On January 22nd a large group of wine geeks piled into the Grand Salon at the Archer Hotel in downtown Napa. For many of us it was the end of a long seminar for Stage 2 candidates in the Master of Wine program. That meant that we had been sitting down to blind taste wine every morning for 5 days & tasting other wines throughout the day. That is the sort of thing that might leave you burned out & ready to take a break, but this is generally my favorite tasting of the year, so I was excited. This was the annual Bordeaux Tasting, & we were tasting the 2014 vintage.
2013 was a difficult vintage in Bordeaux. Many of the wines from expensive estates were lean & hard & may take a decade to evolve into something interesting, if they ever do. The 2014 vintage is a much more promising vintage. There was some cause to worry when August was cooler than usual, but September & October were drier & hotter in Bordeaux than in any year since 1961 & that allowed grapes to reach phenolic ripeness. There were some rains near harvest. October rain had a positive effect in Sauternes & in general conditions were excellent. While it may not be a classic vintage, many of the wines are accessible now. There is something to be said for being able to buy a nice bottle & drink it now, or next year & enjoy it versus holding it for 20 years before you can drink it.
Because my work focuses on organic & biodynamic wine, I wanted to pay particular attention to the producers who incorporate some of those practices into their wines. Here are my notes on those wines. This tasting was focused on classified growth wines from the Left Bank & some of the higher quality wines from the Right Bank. There are many other producers of high quality organic & biodynamic wines in Bordeaux.
For those not familiar with Classified Growths in Bordeaux, here’s a quick explanation. In 1855 Napoleon III wanted a classification of Bordeaux wines for the Exposition Universelle de Paris (like a World’s Fair). He got a group of merchants together & they ranked the best wines from 1st-5th Growths. By “best”, they mostly meant the wines that sold for the most money. They also mainly focused on the vineyards near them, so for the red wines on the list, all but 1 (Château Haut-Brion) came from the Médoc & they ignored the Right Bank. Oddly enough, that classification still exists & is important today with very few changes. Châteaus are classified rather than vineyards, so if a 1st Growth bought some vineyards from a 3rd Growth, the wine from those vineyards would now be 1st Growth. Weird right? Even weirder is that the mix of grapes has changed over the years, so the current wines may not be very similar to the original. Château D’Issan was planted 100% to Tarney Coulant, which is obscure these days. There is still some reason to expect quality based on the designation. Since these wines have traditionally sold for more money, they have had more money to invest in quality. To some extent, the designation has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Saint Émilion has its own Cru classification which is updated semi-regularly. Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) is the highest designation.
Château Angelus Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) (In Saint Émilion)
Alcohol 13.5% 50% Merlot, 50% Cabernet Franc
Over 15 years, Château Angelus worked to make their vineyard & winery more sustainable, which led them to implement organic viticulture. They have now converted to 100% organic. They should be officially certified in 2021. The name of the Château was originally L’Angelus, but the “L” was dropped to make it show up first in alphabetical lists, which is hilarious to me since Angelus is considered one of the great wines of Bordeaux & people would seek it out now no matter where it was in a list. The name came from the 3 local churches whose bells ringing during the day echoed through the vineyards.
This wine shows a deep concentration of black fruit (blackberry, plum, other brambly fruits) with some subtle leather notes, dust, and tinges of herbs. It has plenty of tannin & acid to balance the big fruit. I believe that as the tannins integrate it will improve over the next 5-20 years. While I don’t think this has the depth of the 2012, or maybe even the 2013, it is still a delicious wine. This is arguably one of the great Merlot based wines in the world. It is difficult to say that a wine is a bargain at $279, but this is still a bargain.
Château La Tour Figeac Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ (In Saint Émilion)
13.5% alcohol 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc
100% biodynamic farming since 1997.
This wine is still super tight! If you must drink a bottle now, I would suggest decanting for at least 2 hours if not longer. That being said, it is a tasty wine. It has tart red fruit (mostly raspberry), with some dust & earthiness. In many ways, this is classic Saint Émilion with the emphasis on red fruit & the classic dust notes.
Château Laroze Grand Cru (In Saint Émilion)
13.5% alcohol 66% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon
From 1991-1998, they practiced biodynamics at the winery, but have since switched to organic viticulture.
This also shows those classic dusty Saint Émilion notes. It is a dry wine with red fruit. The nose isn’t showing much, but the palate delivers. This wine probably isn’t meant for cellaring beyond the next few years, but it would be great with a steak tonight.
Château Troplong Mondot Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ (In Saint Émilion)
14.5% alcohol 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc
33% of their 37 hectares are organic. They have stopped mechanical harvesting & now even use horses in the vineyard for tasks that once required trucks.
This has deep rich fruit with more black fruit than red with raspberry, black cherries & mineral notes dominating. The wine is tight & dense & will take years to unwind. It will probably improve over the next 20 years.
Château Montrose 2nd Growth (The youngest of the classified growths, getting a late start in 1815) (In Saint-Estèphe)
13.5% alcohol 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot
Currently Château Montrose has converted around 50% of their vineyards to organic viticulture. Their goal is to be 100% organic by 2025.
This is an excellent wine. It is very good now, especially if you have time to decant it for an hour or two. It will be something special if you can hold onto it for at least 10 years & perhaps even better if you can wait 25. I doubt I could. For now, it has ripe black fruit, strong coffee notes, blackberry, cedar, & vanilla. The acid is high & the tannins are powerful. This wine has staying power for the long haul. For those that care about such things, The Wine Advocate gave this 96 points.
Château Batailley 5th Growth (in Pauillac)
13% alcohol 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc
They are experimenting with biodynamics on 5 hectares. I don’t know if this wine includes those grapes, but figured it was worth including. They have 57 total hectares.
