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.

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A Visit to Jean Luc Thunevin: the Bad Boy of St. Emilion Explains his Philosophy

My visit to Jean Luc got off to an interesting start when I explained that I was writing a book called The Wines of Modern France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers. He looked slightly quizzical. “You don’t believe that France can be modern,” I asked, as that’s a wry response that has been made by other producers in France. “The title of your book seems curious to me because even the classic are modern now,” he explained. “I give you an example,” he continued. “Le Pin: is it a modern wine or a classic? It’s not a garage wine but it inspired me.” Then another example: “It’s not so easy to find a classic wine: Léoville Barton? But it’s also a modern wine.” Then a little more argumentative: “the image of modern wine is new oak. But then Mouton 1947 was a modern wine.”

True to the French tradition, Jean Luc then asked what is the philosophy of modernity. “The success of modernity is to be able to have a product that pleases the clients,” he concluded. “What’s a wine that’s a has-been? It’s one that doesn’t please the clients.” I argued that Valandraud was a modern wine that altered the paradigm by introducing changes that many others followed, first in St. Emilion and then elsewhere. Jean Luc agreed at least that he is a modernist. “I’m modern, I was the first garagiste. We protected the fruits, took precautions against oxidation, introduced green harvest, leaf pulling. Everyone does it now.”

“The first wine that I loved was Pétrus. Then Le Pin was my inspiration,” he explained, “I wanted to make a wine like Le Pin, hedonistic and sexy, soft and chic.” This seemed to be an argument for instant gratification, so I asked about the importance of ageability. “Ageability is a big obligation of Bordeaux,” he agreed, “everyone wants wine that can age because of Bordeaux. But happily we can now make wines that are good now and age well. When I started people said Valandraud would not last more than ten years, but now it has lasted thirty years.” Later he proved his point by pulling out a 2002 Valandraud for tasting. “I give you this because it’s easy to make a sexy wine in a good year, but this was a difficult year.” The wine was delicious, just on the tipping point into tertiary development. I asked how long Jean Luc thinks it will last. “It’s a baby, it’s just beginning to develop,” he said. “The 1992 is still good and we didn’t have the same techniques then, for example, sorting,” he explained.

I thought I might provoke an interesting response by asking whether garage wines are finished. “As a phenomenon, that’s sure. But not as a niche. And there are garagistes in other places, Spain for example. But anyway, it’s not the phenomenon of garage wines, it’s the phenomenon of expensive wines.” Of course, Valandraud has now come a long way from its origins as a garage wine: it’s now a St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. Doesn’t the latest reclassification in St. Emilion show a big change in attitude, I asked. “You have a point,” Jean Luc agreed. “It’s hard for people to accept that success can depend on a person and (just) on the terroir. But it’s only fifty years since the first classification. At that time it was incredible to believe that St. Emilion would be ready for reclassification in ten years…Angelus’s promotion is due to Hubert de Bouard’s talent… If Cheval Blanc hadn’t had good proprietors, it wouldn’t have become a Premier Grand Cru Classé.”

As you might expect from the first garagiste, Jen Luc has some reservations about terroir. “People don’t understand what is good terroir. They confuse aesthetics with reality. I give you the example of Chateau Rayas—the soil is sandy… It’s (only) necessary that the soil isn’t bad, not too dry, not too wet. You have to have good berries.”

Jean Luc has a strong sense of independence, but for all his success, no pretension. We met above the l’Essential wine shop in his tiny office, where Jean Luc has a desk at one end and his assistants are grouped at the other end. “There’s a glass ceiling in the Médoc, he said, “I could get nowhere, but in St. Emilion the door was open. I sell my wine in my boutique, I don’t need negociants, I don’t need to export, I have autonomy.” Then we went down to the wine shop and tasted the 2011 Valandraud—“this was an austere year in Bordeaux, the problem for me was to make a sexy wine”—followed by the 2002. Jean Luc sent the shop manager up to the office to collect the staff, who came down to try the 2002. It was a good end to the day, with appreciative murmurs all round.

