estuary.
On the cabernet sauvignon-intensive Left Bank you will find such prestigious appellations as Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, St. Julien, Paulliac, St. Estèphe, Sauternes and Barsac as well as several others that are, unfortunately, lesser known in the U.S. market. The merlot and cabernet franc-focused Right Bank represents only a fraction of the Bordeaux red wine production and boasts two principle appellations — Saint-Emilion and Pomerol — along with several others.
Last week, I attended a special tasting in San Francisco presented by the Association of Grands Cru Classes featuring the highly regarded 2015 vintage with comparative examples offered by each member Chateau of Saint-Emilion ranging from 2010 through 2014.
The picturesque town of Saint-Emilion, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dates almost two millennia when the Romans began planting vineyards in the 2nd through 4th centuries. In 1955, the Institut National de L’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) established a classification system in Saint-Emilion that was intended to be reviewed and reissued every 10 years.
This was a departure from the famed Official Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855 even though the 10-year cycle has not been religiously followed. The Official 1855 classification was based largely on market price at the time and included only the Medoc and Graves on the Left Bank. It is not subject to ongoing review and has (with but a few exceptions) remained unchanged in more than 160 years.
In the INAO Classification, there are four levels for Saint-Emilion: Premier Cru Classe A and B, Grands Cru Classe and Grand Cru. And although there is no direct corollary between the two classification systems, the Premier Cru Classes are seen in the market on an equal footing to the First Growths of the Left Bank and the Grands Cru Classes as a parallel to the levels just below.
Last week’s tasting featured 22 chateaux represented by their owners, managers or winemakers with each pouring the current 2015 vintage plus one other from their respective libraries, offering an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the individual characteristics of each vintage. An interesting and informative format that I took advantage of by tasting all the wines poured while at the same time exploring the thoughts and views of each representative.
Due to their merlot/cabernet franc composition, the wines of Saint-Emilion traditionally display a lighter more elegant style than their counterparts on the Left Bank, which have a more intense cabernet sauvignon dominance. And I’m sure this will ultimately hold true for the 2015s as they mature in the bottle. However, in looking through my notes and reflecting upon the tasting, words such as bold, depth, concentrated, consistency and rich form a common thread.
This is not to say the wines were uncharacteristic of the appellation. Rather they are a reflection of the warmth and relative dryness of the vintage that produced wines with a bit more power than most previous years while still retaining Saint-Emilion’s classic character of elegance and purity. The 2015s are a fine example of a great vintage and (with only a couple of exceptions) demonstrated impeccable balance and firm structure for long term ageability.
Now in their youth, they are deep in color, somewhat closed and tight on the aromatic side but full and rich on the palate. Powerful expressions of black fruit accented by bright red berries, firm tannins and succulent mouthfeel all hint toward at a rewarding future that should begin showing in the next five to seven years.
This tasting also offered the benefit of revisiting the five prior vintages of 2010 through 2014. The 2010s (the last critically proclaimed extraordinary Bordelaise vintage before 2015) were true works of art with powerful depth and balance coupled with elegance and character. The 2011s emanated from perhaps the most challenging vintage of the decade and were showing extreme fragility and pretty much past their prime.
The 2012s showed some bright lights but were overall divided into two groups of the “haves” and “ have-nots,” depending on the specific growing areas of Saint-Emilion along with the skill and expertise of the producer. 2013 was much the same but perhaps with a few more have-nots.
The 2014s are a complete treat exhibiting the more classic elegant side of Saint-Emilion as they are just now beginning emerge. They are very different than the more intense 2015s and based on the early reviews of 2016, could be the kick-off to a potential 2014-2016 “trifecta” as we saw with 1988-1990 where elegance and grace (1988) moved to concentration and structure (1989) then on to opulence and early appeal (1990).
And the good news is these delicious Grands Cru Classes are “relative” bargains in the world of Bordeaux. Most retail at prices ranging from $30 to $75 (and even less for most of the still available 2012s and 2013s) as opposed to many other classified growths from both Banks.