The 260 crus bourgeois are a natural hunting ground for those who can’t afford the high prices that 2010 commands among the Médoc classed growths, says Jane Anson...
The architect’s vintage: 2010. Physical wines with angles, depth, length and width, packed with the Bordeaux holy trinity of tannins, fruit and acidity.
At least, that’s the theory. Many wines had been challenging en primeur for precisely those reasons – this was a big vintage that suited estates that were willing to take a chance on the brilliant raw materials that nature had provided, but many wines were going to need time and patience to grow into themselves.
All grape varieties reached excellent maturity, meaning both Left and Right Bank gave great wines, but the long growing season seemed particularly to suit Cabernet Sauvignon, with many estates putting record percentages of the grape in their blend.
There were some problems in the growing season that might have affected some of the wines in our tasting, despite the scientific analyses looking nearly perfect.
Chief among these was coulure (poor berry set) during flowering, water stress and excessive heat, which in some cases led to vines shutting down and stopping photosynthesis and prevented ripening. Many young vines suffered so much that the best estates simply declassified their wine – one of the reasons that quantities were on average between 10% and 30% down from 2009.
All of which should benefit the crus bourgeois of the Médoc. Retasting them two years on, now that they are in bottle and trickling out on to the market, should be an enjoyable experience.
Some 260 châteaux were included in the cru bourgeois selection for the 2010 vintage, the third year of the new system. In 2009 there were 246, which suggests that the quality of 2010 surpassed even that of 2009.
Open to all eight Médoc appellations – 4,400 hectares of vines in ACs Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac and St-Estèphe – the judging takes place two years after the vintage. This 2010 selection was announced in September 2012. All wines are tasted blind for the annual selection, and châteaux must also follow a quality charter to be eligible for submission to the tasting.
There is one compelling reason for buying crus bourgeois this year: prices of the 2010 Médoc classed growths went through the roof, and even with recent price drops are still often significantly higher than they would have been a few years ago. This gives a window of opportunity for the crus bourgeois – and indeed for us.
There are hesitations, however. Things haven’t always been easy for the cru bourgeois – the association is still trying to attract back those big-name châteaux (mainly the former exceptionnels and supérieurs) which chose not to join the new system, and there is a distinct lack of estates in some of the more prestigious appellations (just five in Pauillac and none in St-Julien).
Nevertheless, the association offers a worthwhile way to make sense of the many smaller châteaux outside of the 1855 classification, and the name ‘cru bourgeois’ should provide a reliable signpost for buyers.
166 wines tasted
Highly recommended 14
Overall the panel was impressed: the tasting definitely delivered what they expected. Stephen Brook summed it up perfectly: ‘It demonstrated that 2010 is a seriously good vintage. It was a cool year, so producers had to wait for the acidities to drop, which meant the grapes had sugar ripeness combined with pretty high acidity and high tannins.’
Steven Spurrier added: ‘I think consumers should be really happy with this vintage; it’s a classic Médoc year and the wines overall showed extremely well.’
Though there were no outstanding wines, an amazing 92% were recommended. As Ronan Sayburn MS explained: ‘I can’t say I was surprised by the outcome. We didn’t have any superstars, but we didn’t have any rubbish either; it was all in the middle band where it should be.’
Margaux and Haut-Médoc were the two clear favourites. ‘Sleek’, ‘elegant’, ‘charming’, ‘delightful’, were words used to describe Margaux. As the panel expected, Haut-Médoc was also a good performer; Spurrier explained that ‘the wines had more class, better grip and more length’ than those from the Médoc.
St-Estèphe drew mixed opinions. Brook found them difficult to taste: ‘They had meatier, much tougher tannins and some wines were too extracted.’
Spurrier, however, argued that ‘this vintage probably favoured the north, because the northern vineyards had to hang on to ripen the grapes. Sure, they are tough and a bit leathery, but really quite impressive.’ Sayburn felt the wines were typically St-Estèphe: ‘I found them a little bit rustic, heavy and quite full-bodied, but they are wines that need to be looked at in context and served with the correct food.’
