A Whirlwind Tour of the Northern Mèdoc

Château Mouton-Rothschild is the only property to have had its status changed since the original 1855 classification of the Mèdoc. It was in 1973, after continuous lobbying from then owner Baron Phillippe de Rothschild, that an exception was made and the property was elevated from a second growth to a first growth château; the rest is now history. But besides that little tidbit of trivia, Mouton has long been associated with a passion for greatness and an interest in the arts. Beginning in 1946, the Baron began commissioning a different artist to design the label for each vintage and brought in great names like Picasso, Dalí, and Miro to create images for the annual wine release. There has always been a lust for life and it's many pleasures in the world of Mouton-Rothschild, along side a commitment to great winemaking (and, of course, great marketing). We walked tall and with purpose on to the grounds of the famed Pauillac yesterday morning for our tasting appointment. Visiting one of Bordeaux's five first-growth properties is always a serious occasion.

After our earlier visits at the modernly-designed Pichon-Baron and Latour estates, with their clean and rather minimalist tasting rooms, we pulled into the Mouton parking lot and were chauffeured in golf carts over to the ornately-decorated salon. The winery's signature ram statues guarded the way (Mouton means sheep in French) along side a small collection of fine paintings and various other sculptures. The tasting bar was fairly crowded and we moved carefully through the herd of industry folk towards the counter. I swirled and took my first sip of the 2015 grand vin, which was very refined and ripe in all the right places. The wine was both stylish and deceptive in my opinion, coming across as delicate and graceful when in reality it was packing serious structure underneath all of that poise. Trey thought the wine was exotic, full of sweet and approachable fruit with plenty of finesse. That's about all we could surmise in the ten minutes we spent analyzing the esteemed cuvée. Since most of our remaining appointments were standard en primeur do-it-yourself visits, we were going to spend there rest of the day moving quickly through the wines, jotting down notes, and then packing ourselves back into the blue party bus to get as many tastings done as possible. 

After Mouton we headed back towards the river for another round of super seconds: a tasting at Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (or Pichon-Lalande for short). Founded originally in 1694, the château's seventy-three acres of heavy gravel soil have imparted a noble elegance to the grapes grown within it for centuries. Like its neighbor Latour, the property is part of the Pauillac appellation and with its close proximity to the Gironde enjoys the benefits of both drainage down the slope and a more temperate climate. 2015 was both a successful and an anxious year for Pichon-Lalande as the vineyards suffered from heavy drought during the early part of the year before the rains came in July. There was a fear that too much rain would result in rot and other fungal issues, but instead the water reinvigorated the growth cycle of the vines and by the end of September the grapes had reached perfect ripeness.

We traversed through the winery, past gigantic stainless steel fermentation tanks, and up the deceiving metal and glass stairs (which are almost invisible and somewhat of an optical illusion) to the upstairs office with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the property. A flight of the 2015 Pichon-Lalande expressions were awaiting us. While the château's second wine, the Reserve de la Comtesse, was brimming with that lush strawberry tobacco quality, I thought the standard grand vin was one of the best of the trip thus far; a beautiful cuvée with lush fruit flavors from the merlot that add a plushness without ever tasting stewed or overripe. Ralph thought the wine was fresh, just a touch herbal as always, and it reminded him of the some of the great Pichon-Lalande wines of the eighties. "I think it's pretty clear from our first two days of tasting that the 2015s are more about finesse than they are power." The 2015 Pichon-Lalande is a great example of that synopsis.

Just across the road from Mouton lies Pontet-Canet, one of the modern powerhouses of Pauillac. Originally classified as a fifth growth in 1855, the property was eventually purchased by a merchant named Guy Tesseron 1974 who planned on revitalizing the estate. However, it was when his son Alfred took over that real change began at Pontet-Canet, starting with the 1994 vintage: a rich and opulent wine that took many Bordeaux drinkers by surprise. Since that time Alfred has renovated the entire estate with new cement fermentation tanks and a pristine barrel room that extends through several spotless halls. They've been one of the fastest rising châteaux in the Mèdoc ever since. 

Pontet-Canet has also taken great strides in the vineyard now farms its property bio-dynamically, using horse-drawn ploughs in between the rows; a practice that's on full display as you taste from the main hall overlooking the fields below. Everyone thought the wine had great freshness with a purity of fruit, not at all the most powerful Pontet-Canet in recent memory. There was dark cocoa, pepper, and spice, but—as mentioned before—the 2015 seems to be more about finesse than raw power.

Alfred Tesseron eventually came by to say hello, shaking hands with us and asking us for our thoughts on the wine. He mentioned to Clyde that he needed to buy a lot of wine in California help to stock the old Robin Williams estate that he recently purchased in Napa. "Can you give me fifty percent off? I need to fill my cellar," he asked with a smile. "Can you give me fifty percent off your opening price?" Clyde said in response with a grin.

After an impressive series of tastings in Pauillac, we headed north towards one of the Mèdoc's northern most appellations: St. Estephe, a region known for its sandy and clay-rich soils that historically produce wines of a finer acidity and tannic structure than the more-southern properties. We pulled up to Château Montrose, another famous second-growth, just as the sky opened up and began to rain down huge droplets on to our entourage of suits. After a series of failed attempts to find the front door, we entered Montrose wet and cold. Trey had the right idea and went immediately to stand next to fireplace in an attempt to dry off and warm up before our tasting.

