Bordeaux Blanc at Glengarry Victoria Park review by Regan.
I recently hosted a tasting of the recently landed 2014 vintage from Bordeaux. The unusual aspect to this event, was that they were all white wines. Bordeaux is one of the finest red wine regions in the world, but it is often overlooked for the quality of its superb dry whites, which easily stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest white wines of the world. Around 10% of the total production in Bordeaux is white wine, including the great sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes.
Until the mid 20th century though, most people would be surprised to learn that around 50% of all wine produced in Bordeaux was white. Most of the vineyards were replanted with red varieties that were better suited to the terroir, after the great frost of 1956 that devastated the region. At this tasting we were just looking at the upper echelon of the region, primarily from the clay limestone soils of Pessac-Leognan, an appellation in the northern part of Graves.
The 2014 vintage had an Indian summer of record highs and sunshine in September/October, producing dry whites with generous fruit like the exotically tropical Château Carbonnieux Blanc. The top estates harvested late, and managed to keep their precise acidity, with beautiful crisp freshness and minerality we found in Larrivet Haut-Brion Blanc. This was a really outstanding flight of wines, right from the piercing Château Oliver Blanc ($50), through to the extremely rare Vin Blanc de Palmer ($400). I’ve already grabbed a number for my own cellar as these are wines with a very long life ahead. You can drink them now if you wish but they’ll continue to improve over the next two decades. We coincidentally drank the 1983 R de Rieussec at the Old Bottle Dinner the week earlier, and it was fantastic at 34 years of age.
Despite the presence of two dry whites from outstanding Sauternes estates Suduiraut and d’Yquem, the Palmer was a real showstopper. A miniscule 1200 bottles were made of this special wine, the first vintage it’s been available to anyone but the owners or guests of the Château. It’s produced from the same varieties that were found in two bottles of 1925 Blanc presented to Château Palmer by a French collector in the late 1990s. After analysis, they replanted and the wine is now made from approximately 50% Muscadelle, 35% Loset, and 15% Sauvignon Gris. With 17 months on lees in 20% new oak, this is a most unusual wine that would be extremely difficult to identify the region from. This is an outstanding and unique white, that only qualifies as Vin de France ( the absolute lowest level of French wine classification). This is due to the Loset being outside the appellation rules. A special wine to hunt out.
The Bordeaux 2014 vintage is the latest to arrive on the world market. Each vintage in Bordeaux is picked over with a fine-tooth comb and seems to garner more attention than any other wine region. It is, after all, very large, with a history and reputation to match. While the rest of the world are certainly no slouches in the winemaking department, Bordeaux continues to occupy an almost unassailable position of grand mystique and self-perpetuating prestige, thanks in no small part to the locals’ own canny ability to promote themselves via their natural Gallic confidence in their product.
So what was the 2014 vintage like? After the dynamic duo of 2009 and 2010, widely acclaimed as the greatest pair of vintages ever in Bordeaux (a position possibly initially instigated by the locals themselves), every vintage since would have had to climb something the size of Everest just to be noticed. The elegant 2011 was always doomed, then, as that level of hype just wasn’t sustainable. The following 2012 was a very solid vintage, one for early enjoyment, while 2013 was the kind of vintage that no one wants to talk about. Particularly the locals. So what, then, of the 2014?
Early weather conditions in Bordeaux were not great, flowering was inconsistent and the resulting volumes down. Fortunately, a long, hot September and October provided just what was required and the vintage was rescued. This lengthy warm spell was particularly good for the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, with Cabernet a variety that needs a decent amount of time on the vine to ensure ripeness. Merlot did not fare quite as well, its predominantly clay-heavy soils retaining much of the moisture bestowed earlier in the vintage. The moisture did provide ideal conditions for botrytis, thus 2014 is an excellent vintage for the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
Acidity and freshness are key characteristics of the 2014 vintage. The red wines have good balance, tension and character. Tasting through a range of the 2014s, the various characters of the differing appellations voice their presence with confidence and strength. The Bordeaux white wines benefit from the fresh acidity and have a wonderful vibrancy.
Is there a comparable reference point for the 2014 vintage? Not as great as the 2009 or 2010, of course, but neither are the wines as expensive as those vintages. The 2014s are most definitely better than the 2011, 2012 or 2013 vintages. Stylistically, there are comparisons that can be drawn with the 2004 and 2008 vintages. They represent great value, given their relatively high quality is unaccompanied by Everest pricing.
The process of selling En Primeur is not as long-established as you might think. A little history: The role of the négociant in Bordeaux is intertwined with the region in many ways; initially establishing themselves in the region, they were first and foremost businessmen, though not from Bordeaux itself. The early négociants were of German, English and Dutch origin. Regarded by the châteaux as outsiders, it became necessary to employ a middle-man, giving rise to
the role of the courtier, i.e. one who acted as intermediary between the buyer and the seller. At this time négociants bought wine in cask, immediately after the grapes had been vinified; the négociant would then blend and bottle the wine. It was not until the 1920s that Philippe de Rothschild led the charge to change this system, with his the first château to bottle the wine within the estate. He quickly convinced all the first growths to follow suit. The négociants continued to purchase the wine immediately upon vinification, but instead left it with the château to look after and bottle. Initially only involving the five first growths, in 1967 all of the classified growths were required to estate bottle, with all French wines following shortly after. The négociants carried all the costs of these stocks and aged them until they were ready for sale. It was not until the financially hard times of 1974 that, to relieve some financial pressure, they began to sell the wines to retailers globally while still in barrel at the châteaux, marking the birth of the En Primeur system we know today.
We have recently published our complete guide to En Primeur 2016, you can download a copy here