The Graves is one of the few major wine regions in the world whose name defines a particular terroir, or location character. Gravel soils form the bedrock, literally of this ancient region, the northern part of which, Pessac-Léognan, is home to 16 crus classés châteaux, which, with their 600-odd hectares of vineyard land, lie south of the city of Bordeaux.
One of the first ever references to its greatest wine, Château Haut-Brion, was recorded by the medieval London city diarist, Samuel Pepys, in a line worthy of our own twitter. 14 years after Lord Arnaud III de Pontac became the owner of Château Haut Brion, Pepys tells us in his diary (http://www.pepysdiary.com) that on Friday 10 April, 1663, he is ‘Off to the Exchange in Lumbard Street, where Alexander Broome the poet was, a merry and witty man, I believe, if he be not a little conceited, and here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with’.
On May 25 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then American foreign minister to France, and a great wine lover, visited Haut-Brion, reporting that ‘the soil of Haut-Brion is made up of sand, in which there is near as much round gravel or small stone and a very little loam like the soils of the Médoc’. It was only much later that Château Haut Brion was to become the only wine outside the Médoc to be awarded the status of First Growth in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux. Uniquely therefore, it straddles two classifications.
That the Graves has one of the greatest pedigrees of the wines of Bordeaux is not in dispute. But there are two aspects to the wines of the Graves that distinguish them from the rest of Bordeaux. Firstly, where the Left Bank’s Médoc is dominated by cabernet sauvignon and the Right Bank by merlot and cabernet franc, the châteaux of Pessac-Léognan have a more even distribution of Bordeaux’s three major red grape varieties.
And while Bordeaux is known almost exclusively for its fine red wines, the Graves sub-region, and in particular the district of Pessac-Léognan, has become famous today for its combination of both fine red and dry white wines. Indeed, in its whites in particular, its sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle blends often surpass similar dry white styles made anywhere else in the world.
What better excuse then for a visit to the Waterside Inn at Bray then than a 60th anniversary, that of the Crus Classés de Graves. 60 years doesn’t seem that long in fact in the lifespan of the Graves. As both Eric Perrin and Véronique Sanders were keen to remind us, trade between the UK and the Graves stretches back centuries to a time when the Médoc was inhospitable marshland and neither Châteaux Lafite nor Latour were even twinkles in the eye of the Bordeaux bourgeoisie.
This, along with the lack of classification squabbling, were among the themes aired over lunch, timely reminders indeed just before the opening of the Bordeaux en primeur campign for the 2012 vintage. Serena Sutcliffe made the lack of squabbling point and emphasized that the closeness of the proprietors of the Graves ‘gives a special dimension to their wines too’.
It’s hard to say for certain if that’s the case even if it feels that way but there’s no denying that there was a definite feeling of togetherness on the day. It was a feeling enhanced by the quality, not just of the expected brilliance of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, but excellent 2009 reds in general and quite deliciously fresh and zesty 2010 whites.
The 16 Crus Classés de Graves are : Château Haut-Brion (1er cru classé in 1855), Château Bouscaut, Château Carbonnieux, Château Couhins, Château Couhins-Lurton, Domaine de Chevalier, Château De Fieuzal, Château Haut-Bailly, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Château La Tour Haut-Brion, Château Latour-Martillac, Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château Olivier, Château Pape Clément, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Château Laville Haut-Brion.
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The Wines Tasted – 2009 Reds and 2010 Whites
La Mission Haut-Brion.
Youthful colour, super-delicate smoky vanilla oak aromas, lovely intense dark red fruits flavours, combining fruit richness with suave tannins, subtle oak and fresh almost crisp acidity. Beautifully made, rich and concentrated and while still youthful, is almost forward, elegant but structured through great length at the same time for the long haul. A blend of 47% merlot, 47% cabernet sauvignon and 6% cabernet franc. 98
Deep rich colour, intense, hauntingly beautiful and complex nose, well-integrated oak, lovely intense yet delicately concentrated dark red berry fruits flavours etched with fine refreshing acidity with a subtle veneer of polished oak behind really beautifully balanced fruit; very poised. Still youthful, primary, sinewy and well-structured. A blend of 46% merlot, 40% cabernet sauvignon and 14% cabernet franc. 97
La Tour Martillac.
Good colour, rather shy on the nose, a tad raw still, showing a clean pair of red fruits heels, nicely juicy and well-balanced red fruits flavours, still primary, showing supple textured tannins and good juicy fresh acidity, finishing a little chunky and extracted. 90
White. A classic blend of sémillon and sauvignon blanc, there’s a nice delicate smokiness of aroma, good fruit richness on the palate with a juicy fresh herb and citrusy quality, a touch of vanilla oak and creamy lees and zingy refreshing finish. 92
Dense colour, really nice smoky cigar box fragrance, very attractive dark red fruits flavours framed by delicate smoky oak and supple tannins with a light fresh twist of astringency on the aftertaste but overall very supple and fleshy and almost approachable at this early stage of its life (but not quite). 94
Domaine de Chevalier.
