St Emilion 2011: Top of The World
Both Ausone and Cheval-Blanc have seen some significant developments in the last couple of years, although they are changes on a very different scale. At Ausone, the Vaulthiers continue their very modest restoration and improvement of the little château and chai. The tasting almost always takes place in the latter (I do recall tasting in the château two or three years ago, but it was a one-off event), against a backdrop of the warm and honeyed wood and claret-red metalwork of the fermentation vats. The space has now been expanded, modestly so, and thus today it also accommodates a row or two of barrels. As for Cheval Blanc though......well, more on that later.
The range of wines was limited to the six Vaulthier cuvées this year, with Fonbel, Simard, Haut-Simard and Moulin St Georges presented alongside Ausone and the deuxième vin, Chapelle d'Ausone. There has in the past, on occasion, been a much broader range of wines made by Philippe Baillarguet, the maitre de chai at Ausone, to taste as well. While it is always interesting to taste more widely it did tend to make the tasting somewhat more hectic than I would prefer, so I was content to focus my attentions on the five wines listed above this year.
There were some difficulties tasting at Ausone, however, as a majority of the samples showed some reductive characteristics when I visited. With rather muted aromatics, dominated by the scents of matchstick, the wines were not in an ideal condition for assessment. Nevertheless they were, thankfully, not beyond assessment. Provided I am happy that I sense no issue with fruit ripeness in what aromatics I can perceive, the assessment of primeur samples is based much more on how the palate shows rather than the nose. Issues of texture, freshness, acidity, substance, tannin characteristics and how all these elements mesh together, especially how the tannins sit within the rest of the wine, are far more significant than what fruits currently rule on the nose.
It is not unusual for me to find some pleasure in Fonbel; while not the most substantial of wines I find myself drawn to its gentle, unassuming character. It sometimes possesses a sense of lifted elegance, the fruit framed in a very fine point at the centre of the wine, that does remind me quite strongly of Ausone itself. Looking back one vintage, I rated the 2010 rather highly on the basis of just such an elegant showing. But I know Moulin St Georges is also a very popular wine in some quarters, and I certainly found it very promising in this vintage, and it was I think the best of the first four apéro wines. The main talking point is Ausone though, and this year I found it akin to Lafite, in that it was a densely packed, tight and ungiving wine that really needed time alone, to be left to unfurl in the glass, allowing it to show some of its inner potential. It does indeed have great promise, but it is not a gentle style that tasters will warm to quickly; nevertheless I am sure most will have recognised its quality.
Is there a happier man than Pierre Lurton in Bordeaux right now? As the LVMH man on the shop floor he is in charge not only at Cheval Blanc but also Yquem; not a bad combination! And at the former he has seen completion - the official opening was during Vinexpo in 2011 - of his brand new €15 million cellars, complete with custom-built cement fermentation vats, each one linked directly to individual plots of the Cheval Blanc vineyard, a naturally-ventilated barrel cellar, tasting rooms and more. No wonder he spent so much of his time grinning when we met!
As for the wines themselves, before any discussion of Cheval Blanc it is probably more appropriate to look first at the expanding range of other wines. That the team here now look after La Tour du Pin is not really news; this small property, which lies between Figeac and the appellation boundary with Pomerol, close to Cheval Blanc, has been in their hands for a few years now. If my memory serves me correctly (and there is no guarantee of that I'm afraid!) this was the third time they have shown the wine alongside Cheval Blanc at the estate, although they have been making the wine for a year or two longer than that. It is only when the LVMH team feel the wine is of a high enough quality that they pour them at Cheval Blanc, otherwise the wines are relegated to a place at a generic tasting. This has also been the procedure followed with the latest LVMH acquisition, Quinault L'Enclos. This vineyard, previously worked by Alain Raynaud, was purchased a couple of years ago, but the 2010 was shown at the Cercle Rive Droite tasting and not at the château. But now all four wines (including Cheval Blanc and Petit Cheval) are poured together.
Quality here was superb, and all four wines shared a common thread, an enticing, almost haunting scent of violets that I found immediately and consistently appealing. Of the two 'lesser' wines I had a slight preference for Quinault L'Enclos, its smoky stance just a shade more elegant than La Tour du Pin's deliciously velvety texture. As for Petit Cheval, this showed beautifully, and it was hard to think that it was in fact a 'mere' second wine; have the new facilities here at Cheval Blanc resulted in a ratcheting up of quality? In fact, I did think it was perhaps one of the most supple, seductive and appealing second wines I have ever tasted. Although perhaps not the most remarkable second wine ever...after all, that came the following day in Pomerol. As for Cheval Blanc itself, this is rich, seductive, supple, violet-tinged, all the elements found in Petit Cheval but turned up a significant notch. And yet the higher proportion of Cabernet Franc is evident here, showing through as a bright and elegant precision. Indeed, these are remarkable wines. (24/4/12)