There to greet us was Montrose's sales manager Lorraine Watrins (interviewed here in a previous post about the estate), who helped walk us through the vintage releases. We started with the 2015 Tronquoy Lalande from the sister property just down the road, a wine with a dense and concentrated palate of dark, fleshy fruit and firm acidity. The grand vin from Montrose piggybacked on that profile, but brought a fresher acidity, more heft, and finished with a dark and firm mouthful of black fruits. Alex loved the Montrose. He thought it was classic St. Estephe claret: deep, brooding, and powerful on all fronts. 

After warming out bones by the fire, we left Montrose and headed over to another famous St. Estephe property: the great Cos d'Estournel. The hundred acre estate lies along the Gironde river and is adjacent to first-growth property Château Lafite-Rothschild on the Pauillac border. It is one of the fifteen esteemed second-growths, utilizing a terroir of heavy gravel to soak up more concentration of fruit to its prized cabernet and merlot grapes. The tasting room has been remodeled over the last few years into a low-lit, asian-themed hall with beautiful aesthetics and a modern, fashionable edge. We gathered around the table for our tasting and began with the château's second wine, Les Pagodas de Cos, with its heavier merlot cepage and rounder, fruitier profile. The 2015 grand vin was the polar opposite, a 75% cabernet base with far more tannic structure and serious grit on the finish. The was fruit was bright and crunchy on the entry, with fresh red berries and spice on the initial palate, but that fruit quickly succumbs to the power of the Cos cabernet.

Next on our list of St. Estephe's greatest hits was Château Calon Sègur, one of the oldest estates in the Mèdoc that can trace its roots back to the 12th century during the Gallo-Roman era. Once owned by the Gasqueton family (who also produced the outstanding Capburn-Gasqueton, one of the best values in the biz), Calon Sègur is known for its famous walled vineyard and deep gravel soils that combines with a heavy clay as it stretches down to the Gironde estuary. The power of the estate's cabernet-driven wine is always a given, but the château considers it an annual mission to preserve softness in both the tannins and the fruit. We started with the 2015 Château Capburn (no longer called Gasqueton) from the estate's neighboring property, a fresh and crunchy-fruited burst of pretty red berries that had plenty of character. I was a big fan of that wine. The 2015 Le Marquis de Calon Segur had more lushness of fruit, especially compared to the grand vin, ˆan 82% cabernet-based beast of a wine that had tannins for days. The fruits were like tart cherries and blackberries under all that structure, but I'd be interested in tasting it thirty years from now. I think this wine could easily age half a century with the preservative potential I was able to taste. There was more rain in St. Estephe in 2015 than the other appellations, so the wines seem to open with a note of sweet fruit, then become a more structured and tannic towards the finish.

After Calon Segur, we dipped back into Pauillac for another fantastic first-growth affair at Château Lafite-Rothschild: easily one the most prestigious and coveted wines in the world. Lafite was the only first-growth I had yet to taste at this point in my ten year wine career, so I was excited to finally get a peek into what makes this estate so celebrated.   It's one of the most-counterfeited bottles on the market and is hugely-collectable in parts of Asia where prices can be astronomical. "Lafite is the hardest wine to taste," Alex whispered to me as we entered the tasting room. "It's always so tightly-wound in its youth, so go easy."

We were treated to three samples of the 2015 harvest: the grand vin from Duhart—Lafite's other Pauillac property—and the first and second wines of Lafite proper. Both Clyde and Alex thought the 2015 Duhart Milon was fabulous, a rich and silky wine with plenty of fruit that stood from just about every other wine we had tasted that day. The Carruades had a lovely nose and I was excited to finally take a taste, but I found that the guts of the wine completely swallowed up that initial enticing aroma. This wine would need some time. I struggled with Lafite as well, trying to move from the kirsch notes on the nose into the palate of the wine itself. I was getting rather self-conscious about my ability to taste until Clyde and Alex reiterated that Lafite is always difficult to get a handle on at this stage. However, they also said the Lafite was one of the easiest to evaluate in recent memory. "Normally I have a very tough time getting a sense of Lafite when we come here, but the 2015 was by far the more expressive I've tasted en primeur," Clyde said as we left.

Last on the list was our date with Château Leoville-Las-Cases, one of the kings of the St. Julien region and a second-growth property that insiders often say has the best claim to a seat at the first-growth table. I have to admit that I'm completely smitten with the wine year after year. I recently bought as many bottles of the 2012 vintage as I could afford because I knew it might be the last time I could actually afford it (sub-$200 Las Cases is likely a thing of the past). The property is part of the original Domaine de Léoville that was eventually split up as a result of the French Revolution, becoming Léoville-Barton and eventually Léoville-Poyferré down the line. Las Cases, however, makes up 3/5ths of the original estate and is the heart of that special terroir. The newly-renovated gardens are visible from behind the tasting room and provide a stunning view all the way down to the river.

The 2015 Leoville-Las-Cases had an absolutely gorgeous nose with accents of raspberry and black pepper that went on for minutes. The tannins were assertive, but chewy on the mid-palate, and that structure finessed its way through to a highly-refined finish. "It's classic Las Cases, powerful and structured, but more approachable with a fruit character that seems more expressive than previous vintages," Trey said as we pondered the wine. "It's that quintessential 'iron fist in a velvet glove' we love so much." Indeed it was. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll