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.
Tirecul 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.