Planning to treat yourself to a classed growth Médoc on Christmas Day? JAMES LAWTHER MW will turn instead to the better value Graves, and urges you to do the same, armed with his up-to-date vintage guide
Graves is the birthplace of Bordeaux wine, predating the Médoc by 400 years. Yet despite the headstart, the evocative name (taken from the gravelly terrain found on the fringes of the city of Bordeaux) and famous châteaux – Haut- Brion and Pape-Clément, to name but
two – its wines generally play second fiddle to those of the Médoc in today’s modern market. Is it a question of image? Both red and dry white wines are produced in the region, but since the early 1980s, the ratio of production has swung from level pegging to four to one in favour of red. The best reds come from the northern sector of Graves, in and around the city of Bordeaux.
In 1987, this zone became a separate appellation, Pessac-Léognan, named after the two principal communes. It’s here that the 16 crus classés de Graves are located, representing just under 40% of the 1,600ha (hectares) that make up the surface area of Pessac-Léognan. The classification dates from 1959 and has a slightly cobwebbed air, but it does unite a group of châteaux with pedigree and new and dynamic ownerships which have invested heavily to improve quality since the 1990s. Singularly, the châteaux have a sole grade – cru classé – and are classified for either their red or white wines, or both. Thirteen were classified for their reds in 1959 (recently reduced to 12 with the absorption of the tiny production of Château La Tour Haut- Brion into its stablemate Château La Mission Haut-Brion, from the 2006 vintage). The reason: a lack of position and identity in an already muddied marketplace. What then of the style and character of the wines? Well, these are essentially Left Bank wines, so there’s a resemblance to their Médoc cousins. Harmony and digestibility are two common factors, and aromatically there’s the same cassis, tobacco and mineral notes found in maturity. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant red variety but only just, the greater percentage of Merlot making for a broader, mellow texture which veers towards St-Emilion. Other family traits include a dry, earthy, smoky character and appetising freshness on the finish. Individually, there are subtle differences. Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, in the confines of the city, produce wines of greater intensity than the others. They have a slightly warmer micro-climate, harvest a week earlier than most, and include more than 50% of Merlot in the blend. Château Pape-Clément is unashamedly rich and extrovert; Haut-Bailly noted for its finesse. Châteaux Carbonnieux, Latour- Martillac and Domaine de Chevalier, with a good percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, have a more Médocain stamp.
Bouscaut is sweet-fruited and delicate; Smith-Haut-Lafitte concentrated and spicy; Fieuzal a little stern; and Malartic- Lagravière and Olivier (since 2004) ripe,smooth and modern in style. In terms of vintages, Graves follows the pattern of Bordeaux, in particular the Médoc, but there can be anomalies. As an earlier-ripening zone with poor, freedraining sandy-gravel soils, the heat of 2003 was not conducive to a great Graves vintage. Conversely, the earlier ripening climes and quality of Merlot worked for the Graves in 1998, making it more Right Bank oriented than Left. If you were prudent enough to have laid down some Graves in recent years, here’s how they’ll be drinking this Christmas (with the exception of the as yet unreleased 2006 and 2005).
The earlier-ripening zones like Pomerol
and Pessac-Léognan fared well, and
despite the difficulties of the year (cool,
damp August and the threat of rot) this
was a successful vintage for Graves classed
growths. The Merlot was picked at a
good level of ripeness before the
September rain could cause damage, and
the Cabernet Sauvignon concentrated in
the late-season sunshine. The wines have
a good depth of fruit, fresh acidity and
strong tannins. Drink 2012–22.
La Mission Haut-Brion was one of
the wines of the vintage. Other strong
performers include Domaine de
Chevalier, Haut-Bailly, Pape-Clément,
Smith-Haut-Lafitte and the good-value
This was the perfect vintage throughout
Bordeaux. The growing season was
exceptional and the conditions during
the harvest enabled producers to pick
grapes at will. As in other regions, Graves
produced strong, bold wines, rich and
concentrated with a firm tannic frame.
The only minimal blemish is the higher
level of alcohol. Drink 2015–25.
All performed extremely well this
year, particularly at the highest level. The
exceptional quality of Haut-Brion and
La Mission Haut-Brion has to be noted,
as well as the continued progression of
Bouscaut and Olivier.
