Second in a four-part series
The third morning of my 2009 vintage tasting tour found me in Pessac-Leognan, a sub-appellation created in 1987 from the larger Graves region.
Pessac-Leognan and Graves are on the Left Bank of the Gironde River, but far removed from the other major appellations, St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, and Margaux. Adjacent to the city of Bordeaux, Pessac-Leognan and Graves can produce magnificent red wines, and unlike the four northern appellations, stunning white wines, too.
It is the home of Chateau Haut-Brion, one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines and a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Across the street from Haut-Brion is Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, both owned by the heirs of the American financier, Clarence Dillon. Many Bordeaux connoisseurs consider La Mission to be Haut-Brion’s equal and the auction market prices them nearly the same.
Pessac-Leognan red wines are primarily cabernet sauvignon blended with merlot, and smaller amounts of petit verdot, cabernet franc, or malbec. The whites are a blend of semillon, sauvignon blanc, and at times muscadelle.
In 1959, the wines from Graves were classified into two groups, the higher being Cru Classe, and when the Pessac-Leognan appellation was created in 1987, this classification remained. There are 13 red and nine dry white wines classified Cru Classe. Chateau Haut-Brion retains its 1855 classification, Premier Cru Classe.
In the afternoon, I visited Ch. La Mission Haut-Brion where I tasted it and Ch. Haut-Brion as well as their second wines, La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion and Le Clarence de Haut-Brion. My blind tasting included reds and whites throughout the classification.
Here is what my palate discerned starting with the reds.
Extraordinary: Ch. Haut-Brion’s mix of blackberry, black liquorice and touch of black pepper aroma is matched by the mouth-filling black fruit, elegant texture, and full-bodied cabernet sauvignon structure. It’s Bordeaux meets Napa in a glass. La Mission Haut-Brion is just as thrilling: great complexity in the nose and on the palate, wonderful rich fruit aromas and flavors, perfectly balanced. A muscular wine.
Excellent: Ch.Gazin-Rocquencourt, Ch. Brown, Ch. Haut-Plantade, Ch. Haut-Vigneau, Ch. Baret, Ch. Mirebeau, Ch. Leognan, Ch. de Cruzeau, Ch. La Louviere, Ch. de Rochemorin, Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, and La Chapelle de La Mission-Haut-Brion have ripe blackberry and black cherry aromas and rich flavors with integrated tannins, and a long, balanced finish. The Cru Classe wines Ch. de Fieuzal, Ch. de Chevalier, Ch. Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Ch. Haut-Bailly, Ch. Latour-Martillac, Ch. Olivier, Ch. Pape-Clement, and Ch. Malartic-Lagraviere have an added layer of toasted oak, smoky accents and bigger body.
Very Good: Ch.Bardins, Ch de Rouillac, Ch. Baulos-Charmes, Ch.Sequin, Ch.Luchey-Halde, Ch. Pont-St.-Martin, Clos Marsalette, Ch. de France, Ch. Larrivet-Haut-Brion, Ch. Lafargue, Ch. La Garde, Ch. Mancedre, Ch. Roche-Lalande, and the Cru Classe Ch. Bouscaut are populated by black cherry and cherry aromas and flavors, and are medium-bodied and balanced. Tasty and juicy are two reoccurring notes. Some will reach excellence after their barrel aging regime.
Good: There are two styles in this category: First, there are wines with cherry aromas and flavors, a slightly diluted sensation and short finish like Ch. Cantelys, Ch. Picque Caillou, Ch. Jaulien, Ch. Haut-Nouchet, Ch. de Malleprat, and Ch. Le Sartre. Then there are wines with better fruit quality and body but with aggressive tannins in the finish like Ch. Les Carmes-Haut-Brion, Ch. Couhins-Lurton, and Ch. d’Eyran. The tannins should mellow and merge with the wine during the barrel aging, causing the rating to rise.
As enticing as the reds are in Pessac-Leognan, the whites are magnetic. All but one of the 34 white wines I tasted ranked very good or higher. The exception was removed from the tasting because its composition was at odds with the profile of 2009.
Consumers used to drinking New World white wines are in for a revelation when tasting the pure fruit flavors, perfect balance of fruit and acidity, and the long, pleasant, tasty finish of the 2009 white wines. The immediate pleasures are so compelling that many will never age these wines. Buy some for drinking over the next few years and the best for cellaring until 2015.
Extraordinary: Ch. Haut-Brion is 38 percent semillon, 62 percent sauvignon blanc, and 100 percent pleasure. With elegant lemon-lime aroma and flavor, it fills the mouth and coats the palate with ripe fruit. Ch. La Mission Haut-Brion’s blend of 84 percent semillon and 16 percent sauvignon blanc explodes with lemon thyme aroma, and the lemon-lime flavor inhabits every part of the mouth. Both are perfectly balance and unforgettable.
Excellent: Ch.Bardins, Ch.de Rouillac, Ch. Luchey-Halde, Clos Marsalette, Ch. Ferran, Ch. Larrivet-Haut-Brion; Ch. Haut-Plantade, Ch. Baret, Ch. Lafarque, Ch. de Cruzeau, Ch. La Louviere, Ch. Haut-Nouchet, Ch. de Malleprat, Ch. La Garde, Ch. Le Sartre, and La Clarte de Haut-Brion, a second wine blended from La Mission-Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion wines, plus Cru Classe wines Ch.de Chevalier, Ch. Couhins-Lurton, Ch. Latour-Martillac, Ch. Bouscaut, Ch. Olivier, Ch. Malartic-Lagraviere have combinations of tropical fruit aromas, and flavors like guava, grapefruit and pineapple are interspersed with lemon, lime, and pear. Each has pitch-perfect fruit and acidity, a long finish, and excellent aging potential. Buy a case and age half of it.
Very Good: Ch.Cantelys, Ch.de France, Ch.Brown, Ch.Haut-Bergey, Ch.Mirebeau, Ch.de Rochemorin, Ch.de Fieuzal, Ch.Pape-Clement, and Ch. Smith-Haut-Lafitte have delicious fruit flavors and good acidity, but the oak is too noticeable or the taste of alcohol diminishes the overall pleasure. That said, New World wine drinkers might find that this is what the doctor ordered.
Next week: I will rank the 2009 vintage on the Left Bank and venture to the Right Bank for a tasting in the Pomerol appellation.