Ask Sid: How is the Champagne harvest for 2023?

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Question: How is the 2023 Champagne harvest going?

Answer: More or less over. Started early on the first days of September weekend in the southerly Aube region followed in the first week by the traditional Vendange. Reports show some of the heaviest grape bunches ever produced though initial yields were set at only 11,400 kilos/hectare but are coming in higher. INAO has increased the maximum reserves volume allowed from 8,000 kg/ha to 10,000. Therefore we are assured of a very large Champagne crop quantity in 2023. Overall the quality is yet to be determined. Good detailed link here on wine-searcher of September 11 by Caroline Henry.

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Margaux is the largest geographic “Left Bank” appellation in the Medoc whose excellent wines are under the radar. The most properties listed in the 1855 Classification were from Margaux being 21 (now only 20). The recent leaders have been classy First Growth Chateau Margaux (high percentage around 75+% of Cabernet Sauvignon) and elegant Third Growth Chateau Palmer (high percentage around 50% of Merlot) both showing very different unique expressions of the region. Similarly the other classified properties have differing soils and terroirs that make it somewhat difficult to summarize a Margaux style when compared with the more textbook classic St. Julien cassis notes. 

The Vancouver Group of Eight held their 113th event at Five Sails restaurant on September 12, 2023 to study four such Margaux properties each from two vintages.

The kitchen and service staff did a brilliant job of orchestrating this wonderful dinner. One of the thrilling highlights was the appearance of Sarah McCauley DipWSET longtime friend and experienced Corporate Wine Director for the expanding Glowbal Restaurant Group to look after our wines. Everything was perfectly done including a masterly job of extracting by Durand the very old 57-year-old cork of 1966 Brane Cantenac completely intact. Bravo Sarah!

The dinner started with 2009 DOM PERIGNON displaying a ripe rich exotic entry but a drier than expected finish – perhaps due to the lower than usual only 4 grams dosage. Lovely voluptuous yellow plums with a bold fleshy palate to match well with the diverse canapes. 

CHÂTEAU D’ISSAN: Third Growth owned 50/50 by the Cruse Family & Jacky Lorenzetti of 124 acres growing 70% Cabernet Sauvignon & 30% Merlot producing 110,000 bottles plus 60,000 2nd wine Blason d’Issan.

2000: Elegant open cloves fruit with gentle mature entry that tails off on the finish. Good acidity balance with some charm that is drinking well presently. Will be interesting to compare this with the Malescot.

1996: Richer tannic year that is more lifted and solid. Better than expected. No rush. Should develop more Margaux-like bouquet and inviting smooth textures.

CHATEAU BRANE CANTENAC: Second Growth owned by the Lurton Family (Henri Lurton) since 1920 of 222 acres planted 65CS/30M/5CF with 140,000 bottles and 160,000 2nd wine Le Baron de Brane. 

2005: Only 45% in the Grand Vin with 70% new oak of 51CS/41M/8CF. Impressive fresh deep lush cherries statement with lovely generous Merlot contributing some Chateau Palmer-like styling. Very good.

Major renovations in 2015 and vintages since then at a very high level indeed!

1966: Difficult period for the property when wines were too light and not showing 2nd growth depth. 1966 was their best vintage between 1961 and 1982 with Emile Peynaud helping vinification starting in 1981. Fair depth of colour left here after 57 years. Last bottle remaining from your scribe and though better younger still shows lovely Graves-like aromatics with fading flowers. Given 90 points by tougher scoring Neal Martin in Vinous as recently as in 2019 “Burgundy-like vigorous red fruit”. Refreshing with the duck duo course boost of flavours. So different from everything else served but a delightful old wine experience. 

CHÂTEAU GISCOURS: Third Growth from 1656 owned by Albada-Jelgersma Family (since 1995) of 198 acres 55CS/40M/5CF producing 325,000 bottles & 65,000 2nd wine La Sirene de Giscours. Managed well by Alexander Van Beek since 1998 resulting in denser planting and more CS from varied soils on three hills with west side Poujeau gravel warmer for CS, BelAir cooler for climate change, and main plateau (Cantelaude). Great 1966 & 1970 and better from 2015 on. 

