Decanter Fine Wine Encounter 21st February 2009

There was no sign of a downturn in the fine wine market at the London Decanter Fine Encounter on February 21st 2009.  The usual venue of the Landmark hotel was pretty much mobbed for the whole of Saturday, with all the Master Classes sold out and the event itself fully booked up some days in advance.  Fortunately, the Slurp ‘delegation’ of myself and our Logistics Director Nico Sunnucks were special guests of the prestigious Margaux property Chateau Kirwan, and so we had no trouble gaining entrance.  As usual, the event was slight mixed bag of some great producers, who had really made an effort, combined with some not so great producers who had made almost no effort at all (as we shall see).  None of the Bordeaux First Growths ever attend these events and the super seconds don’t deign to appear either.  But this is fine really, because it gives others a chance to shine as indeed many did.

St-Emilion was first up, starting with Chateau Laroque.  Chateau Laroque 2001 was the best of four vintages shown.  This 80% Merlot / 11% Cabernet Franc wine had a lovely nose of ripe blackberries and violets, supported by dense black fruits on the palate and a smooth finish.  There were pleasing black tea notes as well, which added a bit of intrigue.  Excellent (91 points).  But after that it was downhill.  Chateau Laroque 2003 (which I had had a few times before) was a bit one dimensional next to the 2001, fruit forward and mouth-filling but lacking some charm (88 points).  The Chateau Laroque 2004 had a more eucalyptus and minty nose but after that it was flat and tart.  Not a great success (86 points).  Chateau Laroque 2005 was similarly unimpressive.  A nose of damp wool and rose petals gave way to not very much (86 points).

We slurped a little Chateau Faugères 2002.  The nose here a tad dull but the wine was quite extracted, dense, glowering and interesting.  Not a bad showing at all, although not particularly complex (89 points).  We also tried the Chateau Grand Pontet 2004.  I was expecting a bit more from this well regarded St-Emilion chateau.  This was a fruit forward, four square kind of a wine with some spicy pepper and plenty of acidity.  But the finish was weak and the wine lacked charm (87 points).  Chateau Guadet 2003 was pleasant enough, if somewhat undifferentiated.  Undergrowth/forest floor notes preceded a very pleasing palate (88 points).  The Chateau Guadet 2006 I found to be similarly well made, perhaps a little more interesting with some more pronounced red fruit.  Quite silky and really quite good (89-90 points).

We then crossed the Gironde to the Left Bank.  At the Grand Puy Ducasse stand we tried the Chateau Meyney 2001, which I thought was much better than Robert Parker’s dismal scoring.  The powerful palate was infused with lead pencil and cedar supported by a strong acidic backbone.  Pretty good (89 points).  But the  Chateau Meyney 2004 was much less successful and I noted merely ‘84 points’.  Grand Puy Ducasse 2004 had an uninspired nose but in the mouth the experience perked up a lot.  The wine was quite elegant, finessed and persistent through the whole palate.  Perhaps not quite enough precision of fruit for a really good score, but a good effort (90 points).

I have a soft spot for Pessac Léognan wines and I always check out the lesser known names.  Here one needs to try the whites as well, and we kicked off with a Chateau Bouscaut Blanc 2006.  This had lovely balance and harmony and super honey notes on the palate (88 points).  Chateau Bouscaut Blanc 2007 revealed petrol and slightly rubbery nasal music, but the palate of bracing acidity balanced by trickling honey was pleasant (88 points).  Sticking with Pessac Léognan, we grabbed a flight from Chateau LaTour-Martillac, whites first.  Chateau LaTour-Martillac Blanc 2006 was full of minerals and chalk.  It was quite austere but not unpleasant, and would probably have been better with some shellfish (87 points).  Chateau LaTour-Martillac Blanc 2007 was the same 50/50% blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon much favoured at the moment in white Graves.  This had some nice mineral characteristics combining with honey (88 points).  The reds were also interesting.  Chateau LaTour-Martillac Rouge 2004 had a lovely and typical Pessac nose, earthy, smoky with some green peppers too.  Delightful and harmonious and also interesting (89 points).  The Chateau LaTour-Martillac Rouge 2006 also possesses a smoking nose.  This was more mouth coating and fiery, with quite unresolved tannins.  But there was a length to the finish which was encouraging.  It was quite extracted and was clearly trying quite hard, but I really liked it (89 points).