Deep youthful primary ruby, fine spicy aromatic fragrance, with slightly meaty undertones, lovely rich and intense dark red berry fruits quality, primary, mulberry-like juiciness and almost quaffable at this early stage, but behind the fruit a self-evident concentration of fruit and structure of fine tannins that creep up on you gradually and refreshing, almost crisp, acidity. Very well done. 94+
White. Not only one the best reds, but the best white for me, just lovely intense smokiness of sauvignon blanc-dominated aroma, but superbly full-flavoured richness of fruit with exotic pineapple and grapefruit undertones and a lively zesty fresh acidity defining it perfectly. 95
Good primary colour, pleasant fresh raspberry fruits fragrance, attractively juicy dark red berry fruits, lively acidity and very juicy supple tannins in a well-balanced framework of fruit and acid spine, still a tad rustic on the aftertaste, but excellent fruit purity and character. 92
White. Not just a very good red but an outstanding white too from this property, the sauvignon blanc dominated blend showing a lovely concentrated richness of fruit with flavour and body and behind the creaminess of texture, a trenchant blade of crisp acidity. 93
Deep primary ruby, fine fresh dark berry fruits and tobacco-spicy fragrance, very good, richly concentrated and opulently ripe mulberry and black cherry fruit in primary mode still, textured and supple to the point of voluptuous with very good fresh balancing acidity; almost drinkable in its primary form, but the balance suggests that it needs 10 years to really develop that secondary complexity. 95+
Good deep colour, a tad rustic and smoky / oaky on the nose, attractive sweet cassis fruit middle with nice juicy fresh acidity and fairly robust firm tannins on the finish. Very well-crafted, medium-bodied and still primary. 90+
White. Lovely intense fresh aromatic power of pure sauvignon blanc, showing refreshingly zingy undertones of lemon and grapefruit with subtle oak adding a delicately nutty finish. 92
Primary colour, pleasant fresh strawberryish nose, some attractive red berry fruit of just a tad short and hollow on the mid-palate with robust firm chewy and everso slightly bitter tannins on the finish, rather pales in this grand company, but nicely made, and will be more than a decent drop. 89
White. Attractive fresh aromatic quality, delicately smoky, with herbal and gooseberryish undertones, so closest for me to a Sancerre in its sauvignon character and intense zingy freshness on the finish. 90
Good primary colour, expressive nose, nicely oaked, slightly chocolatey, cherryish fruit quality, with attractively sweet middle framed by delicate oak, firmish tannins and good spine of fresh acidity; overall well-made medium-bodied, juicy claret for medium term drinking. 92
White. Attractive delicate smoky grapefruity aromas, tight and focused yet richly flavoured with mineral acidity and a subtle layering of oak bringing complexity to an intense, well-crafted dry white. 92
Good colour, attractive fresh berry fruit nose, nice sweet fleshy middle of primary cherry fruit framed by quite robust, chunky tannins and a slight fresh twist of astringency but overall nicely balanced. 89
White. Complex lees-stirred aromas in Burgundian vein, sweet, almost fat peachy fruit with plenty of flavour and an opulence that’s immediately attractive, albeit lacking a touch of spine. 90
Good dark ruby, attractive fresh aromatic fragrance, nice dark berry fruit with fleshy, textured quality and fine flavour, well crafted and quite juicy with fairly chunky tannins and a good spine of trenchant acidity for balance. 89
White. Refreshing aromatic zing with subtle smoky oak undertones, creamy textured and rich on the palate with well-crafted, full-flavoured fruit full of poise and character. 93
Attractive primary ruby, good fresh sweet red fruits fragrance, attractively fleshy textured dark red berry and cassis sweet fruit on the palate, nicely defined tannins and freshness with an overall balance and succulence of fruit that’s very appealing. 91
White. Refreshing blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon with an attractive zing and lemony zip that’s perhaps a little simple and one-dimensional. 89
Smith Haut Lafitte.
Primary youthful ruby hue, nice slightly smoky vanilla fragrance, good fresh red berry fruits flavours framed by quite firm sinewy, mildly astringent tannins and good fresh spine of acidity in an overall well-made, albeit firmly structure and powerful (14.5%) claret for the medium to long haul. 92
White. One of the great dry whites, a gorgeous nose with elements of smokiness, lees and subtle oak and richly concentrated exotic citrus fruits flavours on the palate cleanly delineated by focused fresh zesty fruit in an altogether beautifully balanced framework. 94