Saint Emilion 2015: Changing Tides

2015 from bottle shows return to freshness, if not for all estates …

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com 

11 March 2018

When assessing more 2015 Bordeaux from bottle at the UGCB tasting in New York, I was struck by just how much fresher some Right Bank wines especially tasted: wines that had not too long ago come across as too heavy handed or exuding too many oak-derived flavors.

Readers know that I have never been a fan of drying, oak-derived tannin in Bordeaux, pretty much since I started writing about my experiences with Bordeaux wines back in 1998. Saint Emilion had seen too much of that, reaching a kind of sad “heyday” with the 2009 and 2010 vintages.

Thankfully, this trend is being reversed – at least to some extent.

With reference to the 2015 vintage, I report happily that several top Saint Emilion member châteaux of the UGCB have been changing their style for the better. This was proven yet again at the 2015 tasting tour at the magnificent Cipriani in New York City earlier this year, where I discovered fine examples of freshness from both Château Clos Fourtet and Château Grand Mayne, which in the first 2000s decade had been too often a bit too heavy and oaky.

Fresher – and better – than ever: plenty to smile about at Clos Fourtet from bottle in 2015

Long before it was a fashion to do so – and like a few other critics and writers – I have long railed against the excesses of new oak combined with high alcohol merlot, which leaves tasters with the unpleasant sensation of drying oak tannins on the finish.

Jean-Claude Berrouet, the long time winemaker at Petrus, decried this tendency, time and again, and seemed sometimes out of fashion. But he was correct.  Another marvelous estate – ok, also very pricey – is Lafleur, which can use up to 20 percent new oak for aging its Merlot. It never had to deal with such criticism… 

Regrettably, even in 2015, some estates continue with this style. A notable example – at least in 2015 – were too many of the wines of Gerard Perse. I suppose some friends who love every vintage of this wine will call me nuts, but Château Pavie underwhelms in 2015. But that is one (very) noteworthy example. As I discovered at a comprehensive tasting organized by the Grand Cercle late last year, as well as with some of the UGCB member wines tasted earlier this year, other Saint Emilion wines can still be quite capable of drying your mouth out.

Glasses a plenty at the UGCB tour tasting in New York City

But let’s focus on the good news.

I tip my hat off to a “freshening” trend in other parts of this storied appellation. Estates across the region are dialing back on the amount of new oak used for aging, especially when alcohol levels in merlot reach 14+…

There is less malolactic in new oak barrels, which can end up having what some critics goofily (yet appropriately) call a “spoofilating” aspect to the wine.

Tannins are being extracted more carefully, more softly.

A case in point is how Château Clos Fourtet 2015 kicks the pants off their 2009, for example. “We are doing less malolactic in barrel,” remarked owner Matthieu Cuvelier. This blend of 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Cabernet Franc clocks in at 14% alcohol, which is well balanced by fine freshness. The 65% new oak very well integrated. And I just loved the depth and nuance to this wine, bringing out a wet stone like freshness that can be understood as a reflection of the fine limestone plateau terroir. One of the best Saint Emilions I tasted from bottle in 2015. Bravo. 95/100

Another example is Château Grand Mayne 2015, which is far better than either the 2009 or the 2010 although a bit more “fiery” than the Clos Fourtet, tasted just before. I recall trying a 2005 with owner Jean-Antoine Nony a couple of years ago, at his home, and we both agreed that it was marked a bit too much by the oak, or at least exuded drying tannins. But the 2015? A different story: It is juicy and round, and follows in the footsteps of their excellent 2014, which was one of my favorite Saint Emilions in that price bracket. Nony explained how consultant Louis Mitjavile, François’s son, has helped to make the wines more elegant and refined. “We have made an effort to accentuate freshness over richness,” he said – and it shows. With the 2015 we are seeing again the style of wine that made the 1998 so darn appealing. 93/100

Saint Emilions from bottle

  • 2015 Château Valandraud – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    A blend of 80% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc, this clocks in at 14.5% alcohol, aged in 90% new oak and it is rich. The powerful tannic aspect (almost “armored”) from en primeur remains, as does a pleasing ripeness with dark fruit, albeit a bit of oak derived tannic austerity marks the long finish. But it should settle with a bit of time in your cellar. (93 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Pavie Macquin – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    The promise from en primeur is realized in bottle. The nose is red and dark fruit sumptuousness. The attack exudes fine and ripe – and juicy – fruit through to the mid palate. Medium bodied freshness indeed, with some intriguing stone fruit and wet stone seriousness as well as the ripe fruit. Alas you do get this touch of oaky extraction on the finish preventing me from giving it a higher score. But the trend of “dialing back” is correct. Nice job! (93 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Larcis Ducasse – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    A truly fine Larcis, marked by a fresh and floral nose, and again not too rich or heady, this blend of 83% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate may not be as exhilarating or evidently opulent as some other wines I tried at this UGCB tasting in New York, but it is a very good Saint Emilion with tannic edge that requires about five years in your cellar to soften for early drinking. (93 pts.)

