St Estèphe is awash with good value Bordeaux. This most northerly appellation in the Haut-Médoc produces firm yet fleshy reds with lots of extract and tannin. Modern methods of vinification combined with the picking of tannin ripe grapes have reduced the coarseness that characterised some of the wines here a decade or so ago. Full-throttle St Estèphe always was but now there’s much more finesse to be found here. A list of affordable, good quality wines from this appellation would certainly include Château Capbern, Château Le Crock, Château Le Boscq, Château Tronquoy-Lalande and Château Beau-Site. In very top vintages these wines are of classed growth quality. There’s another tier above which includes Château Haut-Marbuzet, Château Lafon-Rochet, Château Cos Labory, Château Phélan-Ségur, Château Ormes de Pez, Château de Pez and Château Meyney. At the top of the tree, classed growths Château Calon Ségur, Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose often make wine of equivalent quality [in very different ways] to the neighbouring Pauillac first growths.
I’ve a real soft spot for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. An eye-opening spell there in the late 80s as a cellar rat was inspirational. The denim-clad, cool-as-hell winemakers swaggered about the stainless steel and the French barriques in their freshly minted wine cellars with an insouciant Californian air that belied their competitive ambition. The place was run with steely determination by founder Warren Winiarski, a political theorist at the University of Chicago, who moved west to become a winemaker in the mid 1960s, establishing the property in 1970. The small boutique winery became synonymous with the seismic Paris tasting of 1976, an event fictionalized in Bottle Shock [starring the late, great Alan Rickman]. The Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, from a vines just three years old, was voted best red by a panel of French judges. In a blind tasting, the wine felled mighty Bordeaux châteaux Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Léoville-Las-Cases and Montrose, not to mention domestic competitors Ridge and Heitz. The tasting put Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Napa Valley on the map.
It was in the Médoc that the vintage showers of September 2015 were heaviest. Their effect has led to a degree of heterogeneity in the wines. Tasting many Médocs at the Cru Bourgeois event held at Château d’Arsac back in April I was struck by the variability. The rain arrived on the eve of the Merlot harvest which was unfortunate, in what was otherwise an excellent growing season with regard to quality. The top properties [Potensac, Goulée, Les Grands Chênes, La Tour de By and Loudenne for example] have made impressive wines; others were easy going and soft; quite a few felt a little dilute. Unlike 2014, which was a pretty safe bet in my opinion up in the Médoc, 2015 seems a more uneven prospect. There are some good wines, but the picture is complex.
St Estèphe has made some very good wine in 2015 but the appellation has not done as well as in 2014 in my book. This is down to the heavy rain showers in mid September, the residual effect of ‘Storm Henry,’ that arrived on the eve of the Merlot harvest, a key varietal component to many of the wines in St Estèphe. While conditions improved from mid September until early October, how estates and different terroirs responded to these conditions determined the relative levels of success. There are some top wines in the appellation – Château Cos d’Estournel, Château Montrose, Château Calon-Ségur, Château Lafon-Rochet and Château Meyney spring to mind – but there is not the uniformity here for me of 2014, nor the exciting power in the wines. Whether 2015 will claw back some of that ground during elévage remains to be seen.
I think Château Cos d’Estournel just has it this year. It will be a close run thing I’m sure, but at this early stage it fractionally pips Château Montrose in producing the finest St Estèphe in 2015. Undoubtedly this is the best wine made here since Aymeric de Gironde took over the day-to-day running of this Michel Reybier owned estate in 2012. Last year the 2014 was impressive, but this year Cos 2015 has a plush voluptuousness that is irresistible. The purity is dazzling, the precision remarkable. This wine belies the patchy September weather here that literally rained on St Estèphe’s parade.
Château Montrose occupies a wonderful position in St Estèphe, a single continuous vineyard that slopes gently toward the Gironde estuary. Legend has it that the name ‘Mont Rose’ derives from the pink coloured heather that used to occupy the spot before it was turned over to vine. Montrose, along with Latour and Mouton Rothschild, produces some of the boldest, most age-worthy red wine on the planet. The 2015 here is impressive. It’s a whisker off the remarkable wine made at Montrose in 2014, though quite different in style.