An Exercise in Bottle Variation in Less Than Twenty Years

An evening of 1998 Pomerol was as much a demonstration in the difficulty of judging wines at this age due to individual variation as an opportunity to get a bead on this unusual vintage, where the right bank performed well but the left bank was miserable.sunset24

Sunset over Pomerol. The church at the center of the village is on the right

We started with La Conseillante. The first bottle was corked, okay that’s an occupational hazard. The second bottle was slightly corked. Bad luck. The third bottle was brilliant, typical La Conseillante, giving that impression of iron in the soil you get from the edge of Pomerol, fully on form from what has always been one of my favorite chateaux.

A bottle of L’Eglise Clinet was rather restrained for Pomerol, with a fresh sense of acidity to the palate, almost at the edge of piquancy. But then a second bottle showed clear, pure fruits with more spice, and a greater sense of Cabernet Franc, perhaps more in line with expectations from St. Emilion, but very fine. Presumably the second represents the real l’Eglise Clinet, but without any obvious flaw in the first bottle, it would have been easy to dismiss the chateau.

Clinet showed as softer than Eglise Clinet, more Merlot-ish but again quite restrained. Fresh, pure, good structure but not obtrusive. Ah, but a second bottle showed greater fruit purity, more sense of spice, gorgeous. I would not buy Clinet based on the first bottle, but I would definitely buy it based on the second.

No problems with Trotanoy: spicy, full, pure, very refined impressions of Merlot. Then Vieux Chateau Certan, which some people described as sexy, and which for me seemed more typical Pomerol, which is perhaps why Trotanoy, with more restraint, was my favorite.

Then back to bottle problems. The first bottle of Le Gay was quite undeveloped, somewhere between rich and structured, with good acidity, but no very distinct character. This is just not a very good wine, said my neighbor. Then a second bottle showed greater fruit and precision, with distinctly more purity.

So out of six wines, only two were unequivocally in peak condition. (And, of course, it might be that because they were so good we did not ask to try another bottle, but there could have been less successful bottles at other tables.) In the four cases where the first bottle presented a problem, only the La Conseillante was obviously corked. If a second bottle had not been available, it would have been easy to put all the other cases down to poor winemaking. This is a real killer for the chateaux.

There was no question of provenance here, each wine had been bought as a lot in good conditions, usually en primeur, and stored properly. So what can it be but the corks? This is woefully unacceptable. If an appliance, say a refrigerator, performed with such variability, its manufacturer would go out of business.

I’ve never really liked the idea of screwcaps for red wines destined for aging, because I worry about problems of reduction, but when I’ve had the opportunity to compare the same wines bottled under cork and screwcap (specifically in New Zealand and Australia, where the wines were about ten years old), the screwcap wine was always fresher and younger. Whether it would ultimately age in the same way as a wine under cork is the big question in my mind. I think it is time for the chateaux in Bordeaux to do some experiments and find out.

Bordeaux Diary Part 4: Movers and Shakers in St. Emilion & Pomerol

Jean-Pierre Moueix established Pomerol on the map almost single-handedly after the second world war. Having become the aristocrat of Pomerol, today Moueix is turning somewhat away from the negociant business, has sold off some of the minor chateaus in its holdings, and is focusing more clearly on a group of 9 top chateaus, mostly in Pomerol. Virtually adjacent to Pétrus, Vieux Chateau Certan is owned by 44 members of the Thienpont family. Thienponts seem to be all over Pomerol and St. Emilion, from Jacques at Le Pin to Nicolas and his son Cyrille who manage a group of chateaux in St. Emilion.

Tuesday: the peak of Pomerol. No visit to Pomerol would be compete without seeing Pétrus, of course, where the former shabby buildings have been replaced by a spanking new facility. Ironically, because Pétrus was in the forefront of the movement to green harvesting, and Christian Moueix was supposedly rebuked in the local church for wasting God’s bounty, “we no longer do green harvest because we are not looking for concentration of sugar, we are looking for concentration of flavor… In spite of all our efforts, wines are over 14% alcohol. We are thinking of bring back Cabernet Franc.”

PetrusTWPétrus is no longer shabby, in fact it is quite snazzy

Wednesday: variations in clay. With 9 chateaus, Moueix dominates the top end of wine in Pomerol. At the very peak are Chateau Hosanna (the most delicate in style) carved out from the breakup of Chateau Certan Guiraud, Fleur Pétrus (distinctly feminine and elegant), then a complete contrast with Trotanoy (the most masculine and weightiest), and of course Pétrus stands alone. It’s all determined by the type of clay. We met at Fleur Pétrus, which recently moved production from the old chateau just by Pétrus to a building opposite the church in Pomerol. It’s the only one of the Moueix properties a visitor has any hope of finding: the others are all extremely discreet, with no signposts.

