Chablis Diary part 1: A visit to Vincent Dauvissat

This is part 1 of the Chablis Diary. It continues with Raveneau, the savory/fruit index for producers, and terroir versus oak.


The first time I visited Vincent Dauvissat, a few years ago, I committed, well not exactly a faux pas, but perhaps a mis-step. Vincent had said that the duration of élevage in (old) oak barriques depended on the vintage, and I asked how he decided when the wine was ready to bottle. He looked at me, a little startled, and said simply, “The wine tells me,” but with an air of surprise at the naivety of the question. Over the years I have met many vignerons who practice what they describe as a minimalist approach, but few who in fact let the wine speak for itself so clearly.

Things have scarcely changed superficially since that visit. On one side of the courtyard is the house, on the other is the cellar. The house open; the cellar is locked. The children who played with the toys in the courtyard now help with the domain. The vineyards are the same; just over half are premier crus, there are Grand Crus and Chablis AOP, and a little Petit Chablis. Dauvissat has been biodynamic since 2002. I ask whether this extends to practicing by the phase of the moon. “Well, I’m a peasant, you have to be practical and efficient, so it depends on the weather.”

DauvissatTW3The courtyard at Dauvissat

The cellar is full of old barriques, with an average age of ten years. “The fact that the wine matures in a container that breathes brings out the terroir for me. New oak loses the subtlety of terroir, the delicacy on the finish, I don’t like that,” Vincent says. Élevage, exclusively in the old barriques, is in fact generally around a year. I ask whether there are differences in élevage between the various crus? “No, no, it’s the same work in the vineyards and the cave. The only difference in élevage is the Petit Chablis, which has only 9 months.” So the differences are due to terroir.

DauvissatTW6Dauvissat’s old cellars are stuffed with barriques

We tasted the range from the 2012 vintage. Petit Chablis has the most simplest fruits, Chablis begins to pick up in intensity, Sechets a little more, and the Vaillons really demonstrates the classic minerality. Coming to the grand crus, Preuses has more weight, and then Les Clos is as always the most austere, mineral, savory. Is Les Clos always the best, I ask. “Well each Cru has its style. Clos is always the most powerful, but Preuses has its own distinct aromatic spectrum,” is as far as Vincent will be drawn

We were discussing the aging potential of Les Clos, when Vincent says that of course it ages well, but the Petit Chablis also ages; the 2012 (which we had just tasted) will last fifteen years. He proved his point about aging by bringing out an old bottle to be tasted blind. Estimates of the year were just off, we thought it was 1995, but it turned out to be 1996. No one was able to pinpoint it as a Petit Chablis however: I would have thought of a Premier Cru. The impression was quite tertiary, with wide flavor variety; perhaps beginning to tire but still with some life. Certainly there seemed to be some convergence with premier or grand crus of this vintage, and I don’t know of any other producer whose Petit Chablis would last almost two decades.

To give Vincent the last word, “The wine speaks” is a perfect summary of Dauvissat.

Producer Profile: Tirecul La Gravière, Top of the Hill in Monbazillac

There isn’t much doubt that Château Tirecul La Gravière is the best producer in Monbazillac. Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when Monbazillac fetched the same price as Sauternes, this was one of the 17 Grand Crus. But hard times came to the region after phylloxera, when most owners didn’t have the resources to replant their vineyards, and when the AOC was created in 1936, it was decided not to perpetuate the system of grand crus. Located on a hill with the Dordogne only a couple of miles away, this site gets botrytis reliably in the mornings, and then the fog blows off in the afternoons. When Bruno Bilancini came here in 1992, grapes were being merged with another property, so he recreated the name of Tirecul la Gravière.

TireculTWTirecul la Gravière’s production is almost entirely Monbazillac, divided between Les Pins, the chateau wine, and Cuvée Madame, made only in exceptional years. A Bergerac Sec (dry white) is made in some years from plots that did not get botrytized. Appellation rules call for liquoreux “avec sur maturité,” which can mean a mixture of botrytis and passerillage (desiccation), but Bruno’s policy goes to extremes: the Monbazillac comes exclusively from 100% botrytized grapes, the Bergerac Sec (if any) comes from zero botrytis.

Bruno is just a little disdainful about the appellation rules for Monbazillac.
”Monbazillac is required to be only 14% potential alcohol, which is very low.” Harvest at Tirecul is always at least 19% potential alcohol, sometimes 22%. The new SGN label in Monbazillac requires 17% potential alcohol, does not allow chaptalization (hallelujah: at last!), and specifies 18 months maturation. Bruno hasn’t yet decided whether to use the label, but has declared the entire 2013 vintage as SGN in order to keep the option open. “We’ve always made this style,” he says, “so for us the SGN doesn’t change anything. Thirteen producers have classified lots as SGN for 2013, but we are the only producer to declare the whole harvest.”

The blend of grapes in the AOP is similar to Sauternes, but Bruno uses only Semillon and Muscadelle. “When we arrived here there was a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc. The problem is that its maturity is very different from the others. One possibility was to pull it out, the other was to plant more, at least enough to fill the press. But as I’m not a great fan of Sauvignon Blanc I decided to pull it out.” The style here comes from the reliance on 100% botrytized grapes and the almost equal blend of Semillon and Muscadelle. It tends to be spicy in hot years – Bruno says the spice comes from the Muscadelle – and more savory or herbal with impressions of tarragon in leaner years. Alcohol is always moderate. “We never go over 13.5% alcohol in the wine, in my opinion whenever you go over 13.5% you find the alcohol,” Bruno says.

There are three cuvées. Les Pins is made only with young vines (defined here as less than 25 years). This is treated like a second wine: there is less use of barrels (80%), no new oak, and it’s only aged for one year. The chateau (grand vin) comes from vines with ages up to 80 years. Altogether there’s 45% of old vines and 55% of young vines. Cuvée Madame is a selection, berry by berry, of very botrytized berries, and is usually 10-15% of production.

