Bordeaux 2018: Pessac-Léognan

So what of the wines themselves?

In the search for the qualitative heights it is impossible not to start with Haut-Brion and its (far from identical) twin and sometime rival, La Mission Haut-Brion. Both are exceptional, though very different, and one would rather not have to choose between them.

 

La Mission Haut-Brion (53% Merlot; 43% Cabernet Sauvignon; 4% Cabernet Franc) is remarkably open and attractive, seemingly just a little darker in colour and a little more accessible at this formative stage than its twin. It is beautifully limpid in the glass and that gloss and sheen is immediately present on the palate too. One knows one is in the presence of very serious tannins – but they are at first imperceptible other than in their contribution to the wondrously soft and supple mouthfeel. But towards the long and composed finish they start to crumble and roll on the tongue releasing little waves of sappy pure griotte and red cherry fruit. This is very complete, very composed and very integrated with a very gathered and precise finish.

Haut-Brion (49% Merlot; 39% Cabernet Sauvigon; 12% Cabernet Franc) is, as it so often is, remarkable. It is more obviously grand, more restrained and held-back, less immediately accessible but at the same time gloriously cool, composed and brimming with potential. It is sombre, yet lithe and energetic too. Here we find dark black cherries and raspberries enwrapped in a rich graphite minerality and a deep, spicy, peppery finish elongated by powdery, chewy tannins and the signature juniper and smoky notes of this extraordinary terroir. Needless to say, it has 50 years of evolution ahead of it. The potential for this wine is staggering.

Scarcely less staggering, in its own distinctive way, is Domaine de Chevalier (65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot). This is, for me, quite simply the best Domaine de Chevalier that I have ever tasted and, Haut-Brion and La Mission excepting, the wine of the appellation in 2018. It is wonderfully layered and complex, rich, full and opulent and yet extraordinarily focussed and multi-dimensional. Its fruit and mineral signature sings of the Chevalier’s DNA. We find cherries and cassis, with little picquant notes of redcurrant too; there is a spicy pepperiness, hints of tobacco smoke and just a touch of vanilla. But above all this wine is characterised by its remarkable purity and freshness – a product of managing to hold the alcohol level to an impressively low 13.8 degrees.

Haut-Bailly (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; 5% Cabernet Franc) has also produced a great wine in this vintage, better in my view even than the fabulous 2015 and pushing the wondrous 2010 in terms of quality. It has over half a degree more alcohol than Domaine de Chevalier (at 14.4% – just exceeding the 2010’s already considerable 14.3%) but it is imperceptible because of the beautiful purity, precision and focussed freshness of this wine. The personality of Haut-Bailly in 2018 comes from the crispness of its fruit (cassis, blackberry and brambles), its filigree tannins, its graphite minerality and the delightful notes of liquorice root, cinnamon and nutmeg spice. It is elegant, stylish, poised and singularly balanced. Haut-Bailly is, as Veronique Sanders put it to us (in the words of Jean de la Fontaine), “tous, mais rien de trop” (everything, but not too much of anything).

No less pure and no less precise is the extraordinary Les Carmes Haut-Brion (37% Cabernet Franc; 34% Cabernet Sauvignon; 29% Merlot). In 2018 this is a fabulous wine and wonderful testimony to the skill and craft of its deeply accomplished wine-maker, Guillaume Pouthier. This is another serious contender for wine of the appellation and, like Domaine de Chevalier, simply the best wine I have ever tasted from this property. Here, though, this comes in part from an ongoing progression in the technical craft of the wine-making itself. This is a vintage in which the whole berry (100%) and whole-bunch (53%) vinification practiced here in recent years really, really pays off. Like Domaine de Chevalier again, this is ‘only’ 13.75% alcohol. This, in combination with a pH of 3.61 (most wines in the appellation have a pH of 3.8 or above) really helps to lock-in the freshness of the fruit. The wine is a beautiful limpid purplish blue in the glass, seemingly a visual reflection of the seamless purity of its crystalline blueberry fruit. There is a lovely vein of graphite minerality allied with an almost ferrous salinity that is one of the signatures for me of this distinct terroir. The finish is long, gathered and composed with ripples of croquant fruit releasing little injections of juicy acidity onto the palate. This is one of the most energetic and lively wines of the vintage and it is unlike any other wine in the appellation – a reflection both of its unusual encépagement and the singular character of the wine-making here.

