Southwest Diary part 5 – The Mavens of Madiran

Monday morning: We start with Vignobles Brumont, where Alain Brumont really revitalized the appellation with his wines at Chateaus Montus and Bouscassé. We are supposed to meet at Chateau Montus, but all signposts lead to Bouscassé-Montus so we find ourselves at Chateau Bouscassé, where it turns out we are expected anyway. From there we go to Chateau Montus, about 10 km away (but impossible to find without a guide), where an old property that Alain purchased from the monks has been restored, and a splendid new vinification facility has been built, all gleaming stainless steel, thousands of oak barrels, and granite floors. It looks rather like a cathedral inside, and they call it the Church of Tannat. On the route back to Chateau Bouscassé we make a detour to see Alain’s top vineyard, La Tyre, on a steep, stony slope. At Bouscassé, Alain gestures upstairs and says, “I was born here. I’ve accomplished in thirty years what it took the grand chateaus 200 years to do.” Now he makes wine from 125 ha at Chateau Montus, which with its prestige cuvées is undoubtedly top of the game in Madiran, and from 120 ha at Chateau Bouscassé. In addition there’s the Torus line from Madiran and a range of wines from IGP Côtes de Gascogne. Vignobles Brumont dwarfs everything else in Madiran.

Madiran is famous, of course, for the Tannat grape, whose aggressive tannins used to make the wine undrinkable for years if not decades. It’s a measure of the situation, that at most producers, the entry level wines come from assemblage of Tannat with Cabernet (either Sauvignon or Franc), because this makes them more approachable; monocépage Tannat is usually reserved for the top wines. It’s a fine thing when Cabernet has a calming effect! Tannat was tamed by the invention of micro-oxygenation by Patrick Ducournau, but when I ask Alain about this, he says that he doesn’t use it, that his success with Chateau Montus is due entirely to his introduction of barrique aging (which was revolutionary when he started it in 1980). “The barriques give quite enough oxygen to the wine,” he says. Certainly whenever I am able to compare a wine matured solely in cuve with one aged in barriques, irrespective of the producer, it is clear that wood-aging is to the way take off those sharp edges.

Lunchtime: We are running a bit late after a chat with Alain about his history, but arrive just in time for a delicious lunch at Chateau Barréjat with Denis Capmartin and his wife, and export manager Robert Tiessen. We start in traditional manner with foie gras accompanied by sweet wine, in this case from Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, which geographically overlaps with Madiran but is the appellation for white wine, either dry or sweet. Mostly from Petit Manseng, the wines are a direct comparison with Jurançon but have a different flavor spectrum, more peaches and cream than apricots, sometimes slightly herbal, and if they turn savory, showing white truffles rather than black. We go on to compare the Tradition and Seduction reds from Madiran, the first matured in cuve and the second in wood, and then wind up with the prestige cuvées, Vieux Ceps and l’Extreme.

These special cuvées come from very old vines, some perhaps as old as 200 years, but certainly preceding phylloxera. When phylloxera arrived, Denis’s great grandfather replanted most of the vineyards, but two small plots—about 4 ha in all—survived. About three quarters of the vines in these plots are still growing on their own roots; when a vine dies, it’s replaced by selection massale from an existing vine, but of course is planted on rootstock. The wines certainly have an extra level of concentration and intensity, but more than that, what makes them special is the broader flavor spectrum compared with production from younger vines. Denis has truly mastered the tannins of Tannat; the special cuvées are well worth trying.

PhylloxeraTW2A prephylloxera vine at Chateau Barréjat

Afternoon: We wind up at Chateau d’Aydie, which is the headquarters of Vignobles Laplace. The chateau appears to be under reconstruction, but next door are the chais, much vaster than you might expect, as Laplace use the facility to produce red, white, and rosé from the Côtes de Gascogne. From Chateau d’Aydie itself we taste a dry white (Pacherenc Sec), the range of reds from Madiran, and then the sweet whites from Pacherenc. We wind up with a really unusual wine, a VDN (sweet fortified wine) made from Tannat. “It’s intended to show the versatility of Tannat,” says François Laplace. Perhaps not surprisingly given Tannat’s character, it’s distinctly more like Port than any VDN I have had from anywhere else in France. Chateau d’Aydie has vineyards in three separate locations in Madiran, and each of the three red cuvées comes from assemblage from lots from all three locations. “We believe it’s always more interesting to make an assemblage,” François says.

