There are excellent wines to be found, especially from this powerful vintage, says James Lawther MW...
St-Emilion spans 5,400 hectares under production, of which 4,000ha is the superior appellation St-Emilion Grand Cru. It is from within this denomination that the classified wines emerge, a revision of the classification that was first instigated in 1955, taking place theoretically every 10 years. This adjudges a two-tier hierarchy, Premier Grand Cru Classé (1GCC) and subordinate Grand Cru Classé (GCC).
The châteaux in our 2010 tasting were ostensibly classified in 2006. I use the word ‘ostensibly’ as the 2006 classification had a turbulent history. In short, a number of châteaux that were declassified in this edition challenged the decision. A legal wrangle ensued which eventually led to the classification being declared invalid.
A compromise was then reached. The demoted châteaux were allowed to keep their classification, as were the eight newly promoted châteaux from the 2006 edition. This version has now been superseded by the 2012 classification, determined by a different set of rules. But another lawsuit from disgruntled estates is pending, so watch this space.
Exasperated consumers may be tempted to say ‘who cares’, as the infighting has clearly piled confusion on confusion. But the classification does remain a motivating force for producers and, on the whole, tends to highlight the movers and shakers in St-Emilion, not least those that have joined or moved within the classification in the past 15 years.
There may be objections to style or the quality aspect of certain terroirs but in a region that boasts almost 1,000 producers, it still offers a reference to what is best.
The 2010 vintage was one born of extreme conditions, the resulting wines robust, powerful and concentrated. Producers were initially embarrassed to admit that they could be as good as their ’09s but now in confidence often say they are better. A certainty is that they are different. If the 2009s have an opulence and accessibility, the ’10s are more forceful and tannic and need more time to mature.
The climatic context that set a stamp on the style was the drought that prevailed. Fortunately, winter rain topped up water tables as thereafter, apart from rain in March and a wet June, conditions remained dry for the rest of the vineyard year, July and August even drier than in 2005.
The summer months were also hot but never extreme so the vines did not shut down. Finally, cooler evening temperatures in August and September helped produce higher acidities, another hallmark of the vintage.
The result was high sugars which have given rich wines high in alcohol, particularly but not exclusively on the Right Bank where the Merlots (60% of plantings in St-Emilion) are mainly 14% or more. Luckily, this has been offset by the aforementioned high acidities which lend balance.
Colours are deep and tannins strong and forceful. The later-picked Cabernet Franc (30% of plantings) was ripe and aromatic and a useful component for blending. The nearest comparison in vintage style is probably 2005.
Release prices were generally high, 10% to 20% more than the 2009s in some cases, so despite the quality factor it is hard to see 2010 as good value. Investors will need to play for the long term and for drinkers the best advice is shop around for châteaux that have been sensible on price.
These structured, ageworthy wines pleased our judges on the whole, but they criticised the high oak, extraction and alcohols in many examples, which masked their vineyard character. Nevertheless, two wines were awarded Outstanding and 17 wines Highly Recommended.
58 wines tasted
Highly recommended 17
These structured, ageworthy wines pleased our judges on the whole, but they criticised the high oak, extraction and alcohols in many examples, which masked their vineyard character. Tina Gellie reports…
‘Extraction’ was the buzzword of this tasting, with our experts impressed by the wines but not as much as they had been for the 2010 Pomerols or, unsurprisingly, the 2009 St-Emilions, which are far more opulent and accessible than this structured vintage.
Stephen Brook registered his ‘slight’ disappointment: ‘Some of the tannins were ferociously tannic and really extracted and I don’t think that’s necessary in a vintage like 2010. Yes, with high sugars and high alcohols you’re going to extract more than you would in a milder vintage. But even so a lot of the wines seemed overdone and that’s down to winemaker choice, not vintage character.’
‘Errors’ were made in extraction and alcohol, agreed James Lawther MW. ‘People have reined in overextracting but where they still err, as they have in 2010, is by adding too much new oak to a wine that is already very ripe and has high alcohol. In the better wines there was plenty of fruit extract but not that dominance, harshness or dryness that comes with new oak and high alcohol.’
Brook also felt the oak was ‘excessively noticeable’, and while it may settle in some wines, ‘others will never lose that woodiness’.
