Bordeaux in the second week of June this year provided a compelling display of Atlantic moodiness. The clouds rolled in; the rain drummed down; proprietors averted their eyes as they drove past flooded rows. Between showers and a quiver of rainbows, the skies cleared to prairie width. Flowering ticked on under intermittent sunshine, rather later than the norm.
Flowering at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild
Nothing, by the way, can be read into the weather pattern thus far, other than that the vines have had an overdue spring drink: 2009 began this way. It did mean, though, that the spraying machines were out in force. “The climate of Bordeaux,” summarized Rémi Edange at Domaine de Chevalier, “is very good for three things. Finesse, elegance – and mildew.”
Was Bordeaux in chastened mood? The 2011 campaign was described to me by one château director as “a terrible failure in general: a lot of people wanted €28 a bottle without realizing that there were other vintages available at €24”. Cue not contrition, but a mass shrugging of shoulders: the money from 2009 and 2010 is in the bank; rare is the château not undertaking major cellar renovations; the lawns are mown no less geometrically than before, while the tasting rooms grow ever more exquisite. If there is a pinch out there, no classed growth appeared to be feeling it.
A week spent tasting not just 2011, but a spectrum of older vintages, set me thinking not about why anyone needs to buy the latest vintage at this early stage (they don’t), but about finesse and elegance in general, and about the role those qualities play in the minds of those entrusted with Bordeaux wine culture during our shared lifetimes. It was impossible, in the Médoc at least, to find a single wine creator who, if pressed and after all the usual qualifications, didn’t admit to preferring their 2010s to their 2009s. Why? Step forward the beloved twins: finesse and elegance.
Is this nature or nurture? You could make a case for the latter. The upper echelon of Bordeaux is the place where wine meets luxury goods; fine claret used to be more like cheese, but now seems to have more in common with perfume and designer clothes. In contrast to often showier Italian or American counterparts, finesse and elegance are two primary hallmarks of French luxury goods. The Werthheimer family own both Chanel and Rauzan-Ségla. “We try and stay as authentic and precise as possible,” says director John Kolasa, when asked about his approach to the property. “We let nature do the rest.” And then, by way of explanation: “We work for people who like elegance and finesse”.
Kolasa’s remarks, in fact, imply that nature is the primary force at work here, and that the urbane gentlemen overseeing their 1994 purchase in Margaux merely implore him not to deface nature’s handiwork by vulgar over-extraction or crass manipulation. Taste the 2011 Rauzan-Ségla, and the beloved twins are personified: a calligrapher’s brush stroke of perfumed cherry fruit, gathering energy in the mouth, subtly textured beneath, seamless to the end, and as scented in leaving as in entering. A drink of the semi-mature 2007 shows still lighter brushwork and a little less uniform ripeness, but it’s impeccably fresh and aerial: red wine as silk scarf.
Not like that on the right bank, though, is it? Well, try a bottle of Troplong-Mondot 2004 (hardly rapaciously priced). It’s exuberant and athletic; leather and cigar might be the allusions, rather than the black fruits of early youth, but this is unquestionably digestible, fresh-flavoured red wine which only the beloved twins could guide through the mouth with such poise.
Yes, but what about the riper vintages? Sorry, sorry, but you just have to try Pichon-Longueville in 2009. It’s round and enrobing, mouthfilling as only a great vintage can be, yet it’s also full of that same freshness and poise, with an architecture and resonance to its acidity which even the masterful 2010 struggles to match. Across the road, meanwhile, Pichon-Lalande 2010 is another wine in which the beloved twins are well to the fore: bright and enchanting, as much plant sap as fruit, braided and graceful, dissolving as slowly on the tongue as a contrail in the sky.
Winemaking fashions come and go. The volume swells and declines from vintage to vintage. Inexpensive Bordeaux lacks the resources to select and refine to the same extent as the great properties. All of that said, though, if you compare the mid-weight red wines made under these changeable Atlantic skies at latitude 44°50′ with those from almost anywhere else, elegance and finesse will often constitute the difference.
Written by Andrew Jefford