Had the 2022 growing season occurred 10 years ago, it would have been an unmitigated disaster in Saint-Émilion, which in 2012 was still in the firm grip of so-called Parkerized wines. Most producers were picking grapes too late, close to (or at) over-ripeness, with high alcohol exacerbating the extraction of excessive new oak tannin, as many aged their wines in too much new oak. Fruit? What fruit? It is unbelievable how some “esteemed” critics gave high scores to such wines. But I digress.
This spring, many came to Bordeaux with trepidation: 2022 is (so far) the hottest, driest year on record. Was it to be another 2003? Actually, “worse” because alcohol levels in 2003 were not as high as in 2022. Like others, I was expecting heavy wines, with too much alcohol and too little acidity. Record levels of alcohol were recorded: Part of the final blend of Château Margaux, for example, includes Cabernet Sauvignon that reached – no joke – 16% alcohol.
“How will these wines age?” is a question often heard from insiders. The honest reply: “Who knows?” But one thing is certain, the barrel samples of 2022 were far better than expected, and certainly far more fun to taste than the mediocre 2021 vintage. And while heterogeneous in quality, with cold clay and limestone doing better than hot soils (for example the appellation Pessac-Léognan was on average not as consistent as northern Médoc appellations like Saint-Julien or Pauillac), nowhere was my pleasure more pronounced than in Saint-Émilion. Many wines proved fresh, leading observers like me to engage in plenty of head scratching. Vintners as well were uncertain as to why the wines were so fresh.
Rain in June “saved” the day. Without that rain, it would have been a far different story. But in Saint-Émilion, for those estates on the limestone plateau and on the clay-limestone slopes in particular, the wines proved excellent thanks also to better viticulture and winemaking. Picking dates are far earlier. Canopy management more about stepping on the ripeness brake pedal as opposed to the gas, with no leaf clearing, for example. New oak is reduced. Estates use larger oak casks for greater fruit freshness. Some are using neutral amphorae for aging.
One could choose among the triple digit-price, big names in Saint-Émilion such as Canon or Figeac, but what gives me more confidence aside from such celebrated brands comes from the Grand Cru Classé category. While not in the same league of the Premiers Grands Crus Classés, consumers should buy with confidence and joy such wines that can cost between $35 and $60 a bottle. Even at the highest end of this range, consumers get a bargain. Since 2018, Saint-Émilion thankfully abandoned its “Parkerized” path of excessive new oak extraction and overripe grapes with high alcohol. Those days are history.
Even in a hot, dry vintage like 2022, tasting at the Association des Grands Crus de Saint-Émilion and at the Grand Cercle, as well as at individual estates, proves to me that they represent some of the very best price/quality ratios of Bordeaux. Most of the wines deliver clean fruit, wet stone-like freshness, and long, cool finishes. Yes, even in 2022. Of course, some outliers remain, such as Château Destieux, Château La Croizille and Château Sansonnet in Grand Cru Classé and Château Valandraud and Pavie in Premier Grand Cru Classé, still catering to lovers of over-extraction, but the tendency has been to harvest earlier, to ferment at lower temperatures and to age in less new oak.
2020 is an overall better vintage, but some 2022s truly impress, and here examples among my favorite barrel samples.
