First Growths First – Assessing 2012 Bordeaux

by Chuck Hayward

There can be no better way to dive into the long grind that is en primeur week in Bordeaux than to drive up and down the D2 highway on the Left Bank of the Medoc. Popping in and out of the parking lots and drawing rooms of some of the wine world’s most prestigious properties can be quite a ‘tough job’, but it’s all in the hope of finding the real story behind the latest vintage. Each visit can reveal exciting discoveries or disappointing heartbreaks – either way you are assured of an emotional response when tasting these young wines. And that is exactly what happened yesterday as JJ Buckley’s staff descended on the top chateaux of Bordeaux to taste the newly assembled 2012 releases.

Tasting the wines from some of Bordeaux’s most revered properties is no easy task, yet it must be said that it’s quite exciting all the same. It’s a chance to see the sum of the wine industry’s best talents and resources put to use in making some of the world’s best wines.

What makes the 2012 vintage that more interesting is that the growing conditions made it difficult to produce great wines. Because, when you think about it, anyone should be able to make fantastic wine when the weather is great. It’s when nature throws a curve ball that wineries must dig deep in making the best wines possible given the conditions. The Medoc’s first growths are required visits to see how the best wineries fared in 2012.

And speaking of digging deep, the rash of new construction projects first witnessed over the past few years on the Right Bank is now in full bloom in the Medoc. Cranes dot the skyline and many of the wineries we have visited should require hardhats given all the work that is going on! But more on that in JJ Buckley’s upcoming report on 2012 Bordeaux.

Starting at the southern end of the Haut Medoc, Chateau Margaux never fails to take your breath away. The beautifully landscaped property and its majestic chateau casts a warm glow any time you have the chance to visit. Never resting on their laurels, winemaker Paul Pontallier was eager to point out their latest renovation projects, a restoration of an old orangerie and new underground cellars are the latest efforts.

Chateau Margaux

A visit to Margaux is also a great way to learn how the growing season transpired. Listening to the Pontalliers gives anyone great insight into the way the winery responded to the challenges of the year. And Margaux did an admirable job with their 2012 grand vin. The winery’s style is one of finesse with an elegant framework and fine grained tannins. Many members of the JJ Buckley team found the new wine to be a classic Margaux and their favorite of the Medoc first growths.

Chateau Latour

Continuing up the D2 highway, you encounter the first of Pauillac’s first growths just as you pass out of St. Julien. Past a locked gate and travelling down a path in a sea of vines, you also see evidence of energetic construction. The winery’s offices are now in temporary buildings out of sight from the main road as cranes hover over the main complex.

It turned out to be even more wine than usual. Before us were six glasses, the usual array of wines produced last year along with wines aged at the winery and just released last month. Past vintages of Latour’s grand vin have been spectacular showing the chateau’s classic style of power and richness. At the last three en primeurs, the wines could be consumed right away, thanks to the wines’ expressive complexity and seamless textures. Alas, 2012 could see Latour making a wine below the standards set by the last three years. But we will not know for a while – the plan is to release the wine to the market in 12-13 years, so tune in later. In the meantime, the re-released 1995 Latour is ready to drink – so pop those corks soon!
Change at Latour is not confined to new buildings. The winery has taken the controversial step of opting out of the futures program and only releasing their wines once they are deemed ready to drink. At en primeur, you can expect to taste the wines that will be sold in a few months but the big question was what wines would be poured at Latour?

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

As you pass through the town of Pauillac on your way north up the main road, the next premier grand cru classe domaine is Lafite-Rothschild. This historic property is tucked away off the D2 and is quiet and understated – especially when compared to the many other chateaux in the Medoc. And that is probably best reflected in their wines. Lafite is never about power and boldness. Those qualities can be more easily found at Latour or Mouton. The best Lafites have a sense of grace and finesse – they are lithe and slippery in their shape.

The problem in a year like 2012 is that the fruit must be perfectly ripe to avoid any perception of unripeness. Picking at lower sugars can enhance herbaceous and vegetal qualities in a wine. And in this vintage we are seeing many wines with spicy herbal notes on the nose and green tannins.

This year, Lafite has fashioned a very good wine that avoids the pitfalls of the harvest. The new wine highlights Lafite’s focus on purity of fruit and elegant structure. Medium bodied, the sample we tried had a very long finish with the faintest tannins subsumed by the fruit. This is not a heavyweight but of like a more pretty style of Pauillac, this one is for you. But this opinion was far from unanimous. Like many wines we have come across so far, opinions are divided and the debates are vigorous. Expect this Lafite to engender a fair share of controversy.

Where a lot of the construction work at the first growth wineries has begun recently, it always seems as if there is something happening at Mouton. But the day’s rain meant workers stayed home, so the grounds were mainly populated by tasters waiting for the traditional golf cart ride between the offices and the tasting room.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild

The wines of Mouton rival Latour in their quest for richness. Where there may be more juiciness in the best Latours, the fruit at Mouton emphasizes structure. One of the traits we are seeing so far from the wines of the Left Bank is the high level of tannins. Mouton’s challenge was to ensure that those tannins remained in balance. At the same time, 2012 is looking like a year of medium-weighted wines (which would mean that Mouton’s ’12 could end up a bit light). No need to worry, as this year’s release is classic Mouton with richness and complexity and supple tannins underneath. Another contender for best 2012 first growth by the JJ Buckley team!!