Bordeaux 2015 from bottle, part 3

Better whites than expected from the Graves region

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com

UPDATED 30 January 2018

It is always fun to review the wines of the Graves in Bordeaux because they are known just as much for whites as they are (these days) for reds. Furthermore, red Graves – dominated for the most part by Cabernet Sauvignon – tend to be more supple than the Left Bank wines of the Médoc further north. And of course, the Graves region is the oldest of Bordeaux: wine was being made there when the Médoc was still a swamp.

Tasting recently bottled 2015 AOC Graves wines – primarily from Pessac-Léognan – I was thinking that the whites would not be as good as the reds, given the nature of the vintage.

But based on wines tasted at the UGCB, on the first stop in Washington D.C. of their annual multi city U.S. whistle stop tour (and, in this update, including wines tasted in New York City also in January 2018), the mixed bag was not so much whites being not as good as reds, but somewhat varying quality throughout.

Don’t get me wrong. Most UGCB members are making darn good wines these days – they don’t call it the Union of Grands Crus for nothing – and in a high quality vintage like 2015, one expects (very) good things. And, yes, broadly speaking, the reds were better, but I was surprised how some whites performed as well as they did… and how some reds did not measure up to vintage hype.

It is clear that making white wine was more challenging in 2015, as Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier, explains in the video below.

Let is briefly review why making dry white wine was a challenge in 2015.

I was on location in the Graves region during the harvest period. As you can read from my report of that visit, by the second week of September, natural degrees for Merlot in many vineyards was 13.5 and sometimes closer to 14. August days had been warm, but nights generally cool, a trend that continued in September, preventing the potential for too much alcohol while maintaining freshness.

That’s what Jean-Jacques Bonnie, of Château Malartic Lagraviere in Pessac-Léognan, told me on 8 September 2015, standing amidst a plot of Semillon vines (video below).

He found that the Sauvignon Blanc was “beautiful”, and when I tasted the Malartic-Lagraviere white wine from bottle, it showed better than what I was expecting.

As Bill Blatch had noted from his 2015 harvest report, picking had already begun during the week of 24 August, with the earliest dry whites in Sauternes and Pessac-Léognan.

Apart from light showers on 31 August, they enjoyed “perfect sunny conditions” and suddenly much cooler temperatures, up to the 20s and down to the teens Celsius at the lowest. As Bonnie told me, diurnal temperature variation was usefully high: often 15 °C (27 ºF) between night and day temperatures, providing acid retention and freshness in rather strongly constituted wines.

Blatch remarked that Sauvignon Blancs were “quite clearly the leaders” over the softer-styled Sémillons, which had not reacted so well to August rains. That could explain for example why Château La Louvière – at 100% Sauvignon Blanc in 2015 – proved so darn tasty.

As for the reds, well, I would say that stylistic differences counted most, and I found myself enjoying the more classically styled wines. Even though there is less extraction and less new oak being used at, say Pape Clément, I still hold a preference for certain brands. And I think the 2015 vintage amplified styles more than anything else.

A bit about Graves (and Pessac-Léognan) 

Vineyards stretching 31 miles along the Garonne River southeast of Bordeaux count among Bordeaux’s oldest vineyards, planted in the first centuries of Roman occupation just outside what was then called Burdigala, the Roman name for Bordeaux.

The gravely soil often encountered in these vineyards reflect the name: Gravel that reflects heat onto the vines and also promotes better drainage of rainfall.

Château Pape Clement, founded in the late 1300s by the future Pope Clement V, was the first wine producer first called a “château” in all of Bordeaux. And most readers know the story of Samuel Pepys’ passion for Haut Brion in the late 17th century.

In 1987, a new appellation was created that includes the best estates of the northern Graves region: Pessac-Léognan.

Tasting the 2015s 

Most tasting notes from earlier this month of January 2018 from two tastings organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). The first, in Washington D.C. – many thanks to Calvert Woodley for the invitation – and the second, at the Cipriani in New York City.

Further notes come from a late November 2017 tasting organized by the vast Grand Cercle association of Bordeaux châteaux, which includes several Graves both red and white.

Get ready, grab a glass, taste: A most elegant setting in New York City.

Although not a comprehensive representation of Graves (mainly Pessac-Léognan, and not including Haut Brion and estates associated with the illustrious first growth), these notes do lend you a solid sense of the vintage, for both white and red, as recently bottled.

I’ll save you some suspense and name my favorite red: Château Haut Bailly. And my favorite white: Domaine de Chevalier. But many others excelled in 2015.