Médoc, the largest of the communes, did surprise our panel. Spurrier commented that ‘Médoc, being so far north, can struggle to get the ripeness but with a little bit of global warming, a little bit of modernity, those wines were really nice.’
Brook agreed: ‘Médoc is such a huge area that it’s difficult to generalise, but the wines had freshness rather than depth; I was expecting some herbaceous wines but I was very pleasantly surprised.’
Moulis also impressed, said Brook: ‘The wines were suave; they were powerful, well-made and polished’. Listrac didn’t charm so much, and lacked consistency. Spurrier had been thinking that Listrac was catching up with Moulis, ‘but in this tasting that didn’t show. They were very Listrac in the sense that they were a bit tough’.
The panel was unanimous: these wines offer excellent value for money for mid-term drinking. ‘With a few exceptions, we are looking at £15–£20, and as long as consumers pick carefully and follow our recommendations, there are some very good wines there,’ said Brook. ‘I didn’t note any of them as improving for more than 10 years, but the best of them will keep for much longer than that. But I think most people would want to drink them within seven to 10 years.’
What about the value of cru bourgeois as a classification?
Sayburn believes it’s good for consumers because it’s ‘above the run-of-the-mill Bordeaux and under the classed growths; it’s where a lot of exciting things are happening in Bordeaux.’ That ‘cru bourgeois’ is now a seal of approval given every year explains the paucity of bad wines. ‘The problem’, said Brook, ‘is that the list is going to change every year: that’s confusing for consumers.’
Spurrier agreed: ‘In my view, crus bourgeois has lost its validity as a classification. It’s now just a rubber stamp.’
In theory, the Médoc crus bourgeois should have been perfectly placed to take advantage of 2010, because the vintage meant rich tannins and well-ripened fruit flavours, together with the shot of acidity that Cabernet Sauvignon responds to so well. It’s worth remembering that most of these are recently bottled, and that such a big vintage is inevitably going through a ‘dumb’ phase, when the wines close down for a few years, before tannins soften and the wines start to reach their potential.
But we might still expect to have seen at least one or two Outstanding wines. And of the 14 wines rated Highly Recommended (out of a tasting of 166), only La Fleur Peyrabon, Les Ormes de Pez, Belle-Vue, Mongravey and Caronne-Ste-Gemme can be said to be big names with a consistent track record. By appellation, just one Margaux and one Pauillac were awarded the highest scores.
Special mention should go to Château St-Aubin and Château de Panigon – both AC Médocs that were extremely impressive. The most lauded wine of the tasting, Château Larose Perganson, is a great buy at £18–£20. With vines next door to Château Batailley, and certain plots of Ducru-Beaucaillou, this offers serious Haut-Médoc pleasure and should last for at least the next decade, if not longer.
Château Belle-Vue tops our 30 marked ‘good value’ wines for £13 and under; the most expensive wine, Château Phélan-Ségur from St-Estèphe at £30–£37, scoring almost two full points lower, seems a stretch in comparison.
With St-Estèphe estates on both the Recommended and Fair lists, it may be that they suffered in 2010 – as some big names in St-Estèphe did – from severe water stress and coulure. The third growth Calon-Ségur, for example, made a wonderful wine in 2010 in tiny quantities, but it may be that the neighbouring St-Estèphe estates didn’t have the financial means to select so drastically.
Other big names – Potensac, Le Boscq, Lilian Ladouys, Fonréaud, Château de Pez and more – made it to the Recommended list. There were many well-performing wines that would not disappoint upon opening and which offer an affordable way in to 2010. But this tasting seems to underline that the association, for all its achievements, is missing its former star players.
Top crus bourgeois 2010 wines from the panel tasting:
Published in the February 2013 issue of Decanter magazine