Steven Spurrier, by contrast, was ‘impressed’ by the extraction, although he concurred there were a few overblown examples. His gripe was that terroir was not often well expressed. ‘2010 is a great vintage in St-Emilion but too many producers were going with the flow. They had the ripeness, richness, alcohol and extraction but not the vineyard identity. In the best wines this sang out and it was fantastic, but it should have been obvious in more.’
Brook agreed there was a lot of ‘sameness’ in the wines, which he put down to extraction but also a lack of acidity. He was surprised at the lack of ‘freshness, tautness and raciness’, which was more evident in the Pomerol 2010s. ‘You want lushness from Merlot, the dominant grape in St-Emilion, but many were soft and lacklustre without any acidic backbone.
Maybe it’s because of that, their youth, or that my palate was numbed by all the tannin and alcohol, but I wasn’t getting a lot of individuality.’ Spurrier made the point that Cabernet Franc was key in a ripe vintage, as it brought freshness, fragrance and elegance to counter the ripe, rich Merlot.
When comparing the 46 grands crus classés (GCC) and 12 premiers grands crus classés (1GCC) entered, our judges found a real step up in quality. ‘The GCCs showed how varied they all are, both stylistically and in the winemaking. The 1GCCs were more uniform and impressive across the range,’ explained Lawther.
Brook said he didn’t necessarily like all the 1GCCs, but ‘you just get a level of finesse, polish and balance that you don’t find so often in the GCCs’. The tasters agreed that the 1GCCs that didn’t score so highly were trying too hard. ‘They had too much sugar, were overripe and therefore noticeably alcoholic, which is not my idea of Bordeaux – we’re not in Napa Valley here!’ rallied Brook.
Lawther said the 2010s had great potential and while all would cellar well for 10 years, the best would improve over 20 years or more. ‘Wines come on the shelves much earlier than they used to and there’s pressure to drink them, but this is a structured, ageworthy vintage.’ Brook agreed, though said those wines with too much extraction ‘may collapse after 10 years’.
Our experts said the small quantities produced and the St-Emilion name itself meant prices would not be low, but that GCC wines at £25–£30 represented a good-value buy.
Expert summary: James Lawther MW
This is a vintage for the long haul, so while powerful tannins and alcohols often masked the fruit in these young 2010s, time should improve many of them.
With the reputation of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux running high, expectations prior to this tasting were equally keen. Could the wines match the standing of the year? The answer was yes, but not as resoundingly as expected.
These are powerful wines with impressive fruit concentration, high alcohols and naturally muscular tannins. The power occasionally overshadowed the fruit while over-extraction and over–ripeness surfaced, as did the use of too much new oak. But I’m happy to believe that some of the wines will settle and, over time, show better than they did for us. This is a vintage for the long haul.
The grands crus classés (GCCs) offered their usual eclectic view of St-Emilion, with a variety of styles and terroirs. The latter was perhaps less in evidence except among some of the limestone- (and clay-) based crus like La Clotte, Berliquet, Laroque, Balastard La Tonnelle and Le Prieuré where the terroir was manifest, offering minerally freshness and balance. This was welcome, given the fact that heightened acidities (one of the hallmarks of 2010 and a foil for high alcohol) were less marked than expected.
On the whole, though, and whatever the terroir, the panel has clearly rewarded wines that showed freshness and balance as well as generous fruit, whether they be of a powerful or more tempered style. The quiet achievers like Corbin, Dassault, Grand Corbin-Despagne and Faurie de Souchard have been justly compensated (they are also some of the best-value GCCs), while there were surprises from Couvent des Jacobins and Yon-Figeac. Denis Dubourdieu consults to both so perhaps that’s the reason?
The disappointments would have to include Larcis Ducasse, but I think in time this is one of those powerful wines that will show in a more favourable light. Those that were more heavily sanctioned either showed a note of green or an excess of winemaking and extraction.
With eight out of 12 wines Highly Recommended or Outstanding, the 1GCCs demonstrated their class. Those that missed out did so by a small margin. Clos Fourtet’s track record suggests it should have rated higher as indeed does Cheval Blanc’s, but in this case the judges’ scores were unanimous so there’s no explanation other than a subdued showing at the tasting. Figeac’s success is one in the eye for the new 2012 classification which refused it promotion to 1GCCA status.
Top St-Emilion 2010 wines from the panel tasting:
Published in the November 2013 issue of Decanter magazine