Blending the Altitudes

“We play with the altitude like in France they play with the latitude,” said Hervé Birnie-Scott when I visited Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza. The winery here was the first to be built in the middle of vineyards, in 1898, by one of the founders of winemaking in Argentina, but it went bankrupt (like almost all) in the bust of the 1960s. It was purchased by Domecq, who intended to use it as a distillery, but when they in turn sold it, Chandon purchased it with the intention of using the house for entertainment. When Chandon decided to move into production of dry wines in Mendoza, this became their headquarters and winery. Terrazas’s first vintage was made at Chandon in 1992, but its own winery was refurbished and was used from 1998. Some of the original Chandon vineyards were transferred to Terrazas, and when the trend to making varietal wines intensified in the late nineties, they purchased more land.

Today Terrazas has vineyards at various altitudes into the Andes, with 500 ha of black grapes, which include 270 ha Malbec, 180 ha Cabernet Sauvignon, 50 ha Petit Verdot, and some Merlot and Syrah; there are also 52 ha of white. There’s a very interesting approach here in matching varieties to terroir, where altitude is the main determinant. Going west from Mendoza towards the Andes, the land rises up from 800 meters to 1200 meters within some 20 km. Syrah is planted in the warmest vineyards, near Mendoza, and then as the land rises, varieties are chosen for successively cooler temperatures, culminating in Chardonnay at 1200 m elevation. With an average temperature drop of 0.6 °C per 100 m, the difference between the lowest and highest vineyards is comparable to going from the south of Italy to the north of France. Syrah is planted on the warmest sites at 800 m, Cabernet Sauvignon between 900 and 980 m, Malbec around 1067 m, Merlot in the highest sites for black grapes at around 1150 m, and Chardonnay at 1200 m.

The focus is on varietal wines. I asked Hervé whether this was a marketing decision or because they express the terroir better. “The dominant influence was the United States and Australia, driving in the direction of varieties. If you go through the phone book, under M you will find Malbec, but where would you find “blend?” We produced what people wanted to buy. Commercially there was a feeling that Malbec was just a table wine, and there was pressure to produce Cabernet Sauvignon. But from outside Cabernet Sauvignon was boring and the Malbec was discovered. The driving force was the journalistic view – the next big thing for you is the Malbec,” he says.

The top Cabernet here is the single vineyard Los Aromos, at 980 m the highest elevation at which they grow Cabernet. Yet the wine is refined and pure, with that directness of 100% Cabernet, but no signs of harsh mountain tannins. The Reserva range is made in a more obviously approachable New World style. Terrazas also has a collaboration with Château Cheval Blanc to produce a Cabernet-Malbec blend, Cheval des Andes. Here the French influence dominates, as the wine was clearly marked to be a blend from the very beginning.  Interestingly it seemed to me to have a firmer character than the single varietal Los Aromos.

Tasting Notes

Mendoza, Terrazas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2009

There’s an immediate fruity impression of smooth black fruits with the tannins giving a slight edge to a warm finish. This is very much in the New World approach of fruit-driven wine, easily approachable, with just a touch of high toned aromatics. It’s soft and furry and the structure isn’t really evident (although 30% new oak was used). 14.4% 87 Drink to 2018.

Mendoza, Afincado Los Aromos Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

The vineyard is in Perdriel, but the name has been trademarked and so cannot be used on the label. Some character shows immediately with a savory impression initially extending almost to barnyard and then clearing more towards a spicy and vegetal spectrum. Smooth on the palate and elegant, a refined impression with a fine texture coming from the tannins, and a touch of blackcurrants and cassis emerging on the finish. It’s just a touch linear, with precisely delineated fruits in the style of pure Cabernet Sauvignon, somewhat reminiscent of samples of pure Cabernet from Bordeaux. The wine was matured in 100% new oak.13.6% 91 Drink to 2022.

Mendoza, Cheval des Andes, 2007

There’s a warm nutty quality on opening that makes you think about very ripe Cabernet Franc, a reasonable thought given the antecedents of this wine in a collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval Blanc, although in fact it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Smooth on the palate to the point of obscuring the tannins, some wood spices showing, but after the initial burst of generous fruit, a more sober palate shows a somewhat monolithic black fruit character with a dense structure that will take some time to resolve. It’s quite elegant and well balanced, but lacks the sense of uplifting acidity that characterizes the left bank in Bordeaux. It lacks subtlety, said my constant companion, the Anima Figure. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2020.