Conclusions: Tannat is not an easy grape. Vinification veers between the Scylla of softening it so much that varietal typicity is lost, and the Charybdis of keeping its character, but showing so much tannin that it can’t be drunk for years. I can see why they add Cabernet, because 100% Tannat can easily slip over into a fruit profile that’s flattened by the tannins: the Cabernet gives aromatic lift as well as freshness. Yet the top wines at Chateau d’Aydie show a taut quality that will mature to elegance when the tannins resolve, but I think that really needs most of a decade: the 2006 (a very good result for a difficult year) is just coming round. The oldest wine I tasted, the Chateau Montus Cuvée Prestige 2002, is just beginning to get flavor variety, but you still have to get past the tannins. Mastering the tannins is really the first step: I suspect you have to get Tannat pretty ripe for it show interesting aromatic complexity.

Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion

A tasting organized by the Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion turned out to be a striking demonstration of the power of the oenologue. The 64 Grand Cru Classés are the starting level of the classification, below the 18 Premier Grand Cru Classés (according to the reclassification of 2012).  Half of the Grand Cru Classés were represented at the tasting, showing their 2009 and 2010 vintages.

While many of the wines conformed to the general reputation of the vintages – 2009 for lush, more forward fruits, but 2010 more reserved and structured – there were enough where the 2010 was more open than the 2009 to make generalization difficult. The most striking feature of the tasting was not the difference between vintages or variety between chateaux, but the general similarity. If there’s a model for the Grand Cru Classés today, it’s for furry tannins behind soft black fruits: the very model of micro-oxygenation, you might think. (I have no idea how many of these wines actually used micro-oxygenation, but the overall impression from this tasting was that it might be epidemic in St. Emilion.)

On the subject of style, alcohol levels were high, just a touch higher in 2010 (average 14.6%) than in 2009 (average 14.3%). A more revealing comparison is that some wines in 2010 were as high as 15.5%, and almost half were 15% or greater, whereas the highest wines in 2009 were 15%. In all fairness, the alcohol was well integrated and did not stick out, but the level gave me pause for thought about the staying power of the wines. I was also extremely surprised to discover that some wines had levels of residual sugar that were almost detectable (around 3g/l: the level of detection for most people is around 4 g/l, and most red wines usually have only around 1 g/l). Sometimes I got a faint impression of saccharine on the finish, but this seems to have been due to ripeness of fruits, because it never correlated with the level of residual sugar.

The similarities among the wines are less surprising when you realize that more than half were made with the same winemaking philosophy. To be more precise, Michael Rolland was the consulting oenologue for 40% of chateaux, and Jean Philippe Fort of Laboratoire Rolland for another 20%: there was scarcely a single chateau left without a consulting oenologist. (What happened to the old proprietor-winemakers?)

So I thought I would see whether I could detect the hand of the oenologist directly, and I organized my tasting in terms of oenologists, tasting all the chateaux from each oenologue in succession to see whether similarity of style was obvious. I think it is a fair criticism that the style of the wines tends to be a bit “international,” but there did not seem to be enough homogeneity among the wines of any one oenologue to validate the view that they impose a common style. Every oenologue had some wines that were lush, but at least one that showed a more restrained fruit impression, sometimes with an almost savory sensation. It would have been difficult to identify the oenologue in a blind tasting. Perhaps the wines for which Hubert de Boüard was the consulting oenologist tended to be the most refined. If there is a marker for Michel Rolland’s style, perhaps it is the sweetness of the smooth tannins. Rolland’s focus on ripeness is shown also by the fact that in both vintages, the wines on which he was a consultant showed higher alcohol than the average.

There were direct impressions of overripe fruits on only a couple of wines. I did not get much sense of anything but Merlot in most of these wines (the average Merlot is 75%); the dominance of those soft Merlot fruits tended to give a somewhat monotonic impression. Overall I was disappointed: there was too much sameness and not enough character to the wines. They seemed more at a level equivalent to the Cru Bourgeois of the left bank than to the classed growths of the Médoc. Perhaps flavor variety will develop as the wines mature, but my impression is that the wines are more likely to simplify into sweet fruits. Perhaps this is due to the combination of grape variety and the ripeness of the vintages rather than oenologues’ choices. But I was left with the feeling that the monotonic fruit character and high alcohol would make a bottle tire over dinner.