Sparkling Sauternes!

I bought several bottles at a local wine shop not long ago and the owner was kind enough to add a free 50 cl. bottle of Sauternes (pictured) for me to try.
Seeing as it’s melon season here, and that melon, Parma ham, and Sauternes is a marriage made in heaven, I opened the bottle yesterday at lunch.

My eyes popped out when I saw friggin’ bubbles in the wine! Not just a few, or for a brief while. No, there were plenty there and they kept coming.
Well, needless to say I was rather suspicious. The wine had obviously refermented in bottle. Would it be OK to drink? The answer is: just about. There was clearly something off but, seeing as it was a small bottle, we went ahead and finished our glass. I’m not sure about the remaining wine…

Well, chalk that up to experience and add one to my repertoire of anecdotes J.

While on the subject, a friend in Cognac makes sparkling Pineau des Charentes. He cannot sell it as such because it doesn’t correspond to appellation laws. It is the sort of drink that sneaks up quickly and then hits you with a sledgehammer.

1990 Château La Lagune – a delicious… feminine wine

Can a wine be accurately described as feminine or masculine?

That was one of the subjects under discussion last night with my neighbors, whom I had invited over for dinner. I served a wine from Ludon, where they have family ties: 1990 Château La Lagune. This looked far younger than its years and had a delightfully evanescent nose of ripe Cabernet, humus, and truffle. The wine was suave and seamless, by no means powerful, but very elegant and poised. It was as good as it will ever be, even if I’m sure its plateau will be quite long.
It reminded me of one of the better wines of Margaux.
Anyway, although they’re from the wine country, my neighbors have only an ordinary interest in the stuff and, when I described the La Lagune as feminine, the wife was surprised. She had never heard such a reference, and it puzzled her. “Is this a usual term?” she inquired. I replied in the affirmative.

The question I’ve asked above is whether wine descriptions can be gendered in order to convey a meaningful and comprehensible message – not whether they should or should not be.
In this age of political correctness – including a movement to bowdlerize and rewrite children’s fairy tales! – there are undoubtedly people who object on principle, going on the assumption that it is wrong to ascribe characteristics to either sex (since there are strong women and dainty men, etc.). So, I will leave that issue aside. I have even heard women winemakers say that females leave a discernible feminine imprint on wines, which if I find rather hard to accept (that having been said, La Lagune has been made by a succession of women over the years!).

Getting back to semantics, and the way we speak about wines, I believe that it is both useful and going on universally understandable to describe a Chambolle-Musigny as feminine or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape as virile, a practical sort of shorthand. What is trickier is to extrapolate from those words to find out what they really mean. Would a WSET or MW student be marked down for using them? Does a woman, for example, have a different conception of what a feminine wine is than a man? Do wine lovers in Sydney and Montevideo, with different cultures and languages, agree on the characteristics of a masculine wine?

In my opinion, any wine geek or professional can relate to the description of 1990 La Lagune as feminine. Rather than lacking punch or character, those attributes are very much present, but restrained and under control – or, as Mitterrand liked to market himself, “la force tranquille”.  The French say an aromatic wine is “perfumed”. That, also, can be one of the hallmarks of a feminine wine, where the aromas are subtle, yet distinctive. As for aftertaste, such wines can be long and voluptuous, but not in your face.

I once went to Château Margaux with a visiting group from the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum. I asked the late Paul Pontalier the following question “It is often said that Margaux is the most feminine of wines. Is that true and, if so, how is it true?”. There followed an exceedingly brilliant exposition in impeccable English. I very much regret that I did not record it.

And masculine wines? A big, strapping Australian Shiraz fits the bill very nicely thank you, but that is a caricature. Ch. Latour is one of the most masculine wines in Bordeaux, and yet it is a wine of great depth and nuance. In the same way that feminine wines need not be delicate, neither do masculine wines have to be big thumping ones on steroids. Still, there is the idea of full bodied, straightforward wines with above average alcohol content (although this is not defining).

I’ve heard those terms around for as long as I can remember and am confident that they are here to stay. I do feel, though, that caution should be exercised in using them and that they definitely should not be overused.

 

 

Entre-Deux-Mers soon to be a red wine appellation?

The Entre-Deux-Mers is, of course, not between two seas, but rather two rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne. This is the heartland of Bordeaux, rarely visited by tourists, but of considerable historic interest and home to many “nuts and bolts” wines, some of which represent tremendous value for money.

