Stars among the more challenged
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
24 January 2021
Some estates shined bright, but the nature of the vintage challenged Margaux more than it did Saint Julien and Pauillac, or for that matter, the cooler limestone and clay soils of the Right Bank. Yet I do wonder whether we critics may be rushing to score after an immediate opening of the bottles, spending but an hour with some of these wines that come across tannic and powerful, requiring aging to be sure. Nevertheless, in some cases fruit ripeness comes with harder tannins. Sometimes the wines come across more like powerful Pauillacs than Margaux, so it will be a question of assessing again in 10 years to see where they will be. The very best wines display Margaux refinement and grace as well as power and density. Unless otherwise noted – for example some Cru Bourgeois and Châteaux Palmer and Margaux – the wines listed below were tasted blind at Château Marquis d’Alesme Becker on 5 November, with Jane Anson and Yohan Castaing.
Tasting notes in alphabetical order, and as usual: when in bold, I liked in particular. If red and bold, even more. And if underlined, too, a kind of wine nirvana.
Château d’Arsac – Not tasted blind. This wine, delivered to Strasbourg as part of the Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel wines, with thanks to the Alliance de Cru Bourgeois, rather exemplifies my intro text. It certainly needs time to settle down, and I had the luxury to be able to revisit. The nose displays crushed mint and pencil lead, reflecting the 72% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend that includes 28% Merlot. There is tannic edge to the wine that clocks in at 13.5% alcohol that on day one seemed charmlessly hard but less so over a two-day period. I do appreciate the impressive density and power, but the wine does not reflect the elegance one expects from the appellation, so I will be rather conservative in my positive score. 91
Château Boyd Cantenac – Aged in 80% new oak, this blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot and the rest Cabernet Franc exudes evident toasty notes on the nose along with ripe dark fruit and spicy notes. There is a certain freshness here, clocking in at 13.5% alcohol, and impressive density and tannic edge for aging, although it lacks, again, enough Margaux charm for a higher score. Revisit in 10 years! 93
Château Brane Cantenac – This estate made a savvy 2018 entry. The blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, having aged in 70% new oak, does initially feel a tad austere, but give it time in glass. The ripe fruit and palate density are both agreeably present. And the quality of the tannin reveals itself as refined, if somewhat foreboding. Imagine trying over a few days… As the technical sheet indicates, and I agree: “Undoubtedly a Brane of long aging in a vintage with great potential.” The alcohol is 13.5% with a pH of 3.78. Thing is, the 2019 from barrel is the more charming of the two. I would have loved to have been able to spend more than 90 minutes with this bottle. 94+
Château Cantenac Brown – This blend of 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc, having aged in 60% new oak barrels, has fine ripe fruit expressions and impressive length, but at this early stage, I sense the oak tannin quite a bit and a wine leaving an overall impression of being disjointed, which is atypical from this estate. Could it have been the sample? Note reserved.
