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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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.

 

Bordeaux 2011: The Year of Restaurant Wines

Following the highly successful rich 2009 and more classic 2010, the 2011 vintage was bound to be a bit of a let down. Differences between appellations are especially clear this year, a consequence perhaps of more marginal conditions. There are few great wines, some that will find it difficult to achieve balance, but the best should be appropriate for drinking in restaurants from two to eight years from now if the prices aren’t too unreasonable, which unfortunately may not be the case.

Pauillac may be the most consistent of the appellations, with fruits that are distinctly more concentrated than St. Julien or Margaux, making a classic demonstration of appellation character. Tannins are usually obvious, but refined, and should come into balance over the next two to three years. Some wines seem a palpable throwback to the period when years were needed for tannins to resolve after release, but the fruits are concentrated enough to hold out. Not only the most even appellation, this is the one truest to its reputation. Particularly honorable mention goes to Pichon Baron, which shows as powerful and almost opulent, and to Pichon Lalande, which shows as more elegant and refined.

The style is also relatively even for St. Julien, with better rounded fruits than Margaux, if less concentrated than Pauillac. Acidity is usually balanced and many wines show attractive nutty overtones, with enough fruit concentration to develop nicely for the short to mid term as tannins resolve. Léoville Poyferré showed is round, modern style, Léoville Barton its usual elegance, and Saint Pierre gets an award for its refined, classy impression.

Margaux is by far the most variable appellation. Wines tend to have tight tannins that are emphasized by high acidity. Fruits tend to be light so there may be only a relatively brief period to enjoy the wines between the resolution of the tannins and the drying out of the fruits. The most successful have mastered the acidity and tannins, but are soft and approachable in a modern style that isn’t easy to recognize as Margaux. It seems the choice was between short lived elegance and approachability this year. No single chateau really stands out.

The Haut Médoc is more even than Margaux but the wines are almost uniformly light, although acidity and tannins are rarely obtrusive—but nor are the fruits. They tend to be a bit characterless, although La Lagune and La Tour Carnet stand  out for maintaining their usual styles.

The individual chateaus in Graves have stayed true to their characters, with each showing very much its usual style. The best are Haut Bailly for its combination of fruit and structure true to its classic style, Domaine de Chevalier for its elegance, Smith Haut Lafitte in more modern style but backtracking a bit from the overt modernity of 2010 and 2009, and Pape Clément the most evidently modern of all, but a definite success in this vintage. Tannins are no more of a problem than they should be at this stage.

2011 is not a success in St. Emilion. Although there are not the same problems in managing acidity and tannins as the left bank, the problematic character is a common impression of an edge of saccharine on the finish, a sense of an unbalanced sweetness. Will this become sickly as the wines evolve or disappear as they shed the puppy fat? No St. Emilion really stands out from the crowd this year, although Canon shows its typically precise style.

Pomerol does not have the problems of St. Emilion and is quite consistent—and quite superficial. There’s nothing to excess this year, the wines are approachable, but they offer no sense of the stuffing needed to support further development. You have the impression that already they are as good as they will get, and I am doubtful that they will become more complex with time. The closest to a real success is La Conseillante.

The top whites from Pessac are very fine and should drink well over the next five years. At opposite poles are the freshness of Smith Haut Lafitte, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and the roundness of Pape Clément, half Sémillon; and then Domaine de Chevalier shows its usual elegance. I would be happy to have any of them for dinner.

Sauternes generally seem a little rustic, with fairly viscous bodies lacking the aromatic uplift that’s needed to relieve the sweetness. Notable exceptions are Suduiraut, with a classic impression of botrytic piquancy, and de Fargues, as always the top of the show.

It’s a sign of the times that no wines have overt signs of herbaceousness. They vary somewhat in whether the fruits are forward or reserved, whether the acidity is too high or the tannins too bitter, but the emphasis is very definitely on fruit in a relatively modern idiom. As a rough working rule, the modernists, who have been focusing for years on softening the tannins, came off better than the traditionalists in this particular vintage. However, there is no wine (at least in the UGCB tasting) that I would give more than 90 points, and this is not a vintage to buy for the cellar, but if prices come down, could be  useful for enjoying in the short term, especially at restaurants.

Wines were tasted at the New York visit of the UGCB tour, which presented more than 100 wines from the 2011 vintage.