 

The wines entitled to the appellation, created in the 1930s (and which encompasses the Entre-Deux-Mers Haut-Benauge AOC), are exclusively white. This is paradoxical to the extent that the Entre-Deux-Mers also produces most of the ocean of red wine sold under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations.

There are some 1,600 hectares of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle vines, but far more of Merlot and Cabernet.

The local winegrowers association has just voted to ask the INAO (the National Institute of Origin and Quality) to create a red wine appellation for the Entre-Deux-Mers. This is likely to be approved, and wines sold under this name may arrive on the market as early as 2023.

Considering the poor sales of basic Bordeaux, one might wonder as to the reasons behind a new appellation for entry level red wines. The purpose is to heighten the recognition of a specific area within Bordeaux and give impetus to sales of both red and white wines – in short to bolster a brand badly in need of it. Growers understandably also want to make a distinction between bargain basement generic Bordeaux and wines from a region with its own unique history and a number of beautiful well-run estates. In short, if wine is about a sense of place, then the Entre-Deux-Mers unquestionably qualifies as its own entity.

This also goes hand in hand with efforts to highlight the Entre-Deux-Mers as a tourist destination with beautiful rolling countryside, medieval fortified towns, and a number of Romanesque churches. Since most wine lovers visiting Bordeaux flock to the same prestigious appellations there is much work to be done to attract them off the beaten track.
The same, of course, can be said for the wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers, snubbed by label drinkers and virtually unavailable on some major export markets.

The creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation in 1987 was a secession and really in no way comparable. Red Entre-Deux-Mers is a step up from the somewhat indeterminate Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations (over half of all Bordeaux wines), and this narrowing down of terroir should only be seen as positive. The commercial challenge is, of course great. But by combining both red and white wines under one banner, I believe that this to be a positive move.

Killer frost in Bordeaux – April 2021

Frost hit the Bordeaux vineyards earlier this month at a crucial time, as it did vineyards throughout France.

This map shows the areas hardest hit. It will, of course, be revised later in the year.

Bud break had already started and, as you can see, losses were catastrophic in certain appellations.

Everything possible was done to fight the cold (smudge pots, giant fans, helicopters, water sprinklers, etc.), but not all winegrowers had the means to do so effectively. Furthermore, at a time when there is increased environmental awareness, there is no ecological form of frost prevention.

The issue of crop insurance is much discussed at present. It costs a small fortune for those who have it and, even there, coverage in case of claims is usually disappointing.
The French government has stepped in, promising millions (in fact, over a billion euros) in relief to farmers all over the country.
When added to the massive Covid debt, this is not exactly good news. And in the same way that a certain number of businesses will not survive the pandemic, the danger is that winegrowers in entry-level appellations may decide to throw in the towel once and for all.

 

A Bordeaux Syrah and a 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou

Bordeaux almost inevitably involves a blend of grape varieties, one of the factors that accounts for its wonderful complexity. Of course, wines made from a single variety do exist, but they are very much in the minority.
As in other regions around the world, Bordeaux is worried about the effects of global warming and is timidly, and on an experimental basis, allowing wines to contain up to 5% of the following new varieties (six out of the fifty-two pre-tested) starting with the 2021 vintage – even if these are not permitted to be mentioned on the label. The purpose here is to adapt to hotter summers without altering Bordeaux’s typicity – so it is only normal to proceed gingerly.

REDS:
Arinarnoa – a hardy cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon first produced by INRA (the  French National Research Institute) in 1956
Castets – a “forgotten” disease-resistant variety from Southwest France
Marselan a frost-resistant and disease-resistant cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache produced by INRA in 1961
Touriga Nacional – one of the main varieties used to make Port wine that is well suited to climate change and especially propitious to producing excellent ageworthy wines

WHITES:
Alvarinho – This variety is called Albarino in the Spanish province of Galicia, and Alvarinho in the Portuguese province of Minho. It is very aromatic and helps compensate for the loss of aromas due to climate change. It is also adaptable to climatic conditions and produces wines with good acidity.
Liliorila – a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, this variety is resistant to gray rot and produces powerful aromatic wines.

That having been said, wines from “non-authorized” grape varieties, sold as “vin de France” rather than Bordeaux, have been around for a long time. I was nevertheless intrigued to see a Syrah for the first time recently in a wine shop, Pied à Terre on rue Judaïque in Bordeaux, and snapped it up. The wine is made by Château Thieuley, which I have often enjoyed through the years. Located in La Sauve Majeure in the Entre-Deux-Mers, Thieuley is a great success story and grew from a tiny vineyard in the 1950s to an impressive 83 hectares today. It is expertly managed by Marie and Sylvie Courselle.

