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BFWE 2012: Chateau Gruaud-Larose masterclass

Just over 20 years of Chateau Gruaud Larose – from 1989 to 2010 – not only enchanted the palates of Bordeaux lovers at Decanter's Great Bordeaux Fine Wine Encounter masterclass, but also reflected profound transitions at this venerable second growth, one of the most famous of St Julien. By Panos Kakaviatos

Its 82 hectares of vines surround the estate, one of the few whose terroir has not changed since the 1855 Classification. Located inward in the appellation, and known for having vines in deep gravely soils, it has gained a reputation for making large-scaled, spicy and earthy wines that can last decades – but in recent years – as the masterclass illustrated – the wine has gained in purity and in precision.

In contrast to most vertical tastings, the wines were served from oldest to youngest, as Gruaud Larose representative David Launay preferred serving the more youthfully tannic wines at the end – to respect the more delicate flavours of the older vintages. But also to illustrate a progression in quality.

From 1989 to 2010, the estate had no less than three owners. In 1989, it was still under the direction of the famous Cordier negociant company. By the time participants tasted the 1996, the chateau was three years into ownership of the fibre optic company Alcatel, which centralised vinification so that less pumping was needed to bring just fermented wines to barrels. They also increased selection in the vineyard.

“We achieved greater elegance in the wines,” Launay noted, comparing the 1996 favourably to the 1989. Indeed the 1996 seemed to possess more density on the palate, although both wines were quite aromatically pleasing with some earthiness and cigar box elements coming from the mature Cabernet Sauvignon, which dominates the blends at Gruaud Larose.

The next wine participants tasted, the 2000, was made under the current owner Jean Merlaut, whose main focus has been greater precision in the vineyard, again with even more selection, and careful canopy management and organic viticulture.

“The first thing he did was to ban the chemicals,” Launay said. Most recently, the estate is using a seaweed-based product to naturally stimulate the self-defence of the vines that can help with flowering, Launay explained. “You can come and see for yourself, because in the spring the leaves may be in bad shape in some vineyards when the weather is more challenging, but the leaves are smiling in the spring at Gruaud.”

No worries about weather issues for the 2000 vintage: “We were able to extract more without losing balance, employing very long macerations; it was a great year,” Launay said. Indeed, the wine showed greater polish and opulence than the two preceding vintages, but fine precision – a clear progression.

The 2001, a more difficult vintage, still proved tasty, with a higher percentage of Merlot than is normal for Gruaud Larose, reaching 30%. Launay explained that the 2001 is more approachable now with greater Merlot-driven warmth. Still, the tannins were just a touch harder than those in the 2000.

Then came the exceptional vintage 2005: somewhat medium-bodied and subtle for the vintage. It conveyed contained power, to be sure, but perhaps not as large scaled or foreboding (from the tannin) as one might imagine from this vintage… Still, it was very clean and pure.

The 2006 suffered in terms of following the more media-grabbing headlines of the 2005, Launay said. But 2006 may be among the most powerful of all the wines at the tasting, he added, which included the 2009 and 2010. It certainly conveyed freshness, coming no doubt from the 11% Cabernet Franc, a very high percentage for this estate.

What proved most interesting was the 2007 – which ushered in yet another era at Gruaud Larose. Georges Pauil, who had been winemaking director since 1968, retired in 2006. His replacement was none other than Eric and Olivier Boissenot the famous – and famously discrete – father and son wine consulting team based in the Medoc. They use more press wine to better adjust concentration levels, explained Launay, and they emphasize greater elegance in winemaking, so that 2007 is one of the “greatest successes at Gruaud,” Launay exclaimed. I could not agree more: the wine is smooth and refined, without any hard or green aspects on the finish that characterize some 2007s.

The 2008 was more closed down, owing to the timing no doubt, although it seems to have more body than the 2007, albeit not quite as elegant.  

Launay also explained why the estate decided in recent years not to use Malbec in the first wine, because vines had been planted in areas that were far more suitable to Cabernet Sauvignon. He also explained why Petit Verdot is so important to the blend at Gruaud Larose, comparing it to the strong potion used by the fictional French character Asterix: it gives the wine power and muscle and complexity.

The last two wines were perhaps the two most appealing overall: an utterly seductive 2009 and a forebodingly classic yet rich 2010. “Probably the best vintages ever produced at Gruaud,” Launay said.

Decanter subscriber and masterclass participant Ian Newbury picked the 2010 as his favourite and recognised the progression in quality in this tasting: “I liked the older wines but some of the newer wines are going to surpass them as they age,” he said. “It was a fantastic event, just to understand what happens to a wine throughout its lifetime.”

Other masterclass reports:
Chateau Lynch Bages – Jean-Charles Cazes
Legendary wines from Pessac-Leognan – Olivier Bernard and Laurent Cogombles

Decanter’s Discovery Theatre seminar report:
Chateau Suduiraut and Chateau Coutet – Pierre Montegut and Aline Baly

Decanter’s Great Bordeaux Fine Wine Encounter: the day in pictures

Written by Panos Kakaviatos

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