Smith Haut-Laffite (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 34% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 2% Petit Verdot) is very different stylistically, but very good too. The alcohol level here is three quarters of a degree higher than at Les Carmes Haut-Brion (at 14.5%) and there is just a hint of its presence on the finish. But this too is a remarkably fresh wine in the context of the vintage and there are subtle changes in the wine-making style here, with less obvious oak influence at this stage and a greater emphasis on precision and purity. The wine is big and punchy, as ever, but clean, crisp, fresh and stylish. There are characteristic notes of unsmoked tobacco and a touch of pepper to accompany the cherry and blackberry fruit.

Pape-Clément (66% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc) is also undergoing a slight change in style. Here too there is less obvious oak presence and the extraction in 2018 is particularly gentle. The wine is serious, slightly sombre, elegant and accomplished. One finds fruits of the forest, cinnamon and five spice and a generous tobacco smokiness. It has a lovely lithe tension and is perhaps more obviously characteristic of the appellation than it has been in recent vintages. It is purer, a little leaner and more focussed and precise. Like Smith I have a sense that a new style is still in the process of emerging and that the 2018 is defined more by the idea of what it does not want to be than it is by a clear sense of what it is seeking to become. But this is a very fine and very composed wine nonetheless. It is very true to the appellation and it deserves to do well.

If Smith and Pape Clément are both in the midst of a stylistic evolution, that is not the case at de Fieuzal (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot). Here the style has been well-honed, if subtly tweaked, over a number of years and in 2018, for me at least, it produces its greatest rewards to date. Though, at a final yield of 24 hl/ha, there is rather less of it than they were clearly hoping, the wine itself is fabulous. It is bold and ambitious and might not be to everyone’s taste. But I, for one, love the energy and focus of this wine. It has a very pure blackcurrant and red and black cherry fruit and gloriously svelte tannins. It is polished and subtly spicy, with a touch of fragrant sweet cinnamon and nutmeg and a gently saline note which accentuates the long fresh finish. It is attention-grabbing in all the right ways. After three rather trying vintages, to say the least, Stephen Carrier deserves very great credit for this exciting and distinctive wine.

Bouscaut (approximately 60% Merlot; 35% Cabernet Sauvigon; 5% Malbec) is, of course, much better known for its (excellent) white wine. But in 2018 its red is most definitely worth the detour. There has been considerable progress here in recent vintages. But the 2018 takes Bouscaut to new qualitative heights. There is composed and accomplished wine-making here and the quality of the old-vine Merlot, on the little argilo-calcaire heights around the chateau itself, bring a certain singularity to this wine. The mouthfeel is soft and gentle, the tannins are velvety and the overall balance is exquisite. This is precise, tobacco-tinged and refined and it leaves one with the lovely sensation of chewing on grape-skins.

Finally we come to Latour-Martillac (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 8% Petit Verdot). This is very much an up-and-coming property. The 2019 will be made in a brand new state-of-the-art gravity-fed wine-making facility allowing for more fine-grained and precise parcel-by-parcel vinification. But the pronounced upward trajectory in recent vintages is already very clear; and 2018 continues the trend. This will surely turn out to be one of the best value releases of the vintage. It is deep, intense and nicely concentrated and the bramble and dark berry fruit sits very elegantly alongside a cool dark graphite minerality. It lacks the layered complexity of the very best wines of the appellation and the alcohol level (at 14.7 degrees) is just a little alarming; but this is very much a property on the rise.

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