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Bordeaux 2020 en primeur by appellation: Pessac-Léognan

In the second of his detailed appellation reports on the Bordeaux 2020 vintage, Colin Hay shares his tasting notes and scores for the standout wines from Pessac-Léognan.

My impressions of Bordeaux 2020 are extremely positive. Indeed, in general terms, they are rather more positive than some of the leading critics who seem to see this as more of a Merlot than a Cabernet vintage and, as a consequence, more of a right- than a left-bank vintage.

But if there is one appellation where I am perhaps to be a little more severe in my assessment than others it is Pessac-Léognan. That troubles me a little, not least as I am great admirer of the wines of the Graves more generally, and Pessac-Léognan in particular. I have followed quite closely the run of spectacular vintages in this part of Bordeaux from 2014 onwards. I have witnessed the wines becoming better and better and the appellation rather more homogeneous in quality than once it was.

2020 certainly doesn’t break the trend. But it is vintage in which I find a more stark bifurcation than I have become accustomed to between the top wines – and, crucially, the top terroirs from which they hail – on the one hand and the rest of the appellation on the other. The stars of the vintage here are utterly fabulous and amongst the picks of the entire year; but the rest I find just a little disappointing.

I wondered for a while whether I had just been unlucky – relying, as it turns out, more on the UGC tasting in Paris and samples sent together (via assorted intermediaries) than on tasting from the properties themselves or, indeed, samples send quickly and directly from the chateaux. So I tried to re-taste the wines I had found a little troubling. But try as I did, I find no way around the conclusion that the long, hot and intensely dry summer had taken if anything more of a toll in all but the most hallowed of Pessac-Leognan’s terroirs (rather like it had in Pomerol off the plateau).

The highlights, however, are staggering. Haut-Brion and La Mission are both singular and sublime. If I had to choose between them in this vintage I would opt I think for the less monastic and less austere Haut-Brion. It is certainly more accessible at this very early stage. But it is certainly no less intellectual or fascinating in its complexity. Above all, for me at least, it seems to capture the essential dynamism and energy of this vintage in a uniquely captivating way. As ever, though, in qualitative terms there is little to choose between them.

Carmes Haut-Brion is also a revelation. It is incredibly dynamic, almost acrobatic and its highly chiselled structure is carved from tannins so fine-grained that they seem to defy gravity, holding the fruit in suspension as if through levitation.

Domaine de Chevalier is much more classical and instantly recognisable with its authentic dark berry fruit and rich layers of graphite and cedar. I am not sure that I have tasted a better wine from the property, though I fear I have said that before and will no doubt say it again!

Haut-Bailly, too, is very true to itself and its terroir in this vintage. It has all the bright freshness that is the signature of 2020 on the very best of terroirs and that was so seemingly difficult to capture in Pessac-Léognan. I love, too, its complex and layered florality – it is almost like a milles feuilles constructed of graphite layers interspersed with fresh flowers and crunchy berry fruit.

Finally, we have a rather sublime Smith Haut-Lafitte. This has less palpable oak presence than it used to and that gives a more prominent role to the wild floral notes that really make the best wines of the vintage sing. And it builds wonderfully in the glass. This, too, is another great wine from Daniel and Florence Cathiard.

A final word should perhaps go to the little know and even less appreciated Picque Caillou. This is a wine on a steep upward ascent that has made a really excellent 2020. It is fresh and bright, dynamic and energetic and yet also dense, compact and complex. Paulin Calvert seems to have gotten the balance of this challenging vintage absolutely right.

