Alsace Diary part 5: Are They Making Another Big Mistake with Classification in Alsace?

The classification system in Alsace is a shambles. With only two official levels to distinguish everything from the plain to the mountain slopes (not to mention the problem with unpredictable sweetness) the label on a bottle of wine from Alsace gives almost no significant information to the consumer, except the name of the producer and the variety. Producers are keenly feeling the lack of any real hierarchy of classification, and the most common theme during a week of visits was that Alsace should follow the Burgundian model. In fact, producers are anticipating the introduction of a hierarchy by labeling single vineyard wines with the names of lieu dits, and some are also introducing village wines. A proposal before INAO would formalize a hierarchy, but will it solve Alsace’s problem of declining sales?

The hierarchy was clearest with Riesling, as everything is in Alsace, when producers present a horizontal tasting of an Alsace AOP, village wine, lieu-dit(s), and grand cru(s), although often somewhat muddied by an increase in sweetness ascending the hierarchy. This was more of a problem with Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, which is perhaps why I’m not so convinced the premier crus will be so effective with these varieties. All the same, the de facto hierarchy does resemble Burgundy in showing increase in quality, although it’s more difficult to get a comparable sense of the different characteristics of each terroir. One reason for this is that with the grand crus, there’s often a single wine from one producer that really marks the grand cru, so impressions are biased by producer style. “It’s important that a lieu dit or premier cru should be represented by multiple producers so it doesn’t just have one style,” says Jean-Christophe Bott of Domaine Bott Geyl.

Of course, the major problem with grand crus is extreme variation in quality. Trimbach, Hugel, and Léon Beyer regard the whole system as do sevalued that they refuse to use it. As they are major holders in some of the most significant grand crus, this is another reason why the typicities are not generally recognized. “It’s not the number of grand crus that’s the issue but the delimitation. Some of the tops and bottoms of hills should perhaps be premier cru,” says Felix Meyer at Meyer-Fonné. This goes back to their original definition, when Johnny Hugel’s original proposal to delineate just the best terroir was transmogrified into giving every village its own grand cru and expanding its area to satisfy local demand. The first grand cru, Schlossberg, was expanded from 25 ha to 80 ha. This is unlikely to be revised. “There is no willingness to open the grand cru box. The system is not perfect but it exists. It’s much more important to organize a classification of the intermediate levels,” says Etienne Sipp at Domaine Louis Sipp.

This raises the prospect, as Céline Meyer of Domaine Josmeyer says, that “some premier cru wines may sell at high prices than some grand cru wines.” The premier crus are likely to be more tightly defined than the grand crus, but the hierarchy will never have any real meaning so long as there are bloated grand crus with some parts that don’t merit the description. So long as yield limits are so relaxed that poor wines can be made in grand crus and sold at rock-bottom prices, creating premier crus with any degree of integrity will simply muddle up the system further. The key to defining the premier crus is to put the grand crus in order. Almost every producer I visited acknowledged that the variable state of the grand crus is a major impediment to establishing a reputation for high quality wine from Alsace, but said ruefully that reform is impossible. If I were in charge of the dossier at INAO, I would make it a condition of classifying premier crus that the grand crus were redefined on the basis of geology and microclimate rather than politics.

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Bordeaux Diary Part 2: Insiders in St. Emilion – The Stately Pleasure Domes of Xanadu

The 2012 reclassification in St. Emilion was a sea change in promoting Angelus and Pavie to join Cheval Blanc and Ausone in the hallowed ranks of Premier Grand Cru Classé A. While the wines are admired, there are many reservations about procedures and criteria in the classification. Certainly this might be regarded as a Parker classification that has rewarded the rich and opulent style, while ignoring that long time contender for promotion, Chateau Figeac, which with a high Cabernet content has a more reserved style.