Just 8,000 bottles of 2016 Syrah were produced from deep clay-limestone soil. The wine was fermented in small temperature-controlled cement vats and aged in barrel (50% new) for 18 months.
I served this wine blind at lunch to friends in the trade and, unsurprisingly, they were stumped. I can’t really say that it showed a lot of varietal character and there was nothing here reminiscent of the Northern Rhône, but it was certainly robust and user-friendly. I saw this as the kind of wine best consumed young and am grateful for the experience. For information, the price tag was about 16 euros.

This Syrah was served with my first attempt at making a parmentier de canard, a variation of what the English call a shepherd’s pie made with duck confit instead of ground beef. The hearty, fruity wine went well with the dish.

The best and oldest red wine is traditionally reserved for the cheese course in Bordeaux. A modern revisionist wave criticizes this practice, and I partially agree. On the one hand, a delicious old wine can sometimes by underwhelming after a vigorous young one that precedes it. And, on the other hand, it is true that certain cheeses overpower the subtleties of fine wine. Some people go so far as to ban red wine with cheese, insisting on serving only whites… In any event, my conservative streak comes through on this matter, especially when I have French friends over for a meal, because the best, oldest red wine with the cheese is what they expect.
For the record, we had four cheeses: a Selles-sur-Cher goat’s cheese, Roquefort, a Mont d’Or, and an utterly delicious Italian cheese, Moliterno sheep’s cheese with truffle. As for the Moliterno, it sounds terribly expensive and snobbish, but it was bought for a very reasonable price at the local Auchan hypermarket.

So, I had opened my bottle of 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou about 3 hours beforehand and decanted it just prior to serving it blind. My guests immediately said “Left Bank Bordeaux”, and such is the classicism of this wine that this was, in fact, pretty obvious. It was thought to be a more northerly Médoc, possibly a Saint-Estèphe, from the late 80s/early 90s. Its pedigree (i.e. cru classé status) was never doubted and, in light of its quality, my guests were not really surprised when it was revealed to be a “super-second”. 1983 Ducru exemplified the elegance and restraint of the finest Bordeaux. The color was a little more youthful than its age would suggest and the nose was a sublime mix of anise, tar, humus, cassis, and a myriad of undefinable aromas to form a very special bouquet. The wine was fresh on the palate, with the unmistakable stamp of fine Cabernet and a surprising amount of tannin on the aftertaste. This was largely resolved and fit in beautifully. The notion of peak is highly subjective, but I would say that this was slightly past it, but still very much alive and kicking!
1983 is the year my daughter was born, so this held special significance for me. It was also what the Bordelais call an “Atlantic vintage” i.e. more typical of the region’s climate, which is fairly rainy and temperate, than a hot, dry year accounting for richer more alcoholic wines. To many Bordeaux lovers, the former are more authentic, digestible, and loveable wines than ones from much-heralded great years. This 83 had 12.5% alc./vol., which would seem pretty lily-livered by today’s standards…
I was a bit worried because there was a period in the late 80s/early 90s when Ducru had a serious TCA problem and many bottles had to be poured down the drain. However, this 83 was from before that period, which is long since past.

We ended the meal with a half bottle of 2010 Château Guiraud, a premier cru from Sauternes that was perhaps too young, and perhaps did not receive quite the attention it deserved, but was a fine accompaniment to a lemon meringue pie.

2000 Château Cantenac Brown

here are no fewer than 10 third growths in Margaux, and a couple of them are, let’s face it, pretty lacklustre. I have had Cantenac-Brown on any number of occasions and have tended to slot it into the “foursquare” category, i.e. reliable, and unquestionably a worthy reprentative of its appellation and its classification, but not on the exciting side.
The château has changed ownership a number of times in recent years. It belonged to Axa Millésimes from 1987 to 2005 and then to a Syrian-born English businessman, Simon Halab, who sold it in turn to the French Le Lous family a year and a half ago.

I also knew Cantenac Brown because it was the site of international seminars for the Axa insurance company and a venue for any number of corporate and special events with memorable banquets.

Anyway, 2000 is a great vintage in Bordeaux and I am starting to open an increasing number of fine Bordeaux from that year – and finding most of them arriving into their drinking window.


So, to accompany a traditional roast beef Sunday dinner, I decanted 2000 Cantenac Brown three hours before serving. There was only a small amount of fine sediment.

