Ten years after returning to Saint-Estèphe to take the helm at the family's fourth-growth estate, Basile Tesseron showed the results at a tasting in London and then showed some vintages from his father's, grandfather's and pre-Tesseron eras over dinner
Bottles at the ten-year retrospective tasting hosted by Basile Tesseron (right) at Berry Bros & Rudd
Bordeaux classed growths vary their blends according to the vintage. Of course they do. Over time they may shift the emphasis slightly – a little more Cabernet Franc here, a little less Merlot there – but they don’t usually go in for seismic change. Seismic is probably hyperbolic, but the changes at Château Lafon-Rochet since Basile Tesseron returned to the family property in 2007 have been significant bordering on fundamental. In a nutshell, Basile likes Cabernet Sauvignon; his father Michel Tesseron likes Merlot. Basile’s aim for Lafon-Rochet is fragrance, elegance, purity and precision. Having clocked up ten years at the fourth-growth Saint-Estèphe, he showed the results at a tasting at Berry Bros & Rudd in February 2017.
Basile Tesseron blended the 2006, but describes it as half his father’s blend and half his own. The next vintage was all his and he switched to 61% Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then, it has been up to 67 per cent (2012 and 2016). Merlot, 27 per cent in 2016, has been 33 per cent at most: under his father, it was anything from 40 per cent to over 50 per cent.
"The pendulum had swung to Merlot to tackle the region's reputation for producing muscular, tannic wines"
It’s not, in fact, the first time Cabernet Sauvignon has been in the ascendancy at Lafon-Rochet. When Guy Tesseron, Michel’s father, bought the rather neglected estate in 1960, he replanted much of it with Cabernet Sauvignon. When Michel took over in 2000, he favoured the softening richness of Merlot, as did others in Saint-Estèphe, where the pendulum had swung to Merlot to tackle the region’s reputation for producing muscular, tannic, sometimes rustic wines.
Merlot accounts for about 40 per cent of Saint-Estèphe plantings today – higher than for any other key Médoc appellation – and much of it is planted on clay soils. Lafon-Rochet, which faces Château Lafite across the Jalle de Breuil and neighbours Cos D’Estournel, is blessed with gravels on a blue clay similar to that of Château Pétrus for about half the plots used for the Grand Vin. The other Grand Vin plots are thinner, freer-draining gravels. It was partly the blue clay that attracted Jean-Claude Berrouet, ex-Pétrus, to take on Lafon-Rochet as his first Médoc consultancy in 2012 (replacing Eric Boissenot and Denis Dubourdieu), but, counterintuitively, Lafon-Rochet’s blue clay is not devoted to Merlot. There is more Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot planted on the blue clay: Basile likes the aromas and purity it gives to Cabernet.
"We're in Saint-Estèphe, we don't need more concentration and extraction"
If the increased proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend is the pivotal development, it is not the only change, especially since Basile became managing director in 2011. Since 2010, the extraction has been gentler and slower: “We’re in Saint-Estèphe, we don’t need more concentration and extraction.” The longer vinification also means there’s no need for more than 2–5 per cent press wine. The same year saw the whole estate being run organically. Biodynamie is in progress. There are beehives and chickens in the vineyards already and sheep are coming next year.
Another catalyst for change was a devastating hailstorm on September 1, 2011. No one would have chosen it but, in pushing the team to its limits, they were forced to question everything they did: “We had been picking each plot in the same way for 20 years.” Between 2010 and 2012, they dug soil pits throughout the estate and they are now capturing photographic data on the health of the vines and soils using drones (much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than helicopters). The 2016 harvest saw a new cuvier equipped with 60 per cent concrete vats and 40 per stainless steel. Basile, who likes concrete for its slow, measured extraction, remembers the last of the old concrete vats being destroyed in 1985 in favour of stainless steel. And so the wheel turns full circle again.
February 2017, Berry Bros & Rudd, St James’s
The notes below are divided into two parts: first, the tasting of ten vintages starting with 2006, omitting 2015 and ending with barrel samples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot 2016; then four older vintages, served younger to older, at dinner. My notes are given in the order tasted: older to younger at the tasting; younger to older at dinner. The 2009 was also served at dinner, but I have incorporated the notes into those of the main tasting.
