Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in Bordeaux: Montesquieu Winery Tastes the 2010s

May 20, 2011, by: Stephen George

Fonda and Tony Connell tasting at La Grappe

If October is the biggest month of the year for winemakers, April is the biggest month of the year for wine marketers, at least in Bordeaux.

That’s because the beginning of April is when Primeurs takes place – that critical week when Bordeaux chateaux pour barrel samples of the most recent vintage for merchants and critics to taste.  This process kicks off the “en primeur” season, during which merchants have the opportunity to purchase futures of Bordeaux, wines that are still in barrel and won’t be will be available for consumption for two or more years.  It’s important for the Bordelais, because it generates an early stream of cash; it’s important for the entire wine world, because it serves as a barometer for the global market for fine wines.

You may recall that last year, Primeurs was one of the most anticipated in a long time, with many pundits declaring that 2009 may be The Vintage of the Century.  Well guess what?  It was exactly the same this year.

Bordeaux was blessed with a beautiful growing season in 2010.  Some early rains and cold created a bit of concern, but then the region warmed up, grapes were able to ripen evenly and slowly, and harvest temperatures were perfect.  As a result, the grapes got riper than usual for the region, and once again, the Bordelais found themselves with a profound vintage on their hands.

Because 2009 was so lauded, the big question on everyone’s mind seemed to be, is 2010 as good as 2009?  Or – ghasp! – could it be even better?

We at Montesquieu Winery resolved to head to Bordeaux to find out for ourselves.  Of course tasting the new vintage was only part of our purpose for the trip.  As in previous years, we used this visit to reconnect with producers we’ve worked with in the past, to check in on Montesquieu wine projects in process, to develop new producer relationships, and to take the temperature of the wine industry as a whole.

The grand opening of Stephane’s new wine shop in St. Emilion

And naturally, we spent time with Stéphane Derenoncourt, attending the grand opening of his new wine shop in St. Emilion (where he carries Derenoncourt California – prominently displayed to the right of the register – along with his consultancy wines and a few other favorites), tasting through his wines at La Grappe, and cutting up the rug late into the night at the after-parties he threw for colleagues and friends.

But everyone’s talking about the vintage, so what about it?  What did we think of 2010?

First, a note of caution: it’s important to remember that any judgment about the vintage must be provisional.  These are tannic, tight wines that in many cases haven’t yet finished their malolactic fermentation.  It’s difficult to know how they will ultimately come out.  Yet it’s possible to get a sense of the vintage, and of individual wines, by paying attention to critical factors like balance, freshness, structure, and acid and tannin levels.

Montesquieu Winery President and CEO Fonda Hopkins beams after tasting the 2010 Cheval Blanc at En Primeurs 2011

Fonda Hopkins beams after tasting the stunning 2010 Cheval Blanc

In terms of quality and promise of 2010, the short answer is that it is a great vintage that will produce many brilliant, long-lived wines.  In 2010, winemakers had terrific natural material to work with – grapes that were ripe without being over-baked, but also loaded with acidity.

On the whole, we prefer the vintage to that of 2009, because in 2010 the grapes came off the vines fresher with more acids than in 2009, which generally will result in better structure and balance as well as crisper, more refreshing and elegant wines.  While not a “classical” Bordeaux vintage due to unusually high levels of ripeness levels, 2010 is a vintage that many Bordeaux classicists will still love, while 2009 appeals more to those who prefer sweeter, broader wines.

Nonetheless, after tasting hundreds of wines from the 2010 vintage, we noticed that not every chateau managed to take advantage of the sublime nature of the fruit they had in their hands.  Too many of the wines simply were over-extracted.  Too many winemakers had taken presumably near-perfect fruit and macerated the heck out of them in an attempt to extract every last tannin so as to beef up the wine.

This may have been a response to the huge scores and overwhelming attention many of the massive 2009s received.  Or it may be a play to the hedonistic preferences of Robert Parker, whose ratings still exert disproportionate influence in setting pricing and generating demand of Bordeaux.  Or it may be a result of some winemakers’ approach which favors power over elegance, intensity over complexity.

Whatever the reason, it seemed a shame to us as we made our way through the Union des Grand Crus tastings and found too much in the way of thick lifeless textures, dark roasted flavors, and heavy plodding finishes.

One tasting had a noticeable absence of these kinds of wines – the La Grappe tasting, where the wines made by Stéphane Derenoncourt’s Vignerons Consultants team were assembled.  The maze of tents on the property of Chateau La Gaffèliere in St. Emilion was a veritable shrine to freshness and balance and vibrancy.  Stéphane takes a hands-off approach in the cellar, and he treats his fruit gently, careful not to over-extract.  He knows how to harness the deep, pure fruit offered by fully ripe grapes to create rich and sultry wines, while maintaining freshness and lift.  The result was a range of mouthwatering wines that stood out from the crowd, that expressed their terroirs with grace and poise.

Especially in 2010, Stéphane’s wines will appeal to a broad range of wine lovers – not only those who prize balance and elegance, as we do, but also those who go in for big, bold flavors and tongue-staining textures.

As an example, Parker’s ratings just came out, and he gave a perfect score to one of Stéphane’s wines, Beausejour Duffau-Lagarosse, and a near-perfect score to Pavie Macquin, the same rating received by Cheval Blanc.  Those ratings mean little to Stéphane and even less to us, as we’ve explained here and here.  But they illustrate that whether, like us, you love nuance and freshness, or, like Parker, you love power and intensity, you’ll find something to love in what Stéphane is doing.

We’re glad we went to Bordeaux for many reasons.  This is one of them: you get the opportunity to see and taste firsthand who the leading lights of the region are, which chateaux and winemakers have the surest hand in the vineyards and cellar.  Yet again in 2010, there’s no question that Stéphane is at the top of this list.

One of the most charming towns in the world, St. Emilion

{4 Comments}

4 Responses to Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in Bordeaux: Montesquieu Winery Tastes the 2010s

  1. Bryan Neustein on May 24, 2011 8:48 amLooks like a great time and would love to know what overall favorites were.
  2. Lisa Duff Khajavi on May 24, 2011 9:33 amWhen talking with the team some highlights were without a doubt Stephane's Beausejour Duffau-Lagarosse and Pavie Macquin both from St. Emilion. He managed to balance intensity and power along with incredible layers of complexity and freshness. Also the team was very excited about the whites from Graves overall as a region--super vivacious, racy with depth and personality--super memorable. Another important observation--aside from Graves whites--was the wide variation from property to property, an indication that the results will speak to a vintage that points to skill and expertise in the cellar.
  3. Stephen George on May 24, 2011 2:03 pmBryan, Beausejour HDL was certainly a highlight, with otherworldly pure concentration balanced by lovely acidity. Pavie-Macquin is often among my very favorites, and this was the case again in 2010. And Clos Fourtet performed beautifully this year too. I know Tony Connell fell in love with La Tour Figeac -- I'll let him speak to that one, he was in rapture! Michel Rolland's Fontenil estate in Fronsac also produced a particularly lovely wine in 2010.

    On the left bank, we were all pretty excited about Pauillac's Pichon-Baron, and as Lisa mentioned, many of the Graves/Pessac blancs were delicious -- especially Larrivet-Haut-Brion, Carbonnieux, and de Feiuzel, if memory serves.
  4. Lisa Duff Khajavi on May 24, 2011 2:30 pmDo tell us about the La Tour Figeac, Tony!

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