The circus is in town and so are BI. A straightforward journey, a thoroughly pleasant dinner (washed down with a pair of fine magnums – VCC 2001 and Montrose 2000 battling it out for supremacy was quite the thing to behold) and a half-decent sleep later and we’re up in the Medoc ready to get our taste on.
It’s a stunning morning, the mist lifting slowly off the vineyards as the sun warms the earth, dew still caught on the training wires, winking like strung fairy lights. An auspicious start to the week.
Whilst we never rush to judgment on a new vintage, it would be remiss to suggest that we were not excited about tasting the 2016s. The weather conditions throughout the growing season were extremely favourable and as a result the technical makeup of the wines is comparable to some of the very best vintages of the past few decades. Alcohol levels are relatively low, as are pH levels, which should make for wines with that essential claret freshness and digestibility. In addition, the long growing season and relaxed, pick-when-you-like harvest should impart rich fruit flavours and ripe, supple tannins. All this, combined with a rediscovered willingness to make wines that are above all elegant and expressive, rather than concentrated and powerful (a very welcome trend in our book) had our mouths watering.
In a break with tradition we started the day at Gruaud Larose before moving on to our usual starting post at Beychevelle. The Gruaud certainly set the tone for the day with fabulous perfume, elegance and restraint on the palate and very fine harmony and balance. The signs continued to look good.
The first real ‘Oh, wow’ moment of the day came at Leoville Las Cases, where another superb set of wines have been fashioned including one of the great Clos du Marquis – certainly among the very best we have tasted. The Grand Vin of Las Cases is something special again though this year. Effortless and pure, it speaks of the vineyard in hushed but confident tones. Poyferre was another beauty, as was Ducru, and as the sun continued to chase away the mist, the day took shape as one to remember. And boy did it live up to this early promise when we hit Lafite…
2016 is quite simply one of the all-time great Lafites. Make no bones about it - to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up. A triumph of focus, purity, expression, athletic energy and pure, pure class, it was simply on another level – like Federer in his pomp – just imperious!
The standard remained high through the wild, exciting, iconoclastic ride that is Pontet Canet, into the brooding power of Pichon Baron and the crowd-pleasing beauty of Grand Puy Lacoste – surely the ultimate eager-to-please Labrador of Bordeaux.
What we were noticing along the way, through this myriad of house styles and terroirs, was that each wine seemed extremely comfortable in its own skin; nothing felt forced, overworked, even overthought. And that is not to say that no effort has gone into their creation – it’s worth remembering that whilst you can’t make a good wine with bad grapes, you can definitely mess up a wine even if you’ve started with good ones – it’s just that you feel each wine has been carefully raised rather than ‘made’; this is elevage in the truest sense of the word.
We finished the afternoon session with three absolute knock-outs, wines which we will never forget our first encounter with.
Latour, which of course you cannot buy until it is deemed ready for release (which could take upwards of 7 years), was mesmeric in its ease of expression and purity. Our own confessed Latour-o-phile David Thomas pointed out ‘it’s pretty boring coming here year after year and telling you how good your wines are – but there doesn’t seem to be a lot we can do about it’.
Then perhaps the biggest surprise package of the day came in the shape of Pichon Lalande. This is a modern-day 1996, or even 1982 – a stunning, velveteen temptress with clarity, precision and focus, and yet with an indulgent, sumptuous side. This will be one of the all-time greats of the Lalande canon.
Finally, it was Mouton and its cohort, and as per usual, they did not disappoint. Perhaps the finest examples of d’Armailhac, Clerc Milon and Petit Mouton to date preceded a Mouton of such majesty and opulence that it almost took the breath away. Astonishing, and arguably another example of the ‘modern-day 1982’ phenomenon.
What to do when you might have had too much of a good thing? Well, go for more obviously. And so supper at Chateau Margaux was the only way to end an astonishing first day. Before dining, we headed up into the beautiful tasting room in the new winery to experience the 2016s – and in the first instance we had to check that they had not poured the wrong wine to start with, such was the aromatic splendour of the 2016 Pavillon Rouge. This was arguably the greatest PR to date and we were reminded of how, in the 2014 vintage, the late, great Paul Pontallier told us that he believed the modern Pavillon Rouge could eclipse vintages of the Grand Vin from 20+ years back. The evidence here suggested he was spot on.
However it was the Grand Vin that shook the room. Unbelievable aromatics – such purity of Cabernet fruit and astonishing perfumes – aligned with a palate of effortless beauty and supple, vibrant femininity. It is unquestionably a masterpiece and quite the entrance for the new(ish) man at the helm Philippe Bascaules.
’95 and ’85 Margaux at dinner showed us exactly what these young wines have to aspire to and set a suitably high bar. What a first day – and there are three more to come, with hundreds more wines to meet for the first time. Bring it on.