The Great St. Julien
No one has ever forced me to pick a favorite, but in looking at the four most-famous Mèdoc communes—St. Estephe, Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Julien—it just so happens that my four favorite producers all hail from the same one. I don't know if St. Julien is my favorite Bordeaux region because of sentimental reasons (the first Bordeaux I ever drank was a 2001 Sarget de Gruaud Larose), or because I've come to love its focused and delicately-balanced wines over the last decade; I just know that I love it. The town of St. Julien dates back to the seventh century, but it would be another millennium before Bordeaux's wealthy landowners began using the fertile soils around the parish to create some of the region's most beautiful clarets. We began our trip through the commune with an appointment at the two Barton family-owned châteaux: Langoa and Leoville respectively. Lilian Barton-Sartorius, the ninth generation owner of Leoville and long-time friend of K&L, was there to meet us. She acts as the manager for both estates along with her father Anthony.
"You're going to look at both of these wines and you're going to notice that the Langoa has more of a reddish hue, while the Leoville is darker in the glass," Ralph said to me as we awaited our pours from Lilian. "The same thing goes for the flavor of each wine; the Langoa always has more red fruits, while the Leoville usually has darker, blackberry notes." Seeing that Ralph has been drinking Bordeaux for as long as I've been alive, I had no reason to doubt his words, and—of course—he was dead on. The 2015 Langoa-Barton had a sweet kiss of kirsch on the entry before tightening up into a linear note of tannins and acidity. The 2015 Leoville-Barton was plum-colored and expansive on the palate with an almost dusty spice. Lilian soon came around with the 2014 vintage of both wines to give us a little comparison and an idea as to where these wines might be in a year. Sure enough the Langoa had developed into a riper cherry note and the Leoville a plump and powerful note of blackberry. Ralph took his notes by the window, looking out on to the property. "This is my spot," he said to me with a smile. "This is where I always taste when I'm here."
After Barton it was time to see Gruaud-Larose where one of several Union des Grands Crus tastings was happening, this one focusing on the wines of St. Julien naturally. What's interesting about the property is that little has changed since its original classification as a second growth in 1855. What you may or may not know about Bordeaux is that—unlike Burgundy for example—the classification applies to the producer and not the vineyard. That means if Gruaud-Larose were to buy additional St. Julien vineyards from a third or fourth growth property, those vineyards would become second growth vineyards by osmosis. However, the historic property was at eighty hectares of vines at the time of its classification and today sits at eighty-two.
The wines of Gruaud-Larose, much like the property, also remain quite consistent over the years, showcasing dark and cassis-like fruit with an herbaceous note that can vary in its intensity depending on the ripeness of the vintage. We tasted the 2015 expression which fit that description to a T, as well as the new wines from other St. Julien producers pouring at the event. There were plenty of winners.
After a quick romp through the UGC event we packed ourselves back into the blue bus and made our way over to what was personally for me the most anticipated appointment of the trip: the great Ducru-Beaucaillou, a wine that is probably my favorite in all of Bordeaux. In both wine and whisky, I always gravitate to expressions of balance and restraint. I appreciate power, but only if it's in complete harmony with firm acidity and fruit. Ducru always seems to embody that philosophy in my opinion. It's always layered, complex, and slow to unwind with beautiful precision. It can also be very expensive, which is why I don't get to drink it as much as I would like to. While the other visitors tasted in the main salon downstairs, we were escorted up the stairs of the stunning château and into a private room with none other than the owner himself: Mr. Bruno Borie, one of the most charismatic and independent owners in the booze industry.
You may have heard of a little aperitif brand called Lillet. That ubiquitous vermouth-like elixir was struggling to remain in operation until Bruno invested in the company back in 1985. He managed that brand back into success for more than twenty years before selling to Pernod-Ricard in 2008. Today, after spending much of his early career away from the family business, he's doing for Ducru-Beaucaillou what he did for Lillet: expanding upon an early legacy to ultimately create his own. I couldn't wait to taste the 2015 grand vin. I was practically itching to get my hands on a pour. Then I tasted it, and I have to be candid here: the 2015 Ducru-Beaucaillou is so good, so perfectly soft and flavorful even at this young stage in its development, that it almost brought a tear to my eye. "We had warm days and cool nights throughout the year," Bruno told me. "It led to perfect ripeness, but also balanced acidity." 2015 is turning out to be a great vintage for cabernet in Bordeaux, as the continual rains seemed to effect the merlot crops more. The 2015 Ducru is therefore composed of 95% cabernet and it is something otherworldly. The finish goes on forever—an everlasting essence of lush red fruits and asian spices. We were in the car ten minutes later and I said to Ralph: "I can still taste that wine!"
After Ducru it was time for lunch at Lyon d'Or in Margaux. We had timed our trip perfectly as this happened to be the first day of white asparagus season. Ralph was pumped.
And then we dined.