One of the things that surprised me when I started learning more about what makes for great growing conditions for grapes is that you can almost always say: "The poorer the soil the better the grape".
Think about why we don't have great wines being produced in Iowa, Kansas. Climate and especially soil conditions play a huge role in what grapes can grow well where.
Last week I had a chance to sample 10 wines from the Graves region of Bordeaux. If you are unfamiliar with this area all you really need to know about the potential quality of the wines made there is that Graves is the appellation of Chateau Haut Brion (this is a great site that really deserves some time). "Graves" essentially describes the soil of this area (Gravel). In fact, the gravel is so prominent that you would swear they had planted these vineyards in a gravel pit. Fortunately Cabernet Sauvignon loves these well draining, poor nutrient conditions and the wines are unlike those of anywhere else on the planet (at least planet Earth). The Graves also happens to be part of suburban Bordeaux as well and this lends a strangely residential feel to the area. I had a chance to visit Haut Brion in the Spring of 2001 and the Chateau, the grounds and the wines (barrel tasted 1999) were spectacular. Haut Brion has been owned by an American family since the 1930's (Dillon) and the Chateau has historic ties back to Thomas Jefferson (who loved this wine). Even today a portrait of Thomas Jefferson hangs in the vestibule of the Chateau and Jefferson is given much credit for helping Haut Brion obtain 1st Growth status in the 1855 Classification. While we were not able to sample Haut Brion itself, we did have a very nice lineup. The following gives the wine , my notes and my ranking.
1983 La Mission Haut Brion: Slight brickish color, licorice, graphite and smoke on the nose. Concentrated, tart cherry fruit, good structure and a nice long finish. 1st
1983 Bahans Haut Brion: Earth nose, sweet fruit with a hint of smoke on the palate. 5th
1983 Domaine De Chevalier: Savory nose with tart cherry fruit. 4th
1985 Chateau Bousaut: Fennel seed on the nose, soft cherry fruit. 6th
1986 Chateau Pape Clement: Graphite and fennel on the nose with an earthy component, astringent palate. 9th
1983 Chateau Olivier: Floral nose with a soft fruit palate, almost no finish. 10th
1990 Chateau La Louviere: Smokey nose, with tart cherry fruit. 8th
1990 Chateau De Chevalier: Leather nose, soft, sweet cherry fruit. Good body and a long finish. 2nd
1995 La Chapelle Haut Brion: Perfumy nose, leather and purple fruit on the palate followed by a slight green bell pepper aftertaste. 7th
2001 Smith-Haut Lafitte: Bright garnet, tart fruit with great structure. 3rd
This was a nice line-up and I wondered out loud if my appreciation for the last wine was due to my having a tendency to drink wine before maturity? Also, I cannot overstate how wonderful of a wine experience I had on that April day in 2001 when I visited Ch. Haut Brion. Please, if you are going to Bordeaux, make every effort to contact the Chateau in advance (6 weeks) for a tour.
Also we had a guest bring a non-Graves wine:
1993 Leoville Las Cases: Brilliant garnet color, very concentrated fruit melded with asian spices and great structure. This showed like a 2nd Growth should-gotta love that!