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.

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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.