This is a pretty wine. The nose has some leather to it, but also has a nice floral component. The acid & tannin are both high, which balances the fruit & indicates that this wine will age. How long it will age may be the question. This wine is delicious right now & that actually makes me wonder how it will hold up in 10-20 years. Just to be safe, I’m sure that if I had a case, I would drink it in the next 5-10 years anyway. Not that I could resist!
Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse De Lalande 2nd Growth (In Pauillac)
13% alcohol 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot
11 hectares of organic fruit & 3 acres of biodynamic grapes out of 89 total.
This is a beautiful wine. It’s a wine that is delicious now & will be better in a decade. The nose shows raspberry, blackberry, & cedar. On the palate, the raspberry & black fruit mingle with the coffee & mocha. There is plenty of structure to this wine. It has a long raspberry fruit finish.
Château Beychevelle 4th Growth (In Saint Julien)
14% alcohol 51% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot
About 15% of their roughly 34 hectares are farmed organically.
This reminds me of a chocolate covered raspberry. There are some floral notes as well, but the key element to me is this raspberry/chocolate combination. The acid & tannin are very high & this is a young wine. It needs time to relax, but it is going to be extremely good when it matures.
Château Brane Cantenac 2nd (In Margaux)
13.5% alcohol 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Over 25% of their 75 hectares are farmed organically.
This is incredibly approachable for such a young Margaux. The nose is soft & floral with hints of chocolate & dark fruit & touch of graphite. On the palate, this is an easy to drink wine with chocolate covered cherry & blackberry notes & a hint of cedar. Tannins are relatively low, or perhaps they are just well integrated. I thought this was one of the nicer wines of the session to drink now.
Château Du Tertre 5th Growth (In Margaux)
13% alcohol 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 12% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot
55% of their vineyards are biodynamic & as they replant, they are converting to 100% biodynamic. Their 80 hectares in a single block are one of the largest single blocks in Margaux & all of the Medoc. They are also one of the few estates still at the same size as at the time of the 1855 Classification. They also have classes in biodynamics that you can attend if you happen to be in the area.
The nose shows some blackberry & raspberry, but leather really overlays everything about the wine. The fruit seems a bit depressed & I suspect that there is a bit of Brettanomyces showing here, which may have robbed this wine of its fruit. The tannins & acid stand out. I hope that with time, the tannins will integrate & the wine will be more enjoyable. I am usually a fan of the wine, but less so this year.
Château De Fieuzal (Pessac Leognan)
13.5% alcohol 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot
They employ biodynamic practices, which is a nebulous phrase, but I’m trying to be inclusive. They began moving their viticulture to organic in 2016.
This has the classic dustiness that I expect from the area. It has dry tannins that are still integrating. It has juicy black & red fruit. This is a wine that is still coming together. I think with the dust, fruit, & cedar notes, it has the potential to be a more interesting wine in 5 years.
Château Climens 1st Growth (In Barsac)
14% alcohol 100% Semillon
100% Biodynamic certified. The name comes from a local dialect & means infertile, poor land, but they have managed to get by over the last 472 years just fine. Château Climens was established in 1547 & in the 1855 classification was one of only a dozen white wines ranked & it ranked only beneath Château d’Yquem. The only white wines ranked were the classic botrytis wines. These are sweet wines where multiple passes through the vineyard are required to slowly pick the perfect grapes that have been infected with botrytis. In some cases, a vine might yield only enough grapes to make a single glass of wine.
Orange marmalade is the primary flavor here. There are also nice peach notes. There is a waxy note that is expected in Semillon & it adds body to the wine. There are layers of flavor here. The volatile acidity is perhaps a little higher than usual, but it really just gives a lifted note to the palate along with the racy acidity. As sweet as this wine is, it is well balanced. It has a long, lingering finish. I know many people think of this solely a dessert wine, but I like it best with savory foods. This will be wonderful with pâté or blue cheese.
What were my takeaways from the tasting? First, I think this is a vintage for the Left Bank & Cabernet. In 2013 the Left Bank wines struggled to achieve ripeness while the Right Bank wines were more successful. In 2014 the weather was more agreeable across the board & the Cabernet Sauvignon based wines really shine. Secondly, I think this demonstrated that organic wine producers can successfully put their wines up against any wines in the world. I know that seems obvious to people who work with organic wine or with organic produce, but it isn’t obvious to everyone. I interviewed a woman last week who had a background in hotel restaurants. I asked if she still had contacts with those buyers. She said that she did, but that “they probably wouldn’t want organic wine because they bought only the finest wines.” I was a bit shocked. To me it isn’t news that world class wineries like Château Angelus or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti have embraced organic and/or biodynamic practices to produce the best quality wine. It seems as obvious a concept as using organic tomatoes in a pizza sauce to make the best sauce or expecting a grass-fed organic beef steak to be better than the cheapo stuff. Chemical agriculture’s main value is that it increases yields. That might be important if you are trying to maximize the number of yams you can grow per acre. In viticulture though, high yields aren’t generally associated with quality. Quality grapes are associated with quality wine. Organic & biodynamic viticulture is a way to achieve the highest quality grapes.
My final take away from the tasting is that we need to do a better job of getting this story out. There are plenty of articles about organic wines. I think that we need to do a better job of putting the wines in context. Articles about “10 organic wines you must try” are certainly helpful. I think that they sometimes exist in a vacuum though. I think that maybe those of us who support organic wine need to evaluate the wines within the context of their region & hold them to the highest standards. The quality is there. The producers are there. The next step is to get the average wine consumer to understand what this means. What’s the best way to do that? I don’t have the answer yet, but I’m going to work on it. Let me know if you have a great idea!