FleurPetrusTW2 Fleur Pétrus has moved to a new chateau in downtown Pomerol (it and the church are downtown Pomerol)

I reproach export manager Frédéric Lospied for the disappearance of Chateau Magdelaine, a Moueix property in St. Emilion, which has always been one of my favorites for its discrete style. “Other people have been telling me that,” he says, but the explanation that combining it with Belair-Monange gives a more reliable, larger scale of production doesn’t really add up given Moueix holdings of tiny properties such as Hosanna and Fleur Pétrus.

We drive past Petit Village and I take a picture of the extraordinary new structure, a suspended box connecting two buildings, but we do not visit, because my last visit there, two years ago, was cancelled by owner AXA when they learned I wanted to discuss the strange case of the disappearing Cabernet Sauvignon. Petit Village was supposed to have one of the largest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon on the right bank, but it turned out to be a mistake: it was really Cabernet Franc. In the context of my book, Claret & Cabs, I thought this block might be interesting, but AXA said sniffily, “we do not think it is constructive to talk about Cabernet Sauvignon at Petit Village.”

PetitVillageTWWhat are these vines? Chateau Petit Village is not receptive to discussing Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Friday: Thienpont Day. Managing nine chateaux in St. Emilion and on the Cotes, Nicolas Thienpont is a busy fellow. Over lunch with Nicolas, his son Cyrille, and vineyard manager David Suire, I gingerly broach the controversial subject of the recent reclassification in St. Emilion. “There are things you can say, and things you can’t say,” says Nicolas, “which do you want to hear?”. Obviously I want to hear what can’t be said. Nicolas is evidently happy with the recognition of his work with the promotions of chateaux he manages, but says flatly that he’s not really satisfied with the basis for classification. This is a common theme, even among chateau owners who are classified in Premier Grand cru Classé A. The heart of the matter is how much the classification should depend on the quality of the terroir and the wine, and how much on other factors. If there’s any common view, it’s that terroir and quality should count for much more than the present half. Will things change for the next classification, I ask. Nicolas shrugs. “You’ll have to ask INAO,” he says, “it’s all up to them.”

BeausejourDufauTWChateau Beausejour Duffau Lagarosse has caves worthy of Champagne, dug deep into the limestone plateau

After meeting at Chateau Pavie Macquin in the morning, we had made a tour with David of the properties in St. Emilion: Beauséjour Duffau Lagarrosse, Larcis-Ducasse, Berliquet, and back to Pavie Macquin for a tasting. The approach in the vineyards and vinification isn’t terribly different among the chateaux, and Stéphane Derenoncourt is the consulting oenologist for the group, but a tasting of the 2011 vintage shows the distinctive character of each of the chateaus. Larcis Ducasse is a little reserved, but you can see the increase in smoothness from the past, and why it was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé. It would be difficult to draw a line in terms of quality between Pavie Macquin (promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé in 2006) and Beauséjour-Duffau (a Premier Grand Cru since the initial classification in 1955), but Pavie Macquin has the edge for overt elegance—“it plays between the power of clay and the minerality of calcareous terroir” says Cyrille Thienpont–whereas Beauséjour is more structured. The ringer is Château Berliquet: with vineyards just above Angelus and below Beauséjour and Canon, it occupies prime terroir but has never risen above Grand Cru Classé. I ask Cyrille why this is, but the answer is enigmatic. I remember that under Nicolas Thienpont’s management both Larcis Ducasse and Pavie Macquin have been promoted in prior classifications.

PavieMacquinTWChateau Pavie Macquin has a new tasting room

Final visit of the week is off to something completely different, to see Stéphane Derenoncourt in the Cotes de Castillon, just to the east of St Emilion. Stéphane is a consulting oenologist with many chateaus in St. Emilion, and also started his own vineyard, Domaine de l’A in the Cotes de Castillon. Headquarters is a small modern building in the hamlet of Fillot, where everything seems to run on espresso. Stéphane is an enthusiast for Castillon. “Effectively Castillon is an extension of the limestone plateau. The different (with St Emilion) for me is the price.” We agree that in blind tastings the best wines from Castillon would be hard to distinguish blind from St Emilion, “not from the very best Premier Grand Cru Classés, which are truly exceptional, but from the others,” is Stéphane’s caveat. He’s disappointed, even angry about, the recent turn of events in Bordeaux. “we have a big problem here with the arrogance of Bordeaux and the enormous increase in price. People think that the Bordelais are arrogant, that they are only businessmen. It is a feature of the Grand Cru Classé, but it reflects on all Bordeaux. I think Bordeaux has the best price:quality ratio in the world, but people don’t recognize this.”

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.