I first met Francois Mitjavile in 2004, to taste both 2003 Tertre-Rôteboeuf and 2003 Roc de Cambes. I was struck by both man and wine, and remember leaving with the distinct impression that Mr Mitjavile knew each one of his vines by name, and knew them well. This is the paradox. Because, if you believe Mr Mitjavile (and I do), the beauty of a wine is all about the soil, the vine and the vintage. It’s not about the man. But, in anyone else’s hands, I don’t think Roc de Cambes (or Tertre-Rôteboeuf for that matter) would be what it is: a genius maverick of a wine, made by a genius maverick. You see? It’s not about the man but it’s all about the man. The Mitjavile Conundrum.
I couldn’t afford Tertre-Rôteboeuf but started to buy Roc de Cambes. My first purchase was a case of the 2001, which I doubled up on immediately after opening the first bottle. It’s all gone now, save for a double magnum of the 2005 that I bought as a wedding gift for one of my oldest friends. I’m sure he’s forgotten about it…
So when Will Hargrove of Corney and Barrow asked me if I would be up for a 1995 to 2015 vertical of Roc de Cambes, I think he knew it was a stupid question. Last week, at Corney & Barrow’s impeccable offices on Thomas More Street, I enjoyed a couple of hours of wine geek heaven.
The wines were presented by Mr Mitjavile, who remains a hugely impressive man: one of those guys who just “gets” it. “Harvest the fruit when the birds come to eat it”. Genius. A Solomon of winemaking. Which makes this all the more difficult to write. That paradox again, emphasised by his opening line: “I am unable to say anything sensible about these vintages.”.
The Roc de Cambes estate dates back to the 1700s, when the wines of the Côtes de Bourg were considered to be amongst the best of Bordeaux. Fashion, and politics no doubt, have changed that but: terroir is terroir, nobility is nobility and, in 1987, Mr Mitjavile spotted what he believed to be a thoroughbred for sale in one of the best bits of the Côtes de Bourg. He purchased it, and named it Roc de Cambes. His first vintage was 1988, which I haven’t tasted, though the quality of the 1989 & 1990 vintages, tasted a couple of summers back, suggest that he got the hang of the vineyard quickly.
The flavour profile of Roc de Cambes is slightly Pomerol-esque to me, though with more weight, more richesse. It shows, like another Corney & Barrow wine, just what you can do with Merlot on the right (cool) soil. There is no selection and no second wine. Mr Mitjavile tries to make, each year, an “emotional expression of the vintage”. I think he nails it, as much in the trickier vintages as the armchair ones.
Much of the philosophy is about ripeness, and physiological ripeness in particular. This is better explained by using the word “maturity”. The grapes are harvested at full maturity. The wine is bottled at full maturity. The Bordeaux climate “marinades the fruit”. This, according to Mr Mitjavile, is why his wines drink so well young as well as old – the wine is mature when it goes into the bottle. It is not subject to “this Catholic rule of redemption that means wines have to be hard young to be great when old”. Like I say: maverick genius.
Herewith my notes. I haven’t scored because (a) they would be heavily subjective – I LOVE this wine and (b) scores aren’t the point with wines like this. Roc de Cambes is a seductress, and you don’t score those. The wine of the flight was the 2001. For the cellar I’d probably buy the 2014. There were no duds. The wines from the weaker vintages excelled.
1995 Roc de Cambes*
Some punch, some alcohol, and a touch of 1995 dirt/grittiness/something on the nose: leather. Some chunk here, and all very tight and focussed. “Grillé”, says FM, and he has it right. This is rather good, perfect now though will keep.
*There is also a “roughness” to it, which I originally put down to the vintage. Mr Mitjavile corrects us: that slight dryness in the finish is not to do with the vintage but is more to do with a faint hint of over-extraction, accidently engineered by a cellarman, a new press, and a touch of over-enthusiasm on the part of said cellarman. This, to me, is what wine is all about.
1996 Roc de Cambes
There is more purity to this, I think, and it is a little bit funky on the nose. A sort of appealing wonkiness. A touch of mint, aniseed. Lovely and ripe in the mouth. Glossy, polished. Still playful. Lovely boiled sweets. Really lovely and effortless in its charm. Restrained opulence.
1997 Roc de Cambes*
Similar profile but this seems a little bit tighter on the nose. A touch of coffee. Fully developed with a touch of decay. This is really very, very, lovely and very, very, drinkable.
*The flowering in 1997 was inconsistent: it took four weeks. As such, at harvest time, the condition and ripeness of the grapes was not homogenous. This variety seems to express itself in the wine, which really is multi-dimensional. The harvest was very late, something that Mr Mitjavile has no problems with at all – it’s all about tannin ripeness, and avoiding green-ness.
1998 Roc de Cambes*
This is tighter and punchier on the nose. “Straight and spicy”, says Mr Mitjavile and he is spot on. This is strict, and tastes younger than it is. Focussed, and this is Grand Vin.
*We taste this and the 1999 side by side. On paper the 1998 should be better than the 1999 and, if you asked me to score them, I’d probably score the 1998 higher. But if you asked me what I wanted to drink tonight I’d pick the 1999. Which is why I decided not to score any of these.
