Time for the final push.With just a few visits left on the Rive Droite followed by a jaunt down to Pessac, we were digging in rather like Team Postale on their way to the top of Mont Ventoux; don’t think about the finish, just get up in the saddle and keep pushing on, mile by mile, wine by wine… I’m aware that it might sound ridiculous talking this way about ‘tasting some wines’ but, even in a vintage as easy and satisfying to taste as this, chewing on 50-100 barrel samples a day and writing clear, accurate notes is harder than it sounds.
Enough with the tiny violins. Back to the orchestra – and once again it was in full flow with some superb, fresh and focused wines at Barde Haut (including the relatively new Poesia, Helene Garcin’s new baby, which was mightily impressive). This was followed by a resurgent Clinet which was wearing its distinctive 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon like a Huntsman suit on a perfect frame of ripe Merlot – truly bespoke winemaking.
Last of the big players on this side of the water was Cheval Blanc and, given the qualities of the vintage and the heights struck by the grandest names in 2016, we were keen to taste and find out where it stood in relation to its peers. The answer is right at the top. It’s perhaps a shade less dramatic and exuberant than Ausone, but a mite more precise and elegant than the fabulous L’If, but this is the ultimate in splitting hairs. Really you need all three to see the full scope of what a reawakened St Emilion is really capable of.
A dash of Yquem while you’re here sir? Well, OK then. And I don’t need to tell you how good it was, now do I…?
We wave goodbye to this beautiful town where so many new and exciting memories have been made and head for Pessac – but first a jaunt into Libourne and Moueix to taste through their stable of Right Bankers. The standard here is pretty high across the board from the relatively humble estates (which most of us rarely see in the UK) through to the big boys of Hosanna, La Fleur Petrus, Trotanoy and Belair Monange. Unsurprisingly they’re all wonderful but it is the Monange which soars into the distance on an effortless Jetstream of perfume, bright fruit and sheer vineyard personality. Chatting with the team there, it was pointed out that in much the same way as dogs eventually start to resemble their owners, so it goes with vineyards – and since Edouard Moueix made Belair Monange his home estate, there is no doubt that the wines have taken on an effortless, laid back, yet very precise and focused character. This is well on its way to being one of the biggest names of the Right Bank.
The sun continued to set the theme for the trip, with big, bright skies devoid of cloud and shirt-sleeve warmth to lift our weary souls (back to the violins) and if anything, Pessac was even more generous than St Emilion. The wine ball started rolling with a set of superb wines at Smith Haut Lafitte, who continue to make waves with both red and white wines (and also their superb second wines). The afternoon was book-ended with genial visits at Pape Clement and Domaine de Chevalier, both producing fine, serious efforts, but the main event sandwiched between was La Mission and Haut Brion.
In April 2016, when we walked out of the tasting room having just experienced the 2015s, we were stunned into silence – eventually broken by one member stating confidently, but with a little bewilderment in his voice, “That Haut Brion is 100 points.” Little did we know that the buds just breaking through on the vines outside the window could dare to manifest into fruits that would have exactly the same effect one year on.
This is not to say that 2015 and 2016 are ‘the same’ – they are patently different, with the sense of opulence and sheer exuberant power of 2015 replaced with a brooding, confident, transcendent style in 2016. There is no other way to describe it, for both La Mission and Haut Brion are perfect wines in their individual styles. If the wine is an orchestra in full play, and the piece is Barber’s Adagio for Strings, then the Haut Brion is the rumbling cellos and double basses building the anticipation and rubbing the heart strings, whilst the La Mission takes over for the screaming violins as the piece reaches its zenith… the sense of astonishment and emotion among our group at meeting these legendary wines – for they will doubtless become so – for the first time was palpable. You know when you are in the presence of greatness.
It is remiss not to mention the second wines, and indeed the fabulous Quintus, as a footnote but these two titans of Bordeaux will leave greater wines travelling in their wake – so let us just say that each iteration is arguably the best ever. The Clarence de Haut Brion in particular had the same effect as the excellent Pavillon Rouge de Chateau Margaux, in that it fooled you into thinking it could be the Grand Vin, and it will doubtless outplay lesser vintages of its big brother in years to come.
So we’re done with the tasting and our view is pretty solid. 2016 is at least as good as 2015 overall. In fact, we would suggest that the highs are higher, albeit there are clearly differences between the styles and the highs and lows are not all in the same places. In addition, there are a few relative disappointments.
What is clear to us is that Bordeaux has its mojo back after a string of tough years. Arguably there have never been three better back-to-back vintages than 2014, 2015 and 2016, even 2008/2009/2010 or 1988/1989/1990. This was re-emphasised by tasting a number of 2014s on the trip; it is a vintage that we underrated at the time, as did many of the winemakers we spoke to over the week.
The only questions which remain are those of price and pace of release as these are the makers and breakers of the campaign. These questions remain rhetorical in the short term so instead we’ll just reflect on a magical week with some magical wines.
Our full vintage report will be out very soon so watch this space.