Pick of the appellation: Haut-Brion (98-100)

Truly great: Les Carmes Haut Brion (97-99)

Domaine de Chevalier (96-98+)

Haut-Bailly (94-96+)

La Mission Haut-Brion (96-98)

Smith Haut-Lafitte (94-96)

Value picks: C de Carmes Haut-Brion (93-95)

De Fieuzal (91-93+)

Malartic Lagraviere (93-95)

Revelatory: Picque Caillou (90-92)


Full tasting notes

Bouscaut (Pessac-Léognan; 61% Cabernet Sauvignon; 33% Merlot; 6% Malbec; a final yield of just 30 hl/ha; 14.5% alcohol). This is slightly baked on the nose – plums, damsons, blackberries, with a welcome note of cedar, a twist or two of the pencil-sharpener, tobacco leaf and wood smoke, a slight gamey note and a hint of sous bois. On the palate this has a nice sense of lift and a certain amount of freshness, but the fruit and floral notes feel just a little wilted and the palate a little more lifeless for that. The fine-grained tannins are nicely managed and bring some definition and focus to the mid-palate, but I still miss a little precision and detail. This is slightly disappointing in the context of recent vintages, but an indication of quite how hot, dry and challenging it was here in the late summer.

C de Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 39% Merlot; 1% Petit Verdot; 20% whole bunch fermentation; aged in oak barrels and larger vessels, 26% of the barrels being new; like the grand vin, made with 100% infusion and so no pumping over or batonnage; pH 3.64; 13.8% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Guillaume Pouthier. A fabulous wine in its own right that deserves to be better known and that remains a bit of an unknown secret. Although it is named like a second wine, it is really much more of a second label, though it does contain young vine massale clones from Carmes itself.

Around 50% of the grapes are from a part of the former Le Thil Comte Clary vineyard next to Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut Bailly. Extraordinarily bright and fresh and lifted on the nose – with fresh super-ripe plump plums, blueberries and brambles, a lovely note of walnuts. Incredible texturally, so soft and gentle and yet at the same time so dense and concentrated with an amazingly dynamic sense of energy sustained by the characteristic saline minerality. Very long and pure and likely to prove incredible value as ever.

Carbonnieux (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot; 60% whole bunch fermentation; aging in oak barrels, 40% of which are new; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; pH 3.76; 14.5% alcohol). On the positive side there’s a bright, fresh and rather lovely cassis fruit signature on the nose, with a touch of cedar, incense and a little hint of vanilla – though the sweetness that for me mars the palate leaves traces on the nose too.

In the mouth, after the svelte entry, this is dense and tannic and chewy and the fruit tastes a little baked; there’s simply not the definition you would hope for and the freshness and brightness of the fruit seems to have wilted in the late summer heat; the finish is harsh, dry and even a little burned. I’d love to like this more, but there is little balance or harmony to this new world Pessac. A wine I clearly need to re-taste from bottle.

Les Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 40% Cabernet Franc; 34% Cabernet Sauvignon; 26% Merlot; 60% whole bunch fermentation; aging in oak barrels and larger formats, 80% of which are new and with 9% aging in amphorae; a final yield of 38 hl/ha; pH 3.6; 13.6% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Guillaume Pouthier. This is quite sublime, probably the best ever vintage of this wine and definitely a candidate for the wine of the appellation and one of the wines of the vintage. It is incredible to think that is an en primeur sample, so unbelievably soft and lustrous are the tannins.

Cool on the entry and producing a strange kind of discombobulation as one struggles to come to terms with quite how soft this is. Just when one starts to come back to one’s sense, a firehose of pure, bright, fresh and deeply concentrated fruit seems to explode in the mouth and then, just as one is starting to come to terms with that, one begins to sense the fine-grained quite chalky tannins that bring a pixilated level of detail to the mid-palate and that seem to hold the fruit in perpetual free-fall in the mouth. Needless to say, the finish goes on for minutes (quite literally). Amazingly structured, fantastically layered (milles feuilles) and with so much precision and detail to say nothing of the wonderful ferrous-saline minerality that is the signature of this extraordinary terroir. An incredible wine and a revelation.

La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 45% Merlot; 55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.3% Cabernet Franc; 14.3% alcohol; harvested between the 7th and 29th of September). A beautiful garnet/purple at the core, highly translucent and supremely limpid without being viscous.

