This is the third report in a series on the acclaimed 2015 Bordeaux wines, in which we now move right (bank) to St. Emilion. The appellation’s pyramid-shaped classification system has three levels with Premier Grand Cru Classe at the top, followed by Grand Cru Classe, and Grand Cru at the base. In 2015, however, from bottom to top, all the wines I tasted were stars.
The 2015 rains that were problematic for the northern appellations of Pauillac, St. Estephe and beyond, were less so in St. Emilion and neighboring Pomerol. And the Premier Grand Cru Classe vineyards on St. Emilion’s limestone plateau did especially well. At the conclusion of my tasting of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux it was clear that the Right Bank vineyards (St. Emilion and Pomerol) made the best wines that year. On the Left Bank, Margaux has been acclaimed by some critics and publications as their equal but I think not. On that side of the Gironde River, I preferred the wines of Pessac-Leognan.
Pricing is an individual issue. Based on my experience with collecting Bordeaux, I anticipate finding many good values in the smaller appellations adjacent to St. Emilion—referred colloquially as “satellites”—and Pomerol’s nearby Lalande de Pomerol appellation. Keep an eye out for that report.
Like Pomerol, St. Emilion is weighted to merlot and cabernet franc. But there are top chateaus in St. Emilion where cabernet sauvignon plays a supporting role. And three—Cheval Blanc, Figeac and Angelus—use this grape in nearly equal portion with cabernet franc.
Premier Grand Cru Classe:
Ch. Canon: This has been one of my favorite chateaus since the late 1980s under its former owner, the Fournier family, as well as the ownership since 1996, the Wertheimer brothers (their fortune is scented with its ownership of Chanel perfume).
Audebert, the former wine director of Argentina’s Cheval des Andes winery, was hired in 2014. The 2015 wine was his first vintage and it was outstanding.
Audebert produced a wine with deep red color, and black cherry, red plum, and hyacinth aromas that are immensely appealing. Its ripe blackberry and red fruit flavors are bound with silky tannins and St. Emilion’s limestone minerality. The biggest challenge wine collectors will have with this is not drinking it immediately. It will be a stunning wine for decades. 96 points. $294-$350.
Ch. Beau-Sejour Becot: Owned by the Becot family and now under the direction of 40-year-old Juliette Becot. Merlot occupies nearly three-quarters of the vineyard, with cabernet franc standing second. Cabernet sauvignon is limited to six percent.
The wine is blackish red, and scented with black fruit, toasted oak and black tea. Ripe blackberry flavor is laced with a vanilla-oak taste that glides on plush tannins. The intensity of the wine is balanced by the mineral backbone from the limestone soil that the vines’ roots call home. One of the best wines in the tasting and always one of the most reasonably priced of the Premier Grand Cru Classes chateaus. 95 points. $67 to $90—great value for this level. Best Buy.
Ch. Canon-La-Gaffeliere: Purchased by German Count Joseph Hubert von Neipperg in 1971, this recently promoted 1er Grand Cru Classe winery is owned by his son Stephan von Neipperg. As diligent as he is dapper, von Neipperg’s meticulous work elevated not only Canon-La-Gaffeliere in 2012, but one of his other St. Emilion estates, La Mondotte to 1er Grand Cru Classe status. He also converted both to certified organic properties.
I had Canon-La-Gaffeliere on my former restaurant wine lists, and collected it since the 1990s. I thought that it was equal, and often better, than seven of the Premier Grand Cru Classe chateaus during that period (Beau-Sejour Becot, Beausejour Duffau-Lagarrosse, Canon, Trotte Vieille, La Gaffeliere, Magdelaine and Belair).
If you want to discover why, pour a glass of the black-cherry-colored, floral and red-berry scented wine. You’ll taste elegant and lively red plum and blackberry-flavored fruit that is deep without being heavy. You’ll know the wine was aged in new oak barrels, but you won’t have the overwhelming and slick vanilla accent of it. You’ll feel tannins supporting the fruit, not attacking your mouth. The flavors will linger, pleasing your palate and triggering your sensory memory. And what you’ll recall is that you wish you had another bottle in your cellar. 95 points. $75 to $116. Less than $89 represents good value in this classification.
