Bordeaux Diary Part 1: Families – Survival of the Threatened in St. Emilion and Pomerol

This has been a whirlwind week, with visits to 20 chateaux. My next book, the Wines of Modern France, profiles the 500 leading producers, including about 100 from Bordeaux, of whom 40 are on the right bank. Trends on the right bank are a bit different from developments on the left bank, and the most disturbing is how clearly the old family estates feel themselves threatened.

Monday: the extremes of St. Emilion. Stephan von Neipperg at Château Canon La Gaffelière is as dapper as ever, proud of its promotion into Premier Grand Cru Classé together with La Mondotte. This is all the more striking because when he originally purchased La Mondotte, he was denied permission to include it into Canon La Gaffelière because of reservations about the terroir. Production is tiny. Is it a garage wine? “I never understood why they called it a garage wine, it’s come from completely distinct terroir since 1996… It’s now a Premier Grand Cru Classé, you cannot talk about a first growth being a garage wine. Stephan is a little ironic about La Mondotte’s rise to fame: “Originally they said to me, yes, it’s good but you have to see if you can age it 15 years. Well, now we have shown it can age well, but this is Bordeaux, it’s always taken a long time to integrate new wine.”

He was also at the forefront of the move to expand into the Côtes de Castillon where Château d’Aiguilhe is one of the most successful properties. “No one knew about Castillon 20 years ago, we were the first to invest in 1995… I can grow in Castillon, here in St. Emilion I would have to buy my neighbors. In another 10 or 15 years it will be possible for Castillon to make wine of quality similar to the best areas of St. Emilion.” But he concedes that quality is variable now. “The problem is that they can only survive by quantity.” With a powerful common identifying mark for his chateaux of the coat of arms, Stephan has expanded his way out of the threat to family businesses.

On to Beauséjour-Bécot, a small property right on the top of the limestone plateau which is the best terroir in St. Emilion. Juliette Bécot is very much conscious of the recent change in atmosphere: “We are a family estate, it’s belonged to my family since the Revolution, we earn money only from viticulture, but we have to compete with owners who can invest lots of money from other sources.” Unable to expand in St. Emilion, Juliet bought another estate in Castillon from which Joanin Bécot comes.

Juliet is not happy with the classification system in St. Emilion. This goes back to 1986 when Beausejour-Becot was demoted to Grand cru Classé because bought some additional vineyards. Her father, Gérard, thought this was extremely superior terroir, so the problem was unanticipated. “When you compare this with the present classification, it’s just a joke… I think we are very far from the first classificatioin and we are going in the wrong direction. Maybe we should come back to a more classical view, based on terroir.”

Tuesday: expansion in Pomerol. Hard to know whether to regard Chateau Clinet as an old family property or new money, as it was bought by Ronan Laborde’s father in 1999 to satisfy Ronan’s interest in winemaking. There’s been a program of investment in both vineyards and chai, with Merlot increased to 90% by a mixture of plantings and acquisition of a new all-Merlot vineyard. Chateau Clinet is the major part of production. This is an operation in plain expansion. “Fleur de Clinet is not strictly a second wine, it has some declassified lots from Clinet but is mostly juice and berries purchased from other growers in Pomerol. In addition, Ronan is a Bordeaux AOC blended from five different appellations, which will shortly be moved to a new facility just near by.

Thursday: ten generations in St. Emilion. After lunch we meet Alexandre Malet Roquefort, who now manages Chateau Gaffelière together with his father. I explain that I remember drinking my way through a case of La Gaffelière 1971 in the late seventies; this was my introduction to right bank wines. In due course Alexandre’s father, Comte Malet Roquefort, appears to say that he wants to meet someone who’s been drinking La Gaffelière for almost fifty years. Aged 81, the Comte is a veritable tribute to the benefits of red wine. La Gaffelière’s reputation was suffering a few years back, but now there seems to be constructive engagement between modernism and tradition. The facility is workmanlike: “we didn’t want to impress visitors, it’s not Disneyland here,” says Alexandre. “The DNA of La Gaffelière is classic wine, it’s one of a small group in St. Emilion that didn’t change its style in recent years. We like a wine that is fruity and not too extracted.” Perhaps that’s why I still like it.

