Vertical Tasting of Chateau Gruaud Larose

At its best, Gruaud Larose, a deuxième cru classé (second growth) in the famous Bordeaux classification of 1855, embodies all that is great about Bordeaux, and Saint-Julien in particular; its wines strike a magical balance between power and finesse and age splendidly.  At its worst, some past vintages were too earthy, weedy or gamey, particularly in the '80s and '90s.  In truth, Gruaud Larose has also changed in style over the years.  Whereas it was at one time one of the more massive Saint-Juliens, over the last 15 years or so it has become more similar to the other top wines of its appellation.

The estate was created in 1757 by Monsieur Gruaud, who combined the three properties of Tenac, Sartaignac and Dumarle to form Gruaud (or Gruau, as it was occasionally written back then), although the basis for an estate dates back as far as 1725, when a knight, Joseph Stanislas Gruaud, began assembling parcels of land.  In reality, the first name of this estate was Fonbedeau (or Fond Bedeau, as originally written), and only later was changed to Gruaud.  Originally, there were actually two different wines made, called Abbé Gruaud and Chevalier de Gruaud, which belonged to two descendants of the knight--a priest and a magistrate.

The name became Gruaud Larose as we know it today when, upon the magistrate's death in 1778, the estate became the property of Joseph-Sébastien, Monsieur de Larose and Lieutenant-General of the Sénéchaussée of Guyenne (and also the owner of Chateau Larose-Trintaudon), who bought up all the other parcels as well.  Other famous owners of Gruaud Larose have included the Sarget family (who unfortunately sold off half of the estate in 1867) and the Cordier family, who reunited the estate's two halves in 1934.  Cordier then sold the estate to Jacques Merlaut, the current owner since 1997.

Gruaud Larose is a large property, with 82 hectares of vineyards (66 different parcels of vines!) averaging 40 years of age and planted at a density of 8,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare.  The encepagement has changed over the years, with cabernet franc, which represented as much as 9% of the planted surface in the 1980s, deemed to be of low quality and basically phased out altogether.  Today Gruaud Larose, like Left Bank wines in general, is a mainly cabernet sauvignon wine, with most vintages also including about 35% merlot and a dollop of petit verdot.  Most of the parcels are located around the chateau and in the direction of Chateau Lagrange, which means they are located away from the river.  This fact is of critical importance in understanding the wines of Gruaud Larose, for there can be as much as two-to-three-degree (Centigrade) difference in average temperature between vineyards located close to the banks of the Gironde (such as those of Ducru-Beaucaillou) and those situated farther inland.  Then again, the cooler inland sites may be benefiting from global warming.

The average annual yield at Gruaud Larose is between 50 and 60 hectoliters per hectare.  A large volume of wine is produced each year, and Gruaud Larose is one of the easiest high-quality clarets to find in the marketplace.

Long the fiefdom of George Pauli, who was the winemaker at the property for almost 40 years, the winemaking at Gruaud Larose has undergone changes over time.  Under Pauli, fermentation temperatures were always high, routinely reaching 31 to 33 degrees C, and only indigenous yeasts were used; the cuvaison lasted anywhere from 21 to 35 days in wood and cement vats, with two daily pump-overs.  One-third new oak was used for each vintage.  With new owner Jacques Merlaut on board, winemaking is now overseen by his son Jean, and the wines have become suppler and more refined.  The consulting winemaker is the well-respected Eric Boissenot (who also consults at four of the five Left Bank first growths), and the maitre de chai is Philippe Carmagnac, who is a wealth of information on all things Gruaud Larose.
Gruaud Larose has performed well in the new century after a difficult spell in the 1990s.  Some of the wines from the 1980s are memorable while others are chunky and lacking in refinement; but even in the 1970s, when most Bordeaux wines were less than what they might have been, a number of Gruaud Larose vintages still stand out.  Of course, the 1961/1962 duo is really worth searching out, but potential buyers should keep in mind just how small the overall production of Bordeaux was in '61.

The vertical tasting was conducted in May of 2012 at the chateau, all from pristine 750-milliliter bottles taken from the estate's cellar.  Subsequently I tasted a number of wines from the 19th century at the chateau just before the primeur tastings at the beginning of April of this year.  As always in the vertical tastings I describe, I have only scored wines from bottles that have come directly from the estate or from my own cellar, purchased upon release.  This helps to ensure that any score I attribute to an older vintage pertains to an authentic bottle of the wine in question--albeit in better condition than bottles purchased in recent years from unknown provenance.  In October of 2012, I retried a number of the younger vintages in this tasting from my own cellar, and am happy to report that I found no major discrepancies between those bottles and the ones I sampled last year.  All of the wines were decanted one to two hours in advance and only three bottles in the vertical tasting needed to be replaced due to obvious oxidation or other faults.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

-Ian D'Agata