The first vintage blended by Basile Tesseron. He describes it as half his blend and half his father’s and says it was about 50% Cabernet Sauvignon (although the fiche gives the blend as 53% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc). Medium ruby colour. Quite open on the nose, but elegant, with ripe fruit, touches of cedar, fennel and a leafy, floral, Merlot sweetness, together with graphite and a suggestion of chocolaty richness. Deep, black fruit on the palate – more youthful than the nose suggests – with mineral-graphite and spice notes. Oak still quite marked, but not unbalanced, and the tannins have a softened richness. Not exactly the style Basile seeks now perhaps, but showing very well and with plenty of life to go. 91
The vintage that marked the swing to Cabernet: 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 4% each Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. More youthful looking than 2006, but more forward with less intensity. Spicy, sweet nose, blackcurrant pastille fruit, touches of coffee and liquorice and a crisp, mineral seam; fine-textured dry tannins; a feeling of elegance and definition. Not the most complex or layered wine, but showing none of the over-extraction and over use of oak that dogs some 2007s. Drinking well but will continue. 88
Solid ruby. A fragrant, spicy nose with classic cedar notes and striking fruit purity. Inviting, pure, black cherry fruit on the palate lifted by a cascade of spice. Fine-boned structure but with flesh and mellifluous tannins. Notable for its balance and the elegance and precision Basile Tesseron aims for. 91
Powerful and generous with lots of stuffing but also polish. Aromas of black cherry, exotic spice, sandalwood, cedar, chocolate and vanilla leading into a palate of mouthfilling concentration, dense, cappuccino creaminess and suave, ripe, easy tannins. Easy as they are, they have plenty of grip, which bodes well. Already well integrated and alluring, but deserves more time. 93
Very deep, purple rimmed. Perfumed with violets and almost piercing black fruit intensity. Laser-like precision to the fruit on the palate, but the ripeness, combined with the oak, also gives a degree of plumpness to the clean lines, polished tannins and silky texture. It improves in the glass and can only improve in the bottle. 93
“A nightmare”, according to Basile. Not the wine but the hailstorm on September 1. Against their consultants’ advice, they decided not to pick immediately. “We knew how to sort. We gambled.” It paid off: two days later an intense heat-spike stopped incipient rot. Lighter bodied, more evolved, less concentrated and powerful than 2010 and 2009, but there’s compensation in the harmony, balance, structure (evidenced by its length) and sheer prettiness: floral (violet) and fruit aromas with a hint of spice lead into black cherry, violets, bitter chocolate and touches of coffee and vanilla. 90
The first year of Jean-Claude Berrouet’s consultancy. Not a fast or easy vintage, according to Basile, “but we found our way”. Deep, youthful colour. Powerful nose of fresh blackberry and cassis with a backdrop of sweet oak turns elegantly spicy and cedary on the palate. Density, drive and energy and notably polished texture. Promising. 92
Another challenging year. Youthful looking; quiet on the nose, but sweet. A perfumed quality to the palate (violets again) and a purity and directness to the blackcurrant, black cherry and spice flavours; sleek tannins, fine-boned structure. Will age gracefully but without the layers of interest of riper years. 88
Dense colour and intense, pure nose – very Cabernet Sauvignon. Glossy blackcurrant and black cherry fruit with a deep seam of cedary spice, graphite and liquorice and an underlay of ripe, effortless tannins. Depth and substance allied to purity and drive. 92
2016 barrels samples
Samples taken 36 hours before the tasting. Merlot: intense, sweet black fruit and ripe tannins; opulent, super-ripe but fresh. Cabernet Sauvignon: floral lift, insistent black fruit, exotic spice, liquorice. Lovely ripeness and concentrated, energy and purity. The blend, now done, is 67 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot.
Wines at dinner
Michel Tesseron’s first vintage. Deep, vigorous colour. Initially, rich, fragrant chocolate, cedar and cherry kernel aromas and a full-bodied, broad, concentrated palate with sweet, cedary maturity; but touches of leather, game and Marmite, an emerging portiness and a cherry kernel bitter twist suggest a bottle that’s not in prime condition. I imagine I might rate a better bottle as high as 90, but fear that this bottle on the night was closer to 86)
From Guy Tesseron’s 40-year reign. Medium garnet red. Cedar, spice, sandalwood and a touch of incense on the nose. Nicely concentrated, although by no means big; flows gracefully through softened tannins to a finish that still has sweetness and freshness. Showing well. 91
From Guy Tesseron’s era. Soft, cedary and mineral, but drier, more austere and slightly earthier than the 1996. There’s some cedary sweetness, but it’s beginning to dry out. Drink up. 87
Pre-dates the Tesseron family by 5 years. Guy Tesseron bought a pallet in 1970 from a négociant who couldn’t sell it. Still has good depth of colour, although rather murky. Slightly volatile, sweet perfume; notes of sweet cedar beeswax-polished wood and spicy tobacco; softly dry, but not dried out. 88
Photographs by Joanna Simon