I am pleased to say that the wine outperformed my expectations. It was well and truly delightful. The color was fine and looked younger than its age. The nose was absolutely enthralling, with hints of graphite, truffle, and violet to complement sublime ripe Cabernet Sauvignon aromas. So subtle and so seductive! The wine was suave and velvety on the palate too, with attractive acidity. Only a slight weakness on the follow-through (I’m admittedly nit picking here) keeps this from the very pinnacle of Médoc wines. I certainly need to revise my opinion of Cantenac Brown and apparently the new owners are investing heavily in bringing the estate up to its full potential.
Stay tuned to this station for further developments :-).

Bordeaux at 1.69 euros a bottle…

 

Bordeaux is in a bad way. Oh, I’m not referring to the famous châteaux coveted by wine lovers around the world. I’m talking about the 55% of total production sold under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations. This ad in the local Sud-Ouest newspaper on March 10th by the German supermarket group Lidl promotes so-called “award winning” Bordeaux at 1.69 euros a bottle! If you deduct all the fixed costs from beginning to end, what amount can that possibly leave for winegrowers (seeing as it is forbidden to sell under cost price on the retail end)?

The “gold medal” in question is from two French journalists who, in my opinion, should be ashamed of themselves. Their ratings are widely reputed to be based on payments received… In addition, the same ad was run in France’s largest circulation newspaper, Le Monde, showing that the wine in question must be available throughout the country. Putting aside the notion of quality for a moment, how can a blend of such gigantic proportions be considered homogeneous enough to earn a medal?

The rock bottom sales price and misleading medal do an injustice to Bordeaux.

A statistic I recently saw floored me: some 10% of an average crop of Bordeaux wine – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of hectolitres – were distilled last year to make biofuel, paid for by EU and French government subsidies.
Something is very wrong here.

Beaujolais was in a similarly bad predicament not so long ago, with terrible press. But they picked themselves up by the bootstraps and things are better there now.

The French have always been wary of free markets, especially in areas as politically sensitive as agriculture. And city dwellers, who make up most of the population, have a nostalgic, protective attitude towards farmers and winegrowers. It has therefore been expedient for successive governments to avoid the root problem and placate the wine industry. Of course, this cannot go on forever because the situation is clearly unsustainable.

The causes of this sad state of affairs are multiple, but playing the blame game gets no one anywhere. I hope the powers-that-be react intelligently and effectively to find a way to bring supply and demand closer together. No one says that this will be easy, but the present impasse can only last for so long… There is much at stake, but particularly the future of entire swathes of the Bordeaux region’s agricultural land and the families who earn their livelihood from it. The name Bordeaux can bring to mind images of impressive châteaux and self-satisfied négociants, but the truth is that most of the wines are made at modest estates run by hardworking men and women who barely earn a living wage. And their children are increasingly disinclined to take over the family estate…

There are many, many fine examples of entry level Bordeaux. It is therefore heartbreaking to see the whole category rejected by so many opinion leaders, buyers, and consumers. The Bordeaux establishment must face up to the fact that there are simply too many sub-standard wines out there – and do something about it. While timid efforts have been made in the past, these need to be seriously stepped up. Likewise, marketing and promotional budgets should be significantly increased. Alas, there are no quick fixes here… On the commercial end, brand building and the promotion of quality wines from petits châteaux, cooperatives, and négociants needs to be encouraged by every possible means – and thin, weedy wines refused the right to be called Bordeaux.

Of course, there is no easy answer to a problem with such deep roots. I champion Bordeaux at all levels and sincerely hope that things will improve. The potential to do so is unquestionably there.

Court rules against accusations of toxic elements in Bordeaux

You can’t knock a product publicly without good reason.

That, in substance, is what a court in Libourne decided yesterday when it fined an association called Alerte aux Toxiques 125,000 euros and ordered them to take down a report that Bordeaux wines contained a host of toxic residues.

Here’s the article from today’s Sud-Ouest : https://www.sudouest.fr/gironde/libourne/vins-de-bordeaux-condamnee-l-association-alerte-aux-toxiques-va-faire-appel-1429701.php

The CIVB (Conseil Interprofessional des Vins de Bordeaux) questioned the methodology of the association’s findings that were published online and, above all, the snarky remarks that accompanied them. The association was thus found guilty of “dénigrement”, or “untruthful disparagement.”

I really don’t feel much sympathy for Valérie Murat because, although muckraking has its place, for sure, behavior such as hers tends to paint everyone with the same brush and does harm.
Unlike most all other food products, wine escapes legislation requiring the listing of ingredients and “use by” dates. While something should probably be done about that, a smear campaign based on shaky science is not the best way to go about achieving this.