In a long tasting during a recent visit to the chateau, we went through several vintages of the grand vin and cuvée Madame. “In my opinion, Tirecul needs to wait 8-10 years to develop complexity. It depends less and less on sugar as it ages, and becomes more elegant,” Bruno says. You could see the same effect in both the château wine and cuvée Madame: older vintages seemed less sweet, more savory and varied in flavors (but in fact sugar levels did not change). The concentration in young wines and the development of older wines made the point forcefully these wines offer a significant addition to the panoply of sweet wines, different from Sauternes, and distinctive in their own right.

Bordeaux Diary part 7 – Chateau Lafleur – the Beat of a Different Drum in Pomerol

“The first thing my parents did when they took over here in 1985 was to take down all the signs to Chateau Lafleur,” Baptiste Guinaudeau explained when we turned up for our appointment. The “chateau” is a somewhat obscure farmhouse with a tiny plot of 4.58 ha adjoining the vineyards of Chateau Pétrus. Keeping an appointment at Lafleur is a test of ability to draw deductions from the map.


The unassuming chateau at Lafleur carries no identification

“When Henri Greloud bought the property in 1872, his vision was to buy small plots and merge them into larger properties, but he felt Lafleur was special and he decided to keep it separate and not to merge it with Le Gay. He built separate cellars so that Lafleur could be independent. Without that decision Lafleur would have become part of Le Gay,” explains Baptiste, who is his great-great grandson. Both properties remained in the family for many years, but today the family properties are Lafleur and also Grand Village, in neighboring Fronsac.

The focus here is really on the vineyard. “We are farmers, we work daily in the vineyard. Chateau Lafleur has 24,800 plants, and we are looking after them individually. We are in the vineyard and we are making the wine also – this is unusual in Bordeaux, usually there are different teams for the vineyard and the cellar – but this connection between the vineyard and cellar is really important for us… The blend is 85% done in vineyard and 15% in cellar. Selection for Pensées (the second wine) is done in the vineyard at harvest. In 2013 400 plants were deselected (individually) from Lafleur to Pensées.”

LafleurTW6Two horses are used to work the vineyard at Lafleur

Lafleur is usually about 55% Cabernet Franc to 45% Merlot, which gives it a restrained character quite different from the average Pomerol. Pensées de Lafleur started as a second wine in 1987, soon after Jacques Guinaudeau took over, and for the first ten years was based on declassification of lots, assignment of wines from young vines, etc. But since 1995 it’s come 90% from a specific part of the vineyard, a lower strip running along the southwest border. It more or less reverses the proportions of varieties in Lafleur.

The focus in winemaking is to avoid too much extraction. “We don’t use the word extraction, we want to infuse, the best tannins come without intervention in the first days of fermentation. Cuvaison is only 12-15 days, which is short for Bordeaux, because the wine is already well structured.” Élevage sees some restraint. “We love barrels but we hate oak. 80% of Lafleur and Pensées ages in 6-month barrels coming from Grand Village, the rest is new oak.” And alcohol levels are generally moderate. “It’s impossible to be ripe with less than 13% alcohol in Bordeaux now, but you can be completely ripe at 13.6%. People are going to crazy levels of alcohol to impress critics.” This is old fashioned Bordeaux in the best sense – elegant rather than powerful or jammy fruits, moderate alcohol, restrained wood.

Lafleur can display a touch of austerity coming from its high Cabernet Franc content. It definitely needs more time than average to show its full complexity. “Lafleur is closest to Cheval on the Right Bank, but it’s much easier to compare it to Latour (in Pauillac) than to Pétrus, our style is more masculine, more Left Bank,” says Baptiste. It’s fascinating that the two top wines of Pomerol, Pétrus and Lafleur, should be adjacent, yet so very different.


Bordeaux Diary part 6 – Vive La Difference – The Triumph of Cabernet Franc at Cheval Blanc, Ausone, and Canon

The first and last visits of the day were to properties that could scarcely differ more superficially. Cheval Blanc has a fantastic new winery with the appearance of a breaking wave on the shore. Ausone has a nineteenth century belle epoque chateau that is being restored in the original style. Cheval is owned by Bernard Arnault of LVMH; Ausone remains in the hands of the Vauthier family. Cheval Blanc has 36 ha on the area of graves adjacent to Pomerol; Ausone has only 7 ha, partly on the limestone plateau just outside the town of St. Emilion, partly on the descending slopes. The production of Cheval’s second wine is larger than the production of Ausone’s grand vin. Yet these are the two original Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” chateaux—and in spite of the promotion of Angelus and Pavie to that category, neither has been admitted to the Club of Eight that represents the Premier Grand Cru Classés of both left and right banks. Both Cheval and Ausone have a strong commitment to Cabernet Franc, indeed these are the two greatest wines in the world based on a Cabernet Franc blend.

Thursday morning: Technical director Pierre Clouet shows us round the new cuverie at Cheval Blanc. “It took the new owners ten years to decide what they wanted,” he says, “but then it was done very fast. We wanted to respect the nineteenth century history but to have something modern.” It’s a green building with a living roof, containing a garden and terrace. Inside are 45 cuves to allow each of the plots in the vineyard to be vinified separately. “We produce exceptional wine by miracles in the vineyard and no mistakes in the cellar,” Pierre says. “We don’t want to change the style of Cheval, that was decided two centuries ago, but we want to have more precision, more resolution, more pixels.” The decision on whether to include lots in Cheval Bland or in the second wine, Petit Cheval, is taken on a plot by plot basis: each of the 45 cuvees must be good enough to include in Cheval Blanc, or it is declassified to Petit Cheval. There is also a third wine to keep up the quality of Petit Cheval.

ChevalTWThe architect wants the biomorphic form of the new winery to have the sense of simplicity and light of a cathedral.