GaffeliereTWThe residence and winery at La Gaffelière

From one family property to another, we moved over to La Conseillante in Pomerol, owned by the Nicolas family since 1871 (they are not related to the Nicolas wine shops). The vineyards have been the same 12 ha for three centuries, but here the facility has been completely modernized. Actually a third of the vineyards are in St. Emilion, running into Cheval Blanc, which you can see from the windows of the tasting room. As a result, “La Conseillante is not entirely typical of Pomerol; if Pomerol is known for power and richness, we are known for elegance and silky tannins,” says winemaker Jean-Michel Laporte. I realize that the right bank wines I like most are all exceptions to the most common styles of their appellations.

ConseillanteTWLa Conseillante has constructed a modern extension

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St. Emilion Proprietors are Revolutionizing The Satellite Areas: Bargains from Castillon and Lalande de Pomerol

Today I visited three Premier Grand Cru Classés in St. Emilion: Chateaux Angelus, Beauséjour Bécot, and Canon la Gaffelière. The feel of the visits could not be more different, the wines all have their own distinct styles, but all three share the fact that they have expanded out of St. Emilion into neighboring areas, the first into Lalande de Pomerol to the west, the other two into Côtes de Castillon, just on the northeast border of St. Emilion.

Don’t be put off by the name. Côtes de Quelquechose almost always indicates an appellation of secondary importance to Quelquechose. “It would have been much better simply to call the appellation Castillon,” argues Stephan von Neipperg at Chateau Canon La Gaffelière. But the best part of the Côtes de Castillon, at St. Philippe d’Aiguille, has a limestone plateau that isn’t dissimilar to the far more famous limestone plateau where most of the Premier Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion are located. Granted this doesn’t extend all over Côtes de Castillon—but the famous limestone plateau doesn’t extend over all St. Emilion either.

The cost of land in St. Emilion is now prohibitive: proprietors say that it’s but impossible to extend their vineyards. That’s part of the driving force for going out to Côtes de Castillon. Stephan von Neipperg was one of the first. “When I took over Chateau d’Aiguilhe in 1999,” he recollects, “we preserved 27 ha of old vines, and we replaced 15 ha of poor plantings of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The problem was economics, people went for quantity, but now they are recognizing the potential of the limestone plateau.” It’s no coincidence that the best wines in Castillon are made by people from St. Emilion: with a keen eye based on their experience in St. Emilion, they have bought vineyards on the best terroir. Juliette Bécot is extremely conscious of running a family estate—“it used to be very common, but now it’s more and more rare” —she says, but felt when she started out that she wanted to have her own voice, so established Joanin Bécot in Castillon in 2001.

Now famous for the renovation of Chateau Angelus, with its famous modern bell tower—both God Save the Queen and The Star Spangled Banner were played on the bells when we arrived, as I am British but came from New York—Hubert de Boüard consults for around 60 chateaux as well as running Angelus. He also created Fleur de Boüard, in Lalande de Pomerol, where in addition to the eponymous wine he produces a super-cuvée, Le Plus de Boüard, by selection of the best lots. Even from a single trie in the vineyard, some grapes are selected for Plus rather than Fleur. Plus spends 33 months maturing in oak—longer even than Angelus.

The common feature of all these—let’s call them the satellite wines—is that they are made with the same care and attention as the grand vin in St. Emilion, relying on similar expertise, but are available at lower price. Sound familiar? That’s the old argument for second wines. But whereas the second wines are always marked by that feeling that they weren’t good enough to make it into the grand vin, the satellite wines represent the best their terroir can produce. It’s an interesting trade off, that can pay off handsomely when the terroir is right.

The satellite wines come from different chateaus from their proprietors’ main chateaus, but show an interesting stylistic relationship with the grand chateaus.  Fleur de Bouard is the plushest; Chateau d’Aiguilhes is the most structured (Domaine de l’A, from oenologist Stéphane Derenoncourt, where I have a visit planned for later in the week, shows similar character but is more aggressive), Joanin Becot is the lightest and most approachable. In a blind tasting, they would be difficult to distinguish from St. Emilion at the level of the Grand Cru Classé. Perhaps Fleur de Boüard has more of the richness of Pomerol. These are all very good wines by any measure, and by and large, I prefer them to the second wines from the corresponding chateau in St. Emilion. The only thing these wines can’t compete on with St. Emilion is price.