Ode to France, Les Accabailles and Les Crus Classés de Graves
Tasting dinner of top Pessac-Léognan wines at Château Carbonnieux
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
21 November 2019
A round-trip on the high-speed train TGV traversing France from Strasbourg to Bordeaux and back took less than 6 hours. No stop in Paris. Comfy, first class seat at €170: Convenient, efficient and greener than flying or driving. I visited friend and wine author Jane Anson, who is about to publish a massive tome on Bordeaux wines. She and her husband Francis live in Bordeaux, a city that Alain Juppé has made most beautiful during his tenure as mayor. And then? A wonderful dinner on 11 November this year at Château Carbonnieux to mark the 2019 harvest in a fête known as “Les Accabailles”.
Each year, the 14 châteaux classified as Crus Classés de Graves take turns to host the event. Château Carbonnieux organized the 11 November evening this year featuring the cuisine of two-star Michelin chef Hélène Darroze. Jean-Jacques Bonnie of Château Malartic Lagravière, and president of the Crus Classés de Graves, joined Eric Perrin of Château Carbonnieux to moderate ceremonies throughout the dinner, attended by some 200 people.
Classified “great growths” in 1953 (and in 1959), the top estate is Château Haut-Brion, which had been earlier classified as “First Growth” in 1855, the only non-Médoc red wine included in that classification. Since 1987, they are categorized as Pessac-Léognan appellation wines, a distinction for what is considered superior terroir in the northern part of the Graves region, which takes its name from its stony terroir. Recognized for their superior quality as far back as the 17th century, these top Graves all have rich histories, as exemplified by the host château.
About Château Carbonnieux
Like so many other estates in Bordeaux, this one boasts a lovely castle, tracing its history back to the Middle Ages, as the name Carbonnieux is said to come from a family called “Carbonius” or Carbonnieu, who cleared and cultivated land near Léognan at the beginning of the 13th century.
The region has experienced many ups and downs, from ruined harvests and epidemics to peak historical periods.
The Jefferson Tree
Soon to be President Thomas Jefferson, a gastronome and great wine lover, went on a grand tour of France to discover its vineyards. In 1786, he selected a few famous estates and his diary shows that he came to Carbonnieux to taste the “Wine of the Odalisques” as it was then called in the United States.
Jefferson left his mark at the estate by planting an American pecan tree on the grounds of the château. Over two centuries old, the tree still takes pride of place in the estate’s inner courtyard today.
The Perrin Era
After the two World Wars, Bordeaux viticulture had reached a very low ebb. There was a terrible frost in the winter of 1956 and in that year, Marc Perrin bought the estate and began renovation of the château and its vineyard. With the help of his son, Antony, he replanted vines that took the estate to 45 hectares in 1970, then to 70 hectares in 1980, to reach almost 95 hectares today. When his father passed away, Antony took over to build a new fermentation cellar and modernized the cellars to adapt to new vinification methods. He continued restoring the château and the vineyards and focused on increasing the renown of Carbonnieux and Bordeaux wines throughout the world. I had gotten to know him too in my earlier years covering Bordeaux and he was a great, welcoming person for the region. He was president of the Union of Grands Crus de Bordeaux, president of the Crus Classés de Graves as well as being one of the forerunners of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. Over the years, he passed on the winemaking heritage and his skills to his children Eric, Christine and Philibert Perrin, who took over after his death in 2008. In the footsteps of his father, Eric held the office of president of the Crus Classés de Graves between 2012 and 2015. Since 2017, Philibert has been president of the Pessac-Léognan appellation.
Unitatis facit fortitudinem
The spirit of unity amongst the 14 estates – from 1855 first growth Haut Brion by way of Domaine de Chevalier and Haut Bailly, to Bouscaut and Olivier among others – was palpably positive and joyful for this evening gathering, in evidence at a pre-dinner tasting of 2017 and 2016 wines. With reds and whites of high quality, Pessac Léognan is my overall “go-to” appellation in Bordeaux, if I had to choose just one.
A grand dinner
I did not stay for dessert, which I heard was excellent, but highlights from the dinner crafted by Hélène Darroze included a bed of caviar over which a velvety bean and corn velouté was poured. White wine matches including the Château Carbonnieux Blanc 2011 proved excellent.
The langoustine was very good, but the top accolades to the roasted pigeon served with foie gras, all encased in a Beef Wellington style puff pastry. The cèpe mushrooms and roasted potatoes made the whole culinary affair divine. An à point Château Olivier 2001 went very well with the course, as did an exceptional Domaine de Chevalier 2000.