There’s an interesting difference in the vineyard. “People who think that Merlot is for clay and Cabernet Franc is for gravel don’t understand Cheval Blanc; it is exactly the opposite here, Merlot is on gravel and Cabernet Franc is on clay. The Merlot is picked early, al dente, in order to preserve freshness. Cabernet Franc is not Sauvignon, it does very well on clay. This is what gives the wine its texture. The Cabernet Franc that is on gravel works best when the gravel is on a subsoil of clay, the tannins are too hard from Cabernet Franc on full gravel and there’s always some green pepper, so you would have to harvest late, and then you would get a mixture of over-ripe and under-ripe flavors.” We taste the 2006, which is round and elegant, a very good result for a year where I find most Bordeaux to have a rather flat flavor profile.

Afternoon: At Chateau Ausone, Alain Vauthier also believes that the Cabernet Franc is the essence of the style. “We’ve only been planting Cabernet Franc recently, and the proportion has increased,” he says. “We make very good Merlot, but I prefer the Cabernet.” I asked if there was a difference in terroirs for Merlot and Cabernet. “In theory, yes, but at Ausone there is the same effect as at Cheval Blanc and Pétrus: the terroir dominates the cépage.” We see round the facility, which is modest, with a fermentation facility using small wooden vats, and a barrel room cut deep into the rock. We taste the 2012, which is about to be bottled, and there is that characteristic combination of power with finesse.

AusoneTWThe Chateau at Ausone is being restored.

In between: Coming out of St. Emilion into the one way system at the top of the town, we pass a bewildering number of entrances with gateposts saying Chateau Canon. Most lead into the vineyard or towards the chateau which is plastered with signs saying, Keep Out, work in progress. Eventually we find an entrance that winds round the back to the bureau, separated from the chateau which is undergoing a massive renovation. John Kolasa arrives from Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, also owned by Chanel. Things had gone badly downhill when Chanel bought the property in 1996, and it’s taken twenty years to get things back to where he would like them. The cellars have been entirely rebuilt and 75% of the vineyard has been replanted. Croix de Canon is used for the wine from the young vines, but as they become older these lots will begin to go into Chateau Canon, and Croix de Canon will come from the vineyards of the former Chateau Matras, adjacent to Canon, that were recently purchased.

The style here is distinctive. Once again, Cabernet Franc is key. At one point, Merlot reached 80% of the vineyards, but the replanting program has brought it back down to 65%. “Canon can’t make sexy wine because the vines up here on plateau get stressed, down below on the plain” (with a slightly disdainful gesture) “the wines are ripe and round when young, but they will be flabby after 40 years. Up here there is more minerality, the wines will last for years.” Bordeaux is coming back towards a fresher style, John believes. We taste a sample of the 2013, followed by the 2011 and 2001. The same purity of style is evident; if I had these wines blind I would predict a higher content of Cabernet Franc than is actually the case, as for me they have that mineral purity I always associate with the variety. The lineage back to the wines of the 1960s is clear. Canon is right back on form.

Talking about vintages, I ask both Pierre Clouet and John Kolasa what they feel about the highly rated 2000 vintage versus the 2001 vintage that it somewhat overshadowed. They have the same view: 2001 really represents the style of the chateau, it has not yet entirely come into its own and will last for a very long time, 2000 is delicious now but is (at the risk of putting words in their mouths) more opulent than the style they truly desire, and it will not last as long as 2001. Cabernet Franc über alles.

Bordeaux Diary part 5 – Crème de la Crème of Sauternes: Visits to Yquem, Climens, Coutet, Suduiraut, de Fargues

Tuesday morning: Visit to Sauternes starts with Yquem, looking as grand as ever and visible at a distance on the dizzy heights of 80 m elevation overlooking Sauternes. I’ve visited Yquem twice before, once when I had the fortune to follow the Japanese ambassador, so many extra wines had been opened and were available to taste, and once with an MW group. Both of these visits were conducted by the winemaker, but with LVMH now in charge, there’s a more corporate feel to professionally managed visits with a guide. But Yquem remains at the top of its game with only the Grand Vin (no second wine: anything not used is sold off in bulk for generic Sauternes) and the dry white Ygrec (about 10,000 bottles per year). Production of Yquem varies wildly from year to year: none in 2012 and about 100,000 bottles in an average year. It was available en primeur from 2004 to 2009, but it seems that this may now have been stopped.


On the highest point in Sauternes, d’Yquem is still the grandest chateau of all.

Lunchtime: The connection with the Lur Saluces family, who owned Yquem until it was sold to LVMH, continues, as we go for lunch at Chateau Coutet, which was owned by the Lur Saluces family until the 1920s. Aline Baly, whose grandfather bought Chateau Coutet in 1977, tells us there used to be stories about a tunnel between Yquem and Coutet. From Coutet in Barsac you can just make out Yquem at a point of elevation on the horizon, but that would be some tunnel!


The old vertical presses at Chateau Coutet, made by a former owner, are still used for making the super Cuvée Madame

Over lunch we try Opalie de Coutet, the dry white wine that was introduced in 2010. “It’s not made by making a general first pass of the vineyard,” Aline explains, “but from specific rows in certain parcels on the best terroirs which are now dedicated to making a high quality white wine.” Coming from an equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, it shows quite a rich style. “Opalie is a great way to explain that sweet wine isn’t just sugar, there is terroir here,” says Aline. It’s an interesting introduction to the wines of Coutet, but I’m not sure how much impact it will make on the market as production is very small, only 3-4,000 bottles. The Coutet 1998 and 2003 make an interesting contrast, the first with a nice savory counterpoise to the sweet fruits, the second overtly decadent from the very hot vintage.