A lovely direct and very fresh and lifted fruit-forward nose of equal quantities of red and black berry and some stone fruit – redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries, blackberries and mulberries with damsons and sloes too, with traces of wild herbs and fennel seeds. This is a wine which is all about the purity, precision and crunchy freshness of the zingy fruit. There is a lovely luminous and radiant quality to this, accentuated by the pixilating contribution of the almost chalky fine-grained tannins. I love the sappy, juicy finish.

Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac-Léognan; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 27% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; 2% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 38 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, only 35% of which are new; 13.5% alcohol). Very dark garnet/magenta at the core but impressively translucent and incredibly glass-staining and with the colour really yet to set. When you swirl the glass you almost imagine that the colour will circulate more slowly than the wine itself!

This has the most sublime nose and is amongst the most open and aromatic wines of the vintage so far. Shimmering, bright, intense yet extremely darkly fruited – with brambles, blackberries, blueberries, fruits of the forest, a little black cherry and a wonderful rich dollop of graphite and cedar. There is also a stony-gravelly minerality and a fresh rich peaty earthiness, with a hint of new season wild garlic and, just at the end, a little whiff of tobacco smoke and vanilla.

Incredibly light and delicate on the palate, despite the considerable fruit density, this is the latest of a series of seemingly gravity-defying wines in which it is almost impossible to imagine how something so compact and concentrated can be so lithe, so sinuous and so ethereal. Beautifully layered with the silkiest of tannins and the most glorious mouthfeel. Tense, energetic, bright and packed with detail, this might be the best Domaine de Chevalier I have ever tasted. It’s certainly right up there and yet what I think I love about it most of all is that it is just so recognisable as Domaine de Chevalier. Chapeau!

Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 60.1% Merlot; 31.7% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6.7% Cabernet Franc; 1.5% Petit Verdot; 15.2% alcohol; harvested between the 7th and 29th of September). Almost a full degree higher in alcohol than La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion and a much bolder and bigger-boned wine, this has a shimmeringly beautiful purple core, is rather more viscous and has a brilliantly fluorescent punk pink/indigo rim.

This is both opulent and at the same time elegant on the nose and it prepares you rather well for the grand vin itself – we have bright, fresh ultra-crunchy black cherries and plump blueberries enrobed in graphite with little traces of the finest dark chocolate powder. On the palate this is almost shockingly fresh and crisp, with a zingy bright fruit, tremendously fine tannins that support the fruit but also bring focus and great detail to the mid palate. Exquisite.

Couhins (Pessac-Léognan; from 22 hectares on a gravelly hilltop; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; aging in oak barrels, 30% of which are new; % alcohol not disclosed). I’d really like to like this more than I do. It’s another Pessac in this vintage that seems to me, at least, to have been taken too far – the fruit I fear is a little overripe, the cassis just starting to lose its freshness and crunch, though I like very much the deep earthy and heathery notes on the nose, the mid-palate is a bit thick and soupy and seems to have lost its layering and definition and the tannins on the finish are a little dry. Overall, this is rather sweet and I miss the bright freshness I crave.

Couhins-Lurton (Pessac-Léognan; from 16 hectares on a classic gravel terroir; 85% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15% Merlot; a final yield of 38 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 50% of which are new; pH 3.72; IPT 80; % alcohol not disclosed). A pleasant and appealing crushed and preserved blackcurrant, blackberry and blueberry fruit nose, with dried autumn leaves and garrigues herbs – reflecting the summer heat.

This has a soft, gentle and enveloping attack with the tannins gripping nicely in the mid-palate and drawing the slightly baked and now more plummy and pulpy fruit back to the spine of the wine. This is not especially long and, like many, it lacks for detail in the mid-palate but it’s a sensitively managed expression of its terroir in what was ultimately quite a challenging vintage in the Graves.

