St. Emilion Wine Tasting Recap

First of all, when making the wise decision to spend a few days in the lovely wine village of St. Emilion, we can highly recommend the accommodations at the charming Au Logis des Remparts, a centrally located yet secluded hotel within walking distance to all of the restaurants and attractions the village has to offer, and within driving distance to the recommended wineries. Complete with a pool, a parking lot, oversized rooms (we got upgraded!) and set just behind the vineyards of Chateau Villemaurine, we couldn’t have been happier with our stay here.

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While visiting this famous Bordeaux wine region, we obviously took the time to visit several wineries, some of which I’ve placed on a viticultural pedestal for years now. Like most of Europe, wine tastings in St. Emilion are quite different than what most Americans are used to on their normal visits to California or Oregon wine country. Visits are heavily structured and are almost always reserved by appointment only. The format generally consists of a tour of the estate and a brief discussion of its history followed by an explanation of the wine-making process that is usually accompanied by a trip through the vats, barrel-room and caves. Only after this educational overview does the tasting commence; there is no “belly-up and taste” option here. The tastings themselves are quite subdued, consisting of two or three small pours, only one of which represents the actual chateau being visited, as these estates almost always have sister properties or offshoot projects within the family that they are pouring alongside a premier growth. And, the vintage that they’ll be pouring will likely be a much older one and not necessarily the one you’re seeking, since the mentality in Bordeaux is to make wine worthy of cellaring and to showcase that quality to potential customers. Those eager to taste the highly acclaimed 2015 and 2016s will have to buy them by the bottle at this juncture.

Knowing this, I made it my top priority to locate and purchase a bottle of each of the three bottles of 2015 St. Emilion that earned a spot in last year’s Wine Spectator Top 100. We had planned to visit two of these vineyards, and I had tasted those two wines previously, but consuming an entire bottle of wine while residing within the same region where the grapes are grown is a different experience entirely. For one, wine always tastes better with context, and what better understanding could be gained than by visiting and standing in the very vineyard where the wine was born and understanding its history and process? Furthermore, the ability to drink the wine slowly over a day or two provides a more complex tasting evaluation, as the wine is able to be appreciated in its different forms as it evolves and opens. I was able to find the third bottle of wine on my list, which is not available in the United States nor available for public visitation, at a local wine shop across the street from our hotel:

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Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere 2015, 96 Points- An absolutely monstrous nose of smoke, tobacco and tar above deep, dark currants. Weightless texture considering its overall power, this explodes into a beam of rich, polished blackberry and dark plum that coats the palate, then evolves into creamier layers of toasty vanilla and mocha that expose smoky tobacco, smoldering charcoal and graphite notes through the endless finish. One of the greats, and should improve with time.

Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot 2015, 95 Points- Perfumey red currant nose shows vanilla bean and tobacco leaf influences. Very soft and creamy on the palate yet exploding with elegant, pure flavors of black cherry, wild raspberry and damson plum which evolves into deeper, thicker notes of blackberry and black licorice. Expressive fruit, lingering with exotic white pepper spice and sandalwood through the long finish. Firm tannic grip that will soften with time. This really deepens as it opens, lingering with a tarry edge.

Chateau Monbousquet 2015, 95 Points- Intense and complex on the nose, with tons of smoked meat nuances above its perfumey black currant aromas. Thick, bold and powerful body shows rich blackberry and dark raspberry fruit above layered elements of tobacco spice, mocha and charcoal, with a streak of iron running throughout. Long finish, gaining depth from its black licorice notes as spice lingers.

Here’s a look at each of the Chateaus we visited, and my highest scoring wine at each from its tasting session.

CHATEAU PAPE CLEMENT

We had time for one stop in Pessac-Leognan on our drive from Bordeaux to St. Emilion, and this was an obvious choice given the recent successes of the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Planted in 1300, it is the oldest vineyard in the region, and still bears the name of the Pope who acquired it at that time. There is a lot of history here, but the current winemaking team continues to create wines in a powerful, modern style.

