Club Pontet-Labrie Update for members on 2015, 2016 and 2017 Vintages
With the 2017 harvest nearly upon us, I was keen to see how all three initial vintages of Pontet-Labrie were coming along. So, on a hot and rather sultry 2nd & 3rd August I visited the vineyard and winery in Saint-Emilion. No flimflam here, I wanted to understand the winemaking and see the wines perform.
In summary, the 2015 and 2016 Pontet-Labrie are remarkable, top-notch wines, showing Saint-Emilion plushness and power, but with very different vintage characteristics reminiscent of 2009 and 2010 respectively. I’m confident that the winemakers are striving to produce Pontet-Labrie as ‘the Merlot equivalent of Le Dôme’. The 2017 is still in the vineyard of course, but the auspices are favourable and the spring frost has had little effect on our crop.
The first thing to understand as a collector and drinker is that Pontet-Labrie is made in truly miniscule amounts, from a small single vineyard and with the same vinification as Jonathan Maltus’ illustrious icon ‘Le Dôme’ but in far smaller quantities – a guaranteed rarity. Vineyard selection is everything, and the Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines that produce Pontet-Labrie vary in vigour, with lots being gnarled and of around 50 years age. The microscopic quantity of production was emphasised when I spent several minutes wandering round the capacious barrel room before I found those few marked with our name. There’s a serious, reverent, but matter-of-fact approach from winemaker Neil Whyte and Jonathan Maltus, and it’s clear that they are taking seriously their remit to produce Pontet-Labrie as ‘the Merlot equivalent of Le Dôme’.
Now for the three vintages. I was keen to taste the 2015 and 2016 wines entirely independently, without reference to Tom’s or critics’ reviews.
Château Pontet-Labrie 2015
Bottled on 20th June at an alcohol level of 14.5%. Ready for delivery end of 2017, although as it won’t be ready for drinking for several years, could be delivered as a multi-vintage parcel.
The 2015 has been recently bottled, so this sample was showing some ‘bottle shock’. It developed, showing much greater profundity after standing in glass for ½ hour.
The colour is an attractive deep ruby, and the nose shows deep warm notes of surprisingly velvety and defined red fruit, blueberries, blackberries and black cherries. These are followed by just a touch of saddle, violets and toasted spices. The palate is deft, with bold fruit, a lively mid palate that filled out as the glass stood for a while. The finish has great length and definite mocha notes with a pleasing languorous fruitiness. The overall impression was one of complexity and elegance.
Château Pontet-Labrie 2016
2016 was characterised by a wet, frost-free winter. The equivalent of a year’s rainfall fell in the first six months, followed by a hot, dry spell, which lasted until harvest. Originally due to be early, the vegetative cycle gradually lost its head start. Regular flowering occurred at the beginning of June, the fruit set well, and veraison was late, due to dry conditions. From then on, a warm, dry late summer provided the basis for a long, slow ripening process. This wait resulted in extremely sweet fruit; high alcohol wines, rich in tannin and flavour.
After successfully trialling sulphur-free ferments in selected tanks last year, in 2016 all tanks were fermented without using sulphur dioxide. We again adopted the technique of a prolonged cold soak at below 10C to extract both the aromas and considerable colour in the pre-fermentation phase, before
moving on to an intense pump-over programme at the beginning of fermentation. A long, warm post-fermentation maceration built up the body. The 2016 is profoundly dark in colour, with big, rich, powerfully structured tannins more in keeping with a 2010 vintage (whereas the 2015 feels more like a 2009).
I tasted the whole Maltus 2016 line-up, which made for an excellent opportunity for comparison. The wines are all barrel samples.
The instant impression of the 2016 Pontet-Labrie is of its’ profoundly dark, purple / red colour. Everything about it is big! The nose is broad, velvety and has ripe blackcurrants, plums and brambles, with dark chocolate and smoky oak (remember this was a barrel sample). The palate is powerful, muscular and opulent with deep and voluptuous black fruit. The mocha / ground coffee I detected in the 2015 is much more prominent here. The finish is exceptional, long and broad. An iron fist in a velvet glove.
I asked winemaker Neil Whyte to compare his approaches to Pontet-Labrie and Le Dôme. ‘With the Cabernet Franc-dominant Le Dôme we have established the profile of a wine that grows on you, offers smoothness, length on the palate, charm and complexity. With Pontet-Labrie, I’m benefiting from the plushness of the dominant Merlot grape to produce a wine with more immediacy, tannic grip and darker fruit notes. I’m pleased that the two vintages so far are showing remarkable depth of profile and I’m convinced that when ready for drinking those tannins will have mellowed, and the complexity further intensified’.
In my own tasting of the 2016 Le Dôme it was apparent that these are of equal stature, showing the winemaker’s art with different grapes in the same year and the same winemaking approach.
Château Pontet-Labrie 2017
The beauty of Bordeaux (especially this boutique single vineyard approach) is in the varying expression of fruit from the same vines in different vintage conditions. With a wholly new wine like Pontet-Labrie there is furthermore an evolving understanding by Neil Whyte and Jonathan Maltus of what will constitute its singular characteristics. But most Bordeaux collectors will be anxious of the wines produced in any year ending in a ‘7’. So where are we up to in the vineyard?
It’s important to realise that Pontet-Labrie is on the elevated part of Saint Emilion, on the hill just outside the town centre. The early frosts which caused consternation and crop loss to much of the Right Bank affected Pontet-Labrie much less, essentially replacing the green harvest. After this poor start to the year, the weather has alternated between hot days and rather humid conditions with thunderstorms clearing the air. Thankfully hail is rare in this vicinity.
I saw a few vines with reduced numbers of bunches, but all the grapes that I saw were in robust health, well developed in size and about two-thirds through veraison (the skin change from green to black), indicating an early harvest probably in the second or third week of September. The forecast is for more warm and thundery weather and early measurements indicate a decent size of crop with excellent potential.
There are just a few cases of 2015 unallocated. Please let us know if you would like some. We have some availability of 2016 and 2017 for current and new club members.
We shall be producing 50 cases of Pontet-Labrie 2017, 2018 and 2019 under the supervision of the London Beth Din. If you are interested, please see my separate posting.
Published on: August 10, 2017