The cheese – an excellent Ossau-Iraty from south-western France – proved a fine match for perhaps the very best dinner wine of the evening, the La Mission Haut Brion 1996, which reflects a wine of slow and regular maturity in that vintage, known for its long Indian Summer. And yet it was a bit different at this great property.
La Mission Haut Brion 1996
One key fact here is that the Merlots had been harvested before a bout of rains at the end of September, so that the blend is more Merlot – 61% – and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon. “Indeed some properties profited from excellent October weather to harvest later, but our Merlots were excellent and some of our Cabernet plots were hit by rains so we decided to have a majority of Merlot”, explained Turid Hoel Alcaras of the estate.
So you get aromatic notes of dark chocolate mousse and plum pudding. There is however a pleasing “Graves” expression of spicy crushed tobacco from the Cabs. Overall? Maybe not as good as the 1998, but just delicious. The palate is juicy and opulent but well structured. Eminently drinkable.
Pre dinner tasting notes – Reds (2016) It was interesting to revisit these reds some 11 months after an assessment that I had done in Philadelphia in January this year.
As usual, when bold, I liked in particular. When red and bold, even more. If underlined, too, a wine nirvana.
- 2016 Château Haut-Bailly – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Elegance and tobacco. What cool blue fruit, tasted just after the Haut Brion. A less opulent style, but such refinement. And it is just coming just a bit more out of the obvious shell that I had experienced in January this year. Very long finish. (96 pts.)
- 2016 Domaine de Chevalier – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
What excellent crushed tobacco. Fine acidity lends energy to the deep ripe fruit red and black, making this wine fulfill its promise from barrel and echo again the positive impression that I had enjoyed in January this year. (96 pts.)
- 2016 Château Carbonnieux – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Smooth and fun! What can you say ? This is tasty wine. Not as long as the top reds of this tasting, but in terms of sheer pleasure of drinking, hard to resist, as it combines floral aromatic freshness with ripe red fruit. Fine balance, too. (93 pts.)
- 2016 Château Couhins – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
A bit strict and cool on the nose but opens up with with time in glass, and I like its acidity and freshness. I had a similar impression in January this year in Philly. What you need to do if opening this year is to carafe the wine, as it needs air. Then you get the ripe red and black fruit as well as the grip. Perfect with grilled steak. (93 pts.)
- 2016 Château de Fieuzal – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Nose is lovely, with some black tea, ripe plum and graphite, but the palate comes across a tad noticeably extracted in style (the oak tannin, perhaps). You feel the winemaking, in other words, but the wine is still delicious and earns an “A” grade in that it conveys ripe fruit and a burgeoning complexity of aromas and flavors. Not much different in expression as compared to the January tasting in Philly this year. (91 pts.)
- 2016 Château La Tour-Martillac – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
It has closed down since my more effusive review in January, which – as we all know – shows that wine is a living product . You get bright red fruit and the fresh lifting aspect on the palate, but some 10 months later in bottle, it shows slightly steelier, which could use a bit more richness. Warmer vintages such as 2018 may serve this estate’s reds better, but this 2016 is lovely. It recalls the structure of the 2005 vintage, which we enjoyed over dinner later that evening, and that wine is a keeper, as I think 2016 will be. (93 pts.)
- 2016 Château Smith Haut Lafitte – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Another case where the wine may be closing down. But the depth and density are undeniable as is the savory, somewhat modern style. Plenty of opulence and pleasure here to be had, but it needs more time in the cellar. (95 pts.)
- 2016 Château Olivier – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
OK, I am revising my impression from barrel – and from the January tasting earlier this year. What airy elegance and spicy fruit! This is lovely. It comes across more open and less “standoffish” than in January this year in Philadelphia. (93 pts.)
- 2016 Château Pape Clément – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Quite opulent and the oak is there too but not as much as in previous vintages.
Had a somewhat heady aftertaste, but only just so as this is 2016. Have to tip my hat to this estate in this vintage especially. Nice job. (94+ pts.)
- 2016 Château Bouscaut – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
As with Olivier, a noticeably positive development in bottle, as the wine comes across more noble and and exudes lovely aromatic and flavor nuance. It was tasting better this evening, nearly 10 months later. Less overtly rich in expression that I experienced from the Philadelphia tasting. (93 pts.)