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Chateau Pape Clement 2014, 93 Points- Perfumey and dark, with blackberry and black cherry fruit above juicy plumcake notes. This is very velvety and fruit-driven, uncommon for this vineyard, picking up licorice and Italian herbs through the finish. Gains complexity from tea leaf and baking spice notes which linger long; a deviation from the norm as all elements of loam, iron and smoke have dissipated from previous notes.

CHATEAU LA DOMINIQUE

This spectacularly modernized facility sits on the southern edge of Pomerol and borders the famed estate of Chateau Cheval Blanc, sharing the same plateau and terroir. In my estimation, this has long been an extremely underrated producer, and after visiting it was apparent how their superior technological advancements in the winemaking process, specifically in terms of sorting for ripeness, have helped them catch up to the bigger names in the region.

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Chateau La Dominique 2014, 94 Points- Complex on the nose, with deep cassis, cracked pepper and understated smoked meat nuances. Velvety on the palate with its perfumey blackberry and dark plum fruit that leads into a blast of charcoal, campfire smoke, black pepper and chalky mineral. Very intense and muscular through the long finish.

CHATEAU PAVIE

As the lone Premier Grand Cru Classe A Chateau that offers tours to the public, securing a private tour and tasting here was our number one priority on this tasting trip. (These reservations are highly competitive, so secure your spot early). The property itself is immaculate to an almost obsessive degree. One wine is poured and the experience is an expensive one at €45 per person, but the tour is informative and personalized and cannot be missed when visiting the region.

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Chateau Pavie 2008, 95 Points- Powerful aromas of minty cedar, vanilla bean and juicy cherry, showing black licorice and wet mineral notes. Silky body of explosive cherry and dark raspberry fruit that gains a blast of black licorice and anise, backed by a complex combination of tobacco, briar and clove spice with cocoa and dark chocolate underneath. Long, intense finish that is all well-balanced and layered with spices lingering longest of all. Super soft on the palate; finish goes on for minutes.

CHATEAU CANON LA GAFFELIERE

As my favorite producer in all of Bordeaux that I’ve been able to taste on a consistent basis over the years, suffice to say that setting foot in the vineyards of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere was akin to the holy grail. The tour here was a large group, but we really enjoyed being able to walk through and stand in the actual vineyard and hearing detailed scientific explanations of the grafting process from our guide. This was a hardcore highlight for me, and they even had bottles of the 2015 for sale to help me complete my quest.

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Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere 2011, 94 Points-  Lots of smoke, mocha and black tea leaf on the nose, with subtle red plum aromas. Silky and elegant, with refined plum and pure red currant giving way to layered elements of graphite, smoked meat and mocha bean. Weightless on the palate, as tobacco spice kicks in through the long finish. A solid effort in a tough vintage.

CHATEAU BEAU-SEJOUR BECOT

This was by far the most elaborate, meticulous and expansive cave network we encountered, and it was truly mesmerizing. The sheer volume of wine stored below the ground at this estate is astonishing and surreal. From the standpoint of a tour experience, this was second to none for us. The wine is fantastic as well, and the tasting provides a full overview of the four different winemaking projects the family is currently involved in.

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Chateau Beau-Séjour Becot 2013, 91 Points- Aromas of crushed red cherries, red licorice, vanilla bean and barnyard. Silky, elegant and jammy, with cherry plum and red currant preserve flavors gliding effortlessly over undertones of sandalwood, iron and wet limestone. Understated elegance in a tough vintage, medium length.

CHATEAU FRANC-MAYNE

If your preference is for a more old-school, musky and moldy cave experience, this will be a highlight. Rustic and authentic, this Chateau is well worth seeking out for some of the best wines in the region in the €30 and under range. And the tree that guards the entrance to the cave is simply glorious.

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Chateau Franc Mayne 2011, 90 Points- Jammy and plummy on the nose, with wet limestone nuances. Velvety and mineral-driven, with wet rock and slate notes preceding juicy, violety purple fruits- black plum, fig and boysenberry, finishing in unison as this lingers with a graphite bite.

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