Monday: the first palace. After lunch to Chateau Angelus, with its massive new building crowned by a modern bell tower. They played the national anthems of both the U.K. and U.S. on the bells when we arrived. The entrance goes into what looks like a modern take on a massive mediaeval banqueting hall with a vaulted wooden roof that must be a contender for the longest in France. Offices are squeezed in along the side. The atmosphere screams nouveau riche, but there is no dispute about the quality of the wine. This is very much a family-run operation as we meet Hubert de Bouard as well as his daughter and cousin, all involved in the business. This is one of the largest estates in St. Emilion, with 39 ha used for Angelus, and another 12 ha used for the second wine, Carillon d’Angelus. Hubert consults for 60 chateaus as well as managing his own properties—which include Fleur de Bouard in Lalande de Pomerol—so he’s an influential fellow in the region.AngelusTW

The bells of Angelus can be seen (and heard) for miles around

Thursday: modernism in St. Emilion. Managed to take the back road to Pavie, so instead of coming in to the grand entrance at the front like a civilized person, followed a tortuous path down from the hills, winding up in the parking lot. But it really showed what the limestone plateau above is like and how the terroir differs from lower down. Pavie had better keep its promotion into Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” because the “A” is engraved in stone above the entrance to the new limestone palace.

There’s no mistaking the level of investment here. When Chateau Pavie and adjacent Pavie Decesse came on the market in 1997, supermarket magnate Gérard Perse, who had previously bought Chateau Monbousquet, acquired Pavie Decesse. When Pavie had not sold a year later, “he decided to change his life, he sold the supermarkets and left Paris to build up Chateau Pavie,” says Gerard’s son in law, Henrique da Costa. Since then, it’s been a steady upward path, with high praise from Parker, culminating in the promotion.

PavieTWChateau Pavie is constructed from local limestone

Tasted the 2006, which isn’t at all the popular image of an overblown wine. It’s only 70% Merlot and includes some Cabernet. “We love the Cabernet Sauvignon, when it’s ripe you produce fantastic wine,” says Henrique. “We are working to increase the Cabernet.” In addition to Pavie and its second wine, Arômes de Pavie, there is Esprit de Pavie, a generic Bordeaux that comes largely from Castillon. “Esprit de Pavie was introduced in 2008. We have three properties in Castillon, but Castillon isn’t well known, we decided to make it a generic Bordeaux,” says Henrique.

With the massive palaces of Angelus and Pavie dominating their neighborhoods, St. Emilion, known previously for its modest chateaus and small vineyards, can look the grand chateaux of the Medoc in the face.

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.

Will L’If Become the Le Pin of St. Emilion: Jacques Thienpont Strikes Again?

When Jacques Thienpont started Le Pin in 1979, he had no idea it was going to become one of the most famous—and at one time the most expensive—wine of Pomerol. Owned by the Laubie family since 1924, this tiny vineyard of 1.2 ha was located between Vieux Chateau Certan (also owned by the Thienpont family) and Trotanoy (one of Moueix’s leading properties). The Thienponts knew it was special terroir, and the original plan was to buy it to add to Vieux Chateau Certan, but the family did not want to pay the price, so Jacques bought it himself, paying a million francs for it (equivalent to 150,000 euros or $200,000).

The small scale of production, high price, character of 100% Merlot, and concentrated character of the wine led it to be grouped with the garage wines, although this has never really been an appropriate description, since it comes from prime terroir, and winemaking does not use any extreme methods. Subsequently some more small plots, contiguous with the original holding, were added to bring the total size up to 2.7 ha. There is no second wine at Le Pin, but there is another label called Trilogie, which is a blend across three successive vintages.LePin-original

The original house at Le Pin.

LepinS

The new winery

The property takes its name from the massive pine tree that stands just in front of the winery. Jacques now seems to be repeating history with the recent purchase of a property in St. Emilion, originally Chateau Haut-Plantey, but now renamed L’If (the French for yew tree).

My visit to Le Pin this week started out at the new winery, a contemporary jewel that replaced the old building in 2012, more than thirty years after the original purchase. Then we visited L’If, where the building is pretty dilapidated, but modern equipment has been installed inside. The old large fermentation tanks have been replaced with a variety of tanks to allow fermentation of individual plots. The original purchase included 5 ha in single block around the building, and another 2 ha close by; another hectare has since been added, bringing the total to 8 ha. This is good terroir, a nice slope just under Chateau Troplong Mondot, with a view across to the church at St. Emilion. There’s lots of limestone, which will be planted with Cabernet Franc; Merlot will be retained or planted on the plots with more clay. “It’s good terroir, but we will have to start from scratch, because they used weed killer,” Jacques says.