Afternoon: Chateau Climens is almost adjacent so we actually make our first afternoon appointment almost on time. Technical Director Frédéric Nivelle explains that he and proprietor Berenice Lurton have been converting to biodynamics. This is no mean feat in a climate as humid as Bordeaux. “The vines show improvement very quickly, but it’s slower to show in the wines,” Frédéric says. They make their own preparations to spray on the vines, and there’s a loft full of dried herbs. The intensity of the chamomile puts most chamomile tea entirely to shame.


Dried flowers and leaves in the loft at Chateau Climens are used for making biodynamic preparations

Chateau Climens is committed entirely to Sémillon. When M. Lurton bought the chateau in 1971, there was only a little Sauvignon Blanc, and it never gave good enough results to include in the Grand Vin, so it was uprooted. Since then, Climens has been 100% Semillon. There’s only the Grand Vin and the second wine, Cypress de Climens. “Some second wines come from young vines, inferior plots, mechanical harvesting, and have shorter aging, but it’s not like here,” Frédéric explains. The second wine comes entirely from tasting barrels to decide which should go into the Grand Vin and which into the second wine, so it isn’t a question of level of botrytis, but one of style.

Late afternoon: Final visit of the day is back over to Sauternes, to Chateau Suduiraut, now owned by insurance company AXA. Technical director Pierre Montégut sees his job as making wine that will make people want to drink more than one. “I hate the half bottle in Sauternes,” he says, “I would like to bottle everything in full bottles. I want people to be able to drink more than a glass, they should be able to finish the bottle.” The tactic here is to have a range of wines in different styles. “Castelnau de Suduiraut was created in 1992 as a second wine when there was no Grand Vin, and was a classic second wine, resulting from declassification, until 2001 when we decided to make it separately,” explains Pierre. Then in 2009 the half of production that was Castelnau was split again, with half going to Lion de Sauternes, a lighter fresher style intended to appeal to younger consumers. For all that, my favorite at the tasting was the 2001—full force in the botrytized style.

Wednesday afternoon: We close the circle with a final visit to Chateau de Fargues, which Alexandre Lur Saluces has been restoring to glory since he left Chateau d’Yquem in 2004. The chateau is a true medieval fortress, built in 1306, destroyed in 1687, and now being rebuilt. Alexandre shows us over the fortress. “I restored everything at Yquem, and then I started again when I came here in 2004,” he says. This is a massive undertaking: at one end the walls have been rebuilt, stone by stone, but still have a derelict appearance, open to the sky; at the other end there is a roof and the interior has been rebuilt and refurbished. Expected completion date is year 2050.

FarguesTWAlexandre Lur Saluces is restoring the original chateau de Fargues

A modern chai has been built besides the chateau, where the production of this jewel of a property is vinified—yields are about 1000 bottles for each of the 15 ha in a good vintage. In 2012 there was no Chateau de Fargues as it wasn’t considered good enough. “It’s expensive not to make a vintage but it’s even more expensive to lose your reputation,” Alexandre says. We taste the 2006 vintage, which is sublime: subtle is not a word I often use to describe Sauternes, but it’s all lightness of being, balancing botrytis, sweetness, acidity, fruits. De Fargues was not classified in 1855 as the property was making only red wine at the time–the production of Sauternes started here in 1943—but it would be right at the top in any current classification. There is no second wine, some experiments with dry white wine have stopped, so there is only one wine: Chateau de Fargues. “I want to continue the family tradition of making top quality Sauternes,” is Alexandre’s position.

Conclusions: For all the talk about declining worldwide interest in sweet wines, the top chateaus of Sauternes remain pretty committed to their traditional styles. There’s a broadening of many the range at most chateaus, but the much touted move to more production of dry white wine doesn’t seem to be a major factor yet. The fact that it has to be labeled as AOP Bordeaux isn’t really seen as a problem, as the brand name of the Chateau is seen as more important. The move to allow it to be labeled as Graves is seen as somewhat irrelevant. “We are in the middle of Graves, it’s just a French stupidity (to have to use Bordeaux AOP), but it takes a long time to change things here,” says Pierre Montégut. It’s a historic accident resulting from a squabble about appellation definitions in the 1930s. But nothing can detract from the unique style that is Sauternes.

Southwest Diary part 5 – The Mavens of Madiran

Monday morning: We start with Vignobles Brumont, where Alain Brumont really revitalized the appellation with his wines at Chateaus Montus and Bouscassé. We are supposed to meet at Chateau Montus, but all signposts lead to Bouscassé-Montus so we find ourselves at Chateau Bouscassé, where it turns out we are expected anyway. From there we go to Chateau Montus, about 10 km away (but impossible to find without a guide), where an old property that Alain purchased from the monks has been restored, and a splendid new vinification facility has been built, all gleaming stainless steel, thousands of oak barrels, and granite floors. It looks rather like a cathedral inside, and they call it the Church of Tannat. On the route back to Chateau Bouscassé we make a detour to see Alain’s top vineyard, La Tyre, on a steep, stony slope. At Bouscassé, Alain gestures upstairs and says, “I was born here. I’ve accomplished in thirty years what it took the grand chateaus 200 years to do.” Now he makes wine from 125 ha at Chateau Montus, which with its prestige cuvées is undoubtedly top of the game in Madiran, and from 120 ha at Chateau Bouscassé. In addition there’s the Torus line from Madiran and a range of wines from IGP Côtes de Gascogne. Vignobles Brumont dwarfs everything else in Madiran.

Madiran is famous, of course, for the Tannat grape, whose aggressive tannins used to make the wine undrinkable for years if not decades. It’s a measure of the situation, that at most producers, the entry level wines come from assemblage of Tannat with Cabernet (either Sauvignon or Franc), because this makes them more approachable; monocépage Tannat is usually reserved for the top wines. It’s a fine thing when Cabernet has a calming effect! Tannat was tamed by the invention of micro-oxygenation by Patrick Ducournau, but when I ask Alain about this, he says that he doesn’t use it, that his success with Chateau Montus is due entirely to his introduction of barrique aging (which was revolutionary when he started it in 1980). “The barriques give quite enough oxygen to the wine,” he says. Certainly whenever I am able to compare a wine matured solely in cuve with one aged in barriques, irrespective of the producer, it is clear that wood-aging is to the way take off those sharp edges.

