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2004 vintage red wines from AXA Millésimes: stars from Bordeaux, Languedoc and Douro

You might think that a winery being owned by a corporate giant is generally a bad thing for wine quality. After all, in wine small is often more beautiful, and when shareholders have to be satisfied the bottom line takes over from perfectionism and individuality. But a strong case can be made that the wine properties owned by French insurance company AXA have actually performed better since being taken over by the corporate giant than they did before.

Indeed, under the watchful eye of Christian Seely, the famous Port house Quinta do Noval has hit staggering new heights since becoming part of the AXA portfolio. Seely is now in charge of all the AXA wine properties, which encompass from a bevy of Bordeaux Château (including Pichon Baron and Suduiraut), Belles-Eaux in the Languedoc, Noval in the Douro and even a Tokaji producer (Disznókö). Their policy seems to be to purchase underperforming stars, invest heavily – taking a long-term view – and then reap the rewards.

I had the chance to taste through the 2004 reds with Christian Seely, and my notes follow.  

Château Pichon-Longueville 2004 Pauillac
A blend of 30% Merlot, 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. Christian Seely points out that since 2000 they have worked with much lower yields and a stricter selection. Slightly muted blackcurrant and cherry fruit nose with good depth. Sweetly fruited and quite soft. The palate shows fresh, pure fruit with some richness and density, but it isn’t forced. There’s firm tannic structure here. Overall, a lovely combination of pure fruit and dense structure which suggests that this will age into a classically styled Bordeauz.
Very good/excellent 93/100

Les Tourelles de Longueville 2004 Pauillac
45% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc.
This is sold differently to other high-end Bordeaux. AXA are selling it on an agency basis and the price isn’t flexible with vintage. The aim is to keep both price and supply steady so that this can be a label that’s built through the on trade, building a presence on restaurant lists, which so often lack good affordable Bordeaux. It has a fresh, spicy edge to the dark fruits nose. The palate shows bright, forward fruit with a nice savoury bite. There’s a vibrant freshness to the fruit and good structure. A light, fresh style that shows good balance. Very good+ 88/100

Château Pibran 2004 Pauillac
A deliciously forward wine, at least on the palate. Restrained, slightly shy dark fruits nose shows supple dark cherry fruit with a bit of spice. It comes alive on the palate with rich, dense, spicy dark fruits and good structure. A really nice dense Claret that combines richness and structure, and which has a bright future ahead of it. Very good/excellent 91/100

Château Petit Village 2004 Pomerol
78% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc.
AXA changed consultants here last year. Michel Rolland was replaced with Stephane Derononcourt, whose view was that this was one of the smartest terroirs in Pomerol and that AXA could be doing a lot better. ‘He shares our ambitions for the property’, says Christian Seely, who so far is very pleased with what Derenoncourt has done with his first vintage, the 2006. This 2004 shows bright, pure red fruits on the nose, with a bit of cherry and some raspberry. There are green leaf and cherry undercurrents. The palate is supple and fruity. It’s quite fruit driven with a spicy tannic bite. Currently a bit simple and fruity, but will develop. Very good+ 88/100

Château Belles Eaux 2004 Coteaux du Languedoc
This Languedoc property was bought in 2002, and signalled a bit of a departure for AXA, whose mode of operation had been previously to buy underperforming grand properties with an illustrious history. Belles Eaux has serious terroirs capable of making great wine, but so far hadn’t. AXA bought this and a neighbouring property, combining them and then replanting with noble varieties, keeping just a bit of old vine Carignan. Yields have been reduced from around 80 to 35 hl/hectare. It’s still early days. A blend of 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre. Sweetly fruited nose with a distinctive liqueur-like richness and nice fruit purity. The palate is soft, pure and quite sweetly fruited. There’s some spicy structure and good acid to provide balance to the fruit, but the dominant feature is the almost exotic sweet fruit. Aromatically interesting. Very good+ 89/100

Quinta do Noval Tinto 2004 Douro, Portugal
The first table wine from Port producer Quinta do Noval. 70% Touriga Nacional, 20% Tinta Cão and 10% Touriga Franca.
Production 200 cases. Dark aromatic nose of complex, sweet, spicy fruit. Beguiling, pure and complex. There’s a lovely fresh purity to it; it’s almost liqueur-like. The palate is dense, sweet and quite elegant with nic purity of black fruit supported by some spicy tannins. Expressive, elegant and quite accessible. It’s ripe, but there’s the richness and structure to support medium-term ageing. Delicious stuff. Very good/excellent 94/100 (this will retail around £35)

Quinta do Noval Cedro Tinto 2004 Douro, Portugal
40% Touriga Nacional, 40% Tinta Roriz, 20% Touriga Franca.
1200 cases made, 250 of which are earmarked for the UK. Lovely open bright fruity nose is quite sweet with smoothness, purity and freshness. The palate shows nice smooth pure fruit backed up by spicy tannic structure. Stylish, spicy and pure, this is a ripe but well balanced wine of great purity and freshness. For drinking now and over the next few years. Very good/excellent 92/100 (retail around £10)
Wines tasted 03/07
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