When did you last confuse Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc?

Confusing things in wine is common. There’s an old story about André Simon—I think it’s been attributed to other famous wine connoisseurs also—that he was once asked: when did you last confuse Burgundy and Bordeaux? He thought for a bit, scratched his head, and said, “Well, not since lunch, anyway.” But surely everyone can tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc? Well maybe not.

I bumped into a curious situation when I was researching Cabernet Sauvignon on the right bank of Bordeaux for my book Claret & Cabs. There’s really not very much at noted châteaux because it’s so difficult to ripen. Merlot of course is the predominant variety, and if there’s Cabernet, it’s usually Cabernet Franc. On the graves of St. Emilion, Château Figeac is the standout example, with 33% each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, and there are also a couple of other châteaux with significant amounts. The area of the plateau where these châteaux are located extends into Pomerol, so I took a look there, and discovered to my surprise that Château Petit Village was reported to have 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. I had not realized anyone in Pomerol had that much.

Then I discovered that in 2010 the reported proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon at Petit Village had dropped to 7%. Ahah, I thought, they must have discovered that it doesn’t work well enough, and pulled it out, it would be interesting to discuss this. So I made an appointment to visit the château. When word of the visit reached AXA (who own Château Petit Village), it was cancelled. “We do have some Cabernet Sauvignon on the estate, however not much (less than 7%), and our main concern there is Merlot, the main grape variety on the estate. We do not feel that speaking about Cabernet Sauvignon here is relevant to the style and personality of the wines from Petit Village,” said Marie-Louise Schÿler of AXA.

This seemed a bit over-sensitive, but I then discovered that in fact there had never been that much Cabernet Sauvignon anyway. A review of current wines mentioned that a plot of old vines that had survived the frost of 1956, and which had been thought for fifty years to be Cabernet Sauvignon, had been discovered really to be Cabernet Franc. My efforts to discuss this with René Matignon from Château Pichon Baron (also owned by AXA), to whom the report about the discovery was attributed, were rebuffed. “I prefer you address your requests to Marie-Louise Schÿler,” he responded.

So I cannot report any details about the character of this Cabernet Franc, but I do think that a plot of Cabernet Franc that could masquerade as Cabernet Sauvignon for over half a century might have something rather interesting to contribute to the future of the right bank, especially given the difficulties created by the warming climate trend. Perhaps AXA will relent and allow me to taste some barrel samples in the future.

Bordeaux 2009 Redux

The 2009 and 2010 vintages in Bordeaux achieved a reputation en primeur for atypically lush wines, high in alcohol and low in acid: great vintages but pushing even further the trend towards New World styles. The bottled wines made their first appearance this week, when the Union of Grand Crus took the 2009 vintage on its U.S. road show. I am happy to report that the initial reports from the en primeur front are somewhat exaggerated; in fact, this is (yet another) exercise in how misleading it can be to form judgments en primeur. But first a caveat: the road show does not have all of the wines, and what’s missing are largely those at the top end – the super-seconds and first growths – so it gives an impression from the Cru Bourgeois level to the middle of the classified growths. (39 of the 62 Grand Cru Classés were represented.)

The general impression of the vintage is certainly ripe. There was scarcely a taste of herbaceousness in any of the wines. But it is not over ripe. With a handful of exceptions of wines made in an overtly “international” style, the wines all fell within the parameters of traditional Bordeaux: fruits supported by good acidity, a tendency towards the savory rather than the forcefully fruity, some tannic support showing its bones on the finish. The baby fat of the barrique has lessened to reveal refined structures. As many of the wines showed a restrained austerity as showed overt opulence. In no case was high alcohol oppressive, although I did not have the opportunity to perform a reality check by seeing how an entire bottle would drink at dinner as opposed to tasting in a glass. But almost all seemed to be “food wines” in Bordeaux’s traditional pattern: most were well balanced, few were overblown.

