Halfway through the tasting, it suddenly sunk in just how great this was. It’s not every day that you have all five first growths – Margaux, Haut Brion, Mouton, Lafite then Latour – lined up in five glasses in front of you, and with two further glasses to the right, one with Cheval Blanc and one with Ausone. All 2006s, all ready to be tasted in one flight.
During en primeur every year, the first growths do everything they can to avoid you ever getting them lined up against one another like this, insisting you visit each chateau in person, and for the rest of the year, it is only professionals and seriously-well heeled wine lovers who get the chance to taste them together. If we were recreating this tasting at home, and buying all seven of these bottles, it would cost around 4,500 euros...
This wasn’t just a frivolous exercise by the way (god no!), but was a test, nearly three weeks after Max Bordeaux/Wine Gallery (they really should choose one name) opened to see how the wines were holding up in the Enomatic machines. The tasting was with owner Stanislas and PR director Lorraine Carrigan, and we were trying 2.5cl samples of every wine they have in the machines – nearly 40 in total, all in the 2004 and 2006 vintages. The storage Stanislas uses keeps the wines at 16 degrees, and the humidity at 60%. The machines also have the reds at 16 degrees, and the whites at 9 degrees. In theory, the Enomatic technique should keep the wine fresh for three weeks... so did it work?
We started up in Saint Estephe, and worked our way down geographically... and along the way, became more and more aware that this was not just a useful test of the machines, but a wonderful way to make the individual personalities of these wines really become clear. Again thinking about the primeurs, we are used to trying appellations all at one time, but less used to having Leoville next to Angelus, or Cos next to La Conseillante.
1) Cos d’Estournel 2004 – Not a bad place to start. I think it tasted more evolved than a comparable 2004 not out of the machine would taste (this bottle was unchanged since opening), with ever so slight oxidation, and ageing characteristics, but that worked to its favour, as it is open, silky and enormously seductive.
2) Montrose 2006 – Not changed for the three weeks again, but this was ‘at the limit’, gets promptly changed to a new bottle (which we mean to taste again at the end, but somehow it gets lost in the profusion of exciting samples...)
3) Pontet Canet 2006 – Third bottle that they have got through in three weeks, as it’s been a popular choice (I tried it also on the first night. This together with Smith Haut Lafitte and Lynch Bages have been most sampled). It stands up enormously well, wonderfully weighty mouth-feel, with purity of fruit.
4) Lynch Bages 2006 – Still very good condition, the tannins are tighter than Pontet Canet, this feels more of a classic Pauillac, masculine, confident, with weight and power.
5) Pichon Comtesse 2004 – There is a smokier edge to this wine than the other Pauillacs here, it’s also more subtle than the other two, silky and gorgeous ripe damson fruits. This has been changed twice, so the bottle is still very fresh – definitely something you would want to be drinking today over a good lunch.
6) Pichon Comtesse 2006 – Tighter tannins, stylistically feels more ‘Pauillac’, still that lovely sweet smoky edge, and some animal notes. Needs time.
7) Pichon Baron 2006 – Has been in the machine for three weeks, and another one, as with Montrose, that is ‘on the limit’. Doesn’t feel fair to judge, although we all notice that the core of the wine is still good, the machine seems to have affected the nose, and the finish.
8) Pichon Baron 2004 – Much more successful, the Cabernet has opened up, evolved nicely, still powerful but with a soft edge, delicious.
9) Lynch Bages 2004 – Again the evolution is very successful, giving a soft edge to the powerful tannins, and just gently opening up the hard knit black fruits.
10) Pontet Canet 2004 – This feels far younger than the other two 2004s just tasted, still real power and density, and rich liquorice seams in the wine. All three have the original bottles.
11) Ch d’Armailhac 2006 – the first of the trio of ‘other wines’ of Mouton and Lafite. Found the same thing as the Pichon – strange on the nose, and the finish a bit difficult, but the main core of the wine is still delicious. This bottle was immediately changed.
12) Clerc Milon 2006 – Tight tannins, plenty of liquorice and cabernet. The ‘Enomatic’ nose cleared within a few seconds, and the wine tasted great.
13) Duhart Milon 2006 – Again, this tasted great, very smooth tannins, plenty of coffee and chocolate, with very elegant expression of Cabernet.