2005: Fuller powerful coarser energetic style with really solid fruit from that outstanding vintage 2005 again stellar as it was for Brane Cantenac. 

1995: Going through changes with more Merlot (over 50%) in the blends in a bad period for this property even though using 100% new oak. Nevertheless bright forest floor fruit here but with a dry ready finish. Expected nothing but the surprise of the night. Encouraging property to follow who have had difficulty getting a handle on obtaining highest quality on their many diverse unique soils. 

CHÂTEAU MALESCOT ST.-EXUPERY: Third Growth of the Zuger Family (Jean-Luc Zuger) of 58 acres 50CS/35M/10CF/5PV producing 120,000 bottles plus 60,000 2nd wine La Dame de Malescot. 

2009: Later picked September 29-October 16 using 51CS/35M/8CF/4PV with 50% new oak and Michel Rolland consulting for a ripe “fruit bomb” with full intense cassis almost St. Julien-like. Opulent but perhaps  showing the 2009 vintage style more than the Margaux terroir. No rush. Recent vintages are showing more finesse with better definition and are recommended.

2000: Spicy sweeter supple with earthy figgy plum notes. Both Malescot wines are quite weighty for the often lighter AC style. Much more body than the d’Issan 2000. Drinking well presently on a plateau of enjoyment like many 2000s. Lean venison was grilled at a lower 275F to remain moist with an added bonus of fresh Chanterelles. Good pairing as is the sweeter meat braised oxtail.

1988 CHÂTEAU RIEUSSEC SAUTERNES: Challenging for Wine of the Night is this always dark coloured honey wine property with electric 1988 best acidity from the impressive 88-90 trio. The vibrant tension really lifts this citrus mandarin mineral charming complex Sauternes. Memorable matching dessert. Outstanding.

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Ask Sid: Will we be seeing more wine bottles weighing less?

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Question: Will we be seeing more wine bottles weighing less?

Answer: Certainly lots of movement in that direction. Among the leaders are who are launching “SWR (Sustainable Wine Roundtable) Bottle Weight Accord.” The present goal is for their retail members to reduce before the end of 2026 the current average weight of 750 ml still wine bottles from 550 grams to 420. Yes, wine bottles will be trending in the future to be lighter weight.

Also, see here: Are lighter bottles in sight?

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As we all know, climate change is impacting wines produced around the world. Bordeaux experienced hot extreme Summer heat in 2003 with a reported 20 days (previous high 15 days in 1990) over 30C (86F) and 6 over 40C (104F). Compare that to the classic 2005 with only 2 days over 35C. In the last 6 years since 2018 (mildew issues like 2023 affecting Merlot more than Cabernet grapes) through to the surprisingly successful 2022 and unique now in Vendange 2023 the Bordeaux weather has seen lots of drought, heat & water stress, earlier picking, and riper grapes. However vineyard management has found clever innovations for these different conditions plus the vines themselves and clonal selections are adapting well. Some excellent recent wines are being produced. Nature is an amazing thing! Last week your scribe was delighted to participate in two Bordeaux wine tastings, first a repeat 2003 vertical (see link here from 2015) with so knowledgeable Bill Blatch of ten wines and the second a media preview (for the BCLDB 2020 Release on September 23) by Barb Philip MW of fifteen wines. Lots of differences between these two vintages 17 years apart but surprisingly some key similarities too.

The 2003s:

1. DE REIGNAC Bordeaux Superieur (west side of Entre-Deux-Mers): 140 hectares/79 planted, Green harvested to 35hl/ha, 20 months 100% new oak, 75% Merlot/25 Cab 13.5 abv Purchased by Vatelot in 1990 called it Reignac Prestige. Rich but coarser now ready. Prefer their 3 hectare old vines Balthus since 2002.

2. BELLEFONT-BELCIER St. Emilion: 20 hectares (13 planted) near Tertre-Roteboeuf and owned by Francois Mitjaville in the sixties. Several owners since including Chinese. 13.5 from 70%Merlot/20CF/10CS. Spicy rounded rather simple making better wine today with a good 2018.