The two pertinent factors in 2004 were a
late harvest (the latest since 1988) and
potentially high yields. The latter was
contained by crop thinning – essential at
classed growth level. After an indifferent
July and a warm, wet August, the earlierripening
Pessac-Léognan vineyards made
the most of the autumn sun, harvesting
before the rain returned on 10 October.
The wines are crisp, fresh and classic,
with a little less weight than in 2006, and
are arguably the best-value vintage on the
market today. Drink 2010–18.
A watershed vintage for Olivier, with
other fine offerings from Haut-Brion,
Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier and
This was not a great year for Graves. The
vineyards couldn’t cope with the excessive
heat (which lasted from 28 May to 28
August without abating), leading to vines
that stressed and blocked, and grapes that
shrivelled and burned. In general, the
wines have a slightly stewed fruit flavour,
low acidity and sweetness, and tough,
dry tannins. The ageing potential appears
limited, as does the value for money.
Haut-Brion manages to preserve freshness
and finesse. Drink now to 2010.
Climatic conditions again made for
another difficult year. Uneven flowering
resulted in poor and abnormal fruit set.
The summer was cold, wet and dull, and
the vintage only saved by a bout of good
weather from 10 September. A deluge of
rain then fell on 20 September as the
Merlot was being harvested, so the wines
are light and restrained with high acidity.
Drink now to 2014.
Haut-Brion, as usual, managed to
maintain consistency in an off vintage,
while Malartic-Lagravière and Pape-
Clément show good depth of fruit.
With an early climatic pattern similar to
2000 (winter rain, indifferent June and
July, and hot August) hopes were high for a similar harvest. But September was
cool, and though the Merlot was harvested
in good condition, it rained when the
Cabernet had to come in. The wines,
therefore, lack the concentration of 2000
but are bright and aromatic, with plenty
of charm and greater depth of fruit than
in 2002. Drink now to 2014.
There are lovely wines from Domaine
de Chevalier, Haut-Bailly, Pape-Clément
and Smith-Haut-Lafitte. I choose Haut-
Brion over La Mission.
This is a great vintage in northern Graves,
and fractionally better than 2005. There’s
a great purity of fruit, freshness, length
and balance, and plenty of that smoky,
minerally Graves character. However, the
early part of the year was cool and the
vintage was only saved by a run of dry,
sunny weather from 29 July to 10 October.
Among the top estates, the wines are
excellent. La Mission perhaps pips Haut-
Brion this year. Of the less fashionable
crus, Carbonnieux and Latour-Martillac
look good value.
It was a struggle in 1999. A potentially
abundant crop needed to be reduced,
particularly in light of the humid weather
in May and August which encouraged
mildew and rot. Rain then fell in
September, so the Merlot and Cabernet
never achieved full ripeness. The wines
are light in style with rather dry, angular
tannins. They are not for the long haul. Drink now to 2012.
Haut-Brion and Domaine de Chevalier both performed well.
This is usually classed a Right Bank year,
but Graves was equally successful thanks
to the quality of the Merlot. Hot, dry
weather with cool evenings in August
and early September brought it to perfect
ripeness. Rain and cool conditions then
prevailed during the Cabernet harvest.
The wines have a solid core of fruit, and
a firm, ripe tannic structure enhanced by
high acidity. They are beginning to open,
but they still have definite cellaring
potential. Drink 2008–18.
Haut-Brion is my top pick, and I also
rate Carbonnieux, Chevalier, Latour-
Martillac and Smith-Haut-Lafitte.
Forget about 1997 – the wines are either
green, past their best, or both. Even La
Mission has a distinct vegetal streak.
Haut-Brion defies the odds with a solid
depth of fruit and balance.
Pessac-Léognan received double the rain
of the Médoc between July and September
(325mm, compared with 165mm in
Pauillac), so the vintage is not as good,
although it’s still a Cabernet year. The
wines are lighter, with leafy cassis and
herbaceous notes. Drink now to 2012.
Haut-Bailly is my pick in 1996 – very
much in the mould of a top Médoc.
June to August was hot and dry but
September cool and wet, the rain falling
during the Merlot harvest. Cabernet did
a little better. There’s more depth of fruit
than in 1996, with a firm, if rustic tannic
base. Drink now to 2012. Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte made a solid wine this year.
Written by James Lawther MW