On February 3rd I attended a vertical tasting of selected vintages of the wines of Chateau La Mission Haut- Brion. The tasting was held at Trinity House in London and was jointly hosted by H.R.H. Prince Robert of Luxembourg (President Domaine Clarence Dillon, owners of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion) and Jean-Philippe Delmas (Director). While the Chateau’s 2010 vintage was, obviously, not a part of the tasting, M. Delmas felt strongly enough about it to provide some insight on the vintage to the attendees. In this post I will summarize M. Delmas’ comments on the 2010 La Mission Haut-Brion vintage and offer some comments of my own.
M. Delmas opened his comments on the 2010 vintage by noting that the average temperature in Bordeaux keeps rising every year and, as a result, since 2006, the Chateau has been using a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend. The final blend in the 2010 vintage includes 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and the alcohol level will be 15%. The continued increase in temperature, according to M. Delmas, is making it increasingly difficult to compile the blend. Everything is now concentrated and powerful and the challenge is to build balanced wines with power.
Conditions in Bordeaux are not only warmer, they are also drier. The period of mid-June to mid-October 2010 was, according to M. Delmas, the driest on record since 1949. These conditions are yielding more concentrated wines. In 2010, for example, the Cabernet Franc looked more like Cabernet Sauvignon than Cabernet Franc.
The Chateau had chaptalized its wine up until 1997 but yield-management initiatives ( green harvesting, vine density, etc.), an extensive cloning program, and a warming trend have led to “scary” levels of alcohol today. The Chateau may have to review some of these yield-reduction programs in the future with the goal of increasing yields and reducing alcohol levels.
In closing his comments on the 2010 vintage M. Delmas drew a parallel between Bordeaux and Napa. The Napa wines of the 1970’s averaged 12.5% alcohol while today’s Cabs average 15%. Warmer temperatures and riper grapes were the culprits, same as is true for Bordeaux today.
As a Bordeauxphile, the picture painted by M. Delmas of Bordeaux 2010 fills me with dread. My affinity for Bordeaux wines has stemmed from an appreciation of their partnership with my food choices, the retiring nature of the fruit, the ever-present acidity and minerality, and the ability of the wines to age and improve in the bottle. If Left Bank vignerons are forced to strip out Merlot in an effort to control alcohol levels, and if Cabernet Franc manifests Cabernet Sauvignon-cy, will the wines be driven to a certain uniformity over time? And what of the Pomerol and St. Emilion wineries and their Merlot-heavy blends? Will the sense of place that has so long been associated with these wines be submerged by an onslaught of ripe fruit and overpowering alcohol? The current generation of Bordeaux vignerons have been driven by an all-consuming desire to reduce yields and, in so doing, increase concentration and Parker scores. With the prospects of climate-driven concentration on the horizon, these vignerons may have to revisit their strategies and farming practices in order to take account of this new reality.