As usual, when in bold, I liked in particular. If red and bold, even more. If underlined, too, potential wine nirvana!

The reds

  • 2015 Château Olivier – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Surprise, surprise? Maybe not. This estate has been doing very well in recent years and 2015 from bottle is no exception. The blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot, aged in one-third new oak exudes both bright ripe fruit and richness. A lovely wine and competes well with the more expensive Pessac-Léognans. (92 pts.)

Excellent price quality ratio here.

  • 2015 Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Another fine showing from Pessac-Léognan, exuding more elegance than the de Fieuzal tasted just before. A smooth delivery and not as “modern feeling” as in previous years. Indeed, the estate is cutting back on the percentage of new oak, which also made their white more successful in this vintage than expected. (92 pts.)
  • 2015 Château de France – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A very fresh and frank expression on this wine, and always a bargain price. The ripe fruit and clean expression is welcome even if it lacks the depth and layered density of the better wines from Pessac-Léognan. I will look out for the price and decide based on that. (90 pts.)
  • 2015 Château de Fieuzal – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Well, I am not as enthusiastic as some tasters perhaps because while I love the substance to the mid palate, it strikes me as just a bit heavy in its expression, especially on the finish. But make no mistake: you get a robust and rich wine here! (91 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A lovely nose precedes a rich palate, opulent, that envelopes the taster with multilayered texture. Ripe fruit, mainly dark, but not heavy, this wine exudes its Cabernet Franc driven freshness, too, with nearly 60% in the blend, with 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot. (93 pts.)

The best of the red Graves.

  • 2015 Château Bouscaut – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A disappointing showing from this estate, which usually performs better. Just comes across more hefty than elegant. Will try again in the near future to re-evaluate. (87 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Carbonnieux – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Very red strawberry in aspect, and fruit driven. Not the longest finish and a touch simple, but the price is likely right. (90 pts.)
  • 2015 Domaine de Chevalier – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Gorgeous, expansive, juicy and opulent. A primary aspect that is expected. There is much red fruit on the mid palate, and the finish is very long. One of the top reds of Graves region to be sure. (94 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Haut-Bailly – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    The top red of the Graves region? Why? There is at first a strict aspect to the wine, very cassis focused, very Cabernet. Time in glass brings about such pristine “breed” to the taster, as if we enter a realm of “high art”. The texture is not so much silky as nuanced, and intriguing. There is real freshness and depth as well, but the effect is greater than the sum of the parts. Cooler blue fruit elegance on the finish with much lift, but also subtle density to the wine, which means that this will age very well. It reminds me of the 2005 in a similar stage of evolution, some 10 years ago. (95 pts.)
  • 2015 Château La Tour-Martillac – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A solid red, with black cherry aspects, red cherry too, and an overall frank and direct expression of fruit. The tannin is present but ripe, and the finish is medium plus. You can find more successful Pessac Léognan reds, but this should not be too pricey. (91 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Malartic-Lagravière – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    I was somewhat underwhelmed by this wine. Sure, it is brisk and there is ripe red fruit, but the tannins come across a bit too edgy for the vintage and just a tad drying. I give it a cautious 90… (90 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Pape Clément – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Score higher if you like the style! But I have to admit that it does seem hard to resist on one level as it comes across opulent, juicy – at least on the mid palate – and very broad. Good thing they are reducing the new oak component as the 65% new oak is better managed here than the higher percentage in previous vintages. Still, the 14.5% alcohol leeches enough of the new oak tannin to leave the taster with a drying sensation on the finish and – depending on your sensitivity to this – score appropriately. (93 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Smith Haut Lafitte – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    I prefer this to the Pape Clement, tasted just before. Why? There is greater sap driven fruit, although every bit as warm and luscious. Yes, a tad warm, but the juiciness is thoroughly enjoyable as is the ripe fruit nature of this wine, with a long and pleasing finish. While not as “classy” as, for example, Haut Bailly, this is very pleasurable. (93 pts.)

Tasted late last year as part of the Grand Cercle tasting in Bordeaux 

Grand Cercle: Among over 150 wines tasted, some choices from Graves and Pessac-Léognan recently bottled 2015 vintage.