3. LYNSOLENCE St. Emilion: Garagiste 6.5 hectares St. Sulpice near Monbousquet & Valandraud (best grapes) of 100% old vines Merlot of low yields from different soils in 100% new oak (only 850 cases). Personable owner Denis Barraud since 1971 died earlier this year. Highest alcohol on label at 14 and full rich and unique. Ready.

4. GISCOURS Margaux: Third Growth: Favourite from Nicolas Tari in 1966 & 1970 but fell on harder times in 80s & 90s. Large estate of 300 hectares with 82 planted on very diverse soils on 3 hills. Revived by Alexander Van Beek Manager since 1998 with denser plantings and more cab sauv. Softer lush riper. Still good value with a great 2015.

5. CLOS DE MARQUIS St. Julien: Started as 2nd wine of Leoville Las Cases but now has its own Brand and vineyard with softer tannins and better early accessibility but has Delon magic touch. Compare this 54CS/43M/3PV vs LLC 70CS/17M/13CF yet both picked September 11-26. Shows classy structure as forwardly drinking beauty again.

6. GRAND PUY DUCASSE Pauillac: Improving with consultants first Denis Dubourdieu and since 2013 Hubert de Bouard of Angelus with renovations and optical sorters. 2003 earthy brett forest floor touch of tobacco from 2/3 CS & 1/3 M. Enjoyed deep punted very heavy bottle of surprising 1958 earlier this year but producing better wines since 2015 and in 2020.

7. GRAND PUY LACOSTE Pauillac: Another 5th growth but at a much higher standard with fantastic 1982 & 1986. Here shows a gentler softer blowsy personality with less classic usual structure. My opinion is that the deep gravel soils are not ideal for this very hot dry year resulting in drier figgy-pruney fruit with autumn leaves and a touch of eucalyptus rather than pure cassis.

8. DUHART MILON Pauillac: 4th Growth among three 5th Growth Pauillacs. Best in 2003 and clearly best again here. Continues to improve in bottle. So classy sweet cassis cedar lead pencil licorice. Delicious. WOW!

9. LYNCH BAGES Pauillac: 75%CS/15M/8CF/2PV shows the vintage as too rich, opulent, seductive, riper fruit. Buy the great 2016 and impressive 2020.

10. LA TOUR BLANCHE Sauternes: Dark gold colour already with Bill’s comment “very Muscat” so true in the aromatics. Has botrytis and spice but needs some more balancing acidity for 83 Semillon, 12SB, and 5 Muscadelle. Right behind d’Yquem in 1855 but fell behind with Minister of Agriculture management from 1910 to mid-80s but bounced back in 1988 with lower yields and 100% new oak. Great 1990 & 2001.

The 2020s:

Barb Philip MW mentioned 3rd successful vintage in a row but your personal choice between “2018 riper some almost Chateauneuf du Pape notes, 2019 more tannins and more finesse, and 2020 differently ripe too and changing of the style – very hands on extracting less and gentle balance is the key.”  Your scribe added the new buzz word “infusion” as well. Tasted the structured polished 2020 Chateau Margaux $1600 but was also impressed with other wines. Beychevelle $200 has St. Julien depth but atypical 45 Merlot blended with 51 CS & 4PV but only 55% selection making the Grand Vin. 2020 Grand Puy Ducasse $95 way better than 2003 but still somewhat coarser fruit. Impressed most (as in 2003) by those undervalued St. Estephe reds grown in wetter cooler clay soils that suits the hot conditions. Charming Lilian Ladouys $55 is my top value choice followed by vibrant Phelan Segur $110. Keep an eye out for trendy fav Chateau Meyney! Pomerols are always rather expensive with demand exceeding the supply but they too did well in 2020 on the clay. Rouget is way up in price (from the earlier drinking 2003) at $120 but now has an amazing new depth of fruit and the rich dense Gazin $220 will cellar into something very special indeed.

2020 has some 2003 similarities but show even better managed vineyards and winery know-how in the lovely resulting wines. Well done!

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Ask Sid: Which vintage of Sauternes is the sweetest?

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Question: Which vintage of Sauternes produced the sweetest wine?

Answer: According to Bill Blatch Sauternes expert it would likely be 2003 followed by 1990. Both vintages had remarkable late ripening conditions where the grapes so quickly reached extraordinary sugar levels during the selective harvests in the vineyards.

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