Mid May I visited Bordeaux to attend the annual Weekend des Grands Crus, and took the opportunity to tail a friend in the wine business who vists Château Haut-Brion to taste en primeur. This means tasting barrel samples of the youngest vintage, in this case the 2012 vintage. Slightly earlier in the spring, the major en primeur circus take place, when hordes of people in the wine trade descend on the region to taste barrel samples and to get their first impression of the most recent vintage. The most important factor that determins the interest in the vintage are the scores published by Robert Parker based on the en primeur tasting. The reason why this is such a big event is that the Bordeaux wines to a large extent are sold en primeur by the producers, which is to say that they are sold before they have finished their elevage and are bottled. En primeur is therefore a kind of futures contract for the delivery of the finished wine. The producers sell to négociants (“wholesale dealers”) who in turn sell to foreign importers, wine retailers or private buyers.
Well, back to Pessac, a suburb of Bordeaux located just inside the beltway, where Château Haut-Brion and some other wine estates and their vineyards are squeezed-in among the surrounding suburban buildings. The appellation of these châteaux is Pessac-Léognan and it is a part of Graves. Léognan is located just outside the beltway. Haut-Brion the neighbouring La Mission Haut-Brion have the same owner since 1983, Domaine Clarence Dillon, and the tasting included all their wines from their own estates in the 2012 vintage. This meant six red and three white wines. Both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are produced in both a red and a white version, and each have a red second wine and share a common white second. On top of this, Dillon nowadays also own a property in Saint-Émilion now called Château Quintus, and its first and second wines were also presented.
Château Haut-Brion may not need much of an introduction to those who take in interest in Bordeaux, so I’ll keep it short. Their history go back to the 16th century, they were the first Bordeaux sold under the name of the proporty (English records of Hobriono in 1660 and Ho Bryan in 1663 are known, and demonstrate that in the long run, correct French spelling isn’t that much to waste your energy on) rather than under a more generic “Claret” designation. In the grand cru classification of 1855, they became one of four premier cru classés, the highest level, and the only wine from Graves to be included in the otherwise completely Médoc-dominated list. Their grand cru status were unsurprisingly confirmed in Graves’ own classification of 1953.
The general verdict of the 2012 Bordeaux vintage at this stage is that many good wines have been produced, but that it isn’t a top vintage. By the way, the 2011 vintage was described much in the same way. There seems to be a widespread consensus that the right bank was the most successful, i.e., the Merlot-dominated wines. On the left bank, the Graves wines are considered to have come out better than the Médoc wines. A view on many of the left bank wines, and in particular those of Médoc, is that they are “hollow in the middle”. All this refers to the red wines. The dry white wines of the vintage – which are mostly produced in Graves when we talk about the higher levels – are considered to be very successful, and better than the red. Sauternes on the other hand have had many problems, so many properties there (such as Yquem) will not produce a 2012.
That Merlot was more succesful than Cabernet Sauvignon in this vintage, and that the dry white are very good, was noticeable in this interesting tasting. The varietal composition of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion in comparison to the red second wines were telling in this regard. The first wines have an exceptional high proportion of Merlot, and the 2012 vintage marks a record proportion of Merlot for Haut-Brion. Compared to the top Médoc wines they have access to a higher proportion of Merlot in the vineyard, and the Graves style is not as exclusively built on Cabernet Sauvignon, so they have have the possibility to make this type of switch between vintages. This is why there was so much Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the second wines, and this means that the first and second wines of the 2012 vintage differ more in style than usual.
My experience of en primeur tasting is rather limisted. I’ve tasted en primeur/barrel samples when some producers have been “on tour” to market en primeurs, and a few times when visiting properties in Bordeaux. This means that my scores should be taken with a larger grain of salt than usual. Although it may bee difficult to judge the balance and the amount of oak at this stage, there is no reason to exaggerate the difficulties involved in tasting en primeur. It is still possible to judge the fruit component, the concentration, the tannins, the acidity and some other things, and most important of all, it is possible to compare different wines in their current state with respect to these parameters. So these en primeur tasting notes probably say at least something after all.
Red second wines
Le Dragon de Quintus 2012
79% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc. Second wine of Château Quintus.
Nose with ripe and sweet dark berries including dark cherries, fruity impression. Palate with ripe and sweet fruit, mostly red berries, good acidity, medium(-) tannins. Fruity and accessible. (88-89)?
La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion 2012
56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28,5% Merlot, 15,5% Cabernet Franc. Second wine of La Mission Haut-Brion.
Nose with blackcurrants and other dark berries, some tar, some dried herbs, a hint of violets. Palate with rather ripe and sweetish dark berries, medium concentration of fruit. Rather noticeable tannic bite, medium+ tannins. Good structure, firm aftertaste, slightly difficult to evaluate. (90-92)?