Lunchtime: We are running a bit late after a chat with Alain about his history, but arrive just in time for a delicious lunch at Chateau Barréjat with Denis Capmartin and his wife, and export manager Robert Tiessen. We start in traditional manner with foie gras accompanied by sweet wine, in this case from Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, which geographically overlaps with Madiran but is the appellation for white wine, either dry or sweet. Mostly from Petit Manseng, the wines are a direct comparison with Jurançon but have a different flavor spectrum, more peaches and cream than apricots, sometimes slightly herbal, and if they turn savory, showing white truffles rather than black. We go on to compare the Tradition and Seduction reds from Madiran, the first matured in cuve and the second in wood, and then wind up with the prestige cuvées, Vieux Ceps and l’Extreme.

These special cuvées come from very old vines, some perhaps as old as 200 years, but certainly preceding phylloxera. When phylloxera arrived, Denis’s great grandfather replanted most of the vineyards, but two small plots—about 4 ha in all—survived. About three quarters of the vines in these plots are still growing on their own roots; when a vine dies, it’s replaced by selection massale from an existing vine, but of course is planted on rootstock. The wines certainly have an extra level of concentration and intensity, but more than that, what makes them special is the broader flavor spectrum compared with production from younger vines. Denis has truly mastered the tannins of Tannat; the special cuvées are well worth trying.

PhylloxeraTW2A prephylloxera vine at Chateau Barréjat

Afternoon: We wind up at Chateau d’Aydie, which is the headquarters of Vignobles Laplace. The chateau appears to be under reconstruction, but next door are the chais, much vaster than you might expect, as Laplace use the facility to produce red, white, and rosé from the Côtes de Gascogne. From Chateau d’Aydie itself we taste a dry white (Pacherenc Sec), the range of reds from Madiran, and then the sweet whites from Pacherenc. We wind up with a really unusual wine, a VDN (sweet fortified wine) made from Tannat. “It’s intended to show the versatility of Tannat,” says François Laplace. Perhaps not surprisingly given Tannat’s character, it’s distinctly more like Port than any VDN I have had from anywhere else in France. Chateau d’Aydie has vineyards in three separate locations in Madiran, and each of the three red cuvées comes from assemblage from lots from all three locations. “We believe it’s always more interesting to make an assemblage,” François says.

Conclusions: Tannat is not an easy grape. Vinification veers between the Scylla of softening it so much that varietal typicity is lost, and the Charybdis of keeping its character, but showing so much tannin that it can’t be drunk for years. I can see why they add Cabernet, because 100% Tannat can easily slip over into a fruit profile that’s flattened by the tannins: the Cabernet gives aromatic lift as well as freshness. Yet the top wines at Chateau d’Aydie show a taut quality that will mature to elegance when the tannins resolve, but I think that really needs most of a decade: the 2006 (a very good result for a difficult year) is just coming round. The oldest wine I tasted, the Chateau Montus Cuvée Prestige 2002, is just beginning to get flavor variety, but you still have to get past the tannins. Mastering the tannins is really the first step: I suspect you have to get Tannat pretty ripe for it show interesting aromatic complexity.

Southwest Diary part 4: Modernism and Tradition in Jurançon

Friday morning: We start by visiting two vineyards in Jurançon proper, both with spectacularly steep vineyards. At Clos Lapeyre, Jean-Bernard Larrieu is in the middle of replanting one of his vineyards, so we have a relatively brief tasting. We decide not to follow the GPS which tries to direct us to continue down the one track road past the winery, but retrace our steps to get to the Jardins des Babylone, created by Didier Dagueneau in 2003, a tiny operation with a dramatic 2 ha terraced 2 ha vineyard of Petit Manseng for sweet wines, and another hectare nearby that Didier planted with old varieties to make a dry wine. Resident winemaker Guy Pautrat explains that there was nothing here but the vineyard when Didier purchased the property—the grapes had been sold to the cooperative—so everything had to be constructed from scratch. Great concentration in the wines here.

On to Monein on the other side of the appellation—before the AOC was created it was in fact regarded as a separate area—where the difference could hardly be greater between two top producers, located just on either side of the town.

Domaine Guirardel has been in Françoise Casaubieilh’s family for generations. It lies at the end of a single track road running along the edge of an escarpment. Some of the buildings are four centuries old, including the original single room family residence, which later became a vinification cellar, and today is used as a tasting room to show the wines that Pierre Coulomb & Françoise Casaubieilh are making. A plot of 5 ha runs from the buildings steeply down to the bottom of valley, and there’s another hectare on the hill on the other side.


Buildings at Domaine Guirardel go back 400 years.

Domaine Cauhapé was created in 1980 by Henri Ramonteu with a single hectare. Today its modern buildings are at the center of a farm with 50 ha of corn and a few vineyards, with other vineyard parcels spread out all over Jurançon, the farthest being 22 km away. Driving in through the rather splendid gates (which have occasioned some local attention), you feel you are at the center of a major domain.


Domaine Cauhape has a splendid entrance.

Lunchtime: Over lunch with Pierre & Françoise we talk about the history of the domain, which they took over from Françoise’s father six years ago. Coming from a background in IT, Pierre has a lively, enquiring mind, and his winemaking is informed by various experiments. Today there are six cuvées, three traditional, and three introduced by Pierre and Françoise according to their taste.

