The wines of Saint-Emilion have a rich history that spans centuries – indeed, produce from this region on the Right Bank of Bordeaux was already being shipped to England in the 1300s, at the behest of King Edward.
The best terroir in the appellation, itself one of the largest in Bordeaux in area and production, lies on the plateau of Saint-Emilion. Here rich iron deposits, and particularly limestone beds - which have provide insurance against the extremities of the seasons- produce wines of exquisite minerality.
This plateau, also known as the cotes, is home to some of the most desirable estates in Bordeaux, such as chateaux Ausone, Angelus, and Pavie. Closer to the border with Pomerol is the famous Chateau Cheval Blanc, which, more unusually for the Right Bank includes Cabernet Sauvignon in its first wine. Generally though, wines here are based predominantly on Merlot, sometimes with relatively high proportions of Cabernet Franc, and are generally speaking more approachable and softer in their younger years.
Saint-Emilion is unusual in having its own classification, which is the only such system that is regularly reviewed and updated. Premier Grand Cru Classe wines are the equivalent of the First Growths of the 1855 Classification. Within this category there are four Premier Grand Cru Classe A estates, and 15 who may label their produce Premier Grand Cru Classe B.
I tasted this wine twice during the 2000 horizontals, then I actually popped the cork and drank a half-bottle of it. This wine remains, for me, one of the compelling success stories for proprietor Gerard Perse. An extraordinary effort made from a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from the limestone soils that dominate this very distinctive terroir, the 2000 Pavie has moved out of the closed, dormant, broodingly backward stage into an adolescent period where one can see its extraordinary vibrancy, and great complexity as well as potential. It boasts an unctuous display of rich, cedar box-infused cassis fruit and liquid minerality. The tannins have sweetened, yet the wine has thirty years of longevity and potential evolution. A beautiful wine of great mass as well as elegance, it is good to see the extraordinary efforts that Gerard Perse and his team have made confirmed in this prodigious wine. A legend now ... a legend for the future. Anticipated maturity: 2012-2060.
The 2003 Ausone is off the charts in terms of richness. While I gave a 3-digit score to the 2000, I think this profoundly concentrated wine may be even more sublime and exotic. Its inky/blue/purple color is followed by an extraordinary perfume of flowers, crushed rocks, sweet raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and God knows what else. The impression is one of extraordinary richness and purity, and a multilayered texture yet a surreal lightness as well as laser-like precision. This exquisite offering must be tasted to be believed. Incredibly young, it will undoubtedly close down over the next few years, re-emerging after 15-20 years. It should last for 70-100 years. It is a wine for anthology! No one in Bordeaux has made greater progress in taming the extraordinary potential of this noble terroir than Alain Vauthier, an obsessed perfectionist if there ever was one. He has instituted a Draconian selection at this tiny estate, both in the vineyard and the cellar, and the second wine, Chapelle d’Ausone, has also become one of the region’s finest wines. Prospective purchasers should be aware that Ausone requires 10-20 years of cellaring before it approaches maturity.
A tiny production of just over 1,300 cases will make the 2005 Ausone impossible to find, but proprietor Alain Vauthier continues to exhibit the Midas touch with his perfectionist efforts at this estate. This brilliant, blue/black-hued offering reveals an extraordinarily youthful, but promising nose of incense, blueberries, blackberries, currants, licorice, and crushed rocks. This intense 2005 boasts powerful, super-layered, multidimensional flavors with tremendous extraction, yet they come across as incredibly sublime, even delicate for such a stunningly concentrated, full-bodied effort. A masterpiece of concentration and balance, it will no doubt be drinking well a century from now. Anticipated maturity: 2030-2080+.
Bottled the week before I arrived, the 2009 Pavie appears to have barely budged since I tasted it two years ago. Many experts consider this phenomenal terroir to be nearly as great as that of Ausone. Made from a classic blend of 60-70% Merlot, 20-25% Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, this inky/blue/purple-colored blockbuster reveals wonderful notes of blackberries, crushed rocks, roasted meats, spring flowers, cedar, blueberries, graphite and a hint of vanillin. With extravagant fruit and high extract as well as a hint of minerality, this structured, massively intense effort is typical of all the luxurious, perfect or nearly perfect Pavies produced under the Perse regime (which began in 1998). While built for 40-50 years of cellaring, the softness of the vintage and its flamboyant style is slightly less apparent in the 2009 Pavie than in some of the other Perse wines. Anticipated maturity: 2020-2050+.
