The wines of Bordeaux are considered among the world’s finest, most popular and in some instances, also the most expensive examples of both the Old and New Worlds. Divided into the diverse Right and Left Banks by the Gironde estuary, Bordeaux is also one of France’s largest and most prestigious wine grapegrowing areas.
On the Cabernet Sauvignon-intensive Left Bank, you will find such famous appellations as Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, St. Julien, Paulliac, St. Estèphe, Sauternes and Barsac as well as several others lesser known in the U.S. market. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc-focused Right Bank represents only a fraction of Bordeaux red wine production and boasts two principle appellations – Saint-Emilion and Pomerol – along with a few others.
In contrast to the 1855 Classification (First through Fifth Growths) on the Left Bank, the wines of Saint-Emilion were not formally classified until 1955 when the Institut National de L’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) established a formal classification system for the area. Again, in contrast to the 1855 Left Bank Classification that has only seen two changes in its 165-year history, the Saint-Emilion system called for re-evaluation of the Classified wines every 10 years.
This cycle has not been religiously upheld, and when downward changes are made the château in question often embarks on a years-long appeal within the INAO. But the idea was good when originally introduced even though there have been some conflicts along the way.
The INAO Classification of Saint-Emilion outlines four levels: Premier Cru Classé A and B, Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru. Although there is no direct corollary between the two systems, the Premier Cru Classés are seen in the market on an equal footing to the First Growths and “Super-Seconds” of the Left bank; the Grand Cru Classés are a parallel to the levels just below.
Earlier this month, I was invited to attend a trade tasting in San Francisco sponsored by L’Association Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Emilion (founded in 1982). The tasting featured 16 member châteaux where the vintner or winemaker personally poured their 2016 vintage, plus one other. Thus, we had the opportunity to evaluate the highly regarded 2016s from across the appellation, along with a look at other vintages ranging from 2009 through 2015 and a few of the more recently bottled 2017s.
There’s no question that 2016 is a formidable vintage in Saint-Emilion and a worthy successor to the excellent 2015 that produced countless standouts in the market. Although these back-to-back stars display elegance, structure and balance, attributable to the dominance of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in the blends, they are in no way similar. 2015 was a drier and warmer vintage with the wines showing a bit more concentration, extraction and muscle, while, according to several of the more vocal vintners at the tasting, 2016 was considered a dream vintage.
Winter and spring rains refreshed ground water deposits depleted by a dry 2015 growing season. Summer temperatures rose to comfortable (but not extreme) ranges with minimal rainfall, allowing for optimum ripening conditions through harvest. The fruit was described as clean and ripe with sugars and acids in perfect balance to meet the growers’ high expectations of extraordinary wines to come.
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With few exceptions, I found the 2016s showed exceptional character throughout the range with a few truly standing out in a crowded field. The library examples from the last back-to-back stellar vintages of 2009 and 2010 also showed beautifully while still looking to reach their prime.
The 2011, 2012 and 2013 offerings were lighter in general, as one might expect from the severe challenges of those vintages while the 2014s were several steps above and the 2015s provided a delightful comparison with the 2016s.
I tasted three 2017s from a difficult vintage during which early frosts devastated many vineyards reducing yields by as much as 70 percent. Two of the three were indicative of the vintage issues, but one (Château Bellefont-Belcier) was spared the frost and produced a well-balanced wine with rich tannins and deep color.
In reviewing my notes for the 2016s, I found descriptors such as balanced, minerality, elegance with depth and power, deep color and layered finish consistently appearing for a majority of the wines. This is a truly remarkable vintage for both the Right and Left Banks of Bordeaux and should be especially interesting to all wine lovers, as excellent examples can be found at every price range and across all appellations.
Sylvie Cazes (of the iconic Left Bank Cazes family) purchased Château Chauvin in Saint-Emilion’s northwest corner next to Pomerol in 2014. In a short time, she has made astounding progress with the vineyard, winery and stylistic expression. Cazes showed the estate’s 2011 (from the prior owners) that was a bit simple, exhibiting more drying tannin than fruit. But I noted her 2016 (only her third vintage) as one of my top wines of the tasting. It displayed an intricate tapestry of pristine red and black fruit, with complexity and an elegant profile framed by beautiful textural notes.
Another “show-stopper” and discovery was the 2016 Château Le Prieure that is owned by Groupe Artemis Domaines whose impressive portfolio includes Bordeaux First Growth Chateau Latour, Napa Valley’s Eisele Vineyard (formally Araujo Estate) and other highly regarded properties in some of the world’s most outstanding growing areas. The estate is now 100 percent biodynamic, and the wine spoke of sheer power with bold tannins and deeply layered black fruits accented by red berries. My initial thought was, “Could this be the Latour of Saint-Emilion?”
I’ve always appreciated the fine wines of Saint-Emilion for their elegance, finesse and precision as a noteworthy contrast to the more intense Cabernet Sauvignon based wines of the Left Bank. I must thank L’Association Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Emilion not only for this informative tasting experience but also for its ongoing commitment to support their members and the entire Saint-Emilion Appellation.