This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See Southwold 2006s – a guide for links to my tasting notes and related articles.
The Chinese may be in love with Château Lafite and any wine remotely related to it – a six-litre impériale of the 1982 sold for HK$363,000, twice Sotheby's already optimistic pre-sale estimate at their Hong Kong sale last weekend – but the UK fine wine trade is less enthusiastic, to judge from a marathon blind tasting of 2006 bordeaux I took part in last week.
The genteel town of Southwold on the Suffolk coast has become a perennial destination for a small group of fine-wine merchants, traders and writers keen to examine significant bordeaux from the most recent vintage to have settled comfortably into bottle. The beauty of the exercise is that we all taste blind, not knowing which wine is which, in suitable flights of wines by appellation. The challenge is the constant onslaught required to fairly assess, and discuss, more than 200 wines in two morning sessions and two afternoon ones.
I was at the very first of these 'horizontal' tastings (the word relates to the purview across a single vintage rather than our prone state at the end of it) in Southwold, a leisurely look at 1976 bordeaux in the summer of 1980. Today's equivalent, typically, feels more frenetic, although we tasters are saved much of the work by the fact that Bordeaux merchant Bill Blatch of Vintex assembles all the samples, Rob Chase of Adnams opens and double decants them, and Aidan Bell of Davis Bell McCraith Wines records our scores.
Once Aidan had circulated the combined scores of all 12 tasters, I could not help noticing that Ch Lafite came bottom of a flight of top left-bank wines, while Carruades de Lafite and Ch Duhart-Milon, also from Domaines Baron de Rothschild, came bottom of their Pauillac flight.
But what about the overall character of the vintage? Most of the reds were quite a healthy crimson, although some seemed prematurely aged. The 2006 vintage was compromised by rain and rot, and there is still a marked gap between the most and least successful wines. (We tasted all the classed growths except for Calon-Ségur, which declined to supply a sample, and most of the better-known also-rans.) The general problem with all but the best reds is a mean, green streak on the finish. Although many winemakers seem to have made great efforts to compensate for this in the cellar, these are far from fleshy wines and any underripeness can be all too obvious.
The Merlot-dominated right-bank wines averaged rather lower scores than the left-bank ones, but then this group of British wine merchants is probably predisposed to prefer the likes of Pauillac and St-Julien to Pomerol and St-Émilion. I was struck by how much less manipulated the St-Émilions tasted than they used to, and some of the less expensive examples actually tasted more natural than their more expensive counterparts. If I had not known that I was tasting St-Émilions, I might have put several of them on the Cabernet-dominated left bank, so relatively dry did they taste, although the style of the wines still varied considerably between modernists and traditionalists.
Those who have invested in vineyards to the east of St-Émilion should be encouraged by the fact that our favourite wine in the first (of four) St-Émilion flights was the only wine from outside the boundaries of the appellation, Ch Joanin-Bécot from the supposedly inferior Côtes de Castillon.
As when we tasted the 2005 St-Émilions blind a year ago, Ch l'Hermitage 2006 outshone many of its (often much more expensive) peers. And at the very top end, Angélus was looking pretty good, and the mineral Ch Pavie Decesse outshone its stablemate Ch Pavie.
The Pomerols, admittedly only half as many wines, seemed decidedly better overall, with my favourite of the 2006s tasted from barrel, Vieux Château Certan, still showing splendidly. Chx Pétrus, Lafleur and Église-Clinet were also looking good.
Among left-bank reds, most Haut-Médocs were pretty thin, but Chx Cantemerle and Belgrave were well-balanced exceptions to the rule. The red-wine appellation that achieved the highest average score was, as so often, Pauillac, where Ch Haut-Bages Averous (not Libéral, as I wrote originally) looks like a bargain and Ch Pichon Lalande seems to be looking better and better. Pichon Lalande's second wine Réserve de la Comtesse also showed well. But perhaps the overall star of the Médoc in 2006 was Ch Léoville Las Cases, where the team deliberately shortened the maceration period to preserve its more-delicate-than-usual fruit. Many tasters preferred it blind to any Médoc first growth in this particular vintage.
Also in St-Julien, stablemates Chx St-Pierre and Gloria were very impressive in view of their relatively modest prices, and Ch Lagrange showed just what its Japanese owners Suntory and their staff have managed to achieve since 1984.
Ch Cos d'Estournel was still a controversial wine but I was still impressed by it as I was by, also in St-Estèphe, the overperformance of the much less celebrated Chx Cos Labory and Ormes de Pez. The less expensive Margaux were generally rather deliciously sweet, while many of the more expensive ones seemed a bit forced and lacked Margaux's trademark grace. It was heartening to see Ch Lascombes having settled so well in bottle, however. It tasted more refreshing than it has done in some recent vintages. Ch Rauzan-Gassies is a wine to taste blind as it has not exactly luxuriated in a glorious reputation, but the 2006 managed a reasonable performance in Southwold.
In Graves, Ch La Mission Haut-Brion showed quite brilliantly, while Ch Malartic Lagravière was the only property to score highly for both its red and its white. Talking of which, there were some very carelessly made (and not cheap) white Pessac-Léognans, and the two dry whites from the Haut-Brion stable seemed to be in a surly phase.
Probably the single most successful group of wines was the sweet whites, many of which were extremely impressive. Ch d'Yquem is a great wine, but the Doisys offer great value.
And perhaps the best news of all is that we had hardly any cork-tainted bottles, suggesting that the cork industry has been taking the problem of TCA taint seriously.
Some 2006 bordeaux bargains
Ch Cantemerle, Haut-Médoc
Ch Belgrave, Haut-Médoc
Ch Ormes de Pez, St-Estèphe
Ch Cos Labory, St-Estèphe
Ch Haut-Bages Averous, Pauillac
Ch Lagrange, St-Julien
Ch St-Pierre, St-Julien
Ch Gloria, St-Julien
Ch Branaire, St-Julien
Ch Lascombes, Margaux
Ch Giscours, Margaux
Ch Malartic-Lagravière, Pessac-Léognan
Ch L'Hermitage, St-Émilion
Ch Doisy-Daëne, Sauternes
Ch Doisy-Védrines, Sauternes
See links to detailed tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates here.