- 2016 Château Haut-Brion* – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
2016 is magnificent and it moved me to make a video, see below, which I have posted on Facebook but now here on wine-chronicles. I loved it from barrel as one of the top wines of the vintage and it fulfills its promise from bottle. What richness and refinement, what precision and opulence with burgeoning tobacco. A tour de force and arguably the first among the firsts of 2016. (100 pts.)
- 2016 Le Clarence de Haut-Brion – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
The attack is elegant and the palate texture smooth. Some density although I sense just a hint of extraction that makes the winemaking “noticeable”. Give it time in your cellar and it should be fine in a five years or so. (93 pts.)
- 2016 La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Quite a muscular second wine from LMHB. You sense the extraction here. It is powerful with ripe fruit, however, and should have staying power. This begs five more years in the cellar before daring to touch. (93 pts.)
- 2016 Château La Mission Haut-Brion – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
If the second wine needs five years time, this needs double that in your cellar. This is a powerful wine that comes across more Pauillac than Graves. Already the color is deep purple still like a barrel sample and the nearly 80% new oak tannin is well integrated but present along with the tannin from the blend of 57.5% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon. While Haut Brion manages depth and breadth with sheer elegance, LMHB is more of the former along with extra power. (96 pts.)
Tasting notes – Whites (2017) 2017 is turning out to be quite a nice white wine vintage. May not have the precision of 2014, but it has opulence and acidity.
- 2017 Domaine de Chevalier – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Special mention for the second wine, which shows depth and focus and can match up to some of the first wines from this evening’s tasting! I plan to buy some. The first wine displays gorgeous refinement. Burgundian. A wine that somehow recalls the 2012 from bottle that we enjoyed over dinner, as it has just as much breadth, but better in the sense that there seems to be more focus in 2017. A wine to buy: it sings as much as it did from barrel. (96+ pts.)
- 2017 Château Carbonnieux – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Lovely nose. White peach. Soft spoken aromas. Palate has cool elegance. Also lovely lemon peel, hay and meadow aspects coming across this medium bodied, refined wine. And the fine showing of the 2011 over dinner reassures. I like it more than from barrel, as the aging has fleshed out the wine. Very good indeed. (93 pts.)
- 2017 Château Couhins – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
White peach. This has a crispier aspect as compared to the Carbonnieux, tasted just before, with a bit more bite. Less elegant perhaps than Carbonnieux and a touch warmer, too. But good structure and edge for food pairing. (92 pts.)
- 2017 Château de Fieuzal – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Almost a sweet nose. There is richness, but more up front than, say, the Bouscaut, tasted just before. Like Watermelon candy. The palate has depth and can match up to shrimp scampi or seared scallop, but the finish is a bit shorter than some top whites from this tasting, so I would rank – so far – Bouscaut and Carbonnieux – higher up. (91 pts.)
- 2017 Château La Tour-Martillac – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
An excellent vintage at this estate and fulfills the promise from barrel, as the wine reflects ripeness of fruit, richness and robustness in the form of yellow juicy peach. A very good showing! (93+ pts.)
- 2017 Château Malartric-Lagravière – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
What a lovely nose of lime and white flower that exudes refined elegance! There is a hint of oak, but I love the polish here. Smooth. Not as “contoured” as Domaine de Chevalier, but juicy and refined at once. Fulfills promise from barrel and gets on the high end of my range. (95 pts.)
- 2017 Château Smith Haut Lafitte – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Quite opulent. Coming across somewhat tropical but also with orange cake and zesty orange peel. Pretty much as predicted from barrel, a very fine showing if not as focused as the 2016 or 2014. (94 pts.)
- 2017 Château Olivier – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
White peachy elegance. The aromas are vivid and ripe and juicy and come across even more on the palate as if you are biting into a juicy white peach, but also with a lime-like lift on the palate, that remains brisk without being steely through to a long finish. There is much refinement overall in this wine’s expression, and it again fulfills promise from barrel. (94+ pts.)
- 2017 Château Pape Clément – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Distinct yellow peach juiciness from this blend of 40% Semillon and 45% Sauvignon. Juicy and vivid yellow peach. Lovely and opulent. Nice job. 14% alcohol. Better than it was from barrel and I give it a red and bold this time. Very nice job! (94 pts.)
- 2017 Château Bouscaut – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Nearly 40% of the production was lost due to frost but what remains is a fine expression of richness and ripeness and of crisp freshness. Charnu. Excellent! Indeed, the range I gave this wine en primeur was between 91-93 and it gets on the higher score of that range from bottle. I am a buyer! (93 pts.)