14) Margaux 2006 – When we decided to do this tasting geographically, it was inevitable that we would have the first growths in the middle. But it worked, as we’d had some wines to open up our palates, but were still fresh. Sadly, this was the last measure in the bottle, and did seem to have been affected by the Enomatic machine. It has a wonderful rich fruit core, but didn’t have the usual length of a Margaux.
15) Haut Brion 2006 – Absolutely gorgeous. Rich, textured, beautiful wine. Everyone started smiling at about this point, wetting their lips in anticipation of the rest of this particular flight...
16) Mouton 20006 – this got one of the highest Parker scores of the year, and based on this tasting, it is easy to see why. Just bursting with personality, swaggeringly confident but very refined, with pure expression of ripe Cabernet.
17) Lafite 2006 – Nose is more closed, this is more masculine, just as you would imagine. Think this almost benefits from the gentle oxidation of the machine... it is rich, but open on the palate, and gives a hint of what it will become.
18) Latour 2006 – this is so elegant, the Cabernet Sauvignon is restrained and the tannins are unmistakably there, but their expression is almost delicate, not at all intrusive.
19) Haut Brion 2004 – Rich, textured, really a beautiful wine.
20) Cheval Blanc 2006 – Okay, over to the Right Bank, and a wonderful richness that comes in from the Merlot and Cabernet Franc. A collective ‘wow’ around the table.
21) Ausone 2006 – My favourite of the Magnificent Seven... such incredible freshness at the end of the palate, it’s all so precise and perfectly aligned – you get the richness of the fruit at first, and then it picks you up gently right at the end with an almost minty caress.
22) Angelus 2006 – Must toastier than the ‘first growths’, more modern in style, but delicious, and does certainly hold its own.
23) Figeac 2006 – Nicely opening, very flattering wine, rich red fruits and a good tannic structure. There is the slight reduction at first, we are starting to think this is an effect of the machine – but it passes very quickly.
24) Vieux Chateau Certan 2004 – Has the slightly strange machine taste at first, with some reduction evident, but almost immediately disappears, and left with the lovely refined and satisfying taste of this wine.
25) L’Evangile 2006 – Bottle issues with this one.
26) La Lagune 2006 – No problem with the storage, a good wine. (sorry, but you try following the last ten wines...)
27) Ch Smith Haut Lafitte 2006 (2 euros) – One of the most popular since the opening three weeks ago, modern in style, good smoky taste, a very accomplished Pessac.
28) Ch Haut Bailly 2006 (3 euros) – Tight fruit, still very young, but very accomplished.
29) Haut Bailly 2004 - – a favourite, silky, soft, does take a moment for the ‘machine’ taste to disappear completely (this one has not been changed since opening) but it doesn’t take nlong.
30) Chateau La Mission Haut Brion 2006 – Another wine to elicit a sigh of appreciation from all three tasters. Amazing depth of flavour, rich black fruits, great concentration
31) Ducru Beaucaillou 20006. (5 euros) Tight tannins, good black fruits
32) La Conseillante 2006 – Lovely fruit, fresh and vibrant, very good. I tasted this on the opening night also, the bottle has been changed one since, and the taste is very consistent – the machine clearly has done a good job here.
33) Ch Palmer 2006 – Not a bad one to end on... 8 euros for the 2.5cl sample, superlative wine, sikly tannins, rich deep fruits.
We then switched to two white wines; Chateau Carbonnieux 2006 and Domaine de Chevalier 2006. The first was all cut grass and classic sauvignon flavours, fruity, crisp and light. The second had more obvious ageing potential, with rich Semillon and a floral nose.
And finally, two little known Sauternes, Ch Riessec 2004 and Chateau Yquem 2004. The Rieussec was full of marmalade, rich and luxurious. It is again one of the most popular bottles in the shop (and the Yquem not far behind, not surprisingly as it is only 10 euros for the 2.5cl glass). The Yquem had more of a floral nose, and more obvious seam of freshness running through it, unbelievable balance between sweet and sour, just a gorgeous wine.
What did we learn about the machines? That three weeks is maybe a bit optimistic, but there seems to be no degradation after two. And that as the level of wine goes down in the bottle, so the evolution speeds up. We questioned whether alcohol levels, or even grape variety, would make a difference to how long the wines last. This surely comes into play, as the sweet wines were still bursting with flavour after the three weeks, and Stanislas seemed pretty confident that they would easily outlast all others (just as they do in our fridges at home)