De Fieuzal (Pessac-Léognan; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels; % alcohol not disclosed). A pretty wine from de Fieuzal in 2020. On the nose we have finely grated dark chocolate, cinnamon stick, plums, damsons, raspberries, red liquorice and a little hint of cedar. On the palate this is cool on the entry, with a hint of menthol, soft and svelte tannins, an impressive unfurling of the bright fruit leading to an ample and rich mid-palate with decent layering and depth and a nicely gathered fresh chewy grape-skin finish. There’s a good balance and harmony to this and it retains more freshness, focus and lift than many of its peers.

Haut Bailly (Pessac-Léognan; 52% Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot; pH and IPT very close to the 2010 and not far off the 2016; a final yield of 37hl/ha, 20% less than the 2019; 14.3% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Veronique Sanders whose single-word descriptor for the vintage is diabolique! The result is heavenly.

This, too, has been very gently extracted. Intensely limpid and viscous, this rolls and glides in the glass, revealing garnet and crimson highlights, and a punk pink/magenta rim. Haut Bailly 2020 is extremely refined, suave and elegant on the nose, with the signature floral and herbal notes of the vintage – here rose petals, freesia and lavender – but also copious amounts of graphite, incense and a hint of the cedar to come. The fruit is nicely lifted – raspberries and brambles, blueberries and cherries, with a dusting of very fine dark chocolate powder intermingling with the lavender notes and a lovely hint of fragrant Asiatic peppercorns.

On the attack this is warm and supple, lithe and svelte with an almost physical and very tactile sense of layering through the mid-palate. The considerable concentration and density is fantastically well disguised. This unfurls beautifully, with the grain of the tannins very slowly revealing themselves and helping to stretch the fruit out over the mineral-saline backbone of the wine toward a lovely sappy, juicy finish. This is a great achievement for the appellation in the context of a vintage that was challenging in almost every respect. Its brilliance is, like many of the best wines of the vintage, testimony to the courage, conviction and dedication of the entire team at Haut Bailly.

Haut Bailly II (Pessac-Léognan; 54% Merlot; 46% Cabernet Sauvignon; a final yield of 37 hl/ha; 14% alcohol). Very gently extracted judging from the translucent core and the shimmering pink rim. This restored a little my confidence in the appellation towards the end of my en primeur tastings after a few more troubling échantillons. Very open and expressive on the nose, with an intriguing walnut and pine kernel note very prominent alongside sandalwood, baked and fresh plums, blueberries, tobacco leaf, lavender and rosemary.

On the palate this has been very finely judged; it is a little more rich and ample on the attack that I perhaps imagined it would be, but with a lovely soft, svelte and rolling texture through the mid-palate. It has very fine-grained and slightly crumbly tannins that just shade towards dryness on the long and gentle finish. This is very good and it retains the freshness of the vintage, but like many other wines of the appellation, there is no escaping the intense heat of the summer here. That said, this is a wine that would so easily have passed as of grand vin quality even a decade ago.

Haut-Bergey (Pessac-Léognan; 40% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 13% Cabernet Franc; 6% Petit Verdot; 1% Malbec; a final yield of 18 hl/ha; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Opaque at the core. Big and rich. Lots of cassis, some black cherry, incense, tar, vanilla and sweet spices from the oak. This feels a little charred, a touch soupy in the mid-palate and very dense. The result is a loss of delineation and definition and a somewhat harsh and tannic finish. Just a little forced. This feels like a hot vintage wine – and it is.

Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 42.8% Merlot; 39.7% Cabernet Sauvignon; 17.5% Cabernet Franc; 15% alcohol; harvested between the 7th and 29th of September). This is a shade darker and more garnet in hue than La Mission, a little more viscous still, more limpid in the glass if that is possible and actually it seems to focus the light much like a stained-glass window. A profoundly gorgeous and slightly more open and expansive nose, Haut-Brion seems to want to reveal a little more of its identity than the more introverted and perhaps monastic La Mission.

