Comparing these wines with those from Latour's direct neighbor to the south in Saint-Julien, Cha^teau Leoville-Las-Cases, proves that, despite many technical innovations, the greatest Bordeaux wines of today are as individual as those of a generation ago.
Like Latour's, Leoville-Las-Cases's vineyards lie on gentle slopes overlooking the Gironde estuary. They also have a deep gravel soil planted primarily in Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the wines of the two estates taste dramatically different.
Leoville-Las-Cases shows a dazzling brilliance that is quite different from Latour's restrained grandeur, but in recent vintages it has been every bit as impressive. The 1995 has enveloping black currant and black cherry flavors and a very long finish that is both firm and extremely fine. You could drink it now for the vibrant fruit character, but in five to 10 years it will be even more elegant.
The 1996 is so densely packed with flavor it made me think of the core of the atom. However, despite huge tannins, it has a lightness of touch that makes this giant of a wine seem to skip across the palate. The aftertaste just goes on and on and on--the sure sign of a truly great wine.
I cannot remember ever tasting a better young red Bordeaux. It should continue improving for 20 years after bottling later this year.
The 1994 Leoville-Las-Cases, which lacks the hard edges typical of this vintage, is also impressive. Indeed, its combination of depth and elegance makes it the best Medoc of 1994. Many '94 red Bordeaux are quite big but so tannic and acidic that they give little pleasure; they taste as if over-use of must concentrators has thrown them so far off balance that they will never regain it, however long they are aged.
You find the most extreme new-style Bordeaux on the other side of the Gironde, in St. Emilion and Pomerol. This is perhaps because of the fact that the critical acclaim for the wines from very small properties, such as L'Angelus and Tertre Ro^teboeuf (St. Emilion) and L'Eglise-Clinet, Lafleur and Le Pin (Pomerol), has pushed their prices far above the level of comparable wines from the Medoc. The lure of big profits makes the use of radical new vinification techniques a very attractive gamble.
Nowhere here is the break with traditional winemaking more complete than at Cha^teau Canon-la-Gaffeliere, which has been directed by Count Stephan von Neipperg since 1985.
With the 1996 and '97 vintages, he has introduced a new vinification that flies in the face of Bordeaux practice. Instead of crushing the grapes, then protecting the wine from too much contact with air during fermentation and racking the wines (decanting from barrel to barrel) at three-month intervals before bottling, he leaves the berries uncrushed before fermentation begins, pumps oxygen through the fermenting wine and doesn't rack at all.
The result is wines that are an inky black color, smell like freshly crushed blackberries and are extremely full, imposing and tannic. The 1997 La Mondotte--a new special bottling from a single parcel of vines that will be launched with the 1996 vintage--is a bizarre wine. Its aromas of blackberry jam and fruitcake reminded me strongly of a young vintage Port. The first impression on the palate was of enormous richness and force; then came a great slug of tannins that made it turn very dry on the aftertaste.
With this wine, has Von Neipperg succeeded in making the greatest wine of the difficult 1997 vintage in Bordeaux, or is he a Dr. Frankenstein who has created a monster? The judgment of a handful of wine critics will decide this for many of the collectors who are clearly the target market for this limited-production wine. If the critics come down in favor of the 1997 La Mondotte, Von Neipperg will be the hero of the moment.
Either way, the wine tastes nothing like a traditional St. Emilion--or any other Bordeaux wine, for that matter. It raises the question whether the region's traditions are essential to its identity or whether they have become an encumbrance to its advancement. That's a question nobody would have asked even a decade ago.
Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer.
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More to Sip
Other exceptional wines tasted include the following.
Saint-Estephe: Montrose ('95 and '96), Cos d'Estournel ('96), Sociando-Mallet ('96).
Pauillac: Les Forts de Latour ('96), Lafite-Rothschild ('96), Lynch-Bages ('96) Mouton-Rothschild ('96), Clerc-Milon ('95 and '96).
St. Julien: Clos du Marquis ('96), Ducru Beaucaillou ('96).
Margaux: Margaux ('96), Palmer ('95 and '96).
Pessac-Leognan: Haut Brion ('96), La Mission Haut Brion ('95 and '96).
St. Emilion: Belair ('95), Cheval Blanc ('95), Tertre Ro^teboeuf ('95 and '96).
Pomerol: L'Eglise Clinet ('95 and '96), Petrus ('95), Le Pin ('95), Vieux Cha^teau Certan ('96).