Château Dauzac – This blend of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon and 32% Merlot, aged in 65% new oak, exudes balance and elegance, making up an excellent showing for Margaux in 2018. Sure there is much hot gravel but also deep clays that helped to maintain freshness for this vintage. And the palate has a suave aspect. Sure, the finish has austerity, but give that time in your cellar and crack open a bottle starting in 2026. Overall, a success. 93+
Château Desmirail – I am getting a sense of more juiciness in recent years from this estate that too often has come across too oaky. And yet this blend of 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Petit Verdot still conveys a bit too much oak-driven and drying tannin on the finish. It clocks in at 13.5% alcohol. 90
Château Durfort Vivens – Tasted at the estate with owner Gonzague Lurton, the overall aspect to this blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot and the rest 7% Cabernet Franc is one that is initially tight on the palate. Time in glass brings burgeoning sumptuousness along with distinct floral notes. A serious wine, and one that has been improving in recent years. “We wanted to avoid overly oxidative winemaking, which was happening even 10 years ago,” Lurton explained. Clocking in at 13.5% alcohol, the wine has aged in over 30% amphorae. “There is less oxygenation, so we use less sulfites,” he explained. Only about 7,000 bottles made in 2018, given the mildew attack. I like the second wine, Relais de Durfort Vivens (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 1% Cabernet Franc, aged in 20% new oak), as it comes across bright and precise, for current drinking. 94
Château Ferrière – Tasted at Château Durfort Vivens, this is one of my favorite Margaux in 2018, for price/quality ratios. The juiciness and crushed mint aspects seduce the taster, in a wine blending 65% Cabernet Sauvignon along with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. While lacking the seriousness of the Durfort Vivens, which I think has more density, albeit closed in for now, this has greater youthful exuberance. 93
Château d’Issan – A great success for the vintage, this blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, having aged in 50% new oak, it comes across rather rich but also very nuanced: you get some foreboding tannin too. I like the sumptuous nature, where the alcohol is well integrated (just under 14%). A top wine from the blind tasting, sure, but 2019 from barrel may turn out better. Almost to 96 points, but let us revisit in 10 years! 95+
Château du Tertre – I love the spicy nose no doubt coming from the whopping 14% Petit Verdot in the blend, which includes 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc. No doubt the cooler clay soils brighten the brisk attack, followed by a full-bodied palate, that has Cabernet structure and Merlot opulence. And yet I do sense some alcoholic warmth (about 14.5% alcohol) on the finish, which makes 2018 take a back seat to 2016. 92+
Château Giscours – One of the most opulent – and high-octane – Giscours I can recall tasting. This blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot and 6% Petit Verdot, having aged in 50% new oak, leaves you with an overall ripe image that transcends the oak, so that you get flamboyant, ripe fruit, and yet… it could be the deep hot gravels that yield a wine that lacks the same level of finesse from the 2016 vintage, which I prefer. The alcohol is 14.5% 94
Château Kirwan – Could it be a sample issue? The nose was quite reductive, but there was ‘a lot going on’ in the palate. Note reserved.
Château Labegorce – Also tasted but not blind. The oak on the palate is a bit annoying but it is better on the palate, exhibiting density and some orange rind freshness on the finish. There is a lot “going on” here and I bet it just needs about another five years in the cellar to settle but it is a pity that the oak extraction feels a wee too much from bottle. 91
Château Lascombes – Well, well, well! I rather like this entry, blending 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and the rest Petit Verdot, the Lascombes communicates ripe fruit, refined tannin and density in a very suave manner. I am happy that the oak management continues to have improved in recent years. Not too long ago, I would approach this estate with worry as one detected the oak aromas more easily. Here we have fine integration of all elements, aged in 60% new oak with alcohol clocking in at 14.5% but not expressing much 2018 heat. 94
Château Maléscot Saint Exupéry – You have to love the ripe blackberry and blackcurrant aromas and flavors, indeed the dark blackberry aspects are especially vivid, and somewhat jammy (alcohol 14.5%). While not as focused as Brane Cantenac, or as spherically impressive as d’Issan, this is an impressive wine! I kept saying “there is tannin” here and the density made me sense Pauillac more than Margaux. Certainly successful in 2018 from bottle, and bravo! 94