This is more floral, with traces of pink rose petals and hint of violets, red and black cherry, cedar, wild blueberries and mulberries, wild spring flowers and oregano, with a trace of walnut shell too. The attack is incredibly cool and gentle – the proverbial plunge-pool that sends little shivers racing up and down the spine – and the power and density is fantastically disguised, in part by the compact nature of the tannins. This seems infinitely layered and so very finely detailed. Yet one is also acutely aware that one glimpse now, at this stage, only the tiniest part of the entire canvas. A supremely intellectual and fascinatingly beautiful wine – it’s a little like entering a maze.

Haut Nouchet (Pessac-Léognan; 14% alcohol). This is aromatically very open on the nose, with quite a strong influence from the oak – we have bright, fresh blueberries, redcurrants and baked plums, black tea, with a touch of vanilla and sweet baking spices and a nice scratch of pencil lead. On the palate this is very open-textured and it rather loses its freshness as it evolves over the palate; the tannins are nicely fine-grained and this is a good effort, though it lacks just a little delineation in the mid-palate.

Larrivet Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 52% Merlot; 42% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 29 hl/ha; 13.8% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Full and quite ample and rich with a trace of cedar over brambles, plums both fresh and baked, Chinese five spice and a hint of hoisin too. This has more acidity and brightness than Haut-Bergey but still feels a bit heavy and the tannins are a little severe on the finish.

La Louvière (Pessac-Léognan; 65% Merlot; 35% Cabernet Sauvignon; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; 14.5% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Plush, full, rich and powerful, though a little less opaque at the centre. Baked plums, a touch of cassis, brambles and a twist or two of the peppermill. This, too, is a little monotonic on the mid-palate and feels just a little overdone, lacking finesse and definition and with slightly harsh tannins on the finish.

Latour-Martillac (Pessac-Léognan; 68% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; aging in oak barrels, 25% of which are new; pH 3.72; IPT 80; just under 14% alcohol). After a little succession of quite challenging Pessac rouges it is quite a relief to return to at least some of the freshness, lift and crunch of the vintage. Clearly the late summer was very challenging in Pessac-Léognan and it is testimony to the talented team at Latour-Martillac that they have made such a strong wine.

Fresh, bright, lifted and charged with cassis and blackberry, black tea leaf, leaf tobacco, a touch a graphite, a hint of cedar and some earthy and herby undertones. On the palate this is a little stern and it, too, lacks the delineation and definition of recent vintages that, frankly, one is now accustomed to finding. There is freshness, certainly, but this still feels a little heavy and a little foursquare. Whilst it’s a strong effort, there is little doubt for me that the 2018 and 2019 are better.

Malartic-Lagravière (Pessac-Léognan; from 62 hectares on a Guntzian gravel and clay over limestone terroir; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 48% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 26 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 65% of which are new; 14.2% alcohol). Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the appellation in quite a challenging vintage. This seems to have locked in the freshness that others sometimes lack. On the nose we have a deep rich dark ripe plump and crunchy berry and stone fruit, with fresh cassis the most notable element, along with currant leaves and graphite and a lovely loamy-earthy element.

On the palate this is rich and ample, with tannins of velvet and that lovely diaphanous and sinuous feel that so many of the wines of the appellation lack. This glides gracefully over the palate in a way that disguises its actually quite considerable density and concentration; the fine-grain tannins bring detail and focus and this is one of the more precise and pure expressions of the vintage that will surely age gracefully. The oak is more moderate that in recent vintages, but this does not lack for personality. Very impressive.

Clos Marsalette (Pessac-Léognan; 58% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of just 22 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 35% of which are new; 13.5% alcohol). Very engaging and lively on the nose, with an interesting and distinct nose that you wouldn’t necessarily pick as Pessac, with a lovely rich cedary-graphite element weaving itself around the dark berry and stone fruit.

This exudes a lovely cool, calm sense of tranquillity and is very harmonious and elegant. Bright and multi-dimensional on the palate and very much more obviously of its appellation, there is a nice nuttiness to this which combines well with the dark berry fruit accentuating the slightly earthy and autumnal dry leafy undertones. There is a quiet introspection to this that I really like.