After tasting it three times from bottle, I am convinced this prodigious wine is one of the greatest young Bordeaux I have ever tasted. Inky blue/purple with notes of camphor, forest floor, blackberry, cassis, sweet cherries, licorice, the wine has stunning aromatics, unctuous texture and an almost inky concentration, but without any hard edges. With considerable tannin and just enough acidity to provide definition, this wine transcends even its premier grand cru classe terroir. It is certainly the finest Clos Fourtet ever produced. Give it 5-7 years of cellaring to allow some of its baby fat to fall away. There is certainly enough structure underneath to keep for 30-50 years. Bravo! From my barrel score of 95-98, I suppose I should have seen this perfect score coming, particularly considering what proprietor Philippe Cuvelier and estate manager Tony Ballu have accomplished over the last decade. This is one of the great terroirs of St.-Emilion, nearly 50 acres high on the clay beds and deep limestone plateau of the region, just a stone’s throw from the luxury hotel and restaurant Hostellerie de Plaisance. Yields were moderate at 34 hectoliters per hectare, and the final blend is 88% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon (somewhat unusual) and the rest Cabernet Franc, aged 18 months in 80% new oak.
Is the 1999 Ausone the wine of the vintage? Dense purple color, a compelling bouquet of licorice, minerals, black and blueberry liqueur, extraordinary delineation, high tannin, superb extract, and phenomenal richness all are the stuff of a legend. This wine seems impossible to have emerged from a vintage like 1999. Proprietor Alain Vauthier produced only 20,000 bottles because he eliminated one-fourth of the tiny crop. The result is out-and-out fabulous, but the wine needs 12-15 years of cellaring. Anticipated maturity: 2015-2050.
Coming out of a relatively dormant state, this 2000 is a spectacular Cheval Blanc. Of recent vintages, I think only the 2009 can give it a run for its money. A blend of 53% Merlot and 47% Cabernet Franc, the wine has a sweet nose of menthol, melted licorice, boysenberry, blueberry, and cassis. A broad wine with compelling purity, a layered texture, and sweet tannin, with hints of coffee and earth in the background, this is by far the best Cheval Blanc since 1990 and before 2009. It is a legend in the making and can actually be drunk now, as the tannins have nearly melted away. This is a beauty with incredibly complex aromatics. Drink it over the next 25-30 years.
At its release, the 2003 Pavie was somewhat controversial in wine tasting circles, but eleven years later it is obviously a great classic. Its deep purple color is accompanied by notes of vanillin, lead pencil shavings, creme de cassis, plums, black currants and kirsch. Full-bodied, youthful and rich with terrific purity and texture as well as a striking opulence, its 40+-second finish, stunning purity and wonderful perfume suggest it can be drunk now or cellared for 15-20 years.
This estate was justifiably elevated to a Premier Grand Cru Classe in the new St.-Emilion classification thanks to the exceptional efforts of proprietress Christine Valette over the last two decades. The 2005 is one of the monumental wines of the vintage, and may eclipse their prodigious 1990. Inky/blue/purple-colored with an exceptional bouquet of Asian spices, blueberries, blackberries, truffles, cold steel, graphite, and charcoal, it hits the palate with exceptional purity, laser-like precision, a compellingly concentrated, multilayered mouthfeel, a broad, savory texture, terrific acidity, and substantial, but sweet tannins. It lives up to everything it revealed in barrel, and appears set to live for a half century or more. Anticipated maturity: 2018-2050.
It will be fascinating to follow the evolution of the 2009 Cheval Blanc versus the 2010 as well as the awesome 2005, 2000, 1998 and 1990. This famous estate’s vineyard is situated at the juncture of Pomerol and the sandy, gravelly soils of St.-Emilion, facing the two noble estates of l’Evangile and La Conseillante. A blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc, the 2009 Cheval Blanc tips the scales at just under 14% natural alcohol. Its dense blue/purple color is accompanied by an extraordinary nose of incense, raspberries, cassis, sweet forest floor and a subtle hint of menthol. Opulent and full-bodied with low acidity but no sense of heaviness, this dense, unctuously textured, super-smooth, velvety, pure, profound Cheval Blanc is impossible to resist despite its youthfulness. Anticipated maturity: 2018-2050+.