Château Berliquet Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – I like the distinct crushed tobacco leaf aromas from this blend of 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Franc. And such freshness overall impresses given the 14.5% alcohol. While it lacks the sheer depth of Château Canon, under the same ownership, this is wonderful wine in the making. 93-95
Château Canon Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – This blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, clocking in at 14.5% alcohol, is such a relief at the UGCB tasting just after the Pessac-Léognans. There is distinct freshness on the nose, a juicy gravitas, where the attack is at once inviting and broad, focused and exciting. The mid palate has plenty of sap. The tannins need to calm a bit, but they already have a rather velvety texture. Barrel aging will make things even better from bottle. Wonderful tobacco leaf freshness on the finish. Excellent wine! 95-97
Château Cap de Mourlin Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – Clocking in at 14.5% alcohol, with about 75% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine exudes fresh and ripe plum! Some pleasing spice, too. The tannins are present but not hard. Give it time for the barrel aging to sort things out, and while lacking the brilliance of a wine like Château Canon, or the tobacco leaf freshness of Berliquet, I suspect that this will be lovely. 93-94+
Château La Dominique Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – Cherry aromatics. Some wet stone aspects. The palate is rather appealing, if somewhat tight tannin, but nothing that barrel aging won’t resolve. An excellent effort here! 93-94
Château Clos Fourtet Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé – Tasted at the Château, where a record low of 40% new oak is used to age this blend of 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc. Two hectares of Grandes Murailles are integrated, with a wine both balanced and racy, with freshness and ripe fruit. The alcohol is 14.5% but the pH is 3.54, so yes Virginia, it is all about balance. Nuanced opulence from a hot and dry vintage! 95-97
Château Fonroque Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – A wine that divides critics: Some find it too high toned, but I think it is rather exciting for the vintage, as the high-toned fruit lends needed freshness. Okay, there is a sense of salty pretzels, but benefitting from vines on the limestone plateau and limestone-clay hillside, which preserved enough water to face the dry heat of the vintage, this blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc, aging in but 34% new barrels to ensure that the extraction of oak tannin will not be too much, is darn good wine. 93-94+
Château Franc Mayne Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – I like the juicy, mentholated aspect. Clocking in at 14.6% alcohol, the whole idea of “the more we know, the less we know” applies. Iris floral and indeed menthol freshness emanates from this 100% Merlot, which is smooth, not extracted, with medium body with salinity. While not as exciting as some others, a really good wine! 93-94
Château La Gaffelière Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé – Such refinement to the aromatics and to the palate! This blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc at 14.5% alcohol is clean and pristine. Despite the alcohol, I detect no heat or drying tannin. All very smooth, and linear. Some unresolved tannin on the finish will be…resolved with barrel aging. While not as deep as Clos Fourtet, this wine exudes subtle refinement. 95-96
Château Grand Mayne Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – This has such seductive juiciness! Bravo to Jean Antoine Nony for bringing back that Spirit of 1998 here. For too long, this excellent terroir had fallen into the over-extraction trap. In this vintage, leafy tobacco and juicy plum. Not as refined as La Gaffeliere or as nuanced as Canon, it is nonetheless an excellent Grand Cru Classé. 93-94+
Château Laroque Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – Gorgeous aromas of seashell freshness, pristine blackberry, hawthorn, the palate conveys underlying power with hints of spicy pepper. Refined but with tannic backbone, this will need time in bottle before one should bother to drink. The 2022 should be properly ready in 2032. A topflight wine for not too much money. Buy it. I will. 94-96
Château Laroze Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – Tasted on several occasions and a great wine! Freshness and salinity, with more precision than many other Grand Cru Classés. The ripe Merlots lend brownie cake sumptuousness. An excellent wine in the making, and what a turnaround from the previous heavy-handed style. 93-95
Château Pavie Macquin Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé – This blend of 80% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc and one percent Cabernet Sauvignon clocks in at 14.5% alcohol, with a deep palate and lovely poise: I love the freshness and ripe fruit density delivered with spicy ripe blackberry and damson. Very nice! 95-97
Château de Pressac Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – Rather balanced in its expression of ripe fruit, red and black. Underlying wet stone freshness pleases! With more “modern” hints of dark chocolate, which complement rather than dominate. This is quite good indeed. Tasted twice with similar notes. 93-95
Château La Serre Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – Very plump (ripe fruit) but matched by saline, smooth tannin with nuanced elegance. Tasted twice, with consistent notes, I love the chopped mint and iodine freshness, with a lingering finish. A wine of finesse not to miss. 94-95
Château Tour Saint Christophe Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – What clean limestone aromas from this blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc being aged in 40% new oak! Deservedly promoted to Grand Cru Classé in last revision of the appellation’s 10-year revisable ranking, one cannot but admire the lovely linear focus on the palate, too. 93-95