Pierre discusses the traditional cuvée, which was originally the only cuvée of the domain. “Originally all the grapes (20% Petit Manseng and 80% Gros Manseng) were picked and fermented together. We still do that for Tradiciou. We did an experiment in which we separated the grapes and vinified them separately for a later assemblage, or kept them mixed. This produced two different wines. The Bi de Casau which is a 50:50 assemblage is done by later assemblage because it keeps more freshness. It’s been made since 2008 on the basis of selecting 3-4 barrels of Gros Manseng that have kept the most freshness. They don’t necessarily come from the same place each year. We want a half dry effect in the wine, which isn’t allowed in Jurançon, but this is our false half dry wine,” says Pierre.

The single dry Jurançon cuvée is unusual for the appellation. Pierre describes it as a “moelleux sans sucre.” “You can see it’s not a typical dry wine, it’s the same color as the moelleux,” he says. “It’s harvested at the same time as the moelleux. Usually people pick the grapes for the dry wine earlier and a few weeks later they pick the grapes for the sweet. When I tried to discuss this, people told me it would be impossible to pick later, especially because we use indigenous yeasts, not yeast that have been selected to convert sugar to alcohol at the speed of light. But then one barrel fermented very quickly, we left it alone, and it fermented to dryness. The wine was different but people liked it! So in 2011 I tried to reproduce this by watching carefully. Every year there is at least one barrel that starts much faster. I take some juice from the champion barrel, make a levain, and add it the other barrels.” The flavor spectrum is closer to the sweet wines, where there are five cuvées, ranging from Bi de Casau to the very late harvest Petit Mansengs. Made exclusively by passerillage (there is no botrytis in Jurançon), the sweet wines are redolant with piquant apricots and exotic fruits, and after about three years begin to develop a savory counterpoise of black truffles. I liked them very much.

Afternoon: after a very late end to lunch, we head over to Domaine Cauhapé, which Henri Ramonteu built mostly by buying land and planting vineyards. “I’m not typical, I’m an autodictate (self taught). It’s difficult to find vineyards so I have always planted (on new land) although I doubled my vineyards by buying one existing domain. Initially I had to master moelleux, in 1982 I started a Sec cuvee. I achieved a certain success because of the aromatic style, then I slowly developed new cuvees. In 2014 for the first time we made more dry wine than sweet. For me, with 40 ha, the future of Jurançon lies with the Sec. We can make very good dry wine. There’s less consumption of sweet wine and more of dry today. It’s difficult in Bordeaux to build a range of dry wines like we have,” he says.

Style for both dry and sweet wines is determined by harvest date. The first two wines, Chant des Vignes and Geyser, are harvested early. Seve d’Automne is harvested in mid October and has significantly more flavor depth and texture. La Canopée (100% Petit Manseng) is harvested in November at the same time as the moelleux, and has something of the same flavor spectrum as the sweet wines, although it’s also noticeably more alcoholic. The sweet wines have names reflecting dates of harvest: Ballet d’Octobre (70% Gros and 30% Petit Manseng), Symphonie de Novembre (100% Petit Manseng) , and then Noblesse du Temps and Quintessence, followed by Folie de Janvier (all last three are 100% Petit Manseng, and are only made some years). The top cuvees here don’t seem to increase in sweetness, just in complexity.

Southwest Diary part 3: The Old Guard and the Vanguard – the Madness of Gaillac

In two days in Gaillac I taste varieties not found anywhere else and meet three of the most forceful personalities in wine. This is the connectedness of it all: the common link is the determination to preserve the old varieties.

Gaillac is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France—there are wild grapevines in the nearby forest of Grésigne–and the only place where some of the old indigenous varieties are still grown. White varieties are Mauzac, Len de l’El (Loin de l’Œil), Ondenc; black are Fer Servadou (Braucol), Prunelard, Duras. But these days, most wines come from Syrah, Merlot, or Cabernet.

GresigneTWWild grapevines grow near Gaillac. Courtesy IFV Sud-Ouest.

The authorities in Gaillac seem especially determined to stamp out individuality among their producers, yet have no clear idea of what Gaillac should represent. It’s a very curious view the appellation has of itself, that wines made from varieties as different as Braucol, Duras, or Syrah can be labeled as Gaillac, styles as different as dry white, semi-sweet white, and a vin de voile (an oxidized style grown under a layer of flor) can be labeled as Gaillac, even a sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape, but varieties that were grown here two centuries ago aren’t allowed, and producers who make low-sulfur wines are thrown out of the appellation because of supposed notes of oxidation. I hear all about these problems from three top producers.

Wednesday morning: lunch with Patrice Lescarret and Virginie Maignien at Domaine Causse Marines. Hidden away behind the village of Vieux, a few miles from Albi, Causse Marines is a tiny property that just looks like a residence from the road. It’s indicated only by a modest sign, as most of the wine is exported, and cellar door trade isn’t especially important. We talk about the aims of the domain, which focus on making natural, biodynamic wines from local varieties. “There’s no intervention here, except a very little sulfur,” is how Patrice describes his winemaking. It’s a point of pride that there are no clones in the vineyard: everything is propagated by selection massale and Patrice chooses and grafts the vines himself.

One advantage of Causse Marine’s site is a three week difference in harvest from the rest of Gaillac, which gives more freshness to the wines. It seems to keep alcohol levels down too, as everything we tasted with lunch was a modest 13% or so. “It’s legal to add tartaric acid to acidify,” Patrice says, “but I prefer to bring up the acidity by including a little Chenin Blanc in the blend.” In fact, cuvées vary between blends of the old varieties, Mauzac, Loin de l’Oeil, Mauzac, Ondenc, and single varietal wines. For the reds there are Braucol, Duras, and Syrah. The general style is fresh and lively, giving a sense of wines in the old style. But only the entry-level wines are labeled under the Gaillac AOP: after continued battles about the use of very low levels of sulfur, Patrice gave up on the appellation and now labels all his other wines as Vins de France.

