2012 Bordeaux: Tasting at the Union des Grand Crus, San Francisco 1/30/2015

Were they really better than expected?

One of the most interesting things about the tasting yesterday afternoon, was the comments of tasters impressions of the vintage before attending the event. I’m not sure where everyone got the idea that the 2012s were not going to be good. I think it was very clear from most reviewers that the vintage was a success, although I suppose with vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010 all in recent memory, expectations get a bit skewed. What is wrong with an infield double? They can’t always be home runs.

On the contrary, I was expecting to taste very good wines, and for the most part, I was not disappointed. I only had an hour and a half, so I focused on the Chateaux that Atherton typically purchases. That scrapped tasting most of the wines from the Haut Medoc.
I finished tasting the 30-40 wines in about an hour. The big hold up being trying to get to the spit bucket! That gave me a chance to revisit my top wines and talk to a few folks.

Overall I didn’t notice quite as much oak as I’ve come to expect from Bordeaux in recent years, which often smell more of barrel than of fruit. Fruit dominated in this tasting, and perhaps this is a result of winemakers using a lower percentage of new barrique in order to keep the wines balanced in a less concentrated vintage. I would say they were more successful in this than often in the so-called top years.

Tasting wines, that are this young, from a moderately concentrated vintage is interesting. Certain regions like Margaux were ready to roll, with less concentration, their textures were uniformly silk in 2012, and their fine tannins really let them shine, right out of the gate. They should age effortlessly for 20+ years, furnishing perfectly balanced and elegant wines. Standouts were: Malescot St-Exupery, Lascombes, Kirwan, Giscours, and Prieure Lichine. I would buy these all in a heartbeat. Just absolutely lovely, and as a whole very underscored by the critics. I’m assuming a highly scored wine has to carry enough weight to assuage the critics, critics. Unfortunately, weight is prized among consumers.

Pomerol was the precise opposite of Margaux. A number of attendees mentioned the Pomerols as being their favorites. They must be tasters who are more attuned to the weight of heavier, more tannic, California reds. These wines comparatively, carried significant weight, and some sported the accompanying tannins. Right now they were showing a bit rough, but a handful of years should smooth them out. For my taste, I felt them slightly out of balance, and I suspect will likely go in and out of open and closed periods throughout their lifespan. Examples of wine in this vein were Clinet and la Conseillante and to a lesser extent Gazin and Le Bon Pasteur. Don’t get me wrong, they will be very good wines, but they need a few years (as Clinet often does). Beauregard, (which George the owner of Atherton Wine Imports often buys) was one of the most personality-filled wines of the tasting, and a terrific success in that regard.

The wines of Pomerol’s plateau-mate, those of St.-Emilion, I felt were better balanced and more complete. They probably will drink better, on a more consistent basis, over their lifespan, although the Pomerols will most likely outlast them. I felt the Saint Emilion’s which had much of the weight of the Pomerols, had softer and riper tannins. I felt these were the more successful wines, if perhaps more modern than the more traditional Pomerols in terms of style. Clos Fourtet and Couspaude, as always, were excellent, and Beausejour Becot was very good as well. Troplong Mondot was quite exotic, with a broader, softer palate than the Pomerols on the table next to them. Count Stephan von Neipperg, with his usual dashing attire, was pouring his Canon La Gaffeliere, and it was ripe, dark and thoroughly modern, it was a very good wine.

Probably the top region for me overall was Pessac-Leognan. This region supplied 3 of my four favorite wines. Haut Bailly was the superb here, with their hallmark of modern, round, black fruit, soft and quite rich, with just the right structure to reign it all in. It was in no way overdone.
Smith Haut Lafitte, can do no wrong these days. Less modern than the Haut Bailly, this was seamless and silky smooth. Fabulous winemaking here. Worth every penny. Pape Clement in some ways even better, as it had more character. The most traditional in its outlay of fruit, it too maintained silky smooth tannins. This is a fantastic wine.

The Pape Clement Blanc was the broadest, richest, ripest, and certainly the most tropical white in the tasting. It was significantly different from all the others made in a slightly oxidative, leesy style, that really made it stand out from the others, which were more fresh and direct. It was a wow wine.

Domaine de Chevalier was excellent for both white and red. Both were clean and fresh, with a traditional elegance. I loved, as usual, the overachiever, the de Fieuzal rouge, which is also traditionally made, but has a lot of character in terms of aromatics, something that I repeatedly note from this chateau’s red. Their white was once again, very good, with ripe, tropical fruit and excellent freshness and acidity to hold it all together.
We don’t sell it, but Chateau de France is making excellent white and red – although not cheap, the quality is undeniable. Malartic-Lagraviere blanc was very good as expected, but it didn’t necessarily stand out from the crowd of excellent whites. Just a solid choice.

For me, Pauillac and St Julien were not as consistent, although there were some standout wines, including my favorite wine of the night Pichon Lalande Comtesse. This was a sexy, silky sumptuous wine. It is elegant with not a tannin or acid out-of-place. Complex and delicious now, it will age effortlessly for decades. It is a spitting image of  it’s1989, which is still simply gorgeous wine, now at 25 years old. Why Pichon Lalande has somewhat fallen out of favor with critics? I can only guess that it’s not big enough or black enough, and its fruit is too red-fruit oriented with its raspberries and sandalwood, all which is matched to its exotic spices.

Lynch Bages was just as Lynch Bages has been described for the past 100 years: authoritative and somewhat masculine, with traditional structure.Most notably it had that distinct nose and mouth of the oft-described; pencil shavings.
Pichon Baron was big, powerful and impressive, but not completely harmonious, with its black fruit and tannins not syncing up yet. It will happen and be excellent.

The following wines felt were good to very good, but chunky, with somewhat unresolved tannins. Clerc Milon was good but needed time, d’Armailhac was a bit rough. In the same could be said for Langoa Barton. Leoville Barton was very good and held a nice balance between modern and traditional styles, but it too was unresolved. Beychevelle was rough, nothing like the silky, sublime elegance of the 2010 when that vintage was released. Branaire-Ducru seemed good but didn’t stand out of the crowd. I was hoping for more from Gruaud Larose – my favorite chateau for the 2008 Union des Grand Cru tasting that year – in another underdog vintage. But it didn’t have the same lovely aromatics I remember from the past. Lagrange was very nice – I can recommend that for having some elegance and good depth, but it really didn’t stand out. A good value none-the-less.
Of this grouping, Talbot was very good to excellent with a bit more personality and refined qualities.

Of the outlier regions, Camensac was excellent. A terrific wine with good aromatics and some nice raspberry fruit and touch of sandalwood. Chasse Spleen was classic, more dark fruited and structured, en point for that Medoc chateau. Cantemerle was slightly disappointing. Good wine, but not as good as these other two.

I think this is a terrific Bordeaux vintage, and the prices make them so much more attractive than they have been in the past. For those reasons, I think it should be a good retail vintage, and down the road, an excellent restaurant vintage.

Those were my impressions. What were yours?


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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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