Château Margaux* – I love the pristine aromas of cigar box, crushed mint and other kinds of fine herbs mingling with ripe red and black fruits. The overall impression is a wine very refined, full bodied and nuanced. The palate of this blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot displays power, with fine yet foreboding tannin leading to a long, precise finish. Tasted in early November and bottled on 18 September this year, this also is a powerful, tannic vintage. Indeed, in a Zoom call, director Philippe Bascaules agrees that the grand vin will need “10 years to soften up a bit”, and I recalled how he raised concern over hydric stress due to the lack of rain in the summer of 2018. He had said that he had “never seen” such water stress before in his career: Typically water stress affects younger vines, but in 2018 “even 15 year old vines were affected”, and it seems that the well-drained, gravely soils may have been the most susceptible. But the bottled wine – having aged in the usual 100% new oak – has freshness and is a great success of the vintage. The healthy pH of 3.64 pH and the alcohol clocking in at 13.9% makes for fine balance. “I am more comfortable with 13.9 for the first wine than the 14.4 for the Pavillon”, he said. Let’s see how it develops in 10 years. 97+
Château Marquis d’Alesme Becker – An excellent showing tasted blind among other classified growths from the 1855 Classification, this blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon 30% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc, having aged in 65% new oak, comes across seamlessly with plenty of mint freshness to pair with its opulence. Alcohol is 14.5% 94
Château Marquis du Terme – Imposing in its tannin, which is kind of the narrative here for many Margaux wines of 2018, this blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot having aged in 50% new oak is not as elegant as I would like from a high end Margaux like this one, but it will age very well, as it has the tannic edge and ripe fruit. Alcohol is 13%. 92+
Château Palmer* – Bottled in late July, this more than lives up to its from barrel greatness. We know how much the terrible mildew of 2018 struck this estate leaving it without its Alter Ego, but director Thomas Duroux and his team pulled the fine wine cat out of the hat to craft some 60,000 bottles of superb juice. Just as from barrel I love the purity of fruit – deep expressions of cassis and plum – leading to a wine of impressive density. The foreboding tannins from barrel have softened now to the point of adding more grace to that density and indeed an overall expression of fresh fruit on the finish. Duroux says that the biodynamic practices enable higher acidity in the grapes, which certainly help in vintages like 2018. As for the tannin, the wine comes across as “the most powerful ever made” at the estate, Duroux says. Yes, there is a Pauillac aspect as well but with much “Margaux refinement.” It clocked in at 14.3% alcohol, having aged in 70% new oak. 97
Château Paveil de Luze – Another bottle delivered to Strasbourg as part of the Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel wines, and not tasted blind, blends 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot. It exhibits a deep violet color with pleasing primary aromas of cassis, plum, blackberry along with milk chocolate aspects. There is also vague leafiness on the nose and palate, but in a nice way, lending nuance throughout and leading to a finish with charm. A good example of a fine cru bourgeois, indeed officially recognized as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, that delivers the goods (I like the density), but not as impressive when compared to, say, 2016. Has aged 12 months in oak, with 14% alcohol. 92
Pavillon Rouge – Finesse coco powder on the nose, cassis and black cherry candied. You get a sense of the alcohol but there is structure, too. The second wine of Château Margaux was bottled in July this year and director Philippe Bascaules remarked that he is “happy” with quality of the tannin. A touch of Petit Verdot adds a bit of spice, at least to me. The healthy pH of 3.61 however does not prevent you from sensing some vintage heat. The alcohol clocks in at 14.4%. 93
Château Pouget – Here we have rather a wall of tannin, somewhat drying sensations on the finish, along with heat from the vintage. Certainly opulent and in need of time, but the alcohol is felt. Decidedly not in the same league as 2016. 88
Château Prieuré Lichine – Lovely juice! Pure and fruit driven, this blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot, having aged in 45% new oak, comes across more scrumptious and fresher than many others, although you have underlying power and density, too. The alcohol is 14%. 94+
Château Rauzan Gassies – Blending 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot, the wine clocks in at 14% alcohol. A whopping 13.7% of the press wine was used, no doubt contributing to a sensation of high tannin. While this wine exudes much power and edge, the tannin does come across a tad hard and one poses the question: Where is the Margaux elegance? The alcohol is 14% 91
Château Rauzan-Ségla – Lovely floral aromatics leap from the glass, leading to a brisk attack that shows tannic bite, again that almost Pauillac like power from this vintage for some estates. The blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 2% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot leave you with the impression of density and power albeit with floral aspects reflecting Margaux. Aged in 65% new oak, the tannic elements are well integrated but best to cellar for 10 years for its early drinking window. Tasted again at Château Canon in Saint Emilion with similar impressions. The 2018 clocks in at 14% alcohol. It will be great to taste the 2019 once in bottle, because from barrel, I prefer the younger sibling for its greater (perceived) freshness. Bravo to the second wine, Ségla: scrumptious and gourmand, it is worth purchasing to enjoy before you go to the grand vin. 95