Wednesday afternoon: Domaine Plageoles is an old family domain with three generations presently involved. We meet with Bernard, who’s the middle generation. All of the domain’s wines are from single varieties, and I ask Bernard if the domain does not believe in assemblage on principle. He looks a bit surprised, and then laughs and says, “Yes, you can make good wines by assemblage, it’s just that we think we express terroir more clearly with single varieties. Like Burgundy.”

Bernard’s father, Robert, has retired, but comes out to talk about his rediscovery of the old varieties. He restored several varieties that were no longer being grown in the region by obtaining plants from a conservatory, and the domain now produces around fourteen cuvées from these formerly lost varieties (well, seven of them are subvarieties of Mauzac). Some are allowed in the appellation, but Prunelard, Mauzac Noir, and Verdanel are Vins de France.

Robert is rather cynical about modern viticulture. “People are ossified, few people want to shake things up, it’s necessary to be provocative,” he says. “Why has no one found a way to eradicate phylloxera,” he asks, answering, “Because they don’t want to.” I asked about his restoration of the old varieties. “My father had started to have some old varieties, then one day I realized, that’s our heritage,” he explains. He concludes with another provocative thought. “There are no bad cepages, only bad vignerons.”

Thursday afternoon: Michel Issaly is an enthusiast for authentic wines. “We want to preserve the historic cepages, we work almost only with the old varieties,” he says, “with just a little Syrah and Merlot.” Viticulture is natural and seems to use Michel’s own version of a cross between organic and biodynamic. “Vinification is absolutely traditional – I don’t even use too much temperature control for the reds, I want to respect the year. What’s stated on the label should correspond to the conditions of the year. The wine should be a photograph of vintage and cepage.”

Michel only labels a couple of his wines as Gaillac; the rest are Vins de France. “I have pulled my wines out of the appellation because they say they were oxidized.” I have to say myself that after tasting through their ranges with both Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly, to say they are oxidized seems like nonsense. I could see no problem with the wines I tasted. These old varieties give a relatively tart wine, with moderate alcohol, and sharp fruit flavors tending to the red spectrum: they are completely different from the international model of the extracted wine with dense black fruits.

The most original wine made in Gaillac is the Vin de Voile. Meaning that it grows under a veil, the name implies that it’s similar to the traditional style in the Jura. It comes from Mauzac, which grows a layer of flor yeast when the barrels aren’t full. “It started because they used to draw wine out of the barrel without topping it up,” explains Michel Issaly. “It’s been made here for three hundred years, and it’s the real historic wine of Gaillac.” Today the wine is typically bottled after seven years. It has a unique character: at first you get a fugitive impression of the original fruits, then the dry Sherry-like notes take over, giving a savory impression with a touch of fenugreek.

Michel concedes that his wines aren’t typical. “There are few vignerons left who work with authentic varieties,” he says, “they are all using Merlot, Syrah, and Gamay.” By reintroducing the old varieties, Robert Plageoles offered Gaillac the chance to perpetuate its history, but Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly are rare producers who are taking up the challenge. Patrice’s problems with the AOP are summarized by this exchange. Is this typical, I asked about Les Greilles, as we tasted the only white that Patrice bottles under the appellation label. “If you mean historically, yes. If you mean in terms of current production, no; today most Gaillac is made using industrial yeast and contain Sauvignon Blanc, so the typicity has changed.”I can understand why the Gaillac Syndicat feels compelled to authorize international varieties, since authenticity isn’t everyone’s glass of wine, and you have to live in the commercial world, but it’s a pity they have in effect excluded their most thoughtful and individual producers.

Southwest Diary Part 2 – Cahors: Cosse Maisonneuve, Clos Triguedina, Chateau du Cèdre and a nonVisit to Lagrezette

The old description of the “black wine of Cahors” tells you pretty much all you need to know: the wine was dense and tough. It was Malbec, which fell out of favor in Bordeaux when it did not graft well after phylloxera, began more slowly to be replaced by Merlot in Cahors, and then came back after its rediscovery in Argentina. Now most labels of Cahors also state Malbec in large letters. “The image of Cahors in the 1980s was rather rustic,” says Jean Luc Baldès at Clos Triguedina. “Argentinean Malbec is a different wine, it has different terroir and climate, but now people realize because of Argentinean Malbec that things can be different, Argentina’s success opened the door for us.”

I visit three top producers in Cahors and am impressed with the increased precision of the wines. At Cosse Maisonneuve, Catherine Maisonneuve is exploring her terroir with 100% Malbecs. Why does she make only monovarietals? “It’s the noble cepage, it’s perfectly adapted to climate. Merlot has only been here since the sixties; because they had planted a poor Malbec that was too productive, they authorized Merlot, but it’s the Malbec that really expresses the terroir.”

Tuesday morning: Cosse Maisonneuve occupies a sort of amphitheater rising up to the surrounding woods. Three 100% Malbecs come from different positions on the slope: Le Combal from the bottom (the most gravelly terroir) is fruit-driven with firm tannins, Lafage from the middle (more calcareous) is a bit softer, and Les Laquets from the top (clay on a limestone base) is fine and perfumed. From a nearby site with yet more clay and limestone comes La Marguerite, the finest of all.


The wines become increasingly fine going up the slope at Cosse Maisonneuve

Tuesday afernoon: Jean Luc Baldès has built up Clos Triguedina into one of the largest producers in the area. “There is no negociant in Cahors, so we are obliged to do everything, to work out techniques for viticulture and vinification, and to commercialize the wine,” he explains. He views his wines in terms of the terraces of Cahors. Rising up from the valley of the Dordogne, as you go progressively higher you come into different geological eras. His box of three wines, labeled Trilogie, has one each from the second, third, and fourth terrace. “The second terrace has clay on calcareous subsoil, which gives fruity notes; the third is at about 100 m and has round calcareous pebbles, giving a ripe richer, wine; and the third of clay and limestone, gives finesse and elegance,” he says. The eponymous Clos Triguedina is the classic assemblage from all terraces. His philosophy is that “Malbec can bring finesse and elegance, it does not need to be massive, it’s fresh and mineral.” His Probus bottling from Vieilles Vignes is the Vosne Romanée of Cahors. Jean Luc’s grandfather had a nursery as well as being a vigneron, so Triguedina now has some very old Malbec, around a hundred years.