Le Clarence de Haut-Brion 2012
43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. Second wine of Haut-Brion.
Nose with dark berries, in particular sweetish blackcurrants, slightly green notes with herbs, some earth, very faint note of violets. Slightly more muted than La Chapelle. Palate with dark berries, rather hard, medium+ tannins. Difficult to evaluate, closed on the palate. Out of the tasted wines this one is the most difficult to judge where it will go. (89-91)?
Just as expected from a second wines they are definitely less concentrated, but the varietal composition of the last two, with a high proportion of Cabernets and less of the Merlot fruit, make them come across as slightly hard in style at present. It is not obvious to me that those two second wines, when released, will be very easy to drink when young.
Red first wines
Château Quintus 2012
89% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc.
Nose with sweetish and ripe red and dark berries, including cherries and red currants, slightly flowery notes with a herbal hint. Palate with ripe red and some dark berries (but not as sweet fruit on the palate as the nose hinted at), good concentration, spice, mediu(+) tannins, some minty minerality. (91-93)?
More tannic than the second wine and less accessible.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2012
62% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon. € 150 ex-Bordeaux.
Nose with dark and red berries, including blackcurrants and dark plums, a hint of tar, spice, a hint of barnyard aromas, and some mint. A more expansive nose than the previous wines. Palate with dark berries, blackcurrants and some dark plums, good concentration of fruit, medium++ tannins that are better embedded in the fruit compared to the second wine, leather, spice. Long and tannic aftertaste. (92-95)?
Château Haut-Brion 2012
65,5% Merlot, 32,5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc. € 240 ex-Bordeaux.
Nose with ripe dark berries, dark plums and some blackcurrants and dark cherries, a hint of mint and some cedar wood, some violets. Quite elegant, more complex than the others, the best and biggest-sized nose of the reds. Palate with rather sweetish dark berries, blackcurrants and dark plums, rather tough on the palate, medium++ tannins, some leather, earth, some spice, long aftertaste. Tougher on the palate than the nose indicated, slightly difficult to evaluate. (93-95)?
In case my scores don’t tell this already, both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are definitely big wines in this vintage, and they are definitely classically styled. Possibly, the dominance of Merlot has to some extent shifted the fruit component from blackcurrants to dark plums, but the other aromas are definitely as expected from top-level Graves wines.
La Clarté de Haut-Brion 2012
58% Sémillon, 42% Sauvignon. A joint second wine of Haut-Brion och La Mission Haut-Brion.
The nose is smoky, with wax, yellow apple, some white peach, slightly aromatic. The palate is rather accessible, with yellow apple, slightly oily, and with mint and straw notes, medium acidity. (90-92)?
Slightly less depth than the first wines, but in terms of style and aromas, there were more similarity between the first and second wines on the white side than on the red side.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc 2012
84% Sémillon, 16% Sauvignon. € 480 ex-Bordeaux.
The nose is smoky with wax, yellow apple, pear, hints of honey, some white flowers, some mint. More aromatic than the Clarté but much similarity in the nose. Rather full-bodied on the palate, yellow apple, citrus notes, oily, noticeably minty, medium+ acidity, good freshness, long aftertaste. Clearly more freshness than the second wine. (93-95)?
Paradoxically, at current this wine shows more Sauvignon Blanc style than the Haut-Brion Blanc does (with the exception of gooseberry in the nose), in particular on the palate, despite a much lower proportion of that variety. When I pointed out that this was my impression, our hostess wasn’t surprised, but said that this often was the case, but that it changes over time and that the Sémillon takes over after a while.
Château Haut-Brion Blanc 2012
55% Sauvignon, 45% Sémillon. € 600 ex-Bordeaux.
The nose is slightly smoky, with gooseberry, yellow apple, wax, some honey, a hint of mint, some white flowers and other aromatic notes. Full-bodied on the palate, with yellow apple, citrus, some white peach, oily texture, straw, some honey, some mint, spice, medium+ acidity, and a long aftertaste. (93-95)?
A heavier style than La Mission. More Sauvignon notes in the nose than the other two, but there is definitely a similarity to the other two, although those two are more similar to each other.
To me, it was a dead race between the two white first wines, but I got the impression that my two fellow tasters preferred the Haut-Brion Blanc. Both were truly big wines, and are produced in a style that definitely gains from cellaring. That I score them as high as the red first wine is actually quite high a score coming from me. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy dry white Bordeaux, and definitely thinks that it is a wine style that quite unfairly has been forgotten by too many. That said, I usually don’t feel like scoring the best examples quite as high as the very best reds. So when I actually do, as this time, it’s very high praise for them. Did that come across as understandable or should I have just stopped a few sentences earlier?
Swedish version of the post here.