Dispatches from Bordeaux: 2015 Vintage – Part I

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by Geoff Pattison, Wally’s Bordeaux Buyer

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There’s something distinctly different about the feeling in Bordeaux during the good vintages.  There’s a sense of anticipation as you step off the plane.  Coming into the city everything feels a bit more vibrant. There’s a spring in the step of the people you meet.  Even when it rains, people are smiling.  Having read the early weather reports I already had a sense that the wines would be special.  There were whispers from negociants and vignerons in the months after harvest.  These insiders are usually in the business of having to “sell” a vintage so when they stop spouting superlatives and say “just wait til you taste the wines,” you know they’ve got the goods.

It’s Monday morning and once again Wally’s President Christian Navarro and I are here to taste another new vintage.  It’s a special year for both of us as this is my tenth year tasting en primeur and for Christian his 25th.  And what a year it looks to be.  The early reports have been extremely promising.  Beginning in April, a warm, even spring allowed perfect flowering across the region.  As the summer arrived, June and July were extremely hot and dry which accelerated ripening and stressed the vines.  By August, many vignerons were starting to worry that they would face drought conditions, but then, at just the right time, the rain came and provided just what the vines needed to be refreshed.  At this point things were looking very good and all that was needed was a dry harvest to make the vintage.  In Margaux, Pessac-Leognan and the right bank appellations of Saint Emilion and Pomerol, they got exactly that.  A long, even September and October that allowed a relaxed harvest under ideal conditions.  In the Northern Medoc, the rain came at just the wrong time, mid to late September.  Pauillac and Saint Julien were hit with it in spots and the well drained terroirs fared much better than others.  Saint Estephe got the worst of it, double the rainfall of Pauillac, leading to inevitable dilution at harvest and making it the lone rough spot in this otherwise excellent vintage.

Our schedule this year begins in Margaux which from the early reports appears to be one of the most gifted appellations in 2015.  In a twist of fate, the September rains which ensnared the northern Medoc completely missed the southern appellations.  It seems this year has the makings of a modern day 1983, where similar weather patterns produced benchmark Margauxs that in most instances outpace the vaunted 1982s.

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We begin the morning at Chateau Rauzan Segla, which has to be one of the most beautiful properties in all of Bordeaux.  This year marks the first vintage under Rauzan’s new technical director Nicolas Audebert, who was formerly the winemaker at Cheval des Andes.  As we arrive we’re welcomed into the barrel room to taste several components directly from barrel.  While I’ve done this in many other regions around the world, it’s somewhat unorthodox in Bordeaux where we’re usually presented with a pre-drawn assemblage in a lab or tasting room.  It’s a small tell as to the new direction of the new regime here which is looking to shake things up a bit.

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Barrel tasting notes from Rauzan Segla:

New Oak Barrel #1 – Cooper: Demptos
-A pretty nose with fresh violets, primary red fruit and a good dose of polished vanillary oak.  There’s good concentrated fruit here with power.  Linear and focused.

New Oak Barrel #2 – Cooper: Sylvain
-This barrel is deeper and richer on the nose, bursting with blackcurrants.  There’s more freshness compared to the Demptos barrel and more structure too.  Excellent balance.

New Oak Barrel #3 – Cooper: San Martin
-Toasty, earthy aromas dominate the nose here.  This one is the most touched by oak, but again the balance is beautiful and there’s a great deal of power.

Neutral Barrel #1
-This is the most expressive barrel of the four.  Explosive red and dark berry fruit mixed with a kaleidoscopic array of spices.  Let’s call it spice rack.  Silky with really nice persistence on the finish, freshness melded with power.

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And now on to the full assemblage sample:

2015 Chateau Rauzan Segla
-The nose is tight and focused with blue/purple fruit (blueberries and blackcurrants).  Powerful and structured on the palate.  Linear and medium to full bodied.  Great freshness on the end.  This is a firm and serious Rauzan Segla that is more masculine than usual.  Very reminiscent of the excellent 2005.

Leaving Rauzan Segla we head to Chateau Margaux, the legendary First Growth.  This is a bittersweet vintage at the property as longtime Director Paul Pontallier just recently passed away in March at the age of 59 after a battle with cancer.  Before he passed, Paul was able to see the birth of the 2015 which looks to be very special indeed.

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2015 Chateau Margaux
-A gorgeous perfume of red fruit and milk chocolate, fine polished leather and blackberry leaf.  The texture is pure cashmere on the effortless entry.  This is absolutely seamless with beautiful, generous volume and expert balance.  Ripe and soft with very fine tannins.  Deep flavors, the spicy Cabernet character comes through more on the palate.  This is so integrated that you want to drink it already.  Extraordinarily elegant, an understated freshness carries through on the long finish.  Beautiful and pure.

I’ve been lucky enough to have tried all of the greatest modern vintages of Margaux and I think this may just be their best ever.  Talk about starting the trip off with a bang.  This is going to be very hard to beat, we’re only on our second stop and this is clearly a top candidate for wine of the vintage.

Presenting the wine is Paul’s son Thibault Pontallier.  Thibault remarks that his father described the infant 2015 as a mix of the ripeness of 2009 and the power of 2010 with the elegance of 2005.  In this vintage it seems you really can have it all.

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After leaving Margaux we head to some other top properties in Margaux and Pessac-Leognan.  Highlights of the afternoon’s tastings:

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2015 Chateau Palmer
-Lots of blackberry leaf and white mineral, this is somewhat closed on the nose today.  But the palate displays a towering frame.  This is extremely muscular and will be long lived.  There’s a strong vein of minerality underpinning the fruit here.  An intellectual Palmer that really shows more Cabernet character than usual.  I’d imagine that this will be compared to the 2010 for years as they’re rather similar in character, a true vin de garde with a 40-50 year lifespan easily.

2015 Chateau Giscours
-70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot.  Deep, dark blackcurrant fruit on the nose, almost crème de cassis.  Beautifully ripe and very pure with excellent volume.  All of this gorgeous fruit is wrapped up in a perfectly proportioned frame with soft gossamer tannins…very precise, like a tailored suit.  Wow.  What a stunning Giscours.  This is without a doubt the finest wine I’ve ever tasted from this property.  This should be one of the top values of the vintage.

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2015 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc
-Massive but with good precision, this shows notes of lemon, coconut and white mineral.  Fairly exotic without going in too tropical a direction.  There’s a lot of fruit on the palate but it’s nicely balanced.  This is soft, ripe and agreeable, and while it lacks the power of a great vintage, this is very well made and should drink deliciously on release.

2015 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge
-This has a big, broad, polished dark fruit nose that’s just ravishing.  Extremely ripe on the attack, but it’s packed with tannin and acid too.  A very forward, modern style this year but the quality of the terroir comes through clearly.  Somewhat atypical for the vintage, this is almost as big and fruit forward as their 100 point 2009.  To quote Spinal Tap, “this one goes to eleven.”