Bordeaux has been building its brand for a few hundred years now. The reputation of the region had already been well established by the time of the 1855 Classification.
The classification process ranked the established wineries of the Medoc based on the value their wines fetched on the open market.
This ranking was somewhat of a snapshot in time as it was dependent to a degree on the quality of the management of the winery in the years leading up to the rankings. If a winery was struggling to produce quality wine for a period of time, presumably that was reflected in the price that could be demanded.
The fundamental factor affecting quality and price, however, would have been the location and situation of the vineyards of the properties. John Kolasa, the managing director of Chateau Rauzan-Segla and Chateau Canon, said as much in a recent wine tasting here in St. John's. He feels the human component in a great wine is small compared to the role of nature, but if mishandled, can have a significant effect on the outcome.
For John, who has been working most of his life in Bordeaux and the last 20 at Chateau Rauzan-Segla, the contribution of nature to a great wine is summed up in the French word "terroir."
His first job when handed control of production at the Chateau was to sample vintages going back decades to get a sense of that "taste of the vineyard," and his second job was to ensure that taste came through in his wines. He repeated that exercise when Chateau Canon was acquired in 1996.
At the time John was placed in charge of both these properties, they had been suffering from a great deal of neglect. Chateau Rauzan-Segla had been founded in 1661 and by the time of the 1855 Classification, its brand was secure and it was ranked a Second Growth. After a series of absentee owners starting in the mid 1950s, however, the property declined and the quality of the wines suffered.
It took the better part of a decade, but John has restored the brand to its original standing, mainly by ensuring that nature, as expressed in the vineyards of the property, was assisted rather than hampered by the human factor.
So well established are the brands of the major classified properties in Bordeaux that they can almost demand any price in what has become a worldwide market for fine wines. That is reflected to some degree in the cost of the wines at our tasting, which was a rare chance to sip such good wines at a reasonable price. (I should note that John has been urging more reasonable pricing for Bordeaux.) At such prices you are entitled to expect "terroir" in the glass, and these wines delivered.
Château Canon, 1re Grand Cru Classé, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru
We tasted three vintages of this property. The 2006 (NLC $135) had a weighty presence showing a heavy nose with earthiness, cedar and dark red plums. In contrast, the 2007 (NLC $108) was lighter and less brooding than the 2006. It had fresh plum flavours and softer tannins and was probably just about right for drinking. The 2008 (NLC $122.67) had a subdued nose, showing a little less fruit at this stage. As might be expected in a younger wine, the tannins were a little sharp and more evident. John explained this was the essence of Cannon, a little hard when young followed by a lasting freshness. He expects the 2008 to be a classic vintage.
Château Rauzan-Ségla, Grand Cru Classé, AC Margaux
The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux (and all of France, for that matter) was a resounding success. I found the Rauzan (NLC $240) to be pleasantly astringent around the edges of the mouth with a rich, deep nose showing some of the fabled pencil shavings of Médoc and the perfume of Margaux. It was and will be marvellous. The 2008 (NLC $120) was a little more fresh and sharp, as a young wine, and perhaps not so "big" as the 2005. The nose was nonetheless intriguing with complexities of cedar and herbal elements.
Perhaps a bargain, at least in comparison!
Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org