Almost half of the property has been pulled out for replanting. 1 ha is about to be replanted, and another 2 ha will be uprooted shortly; the land will be left fallow for four years before replanting, and then it will be three years till the first grapes are ready to use, so for the next 7 years production will be down. Cabernet Sauvignon has been removed—this is not a good spot for it, says Cyrille Thienpont, who is managing the property (and we will meet again at other Thienpont properties). Replanting will bring the varieties to a mix of about 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc. The big debate of the moment is how much to increase the density of planting from the present 6,500 vines/ha. With any significant increase come additional costs such as the need for different tractors that can handle narrower rows. I asked Jacques whether he was going to be frantically busy at harvest with two properties, but he explained that, even though the distance between the properties is only about five miles, L’If always harvests about three weeks later than Le Pin. “When we are putting wine into the barrels at Le Pin, we know it’s time to go and do the harvest at L’If,” he says. The first vintage to be released under the L’If name is 2011.

Coming from Pomerol, where there is no classification, Jacques does not intend L’If to become part of the St. Emilion classification. It may join Chateau Tertre Rôteboeuf as one of the most significant unclassified properties in the appellation. No one could have forecast Le Pin’s rise to fame, but it’s much easier to prophesy that we’re going to hear a good deal about L’If once the project really gets under way: Jacques hopes it will take less than the thirty years he’s been at Le Pin to fructify. Whether it will rise to the dizzy heights of challenging the top wines of the appellation remains to be seen.

 

Merlot with Elegance

The crystalline purity is reminiscent of Volnay: the sheer elegance reminds me of Margaux or perhaps St. Julien. Fruits are precisely delineated. The dominant grape variety would not be the first to come to mind in a blind tasting, but it is Merlot: in fact this is a blend of 90% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Franc, and it used to be the Premier Grand Cru Classé of St. Emilion with the highest proportion of Merlot.

Every once in a while you have a wine that really makes you rethink your perceptions of typicity, and this Château Magdelaine from 1982 is a perfect example. I have always found Magdelaine to be the most Médocian wine of the right bank, with a pleasing touch of austerity as opposed to the full fleshy opulence of so many wines. At one point, Clive Coates described it as third only after Cheval Blanc and Ausone.

A leading St. Emilion estate for two centuries, Château Magdelaine was acquired by the Moueix family (of Château Pétrus) in 1952. It has been a Premier Grand Classé B ever since St. Emilion was classified, but in 2012 two changes occurred. Magdelaine did not appear in the revised classification; and Moueix announced that it would be merged with Château Bélair-Monange, a neighboring chateau that is their other property in St. Emilion. Cause and effect have never been publicly discussed. The wine from combined properties (from the 2012 vintage) will be under the name of Château Bélair-Monange

The revised St Emilion classification definitely pandered to the internationalization of Bordeaux  by promoting Château Pavie (very controversial for its rich, extracted style since Gérard Pearse took it over) and Château Angelus from Premier Grand Cru Classé B to A. And Valandraud, an archetypal garage wine, was promoted straight from St Emilion to Premier Grand Cru Classé B without ever passing through the intermediate Grand Cru Classé. Château Figeac, the candidate at every prior classification for promotion, but whose one third Cabernet Sauvignon gives it a sterner style than most St. Emilions, was ignored.

Certainly Magdelaine has been falling out of fashion over the past decade or so, failing to get really high points from critics. If this is because it has more of a left bank elegance than right bank plushness, so be it; but it’s a shame for the homogenization of styles to be reinforced by the classification. Isn’t the French system of appellations and classification supposed to help preserve tradition rather than pander to fashion?

All I can say is that the 1982 Magdelaine is a lovely wine, the epitome of what Bordeaux was supposed to be about. It is a shame if this style is to disappear because power displaces finesse.