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Bordeaux’s Graves region Oversight

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.

The Graves region 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 the Graves region, in and around the city of Bordeaux.

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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).

2006 ****

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 Carbonnieux.

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2005 *****

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.

2004 ****

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 earlier ripening 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 Malartic-Lagravière.

2003 **

This was not a great year for the Graves region. The vineyards of the Graves region 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.

2002 **

Climatic conditions again made for another difficult year for the Graves region. 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.

2001 ***

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.

2000 *****

This is a great vintage in the northern Graves region, 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. Drink 2009–20. 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.

1999 **

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.

1998 ****

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.

1997 *

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.

1996 ***

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.

1995 ***

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.

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