Chateau Carbonnieux is run by the friendly and amiable Eric Perrin who gave my wife and I an impromptu tasting when we gated-crashed a lunch there in 2007.  Chateau Carbonnieux Blanc 2006 I thought a little thin and dominated by dried grass notes (87 points), but the Chateau Carbonnieux Rouge 2006 was excellent.  Again that Pessac nose of ground down earth was in evidence, and again the tannins were quite fierce and dominant currently.  But having fought past the thorny brambles, underneath there was complexity with earthy, vanilla pod flavours (89-90 points).  Chateau Malartic-Lagravière 1999 had some nice dried herbs and black pepper on the nose.  It was a bit unresolved but not bad for the vintage.  I personally don’t think 1999 Left Banks are drinking too well at the moment, and this was really no exception (88 points).  Chateau Malartic-Lagravière 2002 struggled in what was a difficult year.  It was one dimensional with some hints of greenness at the finish (86 points).

The stand of Les Vignobles André Lurton had a couple of interesting wines.  Chateau La Louvière 2006 had an open and accessible nose, but the palate was very disappointing.  It was thin and lacking in body (84 points).  But a real find for me was the Chateau Dauzac 2005.  This is a Margaux producer and I was immediately seduced by the subtle nose with dark chocolate overtones.  The wine had a lovely mouth feel with good grip and acidity.  It was a whisker tart, as one would expect with a three year old 2005, but it was clearly built to last, with a really decent finish.  Not a well known chateau in the UK but clearly one to watch (90 points).

Chateau Olivier is another Pessac producer generally headed in the right direction.  But you wouldn’t have known it from the Chateau Olivier Blanc 2007.  This was thin and grassy and not at all what I want in a Pessac white.   But the reds were generally better.  Chateau Olivier 2001 had an insipid finish and lacked personality (85 points) but the Chateau Olivier 2003 had a good nose that was open and accessible.  It was drinking really nicely at the moment (88 points).  Similarly the Chateau Olivier 2005, which had a decent nose dominated by undergrowth and damp earth,  was very backward and hard to appreciate at the moment, but the promise was certainly there for a happy future (88 points).

The showing from Bernard Magrez was pretty sorry.  Magrez (who perhaps doesn’t read the FT or watch CNBC) sent merely the second wine of Pape Clement (Le Clémentin du Chateau Pape Clement 2006) and a gaggle of his lesser brands.  Having tried most of these before (and being generally underwhelmed) during a visit to Pape Clement in 2008 I gave the stand a wide berth.

Chateau Lagrange, by contrast, always make an effort - and it is appreciated.  Last year they brought the 1998 as well as current vintages and this time they showed the Chateau Lagrange 1995 alongside the 2006.  The 1995 was really interesting in the glass.  The nose was quite musty with notes of mushrooms, herbs and damp wool.  The mid palate was good but the finish was a little weak for me.  Good - and probably ‘classic’ " but not brilliant (89 points).  Chateau Lagrange 2006 (59% Cabernet Sauvignon / 41% Merlot) was muted on the nose, with just some espresso and mocha aromas peaking through (I even wrote down ‘talcum powder’?).  The palate was quite oak dominated but with the mocha theme continuing.  Not bad - 88 points.

Chateau Fourcas Hosten was a new chateau for me, situated in Listrac and classed as Borgeois Supérieur.  These guys certainly took the show seriously and showed a strong flight of four reds.  Chateau Fourcas Hosten 2003 was a well integrated wine.  It wasn’t overly complex but it had ripe fruit and an accessible style and all was in harmony.  Very quaffable (88 points).  Chateau Fourcas Hosten 2004 was more austere and disjointed, reflecting the more challenging growing conditions of the year (85 points).  But the Chateau Fourcas Hosten 2005 (with 10% Cab Franc in the blend) was a tremendous effort.  It had genuine interest and complexity and a lovely glowering nose with charcoal notes, smoke and dense black berries.  A really strong showing - 89 points.   Finally the Chateau Fourcas Hosten 2006 was also quite drinkable.  It was leaner and more austere than the 2005, as one would expect, but by no means unpleasant (86 points).

Chateau Lafon-Rochet is an St Estèphe producer.  The Chateau Lafon-Rochet 2005 was good.  It was dense and mouth-filling with a nice finish.  A strong and bullish wine (88 points).  The Chateau Lafon-Rochet 2006 was bright with grippy tannins.  Like a lot of 2006s, this is quite difficult to drink right now (especially without food) and I would like to revisit in a few years (87 points).  We also tried the Les Pelerins de Lafon Rochet 2005 which was quite a revelation.  The nose was vibrant with wild strawberries, and it was open and approachable (88 points).

Chateau Sociando-Mallet is a Haut Medoc producer.  The Chateau Sociando-Mallet 2005 had a good nose, with charcoal and black fruits, but the mouth feel was lacking in weight (especially for this vintage) and was disappointing (88 points).  Chateau Sociando-Mallet 2004 had more presence in the mouth, with dusty tannins and was not a bad (88 points).  Chateau Sociando-Mallet 1998 was underwhelming.  It was a little vegetal and grassy.  It was interesting if dried herbs are your thing, but otherwise I would pass on this one (85 points).