Had the same woman presented her case differently, publishing the figures with the customary provisos all serious scientific studies should have, and, above all, interpreted them without bias or ill will, this all would have turned out very differently.

Surely a function of my age, I am not attracted by wines marketed as organic. This is not a selling point to me because a wine’s chief virtue to me is to taste good. I’ve had too many poor organic wines along the way. Before I, myself, am accused of ill will and bias, I’m willing to evaluate any wine as objectively as possible and, of course, acknowledge that there are excellent organic wines. It’s just not the paramount criterion for me.

Madame Murat says she will appeal the court’s decision. I doubt the judgement will be as severe next time around, but plenty of people will be following this affair closely.

The market for Bordeaux runs into difficulty

CIVB headquarters in Bordeaux

As reported in the Feb. 12th issue of the local newspaper, le Sud-Ouest, the 2020 sales figures for Bordeaux wines have just been released. And they are not encouraging. The Gironde department sold 3.9 million hectoliters (the equivalent of 522 million bottles) of wine last year. This was 5% less than in 2019 in volume and 12% less in value (for a total of 3.5 billion euros).

Supermarket sales in France, by far the largest distribution vector for that market, fell by 4%. It did not help that the country’s huge restaurant and café sector has been closed for months.

Exports, which account for about half of all sales of Bordeaux, were down 3% in volume and 14% in value. These figures confirm that Bordeaux has experienced a third year of crisis in a row. The structural reasons are well-known: fewer people shopping in supermarkets, a drop in sales of red wine, difficulties on the Chinese market, customs barriers in the US and, of course, the Covid pandemic. With regard to America, while the volume of exports actually increased by 1% in 2020, value was down by a huge 29%. Despite Brexit, shipments to the UK were up 6% by volume, although a certain amount of that involved stocking up before Britain officially left the EU on Dec. 31st.

In order to cope with overproduction, some 550,000 hectoliters of Bordeaux wine, i.e. 10% of a normal vintage, were distilled in the past few months thanks to EU subsidies.  Uprooting vines is now an option being seriously considered.

Sales for the last three months of the 2020 were better than the same period the previous year, so there is some ground for hope. But the medium-term obstacles remain challenging. Some serious soul-searching and decision-making needs to be done. Of course, certain market segments are suffering more than others, with the great growths being in a separate and less-threatened category. Also, the value of French wines and spirits exports on the whole were down by 14% last year. So Bordeaux is not alone in having a difficult time.

 

 

2005 Château Chasse Spleen

I haven’t opened a 2005 in a while, but figured yesterday was the day for my bottle of 2005 Chasse Spleen to accompany a nice roast of beef.
This cru bourgeois (previously in the “exceptionnel” category, and now voluntarily outside the classification) is often considered an honorary great growth and frequently cited as the best wine of the low-profile Moulis appellation. Incidentally, Moulis is the second smallest appellation in Bordeaux, after Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, with 630 hectares of vines.

I’ve had mostly good experiences with Chasse Spleen, although I’m not a fan of their white wine.

For what it’s worth, there’s a quotation from Lamartine’s “Le Lac” on the strip label for the 2005 vintage: “O temps ! Suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices, Suspendez votre cours !”
Translation: ” Oh Time! Pause in your flight, and you, happy hours, stop your race.
Chasse Spleen’s odd name is said to have come from a comment from Lord Byron who, visiting, said that the wine “dispelled the spleen”. The French verb “chasser” means to drive out or chase away.

THe château belongs to the Merlaut famiy, and is presently managed by granddaughter Céline Villars. The château building is beautiful and welcomes visitors.

Decanted two hours before the meal, this 2005 proved to be a fine example of what the château can do. The color showed the wine’s age, but seemed more youthful on the nose (hints of graphite and violet) and, especially, the palate. There was a delightful sort of double whammy here, staring off with a rich, voluptuous flavor, then going into an austere and frankly tannic aftertaste that made it particularly appetizing with red meat. This pronounced, but not unrelenting, tannin seems to be the hallmark of Chasse Spleen.

The notion of peak is hard to pin down and, of course, the question of personal preferences comes into play… While I believe this wine will improve with age, I also feel it shouldn’t be kept too long because by the time the tannin further softens, the fruit will become more subdued. In the trade-off, I’d say 2005 Chasse Spleen should be ideal in 2025.

This wine was a joy to drink and it is always nice to see that the estates you considered stalwarts have maintained their standing.