The Wine Media Guild’s January lunch featured two Bordeaux châteaux owners who were in town for the Union des Grands Crus annual tour. Owner Olivier Bernard presented the wines of Domaine de Chevalier, and both Cellar Master Gabriel Vialard and American owner Robert Wilmers spoke for Château Haut-Bailly. The two, neighbors in the Graves, gave us a splendid side-by-side vertical tasting of about a dozen vintages that offered a clear and completely consistent palatal picture of their regional terroir.
Graves is the old name for the region southwest of the city of Bordeaux, since divided in two: Graves – now a somewhat lesser appellation – and Pessac-Léognan, the more prestigious classification and the home of both Domaine de Chevalier and Château Haut-Bailly. I use the old name purposely, not just because it’s what I grew up in wine with, but also because it signifies something important. Graves in French refers to the gravelly soil of the region, markedly different from the originally marshy soils of the Médoc, north of the city of Bordeaux, which yield most of the famous red wines of the region.
Denigrators of Bordeaux wines like to say that the region has only one terroir, but in fact it has two, both good ones: Graves and Médoc. The best wines of the Médoc are invariably red, while the Graves produces not only top-flight reds but also Bordeaux’s best dry white wines, and that capacity for fine white wines is one measure of the differences between the two terroirs.
Those whites, vinified from Sauvignon blanc (and some Sémillon), show a delightful minerality (that gravel again), freshness, and persistent but understated fruit – no grass or cat’s pee, for all the forceful presence of the Sauvignon. Domaine de Chevalier presented three vintages of its white (Haut-Bailly makes only red): 2007, ’05, and ’01. For me and many other WMG members, the 2001 white was the wine of the afternoon. Beautifully composed and balanced, still youthful-looking and -tasting, simultaneously intense and restrained, it embodied the best of the region. Not a drop of it was left by the end of the lunch.
Both estates offered an impressive vertical of their red wines, ranging from 2007 back through 2000 – eight vintages of each, as candid a view of their standards and accomplishment as anyone could wish. Also served at table were bottles of 2000 Domaine de Chevalier blanc, the 1990 red from both Chevalier and Chateau Haut-Bailly, plus 1986 and ’82 Chevalier and 1979 Haut-Bailly reds, courtesy of the winemakers and several members and guests.
Tasting notes for all these wines would wind up being grossly repetitive, so I won’t give any – besides, regular readers of this blog know how I feel about tasting notes: soft-core porn for the palate. All the wines, even in weak vintages like 2003 and 2002, showed classic dimensions and wonderfully typical (of Graves) Cabernet fruit: cedar – what some like to call cigar-box but isn’t – accents over dry, black fruits, with everything balanced by the characteristic minerality of the Graves. You tasted the wine and the soil, not the imagination of the winemaker. Those characteristics persisted strongly into the older wines of both estates, all of which still tasted live and supple, albeit with wonderful deeper, mature flavors taking over from youthful fruit.
What everyone remarked on as hallmarks of these wines was their elegance and balance – not too much of anything, but plenty of everything. When asked about the excessive use of new barriques by some of their colleagues and neighbors, both Bernard and Vialard shook their heads in either despair or disbelief. “Oak is what you use when you don’t have terroir,” Bernard said, and Vialard nodded agreement – as did almost everybody in the room. The proof of the assertion was right there on the table with us.
So how did the vintages stack up? The highly touted 2000s were fine, but I preferred 2001, which even though not as big and full struck me as more balanced – for my palate, a perfectly classic Bordeaux vintage. Ditto ’04 and ’05. In the media, the younger wine has overshadowed its predecessor, but – again, for my palate – 2004 is the vintage to cellar and allow to blossom. 2006 and 2007 I think are pleasant vintages, best for drinking sooner rather than later. They should drink quite nicely over the next five or so years.
A note for the future: Both Bordelais winemakers were very enthusiastic about 2009, which they regard as a great vintage. It’s still in barrel and won’t be released for a year or two yet, so we have much to look forward to.