1999 Roc de Cambes
Softer on the nose than the 1998, more luxurious in style. Laid back. Quite lovely. Silky, opulent. This might not have the structure of the 1998 but it’s delicious. Perfect.
2000 Roc de Cambes*
Powerful nose. Lots here. That 2000 minerality thing – lift & scratchy poise. Shining like a dusty mirror. Very good, and catches the vintage in both hands.
*There is an austerity to this, one that Mr Mitjavile describes as a “richesse de polyphenol” despite not liking austerity in wine. “Austerity is disharmony. This is the exception, this is austerity that isn’t hard.”
2001 Roc de Cambes
All here. Powerful fruit. “Chatoyant” says FM – shimmering (though I reckon the 2000 did that). This is complete, and quite exceptional. Truly great wine and the wine of the flight.
2002 Roc de Cambes
Maybe I’m ahead of myself here but this strikes me as a paradigm of both property and vintage: the richesse of Roc and that linear 2002 nature. A touch of decay to this, and lean in the mouth with a gamey, tutti-frutti character. After Eights. Really lovely and à point.
2003 Roc de Cambes
Wow. This comes at you on the nose – like a blanket of a bouquet. A touch of dirt, and a touch of walking into a freshly-painted room. And again in the mouth: a body-slam, then a towel-wrapping, of flavour, which goes on and on. Powdery fruit. Sherbet-like in texture. Totally different to anything else so far but I like this, and it gets better.
2004 Roc de Cambes
This is leaner and chalkier. The fruit has that powdery profile again though this is more lifted. Cool, restrained and poised fruit. A touch lean. A touch of licquorice. Gets better. This needs to be examined to be enjoyed.
2005 Roc de Cambes
Still very tight on the nose, and there is clearly a lot going on here. This follows in the mouth – this is missing nothing though it’s very, very, very tight and very, very, fresh. It still seems like it’s hiding something. Very 2005 in that it’s brilliant but tight and tannic.
2006 Roc de Cambes
Punchy café-crème and chocolate nose. Voluptuous. And again in the mouth: creamy coffer. Decadent, rich. This is rather special. Mr Mitjavile comments: “this is not impressive, it’s expressive”. There might be a coffee joke in there…
2007 Roc de Cambes
This is tight and there is something rather Burgundian on the nose. Some development. This is enticing on the nose, like a lifted skirt. And it delivers in the mouth. Lovely and everything is here. Would you like me to seduce you?
2008 Roc de Cambes
Tighter and more focussed on the nose than the 2007. Lifted and pure. Tight and rather “2008” in the mouth: fresh. Much less seductive than the 2007 – this is a strict mistress.
2009 Roc de Cambes
I’ve written about this wine before. Back in 2012 it tasted as if it were plugged into the mains. The energy remains though it has calmed down a bit.
Medicine cabinet buzz. Expansive/expanding. And this is very 2009, and mouth-filling and buzzing and very much as I remember it. Switched on. A tighter, cooler version of the 2003? There is a hint of the same profile. BANG BANG. This wine is alive.
2010 Roc de Cambes
There is a line in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris describes his uptight friend Cameron: “Pardon my French but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” This is how the better 2010s taste to me. They are borderline perfect but wound so, so tight.
Cool and poised. Very 2010. Tight-laced. Some black fruit dancing on a tightrope of acidity. And again in the mouth. If some of these are seductive then this is bondage. Intense. Grand Vin, but will it ever unwind? Impeccable balance. Similar in profile to the 2005 though the 2005’s tannins are a bit more obvious.
2011 Roc de Cambes
This, and Pichon-Baron, are about the only two 2011s I rate. Less volume in the mouth than the 2010 and there is that sandpaper dryness to it that so many 2011s have. That said, it’s all here and there is some fruit. After a while the leafy, spicy character becomes appealing. Quite a success for the vintage and a wine with character.
2012 Roc de Cambes
Lots of mocha on this. Sweet. And very rich in the mouth. A touch too opulent, a bit like the 2006 though without the core. Indeed I prefer the 2011 today. It tastes a little worked to me; Mr Mitjavile explains that this is nothing to do with him – “the fruit did it”.
2013 Roc de Cambes
Fresh, open and very, very different. There is something mushroom-y to it, and an intense hit of frankincence on the nose, with some dried spices to boot. Black pepper. Light on its feet and a touch reminiscent of NZ Pinot in the mouth. Very different, but a pleasure for a 2013…
2014 Roc de Cambes
Spice and some meatiness to this. Lifted. “Gourmand”, which is a posh and more sophisticated way of saying “tasty”. Perfumed. All here. The tenderness of the vintage is here. This is complete and quite lovely. Very good.
2015 Roc de Cambes
From barrel, unfined. Which leads us to an interesting conversation about fining. Some might say that fining strips some character from a wine. Mr Mitjavile argues that, done properly, it can be like taking the rough angles off a statue. That notwithstanding, this is rich and punchy. Spice and alcohol. Lots going on and this is clearly one of the better 2015s.
I thank Mr Mitjavile and my hosts at Corney & Barrow.