La Mission Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 48.6% Merlot; 43.2% Cabernet Sauvignon; 8.2% Cabernet Franc; 14.7% alcohol; harvested between the 7th and 29th of September). This is brilliantly magenta/purple at the core and practically radiant at the rim with a beautiful sheen in the glass and the capacity it seems to draw all light towards it. The nose is a little introverted, introspective and almost intimate – it beckons you in and enthrals you in the wine, with subtle and delicate hints of cedar and apple wood, graphite and red and darker berry fruit and plums that are just à point in terms of ripeness; I find a slight iodine-saline-marine mineral note too.

On the palate this is ultra-pure, quite compact and the unbelievably tight and fine-grained tannins seem to clutch the fruit tightly to the acid-mineral spine of the wine. As in La Chapelle they seem almost to be coated in chalk dust so fine and textural are they and they bring a fascinating interest, clarity and luminous quality to the mid-palate like the stained glass windows in La Mission’s Chapel focus the sunlight. This is very beautiful, very compact, slightly sombre, austere and seriously contemplative. Scintillating.

Olivier (Pessac-Léognan; 52%Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 6% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 43 hl/ha; pH 3.7; 14.7% alcohol). Very dark in the glass and almost opaque at the core. I like the deep dark cassis, black berry and black cherry fruit on the nose, the touch of incense and the char from an open wood fire and also the little wild herbal and earthy undertones, but on the palate this is just a little overdone – there’s freshness certainly, but the fruit is just a little overripe for me, the extraction taken just a half-step too far, the alcohol a little too evident on the finish and the tannins just shading towards the dry side. It’s really close to a wine I’d love; but it’s just not quite there. I’m really torn, as there’s a lot to this that I really like, but I fear the ambition has just been taken too far.

Pape-Clément (Pessac-Léognan; from 61 hectares on a clay gravel, first planted in the 13th century; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 50% Merlot; aging in oak barrels for 18 months; alcohol level not disclosed). A stylish and elegant if slightly sombre Pape-Clément, this is certainly excellent, if perhaps not the finest of recent vintages. On the nose there are touches of cinnamon and baking spices, tobacco leaf and wild wood smoke accompanying the rich, ripe plump plum and black cherry fruit, with little traces of both cedar and acacia wood and a twist or two of the pencil sharpener alongside the lovely note of saline minerality.

On the palate this is bold and ample, with a certain opulence and splendour moderated nicely by the grippy fine-grained tannins which seem to bind the fruit to the structuring backbone of the wine, drawing the fruit out along the spine in the process. This is long in the mouth, very fine and well crafted, even if it lacks just a little ‘va-va-voom’.

Le Petit Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan; second wine of Smith Haut Lafitte; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; a final yield of 30 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 20% of which are new, for 14 months; 14% alcohol). Garnet at the core with indigo and blue highlights on swirling. This is quite voluptuous – with a lovely very dark berry and fruits of the forest nose, a background note of finely ground black pepper, a nice graphite-stoney minerality and no obviously discernible influence of the oak.

On the palate, this has a slightly cool and composed attack with ultra-soft tannins that gain in texture and granularity as they weave themselves into the structure of this wine, reinforcing the bright fresh fruit and accentuating the juicy crescendo on the finish. This doesn’t have the complexity of the grand vin, but it’s very fine and very complete.

Picque-Caillou (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. In the context of the vintage and the appellation, this is very impressive. It is notably brighter than many of its peers, with more lift and energy and freshness; it also has the mid-palate concentration that one sometimes craves a little more of (though the excellent 2019 is also quite a rich wine). The tannins are gentle and this has a lovely bright, fresh lift on the finish, though as with all but a handful of wines in the appellation it lacks a little definition in the mid-palate.

