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Château Caronne Ste Gemme 2002

This year's featured wines so far have been entirely dominated by Champagne and the Loire, and perhaps rightly so. This site's focus on the latter of these two regions is well known, and doesn't need further elaboration, but with my trip to Champagne last September, and with publication of my new Champagne guide now underway, it seems only right that I should be liberating a few relevant bottles from the cellar.

There are other regions that pique my interest though, and obviously Bordeaux also has a well-established presence on the site. This week I will be publishing tasting notes from a mini-vertical of wines from Caronne Ste Gemme, an Haut-Médoc estate which I have long regarded as a source of good value. These wines were all - save for one older vintage which I pulled from the cellar - furnished by Caronne proprietor François Nony, and in truth there were several impressive wines which could have served very well as my Weekend Wine. I settled on the 2002 vintage though, for reasons which my become clear in a moment.

Chateau Caronne Ste Gemme 2002Many followers of Bordeaux, if asked to rank recent vintages, would most probably place 2002 somewhere near the bottom of their list, favouring accepted 'great' vintages such as 2005 and 2000, and then those with a good if not exalted reputation, such as 2001 or 2006, before they come to the vintage relevant to this wine. And if we look at the story and character of the vintage, it is perhaps not surprising, for it was a growing season marked by cool and damp weather. Although there was a relatively dry spring it was fairly cool, and there was a degree of coulure and millerandage in the vineyards. This affected the Merlot most of all, and the eventual crop of this variety was drastically reduced. Subsequent temperatures during the summer months were lower than the norm, and the usually balmy August was cooler and wetter than was hoped for. There were perhaps two factors which saved the vintage; first, a run of fine and warm weather through September and October encouraging ripening and allowing harvesting in good conditions (although it was very late that the Cabernets achieved ripeness, so it was still a harvest fraught with worry), and second the vastly improved knowledge and availability of technology, the result of the new profitability and investment that Bordeaux was now enjoying.

There have been a myriad of opinions on the wines published in the last seven-or-so years, although notably no early words from Parker, who declined to travel to the region to taste the wines as he usually would have done in 2003. Other early opinions tended to rank the vintage on a par with 2001, neither great but both full of potential. With time, however, these opinions evolved, 2001 gradually garnering more respect (especially on the right bank, and Sauternes is a given of course) whilst 2002 has generally fallen behind in the quality race. Perhaps the most recent review was by Jancis Robinson, who wrote in late 2009 "I would love to be able to say that the tasting revealed that the 2002 vintage had been underestimated all along, but I’m afraid I cannot", before going on to label the wines as "ungenerous, with more acidity than average and in some, but not all, cases some pretty austere tannins". These are not reassuring words! But they are certainly informed words, based on extensive tasting as the wines approach maturity. And Jancis also goes on to write "a handful of more modest wines unexpectedly emerged as excellent buys".

So this was a vintage that seems at first to have been over-rated, based on early opinions formed on primeur and early tastings. So why should that interest me? Because it shows the fallibility of even very experienced tasters and critics when it comes to judging a vintage; primeur notes should always be viewed with caution, they are tasting notes on embryonic barrel samples, not finished wine. That's lesson number one. Nowadays though, timely judging of a vintage during the primeur tastings is deemed inadequate by some who feel the need not only to judge but to pre-judge, passing verdict and sentence before the vintage has even undergone the conversion from juice to wine, a foolhardy approach that smacks of desperation, the need to be recognised as the first to 'call' the vintage. And as the 2009 tastings approach, and we already hear proclamations that this is a great vintage (just as we heard proclamations that 2008 would be a poor one, even though those who actually travelled to the region to taste - myself included - found some deliciously crystalline wines), I am reminded that the only way to judge a wine (or barrel sample), accepting our fallibility, is to taste it. That's lesson number two; listen to those, whether they be amateur posters on internet bulletin boards or professional critics, who have at least tasted the wines. Finally, we have here a wine which I assume would be one of Jancis' excellent buys; in weaker vintages there are always some good, over-performing wines, and likewise in strong vintages there are always some that miss the mark. Lesson number three; vintage generalisations, when it comes to enjoying the wine in the glass in our hand, or the buying decision, are ultimately useless. They are fine for developing a broad overview, and having tasted the wines of a vintage I enjoy creating an overall impression for the wines, as I did with 2008 and 2007. But they should always be viewed with a slightly cynical eye.

And, as I step down from the soapbox, so to the wine. The 2002 from Caronne Ste Gemme has a seemingly mature hue in the decanter, but in the glass it does display some more youthful tones, a glossy if rather dense and matt claretty hue. The nose has plenty of appeal for me, showing some nicely developed aromas of pencil shavings, graphite, and dusty cabinet laid over some violet and blackcurrant fruit, sweet but with a crunchy, mint and green peppercorn edge. The texture on entry exceeds my expectations, showing a nicely polished flesh, more than you would expect, if vintage generalisations were anything more than that - a generalisation - which is consistent through the middle and to the finish. It has plenty of backbone too, with gently firm acidity and a lick of peppery tannin. It draws in a little at the finish where it is tighter, more grippy. A little length too, not much, but it is there. This is a really nice effort from one of the more difficult vintages since 2000, and should appeal to those who reject the style of wine that has become predominant in Bordeaux in the last 10-20 years. Not quite at peak yet either - needs another year or two for that. 16+/20 (8/2/10)

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