If I lined up 5 bottles (one from each of these areas), what would you call as the 'marker' for each of the particular area(s)? For instance, I always perceive tobacco for Pauillac.
One thing that might help you find your markers for these communes is opening more than just one example of each, but I know that’s hard to do. One (or two, or even three) examples is not enough to make generalizations about an entire commune. If you can make it to the Institute of Masters of Wine Bordeaux tastings each year, you can taste dozens of bottles from each commune. I did this as a student, and it really helped me refine those markers. Or, gather a group of friends and go in on many bottles together.
That said, markers for me always tend to be based more on structure than one specific aromatic or flavor note. The identification of any wine comes down to a culmination of factors. It’s really about understanding the wine in the glass based on many elements, not looking for one clue. I have found tobacco, pencil shavings, forest floor, warm gravel, etc. in all of the communes to varying extents depending on the producer and vintage, so for me it was never as simple as tobacco = X commune. What’s more, the marker that helps me “nail” a wine might be meaningless to you.
I have also found that when I travel and taste in Bordeaux, many producers argue that there are less distinct differences between the communes than we might like to think. That’s not really helpful when tackling blind tasting and you need to get the wine right, but I feel there is a degree of truth there and should be kept in mind. There is no silver bullet!
All that said, here’s how I have generally thought about the communes you referenced, and do note that there will always be exceptions depending on producer or vintage:
Pauillac – Powerful, concentrated, round and rich mid-palate that often combines dark, ripe fruit and savory spices amidst wet earth and forest floor qualities. High, firm tannins with a coarse texture remind me that I am in Bordeaux, not a place like Napa. I also consider the potential to age well as a marker here; many examples exhibit exquisite balance, length, and complexity to age for decades. This is true of many communes, of course, but I find it to be one that always reveals itself when I am tasting Pauillac – I start thinking about longevity.
St-Julien – Combines power and perfume. Often the most fruit-driven of the communes, to the extent that you could almost mistake it for a New World example if you did not pick up on the texture of the tannins. Structurally similar to Pauillac, but a little less density on the mid-palate, slightly softer yet still firm tannins, perfume stands out amidst fruit more than savory/earthy elements.
Margaux – I find a perfume in many Margaux, but not always, and it’s different than St-Julien. St-Julien is usually more floral, whereas Margaux can present itself as simply more aromatically lifted and fresh on the nose. In cooler vintages, I find green bell pepper can stand out significantly in Margaux. More than that, I find that Margaux can show a mid-palate that is less dense than Pauillac, with tannins that are quite fine-grained, making the wine feel at once intense and elegant.
St-Estephe – Some examples sort of straddle Pauillac and St-Julien in style, and often when I am not able to place a wine firmly in either of those places (or Margaux) I find myself in St-Estephe. The wines are powerful and refined, with firm tannins, yet they lack the perfume and fruitiness of St-Julien, the elegance of Margaux, and the density of Pauillac. They are often streamlined and chiseled examples of Bordeaux, with tannins that may seem more austere.
Pessac-Leognan – Slightly softer overall feel than any of the above, though still well-structured with firm tannins. Fresh and aromatic, though not to the extent of St-Julien or Margaux. I have found these wines to balance red and dark fruits more equally than other communes, and though stereotypical, I can find hints of warmed gravel. Refined yet not sharp, with a combination of firm tannins, ample fruit, hints of perfume amidst savory qualities.
This is my take; please keep in mind that if you ask other MSs or MWs, they will most certainly have a take all of their own! Here’s hoping this helps you find yours.
Wow! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge about these communes. With good vintages from Bordeaux stacking up (almost) since 2009, I have found a real love for these wines and a passion to learn more about their nuances. I do agree from where I stand on the learning ladder that there does seem to be less distinct differences from one commune to another one down the road....but, that may just be my excuse for not quite having the honed palate I would like to have....yet! I plan to invest my time in WSET Diploma, Wines of the World, next year so hopefully I will find tasting partners and a few good mentors along the way. I got caught in the change in WSET and will (hopefully) complete the Business of Wine at the end of this year so I can go forward.
I am very appreciative and humbled that you took the time to draft such a lovely response to my question.