Seguin (Pessac- Léognan). Plump and very ripe, with plums, blackberries, damsons, a hint of vanilla pod and Christmas spices. It’s a matter of taste but, for me, there is just perhaps a shade of sur-maturité. The effect is that this is rather sweet on the palate. But the tannins are soft and lithe and there is decent concentration.

Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 30 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 60% of which are new, for 18 months; average age of the vines is 48 years; 14% alcohol). Darker in the glass than Domaine de Chevalier tasted alongside, more lilac and purple at the core, but certainly no more extracted, the rim is a little more set. This is actually more floral on the nose than Chevalier with less cedar and graphite at first – violets and peonies, saffron and a very rich, plump dark berry and stone fruit – blackberries, mulberries, sloes and damsons, the oak less obvious than in previous vintages but gently supporting the fruit; there’s a little suggestion of vanilla and wood-smoke at the end and it remains in the glass afterwards, but it never dominates.

Richer and fuller on the palate than Chevalier with impressive and more evident density and concentration, and more of an immediate sense of amplitude. The tannins are at first gorgeously voluptuous and then, once we enter the mid-plate, impressively grippy and chewy. A big, taut and sumptuous wine that has loads of bright irrepressible energy, a stylish swagger, yet also considerable finesse and detail. More showy in a way than Chevalier, but another truly excellent wine from Smith Haut-Lafitte.

Graves (rouge)

D’Arche rouge (Graves). Quite smoky, with lots of archetypal Graves tobacco leaf, charcuterie, some leather and baked plums – a cross between a bar tabac and an English gastro-pub! On the palate, this is just a little sharp. I suspect the sample is not as fresh as it could be; I will (need to) defer judgement.

De Fougères Clos Montesquieu (Graves). Bright baked plum fruit with a touch of baking spice and a twist or two of pepper. Attractive and lithe on the palate. Nice mouthfeel and decent concentration; some potential. Tannins need time to soften but no dryness. Well made.

Liber Pater (Graves; from franc de pieds – ungrafted root stock with a miniscule yield; around 12% alcohol; aged entirely in amphorae). Tasted with Loïc Pasquet in Paris. Utterly unique. On the nose we have lilac, lavender violets, wild orchids, peonies, camphor, garrigue herbs, quite a pronounced ferrous and saline minerality, cinnamon and truffles alongside the very fresh dark stone fruit (plums and sloes).

This is cool and calm and gentle on the attack with a rolling, rippling and slowly building density and concentration through the mid-palate. There is a lovely sense of poise and tension between the sheer intensity and depth of this on the one hand and the aerial lift and levity on the other. Texturally this resembles more a Grand Cru Burgundy than it does anything from Bordeaux. It’s a great privilege to taste this now. This is a wine that won’t be released for several years yet. It’s definitely worth waiting for.

Liber Pater Denarius (Graves; from franc de pieds – ungrafted rootstock with a tiny yield of around 10 hl/ha; only 12% alcohol; and only around 1500 bottles). Tasted with Loïc Pasquet in Paris. Often mistaken as the second wine of Liber Pater, but it comes from entirely different parcels. Plush, brilliant, pure and luminous in the mid-palate this is probably not what you expect it to be and, in a way, all the more exciting for that. It is natural smoky (there’s no wood here as this is aged entirely in amphorae), and intensely so, very spicy and charged with wild herbal notes – we have wild flowers, violets, green and black tea leaf, red cherries, redcurrant and cranberry as well as tobacco leaf. On the palate this is cool, bright, crisp with palpably crunchy fruit and a rippling, almost shimmering long and tapering quite saline and mineral-charged finish.

Villa Bel-Air (Graves). Bright and fresh and fruity on the nose, with lush wild strawberries and raspberries and a little summer sunshine. Simple but nicely constructed, this is soft on the attack, not at all overdone and very accessible already. This is one of those wines that is so fluid and lithe on the mid-palate that it seems lighter and more insubstantial that it is. Very lively and fresh. An excellent wine.

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