Fine showing from Beau-Séjour Bécot

  • 2015 Château Beau-Séjour Bécot – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    Better than from barrel. Dark fruit, ripe and rich on the mid palate. The touch of drying tannin on the finish that I had noticed en primeur is dissipating – and what comes to the fore (more) is a friendly and warm expression of fine richness on the palate. A blend of 80% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, this clocks in at just under 14% alcohol. Interesting to note: Thomas Duclos replaced Michel Rolland at this estate as technical consultant since 2017. (93 pts.)
  • 2015 Château Canon – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    Fulfills its promise from barrel with gorgeous wet stone and a creamy texture: structured opulence. This blend of 72% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc clocks in at just 15% alcohol but the balance is there. The fact that the estate did less green harvesting no leaf clearing – to maintain cooler aspects in the ripening process – helped bring about this balance. Coming from Nicolas Audebert, who has replaced John Kolasa, a slight turn towards extra richness works fine here. The hype is warranted. (95 pts.)

Worth the hype 😉

  • 2015 Château Canon-la-Gaffelière – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    It may not be as promising as from barrel, where my enthusiasm was nearly at 95 points. It is however, smooth with a certain vivacity to balance the red and dark fruit richness, expected from this estate. Yes, I like the balance of alcohol at 14% and acidity, but it seems to dry out just a bit: some oak-derivation detracts from the lift on the finish… (92 pts.)
  • 2015 Château La Couspaude – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    Here we have a modern style in the negative sense of the word. The tannins are hard and the finish dries out with oak derived tannins. The blend of 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon was aged in 80% new oak and clocks in at 14% alcohol. Not my style.

  • 2015 Château Dassault – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    This blend of 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits somewhat candied red fruit on the nose, with a smooth and pleasing palate albeit just a tad drying on the finish. But overall, a pleasurable drink! (90 pts.)
  • 2015 Château La Dominique – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    Bravo! Here a case where the in bottle performance outclasses the barrel sample. I like the floral note aromatics and fruit driven yet tobacco like fresh palate: lovely overall. Not too powerful or rich, more elegant and refined, this blend of 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 60% new oak. (93 pts.)
  • 2015 Clos Fourtet – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    I gave this a broad range from barrel (92-95). From bottle? 95! The tannins are being extracted more carefully, more softly than in a while at this fine estate. Château Clos Fourtet 2015 kicks the pants off their 2009. “We are doing less malolactic in barrel,” remarked owner Mathieu Cuvelier. This blend of 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Cabernet Franc clocks in at 14% alcohol, which is well balanced by fine freshness. The 65% new oak is just perfect for the balance, and I just loved the depth and nuance to this wine. One of the best Saint Emilions I tasted from bottle in 2015 – and gives neighbor Canon a run for its money. Bravo! (95 pts.)
  • 2015 Château La Gaffelière – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    Alas, this wine is as disappointing from bottle as it was from barrel, and I tasted it twice from barrel. It lacks the richness and juiciness one would expect from a premier grand cru classé, and even exhibits somewhat hard and slightly drying tannins. Sure it has its virtues: fine body and ripe fruit, but for the price of admission you can go find comparable and even better wines for less.
  • 2015 Château Grand Mayne – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
    Like Clos Fourtet, here we have a Grand Mayne in 2015 that is far better than either the 2009 or the 2010, although a bit more “fiery” than the Clos Fourtet, tasted just before. I recall trying a 2005 with owner Jean-Antoine Nony a couple of years ago, at his home, and we both agreed that it was marked a bit too much by the oak, or at least exuded drying tannins. But the 2015? A different story: It is juicy and round, and follows in the footsteps of their excellent 2014, which was one of my favorite Saint Emilions in that price bracket. Nony explained how consultant Louis Mitjavile, François’s son, has helped to make the wines more elegant and refined. “We have made an effort to accentuate freshness over richness,” Nony said – and it shows. With the 2015 we are seeing again the style of wine that made the 1998 so darn appealing. (93 pts.)

You can find more notes on Saint Emilion 2015s from bottle – including a superb Château Sansonnet – on my Grand Cercle tasting page.

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