Clos Fourtet: Another winery that occupies my cellar with vintages from the 1990s and 2000s. Planted with 83% merlot, 9% cabernet franc and 8% cabernet sauvignon and owned by the Cuvelier family, who also own Chateau Poujeaux, one of the best values in Bordeaux.
Cuvelier’s two high-profile consultants—Jean Claude Berrouet (who recently retired as the winemaker at Chateau Petrus) and Stephane Derenoncourt—produced a remarkable wine.
Its blackish-red color, with bold blackberry, black licorice and vanilla-oak aromas are surprising for a wine influenced by Berrouet—this is more Derenoncourt’s style. The ripe black-fruit flavor, vanilla coating and opulent and elegant tannins would be too New World-ish for me if it were not for the stony minerality that I discovered was a hallmark of the 2015 Premier Grand Cru Classe wines. 95 points. $97 to $160.
Ch. La Gaffeliere: Owned by the Malet-Roquefort family since the 17th century, La Gaffeliere maintained its 1er Grand Cru Classe ranking even though it was making inferior wine for most of the last quarter of the 20th century. The vineyards are planted with 75% merlot and 25% cabernet franc, and an extensive replanting program has been going on since 2000. Derenoncourt is the consultant.
Featuring a black cherry hue, this wine’s aromas and flavors are delightful: black cherry, red plum and blackberry aromas and flavors. Unlike some of the other wines, slick oak aroma or taste is not part of the mix. With more varied soil in its vineyards, the minerality is less and the fruit presence is more. 94 points. $69 to $82.
Ch. Pavie-Macquin: In 2012, this chateau was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classe. (The promotion also occurred in 2006, but that year’s reevaluation was nullified after demoted chateaus took the issue to court. That’s another article in itself.)
Derenoncourt and Nicolas Thienpont have been the wine consultants to Pavie-Macquin since 1990 and 1994, respectively. They have created a very modern—one would not be off-base to say New World—style at Pavie-Macquin. The 2015 is a demonstration of that with its blackish red color, pronounced black fruit and black-olive aromas and flavors wrapped in new oak and tied to a full body. Its tannin backbone will give it a long life, but for the present it needs a few years of cellaring to calm down and round out. 94 points. $74 to $113.
Ch. Valandraud: the story begins in 1989 when Jean-Luc Thunevin and Murielle Andraud purchased a little more than one acre near Chateau Pavie-Macquin. Over the years they bought and sold additional plots eventually buying a chateau with 25 acres on the outskirts of the St. Emilion appellation.
From the outset, they pushed the envelope in every direction. From making their wines in a garage (the “garage movement” in the 1990s with trendy over-priced, over-extracted and over-oaked wines) to charging astronomical amounts (you can do that when you have little to no inventory, so why not charge more than Chateau Petrus and First Growth Bordeaux?), to breaking viticulture regulations and having the authorities declassify your wine, which you bottle and sell under the “Bad Boy” label.
But with time Thunevin modified his behavior, and Andraud learned winemaking. But what has remained is the style: very dark, blackish red color, dark chocolate, black plum and blackberry aromas and flavors, full body, oak-influenced. The wine would not be out of place in a Napa Valley tasting. Nor would the pricing. It’s not my style, but it might be yours. 93 points. $138 to $200.
Grand Cru Classe:
La Couspaude: Owned by the Aubert family, in 1963, they began a 22-year project of replanting the vineyards and building a new winery. It culminated in 1996 with the estate being upgraded from Grand Cru to its current rank Grand Cru Classe.
The mature vineyard is 75% merlot, 20% cabernet franc and 5% cabernet sauvignon planted on the limestone plateau. In 2015, it yielded a black-cherry-colored wine with enticing ripe red fruit, floral and mild toasted-oak aromas. Black cherry, pomegranate and black tea flavors are carried on a medium body with integrated tannins and a very pleasing finish. Well made and a good example of 2015 cohesiveness in St. Emilion. 92 points. $60 to $80 (found at only two retailers in USA).
Photos by John Foy