Descriptions of the vintage en primeur made it seem that traditional communal differences might be obscured by the rising tide that lifted all fruits to higher and higher levels of ripeness. But not a bit of it. The wines of Pessac-Léognan tend to show a smoky quality of cigar box, very classic for Graves, the Haut-Médoc has firm fruits with acid support, Margaux comes off just a bit more elegant, with refined fruits sometimes showing a faintly herbal impression, and St. Julien shows that precise delineation of tight black fruits. Pauillac was less typical for me, sometimes showing a slightly hard edge that is more what I usually associate with St. Estèphe. There were too few St. Estèphes in the tasting really to get a bead on its typicity this year, but the style seemed quite traditional. Over on the right bank, the best St. Emilions seemed to be displaying more the fine-edged richness of ripe Cabernet Franc than the Merlot, while Pomerol tended to full blown ripe Merlot, the one area that lived up directly to the reputation of the vintage.

In each commune there were wines that typified its classic character and wines that abandoned tradition to go for broke in the modern style. In Pessac-Léognan, Château Carbonnieux showed classically smoky cigar box notes; this is a château that I usually regard as an under performer, and indeed I do not think the 2009 will stand up in the long term, but it’s a textbook illustration of Graves out of the box. Domaine de Chevalier is a much better wine, but at this point is really restrained: when it comes out of this phase, it will be a classic. It is surely one of the most refined wines of the appellation.

In the Haut-Médoc, Château La Lagune seems more traditional than some of its other recent vintages; good acidity supports elegant black fruits, with a touch of vanillin on the finish. My pick for a quintessential Margaux is Château Desmirail: a slightly savory herbal impression brings precise elegance to the black fruits. This may not be an especially long lived wine, but right now it is nicely displaying the delicacy you expect from Margaux. Prieuré-Lichine turned in a classic performance this year also. Rauzan-Ségla’s impression of precise elegance seemed as much to represent St. Julien as Margaux.

As for St. Julien, Château Léoville Barton typifies the commune. There’s a very fine impression on the palate with fine-grained tannins supporting the elegant, precisely delineated, black fruits. The underlying support promises long aging. Gruaud Larose in a richer style that separates it from the old vintages under Cordier, brings St. Julien into the modern era without losing communal character. The fascinating comparison in Pauillac was between Pichon Baron, to which I give the nod as typifying the commune, and Pichon Lalande, which is more typical of the reputation of the vintage. Pichon Baron shows full force as a super-second, with intensity and depth of fruits, yet held back and constrained by its firm structure, very much the iron fist in the velvet glove. Pichon Lalande is softer.

In St. Emilion, Château Canon La Gaffelière edged out my perennial favorite, Château Figeac. The profile of the Canon La Gaffelière seemed to be driven more by Cabernet Franc than Merlot, with faint savory notes bringing complexity to layers of precise black fruits. (There was also some Cabernet Sauvignon in this vintage.) This will become a finely nuanced wine with age. Figeac is more overtly restrained than usual, but with a fine balance that should support longevity. The standout in Pomerol is La Conseillante, which is opulent and rich, yet with enough structure for aging.

Some wines defy easy localization. Made in the modern style, they are excellent wines in their own right, likely to appeal to consumers who also enjoy top-end New World wines, but for me they no longer represent their communes. Château Pape Clément is a top notch wine in this vintage, with deep, smoky, black fruits leading into chocolaty tannins on the finish: but does it have the character of Graves? Château Smith Haut Lafitte seems also to have moved a bit in this direction in this vintage. In the Haut-Médoc, Château La Tour Carnet is edging in this direction, as is Château Cantenac Brown in Margaux. In St. Julien, Château Léoville Poyferré shows restraint on the nose, but then chocolaty black fruits display a very modern palate: no one could quarrel with the quality, but how does it typify the elegance and precision usually associated with the commune?

The overall impression of the vintage is far more traditional than would be expected from the en primeur reports. The wines are unmistakably Bordeaux in their freshness and aromatic profile. In a word, they have a lovely balance. Quite often the ripeness of the fruits does hide the tannic support, and the vintage is not as obviously destined for very long aging­ as some others – I would be inclined to think more in terms of 15 years than 20 or 30 years. Most of the wines will be ready to start drinking in about three years. Bordeaux has a surprising capacity to recover its character from warmer vintages; the 1982s, so lush and opulent when they first appeared, reverted to type after two decades and now often show a lovely, savory balance with that slightly herbaceous delicious edge. Will the 2009s behave in the same way? It’s a great vintage, but stylistically  in line with the precedents of 2000 or 2005, not totally off the charts as many reports would have suggested.  The Vintage of the Decade – perhaps? But not, I suspect, the Vintage of the Century.