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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Terroir and Grand Cru: a Vertical of Clos des Lambrays

A vertical tasting of Clos des Lambrays led me to wonder about the whole basis for classification in Burgundy. “Clos des Lambrays is very heterogeneous. There is 60 m difference in elevation between the top and bottom, the largest in any appellation except for Corton. There is strong diurnal variation with more cooling at the bottom, which is in a valley,” says winemaker Thierry Brouin, introducing a vertical tasting of Clos des Lambrays.

So why is Clos des Lambrays a single appellation if it’s so varied? Its 9 ha are the largest clos in Burgundy under (almost) single ownership; Domaine des Lambrays owns all except for a tiny plot owned by Taupenot-Merme at the bottom. The clos has three separate microclimates: a large block at the center (Les Larrets), 2 ha at the northern end (Les Bouchots), and 1 ha at the southeast corner (Meix Rentier). Lots of limestone produces elegance in the wine.

References to Cloux des Lambrey go back to 1365. It was divided between 74 owners after the Revolution, but reunited in 1868. Clos des Lambrays was classified as a premier cru because the owner of the time could not be bothered to submit the paperwork for submission as a grand cru in 1936. In any case, the estate was somewhat neglected until a change of ownership in 1979, when Thierry came as winemaker. It changed hands again in 1996, and now has just been purchased by LVMH.

Clos des Lambrays was promoted to Grand Cru in 1981. This is definitely a curiosity. Changes in appellation status are extremely rare, and bespeak political influence as well (hopefully) as a detailed reconsideration of terroir. Surely in Burgundy of all places we expect a Cru to describe a single type of terroir: how else to justify all those tiny, tiny appellations? The major exception is Clos Vougeot, well known to have been made a single grand cru because of the history of its enclosure into a single vineyard (although the monks in fact made multiple cuvées from its different parts: supposedly the bottom part was for the monks, the middle part for higher churchmen, and the top for princes). As everyone acknowledges that Clos Vougeot can range from communal level to grand cru level, why is Clos des Lambrays different?

People often say to me, Thierry, why don’t you make a cuvée from the best two or three plots, but we don’t want to do that, Lambrays is not the best two or three cuvées, it is the assemblage of its different terroirs,” says Thierry. In fact, Thierry regards the sale to LVMH as potentially saving the clos from being seized by SAFER (a French government body that redistributes vineyards), in which case it very likely would have been broken up into many different plots, and the history lost once again. Fair enough: but this makes the point that the appellation is not in fact a construct of geography, or at least not entirely so, but in reality owes more to history. This is a dangerous precedent for consistency in the system.

In addition to Clos des Lambrays, Domaine des Lambrays also produces two other red cuvées: Les Loups comes from declassified young vines of the clos together with two premier cru sites (La Riotte and Le Village), and there is a communal Morey St. Denis. There are also whites from tiny plots in two Puligny Montrachet premier crus (Caillerets and Folatières). Occasionally there is a rosé. In fact, the tasting started with the 2013 rosé, and very fine it was too, with the grand cru quality of the grapes bringing a wonderful fragrance.The rosé is made on the sorting table, when grapes that are not completely ripe are selected out. Direct pressurage is followed by fermentation in stainless steel. We don’t like to make it too often because the appellation is only Bourgogne,” Thierry explains.

Well what about the wines of Clos des Lambrays? Winemaking is quite traditional, with fermentation of whole bunches irrespective of vintage. This may be one reason why the wines remain moderate in alcohol and are not excessively colored. “Pinot Noir is the least black grape in the world – it is red – even Gamay in Beaujolais has more color. When you see a black Pinot Noir, it’s too extracted,” is Thierry’s view.

The vertical extended from 2012 to 1999 and the style certainly showed through. Some people describe Clos des Lambrays as showing blue fruits: I wouldn’t quite use that term, but I would describe the style as upright. Younger vintages can seem tight, and older vintages – at least in the span of this tasting – soften slowly, with fruits moving from cherries more towards strawberries, but not yet evolving in a savory or tertiary direction. As a result, vintage character shows through really clearly, from the softest 2002 (you should drink this now, says Thierry), the rich 2005, 2009, and 2012, to the leaner 2006 and 2008 (showing great precision). A fair summary is that the style focuses on purity of fruit. Running counter to the modern trend, these are definitely not wines for instant gratification: it remains to be seen how that will play under the aegis of LVMH.