  • 2015 Château Seguin – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan (11/30/2017)
    An excellent Pessac Léognan. Smooth and contoured, ripe fruit, with pleasing silky aspects. Long finish. (91 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Roquetaillade La Grange – France, Bordeaux, Graves (11/30/2017)
    A smooth and easy expression of supple red fruit. Medium bodied juicy aspects appeal, and there is lift on the medium finish. A nice by the glass selection at a restaurant, for example! (90 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Saint-Robert Cuvée Poncet Deville – France, Bordeaux, Graves (11/30/2017)
    Another fine wine here. Medium plus body with a lip smacking ripe fruit aspect, but fine structure and tannin to match grilled steak. Yum! (90 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Crabitey – France, Bordeaux, Graves (11/30/2017)
    I enjoy the ripe red and dark fruit impressions, and the palate has finely textured tannin albeit just a bit drying on the finish. Solid wine. (89 pts.)
  • 2015 Clos Floridene – France, Bordeaux, Graves (11/30/2017)
    Overall sense of charm aromatically, with brambly red fruit, but a tad underripe and hard tannins detract from the tasting experience… (87 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Haura – France, Bordeaux, Graves (11/30/2017)
    The overall impression is a wine that seems underripe, a bit rustic and hard on the finish. (85 pts.)

The whites

  • 2015 Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A lovely surprise from this estate whose high percentage of new oak sometimes masked the fruit in their white wines, but – as owner Emilie Gervoson told me – only 50% new oak was used for aging the 2015 (as opposed to the 100%). It shows here, as the blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon comes across fresh and rich. A very enjoyable wine for a decent price I would think, and a fine performance for a vintage that did not favor whites, really. (92 pts.)

As stylish as ever, Emilie Gervoson of Château Larrivet Haut Brion explains how her wines are now embracing freshness and elegance over thickness and (too much) oak.

  • 2015 Château de Chantegrive Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves
    Hard to resist this fine Graves, especially as the price is (more than) right. There is a chipper cool impression that surprises the taster for the vintage, and also a thick aspect that lends substance to the palate without ever being heavy. Love the salty iodine like freshness throughout. Nice! Get the oysters out. (91 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Carbonnieux Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Tasted after the Chantegrive, one gets a more yellow fruit expression, with a touch of exotic aspects like Kiwi and papaya. Yet there is salinity and even a hint of green. Perhaps the estate picked some grapes earlier to maintain freshness? I like it, but not as much as I was expecting to. (90 pts.)

  • 2015 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    An excellent white! Sure, not reaching the heights I think of the previous vintage, but there is excellent dry extract and structure for aging, even if the acidity is a bit lower than optimal. And this was a better showing than from barrel. The aromas presage opulence, with white pear and apricots aplenty combined with a seafaring saltiness that lends freshness. The palate includes some wet stone aspects that retain interest, even if there is a kind of broadness and a touch of headiness to the wine. Overall, an excellent white! (94 pts.)
  • 2015 Château La Tour-Martillac Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A somewhat disappointing showing from an estate that usually does better in warmer vintages. I get the feeling that grapes were picked (a bit too) early to maintain freshness, and that the ripeness is not optimal. It has a brisk aspect to be sure, and other tasters enjoyed the freshness, but I think it lacks enough balance. (88 pts.)

Bravo La Louvière: one of the best whites from Pessac-Léognan at a (very) nice price.

  • 2015 Château La Louvière Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    Bravo to La Louviere this year! Made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, which seemed to handle the heat better than Semillon, this wine is one of the best whites of the vintage – and the price should not be too onerous. There is a smooth and creamy texture, and yet you get fine balance and freshness, too. Bravo! (92 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    A very enjoyable white for the vintage. Owner Severine Bonnie explained how a certain amount of lees stirring lends mid palate richness, and you do get that. But also important is excellent balancing freshness to this wine, that seems surprising for the vintage. Sure, their 2014 is more precise and more fresh, but this is a darn good bottle of white. (92 pts.)

Severine Bonnie of Château Malartic Lagraviere: Another fine white in a challenging vintage.

  • 2015 Château Pape Clément Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    The style is opulence times ten – and I like it in 2015! The blend of 46% Sauvignon Blanc, 44% Semillon and the rest Sauvignon Gris – aged in 60% new oak – exudes apricot jam, licorice, and nougat. Hard to resist, and it does not come across flabby. Heady? Yes. If you are in the mood for this sort of wine, as I sometimes can be, go for it! (92 pts.)

Cool labels, excellent white Smith Haut Lafitte.

  • 2015 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
    An excellent white that comes across subtle and elegant as well as dense and thick: an interesting melange, would you not agree? The wine initially has a slightly closed nose, but then reveals sweet herbal perfume like aromatics, white flower and then white stone fruit. The palate then has density and richness, and – sure – there is the vintage aspect, but it has fine balance. A really very good white for 2015. (93 pts.)

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