Chateau Kirwan, like Lagrange, brought an aged red to slurp alongside their 2006.  Chateau Kirwan 1998 was a new vintage for me (I have had other Kirwans back to 1982) and I was struck immediately by the purity and precision of the nose.  The finish on this wine is super " full of cigar box and pencil shavings.  The mid palate could have done with a little more weight, which held back the score slightly, but nevertheless this is an elegant and aristocratic Margaux which is drinking delightfully right now (90 points).  The Chateau Kirwan 2006 is not at all bad for the vintage.  The tannins are softening a little.  The length is good but there is little to really set the pulse racing (87 points).  We also tried the second wine Charmes de Kirwan 2006.  This was really enticing with notes of melted liquorice and glacier cherries.  A vibrant bright red colour, the palate shows hints of damp bracken and a little smokiness.  It is quite ‘juicy’ wine made in a more modern style.  The finish was good and long.  An excellent Margaux for the money, and to be quite honest I didn’t think it was much inferior to the grand vin (87 points).

We ventured away from Bordeaux for the last 30 minutes of the afternoon, and were rewarded for our adventurousness.  Domaine de la Palenine in the Loire Valley (Saumur) showed a delightful Palenine Saumur Rouge 2007, made from 100% Cabernet Franc.  This wine was pure fun.  The Cab Franc produces a riot of violets and perfume in the glass and the wine has a wonderful purity.  Probably requiring food for its best expression, this was nevertheless a great find (89 points).  The Palenine Allegretto Saumur Blanc 2007 was also successful - refreshing and interesting.  The wine is effervescent, with some ripe banana notes, and was a real contrast to some of the thin Sauvignons we had had earlier (88 points).

The best showing by far was from the Sauternes producers, with Chateau D’Yquem the only notable absentee.  It is sad that this probably reflects the difficulty of selling sweet wines in these days of shortened lunches and skipped desserts, but for those of us who love our ‘sweeties’ it a good time to buy and enjoy great sweet wines at affordable prices.

Chateau Suduiraut 2006 (75% Sauvignon / 25% Semillon) was a delightful Sauternes expression.  It is a very subtle and finessed wine.  There was a little diesel on the nose but all was restrained.  It was very refreshing with some tropical fruit too.  Lovely - 91 points.  Chateau Suduiraut 1999 is a dense wine with real intensity.  It is unquestionably a wine of quality, but I would have liked just a little more freshness at the finish (89 points).  Chateau Climens is produced on predominantly Limestone soils.  The first wine, Chateau Climens 2002, had a kind of inner tube nose which gave way to a lot of sweet honeyed fruits on the palate.  I thought it could have done with more balancing acidity, but was good nonetheless (89 points).  The Cyprès de Climens 2005 was even more cloying.  It really lacked freshness (83 points).   Chateau Coutet is a Barsac Premier Grand Cru Classé.  The Chateau Coutet 2004 (75% Semillion, 23% Sauvignon and 2% Muscadelle) was decent but not great.  There was some freshness but the finish was a bit short.  Chateau Coutet 1998 was more peachy on the notes, but lacked freshness again and was not a success for me (86 points).

Lastly we tried Chateau Guiraud, which is probably my favourite affordable Sauternes.  I was delighted that they had brought three quality wines to show.  Chateau Guiraud 2006 was well balanced and harmonious.  Not a blockbuster, but the acidity was right for me and I thought the Semillon and Sauvignon were working really well together, which is what good Sauternes should be all about (90 points).  The Chateau Guiraud 2002, which I had been drinking at home, was similarly good.  It was beautifully balanced and graceful " everything I need in a Sauternes!  90 points.  Then we had the Chateau Guiraud 1998, which was probably the star of the day for me.  This really was lovely.  Amazing honeyed fruits supported and framed by a wonderfully fresh and refreshing finish.  It wasn’t excessively long, but it was just so balanced, poised and interesting.  It begged another sip (and another after that).  Delicious (92-93 points).

So another intriguing day at the Landmark had passed.  I was a bit disappointed that some of the other Left Bank chateau had not made an appearance.  I can understand why the better known appellations in Pauillac, St Julien and  St Estèphe don’t feel they need to do these shows, but producers like d’Issan, de Tertre, Haut Bailly and la Lagune have all spent a lot of time and money in recent years promoting themselves in the UK, and it would have been good to have seen them here.  But their absence was an opportunity for others, and that is the great thing about the world of wine at the moment, if you snooze you can lose " because there are lots of hard working producers straining every sinew to replace you.  And that can only be good news for slurpers like us!

Jeremy Howard
February 2009