The starting point: an informal tasting of some 1998’s at Château Soutard
It’s been a while since I last decided to make a short trip into a wine region in a fairly improvised manner, by which I mean with no particular plan and just the idea of having fun and learning something. After a couple of days teaching groups of MBA students at the INSEEC school in Bordeaux, and thanks to an invitation from Château Soutard in Saint Emilion, this short trip started in the evening with this very enjoyable and interesting tasting of 6 wines from the 1998 vintage, 5 of them from the Bordeaux right bank, plus a sort of joker from Australia, Penfolds Bin 707, a pure Cabernet Sauvignon. No notion of competition here, just the pleasure and interest of tasting, semi-blind, the wines shown below. Only the Bin 707 was served from an uncovered bottle, the others were served in decanters.
Château Soutard has been magnificently restored by its new owners, La Mondiale, since 2006. It certainly helps to have a solid budget available when restoring one of the region’s finest houses! The idea of this tasting germinated during an informal discussion a few weeks ago between Véronique Corporandy, cellar-master at Soutard, Thomes Duclos, the estate’s consultant enologist from Oeno Team, Ludovic Martin, a wine merchant from Saint Emilion, and myself. I said that I would bring a different 1998 as a contribution and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a bottle of Penfolds Bin 707 for the occasion. They wanted Grange 1998, but it seems pretty much unattainable these days and in any case I thought that it made more sense to bring a wine made with a Bordeaux grape variety. For the tasting during dinner organized thanks to M et Mme de Villaines, the hosts at Soutard, we were joined by Olivier Brunel, the estate’s vineyard manager.
The wines, apart from the Australian, were all from Saint Emilion and Pomerol. The idea was to see how each had fared over almost 20 years since their vintage, and what they tasted like now. I won’t give you any long tasting notes here for two reasons. Firstly, as I said, this tasting took place during dinner and I don’t find it easy to make detailed notes on such occasions. Secondly I tend to find such long notes rather fastidious, too personal and, finally, not very useful. I will just mention the general profile of the wines with some other comments. The order of these notes corresponds to the order of service. As I have already said, the first five wines were served blind.
The wines in their order of serving, from left to right
Cadet Piola 1998, Saint Emilion
Pronounced aromas of plums and prunes, still quite intense with some tannic presence and good freshness. A pleasant surprise.
Larmande 1998 (magnum), Saint Emilion
Very pleasant and softish nose, still edged with its oak upbringing. Fine, with good fruit character and some power behind that. The magnum surely makes it seem younger than its age and confirms the feeling that wines for long keeping should be bought in large bottles when possible. I have some magnums of the 1986 vintage from this estate and I think that I should be opening them soon.
Lafleur 1998, Pomerol
This is a lovely wine, with enormous finesse and was clearly my favourite of this tasting (and that of many of the other tasters also I think). Very fresh and elegant, fine and long on the palate. An extremely stylish wine, quite delicious to drink now. It has that lift and delicacy that I cannot remember tasting in any other Pomerol apart from Vieux Château Certan. But I am not a specialist on Pomerols (or on much else for that matter!).
Soutard 1998, Saint Emilion
This was a disappointment. Rather oxidized and tired. The new owners would surely not have produced this!
La Fleur Petrus 1998, Pomerol
Quite rich but rather more ordinary than La Fleur, the other Pomerol in this series. It has aged well however and will clearly last for longer.
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia
This bottle was closed, perfectly it must be said, with a cork. It shows more density, warmth and intensity of fruit flavours than all the others. Still very young and, comparatively speaking, on the massive side. Could easily last for another 20 years and would be my choice if one was looking at that perspective.
Stage 2 : across the water to Dompierre in the Médoc
The next day I had decided to visit an old acquaintance, Michel Aroldi, whom I had not seen since a memorable tasting and evening at Château Plein Point in Fronsac back in 2007 during Vinexpo, together with a bunch of his winemaker friends including the late, lamented Didier Dagueneau. Aroldi has since sold his Fronsac estate, partially because he wanted to make wines from Cabernet Sauvignon (so maybe I should have taken the Bin 707 to him?). So he moved across the estuary and found an otherwise run-down estate but with a fully restored dwelling house near Saint Laurent, with 11 hectares of vines that are spread between three appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Pauillac. Michel is largely self-taught and pretty inventive in terms of wine making so I was very curious to see what he has done with his beloved Cabernet.
Michel Aroldi in some of his vines, with a view of the Gironde estuary in the background
The man has firm ideas about what he wants from a wine, and these are based around one essential ingredient: the quality and ripeness of its fruit flavours. To achieve this he works with a number of guiding principles. The soils are tilled and only organic fertilizers are used. The vines are pruned low and bunches never receive any sprays. Grapes are hand-picked into 10 kilogram boxes before being transported to the winery in refrigerated trucks at 3°C and then cold-stored before sorting on modern sorting tables after de-stemming. Both fermentation and ageing take place in oak vats (no stainless steel tanks or barrels are used) which are renewed every four years on average. CO2 is extensively used to avoid any oxidation and to reduce sulphur input. This also creates a pressurized environment during fermentation to avoid pumping-over. The pressure makes the juice bubble up to the top of the vat by itself and the cap is maintained within the juice by a loose grid and a slightly conical shape to the wooden vats. Only yeasts present in the cellar are used. Pre-bottling holding tanks are of concrete and are temperature controlled, causing cold precipitation of soldids and thus avoiding both fining and filtering. Sulphur levels are minimal.
His vineyard plots are spread out, deliberately he says, in oder to find the best in each appellation. One of the proofs of their good situation is that they escaped frost damage in 2017, due to the proximity of his vines to the Gironde estuary.
Once again, I cannot at this stage write detailed tasting notes as we tasted the wines during a delicious lunch of pigeon breasts, but I can give a general idea or two of the style. Three wines are produced: the Medoc, from 2015 onwards, is called Les Charmes Dompierre, the Haut-Médoc, La Croix Dompierre and the Pauillac, Dompierre.
Les Charmes de Dompierre 2015, Médoc
(retail price around 12 euros. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot)
Good fruit, already very drinkable without any invasive tannins which seem, on the contrary, very well integrated. It has the warm feeling of wines from this vintage that helps in its charm without being in any way too much.
La Croix Dompierre 2014, Médoc (this wine will be a Haut-Médoc as from 2015)
(retail price 20 euros. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot)
I did not make any notes for this. Sorry!
Dompierre 2013, Pauillac
(retail price 50/60 euros. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon)
What a performance to make this in 2013! Full-bodied and yet very fresh, glorious fruit and perfect balance. Must be one of the best wines from this region and vintage that I have tasted.
I must admit to another shared passion with Michel: Italian motorcycles. Both of us are riders and also past and present owners of various models of Moto Guzzis and Ducatis. I am currently pondering an Aprilia if I can sell my Norton Commando. Any offers out there?
This was a very promising introduction to these wines and I look forward to tasting them in more detail and with more attention in the future. I would recommend anyone to look out for them as they are clearly boxing some way above their respective categories!
Oh, and it rained all the time I was down in and around Bordeaux, almost for five days solid. By all accounts the water tables, which were dangerously low, have been restored. Driving along vineyard tracks between the bleak stumpy vines, winding my way back to the estuary from Saint Laurent, the water in the ditches was almost up to the tracks in many places and I had some fun slaloming between the potholes. Everyone in the vineyard is now hoping for a good shot of cold weather and praying that the frosts do not come later again.