TriguedinaTW The oldest Malbec vines in France are at Clos Triguedina

Pascal Verhaege at Chateau de Cèdre has a different philosophy, and believes that assemblage gives a more complex wine. “I came from Burgundy and I wanted to make cuvées from each terrace, but we get more complexity by making an assemblage from all three.” The wines range from entry level to GC, a Vieilles Vignes that’s made by barrel fermentation (the ends of the barrels are left off, and then the cooper comes to install them after fermentation has finished.) We compare current vintages of Chateau de Cèdre and GC with the 2000 vintage for Pascal to make his point that the difference between the wines increases with time: the effects of barrel fermentation are not a flash in the pan, he believes.

Tuesday evening: The strangest visit of the week comes at the end of the day at Chateau Lagrezette. I had emailed to make an arrangement to visit, and received a reply from Marine Grison, which seemed friendly enough: “contact me for all information so we can best prepare for your visit, we’ll arrange to visits the chais and have a tasting.” We arrived on schedule to find the tasting room deserted: should we just help ourselves and organize a tasting, we wondered? There was no way to summons help, but Lagrezette’s phone number was on the boxes that were lying all around so I called. I explained the predicament: no one to organize a tasting. “Ah, you have to have an appointment,” the voice said. I have an appointment, I explained, citing the email exchange. There was a pause. “Ah, you have the wrong sort of appointment,” the voice said. “Anyway, there is no one here and I am going home in ten minutes.” Bienvenue à la Belle France!


Lagrezette has a grand chateau but appears to be run by fonctionaires

Southwest Diary part 1: Monbazillac, Bergerac, and a terrible mistake with the Côtes

Very impressed with commitment to quality of three producers: Tirecul La Gravière, l’Ancienne Cure, and Vignoble Verdots. Vineyards for Bergerac form a big circle south of town of Bergerac: Bergerac can make red or (more recently) dry white. “We used Vin de Pays Perigord for white wine until recently, because there was no consensus among the producers what Bergerac Sec should be,” explains Bruno Bilancini at Tirecul la Gravière. Most producers have wines from all appellations, meaning Bergerac (red), Bergerac Sec (dry white), Bergerac Rosé and Moelleux (half sweet) and Monbazillac (botrytized sweet wine, which can come only from a small area in the center).

Tirecul la Gravière’s production is almost entirely Monbazillac, divided between Les Pins (young vines, which here means less than 25 years), the chateau wine, and Cuvée Madame, made only in exceptional years. The blend of grapes in the AOP is similar to Sauternes, but Bruno uses only Semillon and Muscadelle. “I’m not a fan of Sauvignon,” he says. With younger wines, the initial impression focus on marmalade; once again, I was put to shame by my companion, the Anima Figure, who could identify origins more precisely than I could, as bitter oranges of Seville. But she is an afficionado of English marmalade.

“With time the wine depends less and less on sugar and becomes more elegant,” Bruno says. With older wines, comparing the 2005 and 1994 Chateau wines, or the 2004 and 2001 Cuvée Madame, it seemed immediately obviously that in each case the older wine is less sweet and more complex: but being an oenologue Bruno has measured the sugar levels, which are in fact the same. The tasting completely refutes the idea that Monbazillac is a poor man’s Sauternes: it’s more savory than Sauternes, with herbal influences, which Bruno describes as saffron and anise, and I’d be inclined to describe as tarragon. At Ancienne Cure, the Monbazillac develops delicate notes of black truffles to counterpoise the sweet apricots.

MonbazillacTWThe Chateau de Monbazillac is now owned by the cooperative

Curiously the Bergerac Sec goes in the opposite direction. Again there is the same general mix of grape varieties as white Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle vary in proportions (with a tendency to more Muscadelle in Bergerac), but the first impression of the wines is all stone fruits, peaches and apricots, sometimes quite perfumed, a real contrast with the grassier notes of Bordeaux. Then with time the wine turns in a more savory direction.

Terroirs differ to the extent that at l’Ancienne Cure—which takes its name from a thirteenth century church on the property—in Colombier, Christian Roche makes two thirds white wine, where across the road in Conne-de-Labarde, Vignobles de Verdot produces mostly red. At Vignobles de Verdot, I meet the whirlwind that is David Fourtout. We tour the chais to find all sorts of new equipment, from custom designed conical cuves to a special sorting machine. All this is intended to produce more precision in the fruits, with softer tannins: you might say the wine is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Both Christian and David produce a range of wines from entry level to top of the line, with the top reds labeled as Côtes de Bergerac.

Producers are conscious that Bergerac has an image problem. “We are not a famous appellation. Bergerac is close to Bordeaux is how we have to describe it,” says David. “This means we have to work harder in the vines.” The decision by the Syndicat to introduce a top level appellation called Côtes de Bergerac was a terrible mistake. Not the principle of higher quality, which is that chaptalization is forbidden, and longer aging is required, but the name: everywhere in France Côtes de Quelquechose indicates a wine that is inferior to Quelquechose. No one from outside could know that Côtes de Bergerac is intended to be a higher level than Bergerac “We are considering calling it Grand Cru instead,” David says, but it isn’t presently obvious that INAO will allow this.

The best wines in Côtes de Bergerac – which is only 4% of all red production – strike me as close in quality to the Côtes de Castillon, an outpost of Bordeaux just a bit to the west of Bergerac. Côtes is equally a problem there; the appellation should have been called just Castillon. I would say to INAO and the Syndicat in both cases: don’t undercut the efforts of the best producers, who are really committed to quality, by imposing a name that implies inferiority to consumers.