The Southwold Group tasting of 2014 Bordeaux
Friday, 9 February 2018 by Stephen Browett
Regular readers of these blogs will know that since the early 1990’s, I have been fortunate enough to be a member of the “Southwold Group” of wine merchants and critics that gets together every year to hold a comprehensive blind tasting of the top wines of Bordeaux in the lastest vintage to be physically released. This year it was the turn of 2014 to come under our spotlight. After last year’s rather underwhelming 2013 tasting we were back on solid ground.
Our tasters this year included 5 critics :- Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin (lately of The Wine Advocate now of Vinous), William Kelley (lately of Decanter, now of The Wine Advocate), Joss Fowler (of Vinolent) and the legendary Steven Spurrier (of Decanter) who pretty much invented the blind tasting format with his “Judgement of Paris” in the 1970’s. The rest of us were wine merchants with most of the leading UK importers of Bordeaux represented including 7 Masters of Wine.
We tasted 250 wines in blind “peer groups” of 12 wines per flight over two full days. We knew which wines were in each flight but not the order of service. Each flight contained wines of similar price, reputation or region.
We kicked off the tasting with 50 wines from St Emilion. I will comment on the “First Growths” later on, but leaving these aside our winner on the day was Le Tertre Roteboeuf. It really is extraordinary how this wine does so well at these tastings year after year! Maybe it’s because it is such an individual wine with such a distinct character and personality with silky-smooth, ripe fruit and an aroma of smoke and oriental spices. In 2014 these exotic notes give an almost Burgundian lift that set the wine apart from its peers aromatically. A gorgeous wine here yet again. A lovely Canon was in second place – all purity, refinement and elegance – something which has long set it apart from the more extractive styles of recent years. Wine-maker Louis Mitjavile also came up trumps in the previous flight where the moderately priced Chateau Alverne beat all-comers - including the likes of Petit Cheval, Canon la Gaffeliere, l’If, Le Dome and Gracia – and stormed to an impressive victory. The hallmark of Tertre Roteboeuf still comes through in this wine, but it will be ready to drink at a much younger age. Not only was Alverne the best wine of the flight but it is the cheapest! Our overall impression of St Emilion this year was that producers are beginning to tone down the more extreme wine-making tricks and elegance and sophistication are returning to the village ahead of pure power. Long may this continue!
I feel a bit like a broken record but, once again, we had a flight-winning performance from Denis Durantou in Pomerol with Eglise Clinet coming out on top of the pile. This deep and concentrated wine is one that will require at least another 10 years to hit its peak maturity, but it will greatly reward the patient collector. Gazin impressed in second place – especially when you consider the fairly modest price. Durantou also raised eyebrows when his humble Lalande de Pomerol – la Chenade – outscored famous names like Bon Pasteur, La Fleur de Gay, Petit Village and Nenin. This was undoubtedly the top performance of the whole tasting by a wine that sells at well under £20 per bottle. In fact, it may have been the lowest-priced wine of all 250 that we tasted. With its smooth and soft tannins and plump brambly fruit, it is also a wine that can already be enjoyed at this young stage.
Over in Pessac-Leognan the star of the show was Domaine de Chevalier which just pipped Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clement to the top spot. These three showed that contrasting styles can all produce very impressive wines. The Domaine de Chevalier is perhaps truest to the region, showing an earthy, spicy quality that gave just that extra level of complexity. The Smith Haut Lafitte by contrast was incredibly refined, silky and smooth, with seamless fruit and tannins foretelling a great future for the wine. The Pape Clement is the most robust and exotic of the three styles, more marked by oak and tannin at this young stage, but with a power of fruit that should bring a wonderful harmony after 8-10 years in bottle.
In Margaux there is no denying the sheer quality of Chateau Palmer. Texturally sublime and with a cool opulence that won the flight. This was able to have it all its own way in 2014 because our bottle of Chateau Margaux was corked! Issan, Rauzan Segla and Brane Cantenac put up a good fight to finish just behind their much more expensive neighbour.
There were some good wines in the Graves and Margaux but it must be said that the real stars of 2014 Bordeaux are the strongly Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines of the Northern Medoc. This is a vintage of considerable structure and “grip” and the classic Cabernet heavyweights, with their intense cassis fruit, were showing best of all. It’s certainly a great vintage in St Estephe and here the two heavyweights – Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – once again slugged it out for the top ranking. Today it was just Cos that prevailed but these are two magnificent wines. The Montrose is big, brooding and powerful with great depth and length, the Cos was equally dark and inpenetrable but showed a little more exotic spicy oak. A fabulous pair. Those looking for the best Medoc bargains in 2014 should probably head to St Estephe where there were excellent efforts from the moderately priced Meyney, Capbern and Tronquoy Lalande.
The flight of St Juliens was probably the most consistent of the day with every single wine showing very well. These wines all have enough sweet fruit to cope with the vintage’s tannins and I’d recommend them all. Gloria, Talbot and Beychevelle were smooth and forward but the real powerhouse wine here was the flight-winning Leoville Barton that just overcame neighbours Poyferré, Lascases and Ducru. Langoa Barton also showed very well too. These are wines with classic cigar box aromas and polished, spicy black fruit. The pair of Bartons both showed how a retention of classic style and poise with an intensity from well managed fruit in the vineyard can bring both elegance and power to their wines at reasonable prices.
Our last stop was Pauillac where, First Growths apart, today’s winner was Lynch Bages, just ahead of the two Pichons and with Grand Puy Lacoste not far behind. This is a classically structured Lynch for the medium to long-term with huge density of cassis fruit and burly tannins. Though these wines are firm and in need of long-term ageing, the best examples all showed ample flesh on their bones for the future.
Turning to the First Growths, it’s no surprise that in 2014 the two highest perfomers were the classic Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Pauillacs of Latour and Mouton Rothschild. The Mouton won it on the day and was the only wine to average a score of 18/20, but it will be fascinating to taste these two classics as they battle it out over the coming years.
I was rather disappointed with the dry white wines and the Sauternes were good but not great. It seems at the moment that there are so many different schools of thought on the winemaking for whites that all gets muddled in the middle. The Sauternes are much more consistent, and the sugar levels in the wines still appear to be dropping in order to accommodate the more modern palate and provide better approachability. Suduiraut was the winner.
Overall, 2014 is a very good vintage for the red wines of Bordeaux, particularly in the Northern part of the Médoc. Stylistically this vintage reminds me of 1996. There is a firmness about the vintage that will suit those who like their claret to have a slightly dry edge. The best wines generally had high levels of Cabernet Sauvignon that was allowed time to ripen and add enough fruit to the ample structure. It is far removed from the more sweet and exotic style of vintages like 2009 and 2003. Quality-wise, I would put it behind the truly great years like 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005 and 2000. It will probably turn out to be as good as 2001 and 1996. All in all, a classic Bordeaux vintage for lovers of classic Bordeaux.
You can read another report on this tasting on the Vinolent website.