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.

Marcillac: a different kind of fine wine from Southwest France

Although a 4 hour drive from Bordeaux – the capital of Southwest France – Marcillac in the Averyron department is classified a “vin du sud-ouest” along with some 20 other appellations: Bergerac, Cahors, Gaillac, Buzet, Madiran, etc .

My wife and I enjoyed a vacation in the Averyron in September 2020, making sure to visit the Roquefort cheese cellars and admire the amazing Viaduc de Millau. Naturally, we also also visited the area’s best wine-producing region, Marcillac, about 20 km from the city of Rodez.

They have been making wine in Marcillac for a thousand years and it acquired appellation controlee status in 1990. The main grape variety, Fer Servadou (known locally as Mansois) accounts for at least 80% of the blend, the rest consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Prunelard. The area under vine was approximately 1,500 hectares in the 16th century, but fell to just 10 fifty years ago. Today,
with 180 hectares, Marcillac is one of the smallest appellations in France.  The local cooperative, Les Vignerons du Vallon, accounts for over 50% of production.

The terroir consists of rolling hills (some of which are terraced) with red clay soil overlooking a plain with limestone soil. Marcillac is in a valley (in fact, the town’s full name is Marcillac-Vallon) and the surrounding mountains account for a temperate microclimate providing protection from strong winds.

I tend to have a soft spot for esoteric, inexpensive, under the radar appellations – and Marcillac definitely fits that description.  The Fer Servadou is a rare grape variety, and no other wine features it as prominently. Related to the family that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, it is what makes Marcillac unique. The first part of the name, Fer, comes from the fact that the vine branches are quite hard, like iron. The latter part, Servadou, means “that which keeps well” in Occitan.

We visited the appellation’s two main producers, starting off with Domaine du Cros, who have 28 hectares of vines. The first wine we tasted there was a pleasant 2019 Marcillac Rosé somewhat reminiscent of a Tavel with minerality showing on the aftertaste. The second wine, Cuvée n° 25, comes from a specific small plot of young vines and is made without sulphur. This was quite interesting, with an inky reddish-purple color, very pure primary aromas, and a rich, long aftertaste. We had had the third wine the previous night in a restaurant: the 2016 Vieilles Vignes. This showed good character and grip, and will benefit from further ageing. The last wine, 2015 Les Rougiers, was made from 70-year-old vines and aged in oak, which comes through strongly on the palate at this time. Although closed, I am convinced that this will provide much pleasure in ten years’ time.

Charming village of Clairevaux d’Aveyron

Driving a short distance down the hill from Domaine du Cros, through a vista of vines thick with nearly-ripe grapes, we happened upon the closest village, Clairevaux d’Aveyron. This proved to be absolutely serendipitous for two reasons. First of all, the town is an architectural gem, a collection of fascinating medieval buildings built of red brick. Then, totally by chance, we came upon the cellars of the other major producer of Marcillac, Domaine Laurens, with 25 hectares of vines.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover this producer and their selection of innovative products. We started off with a pleasant white Vin de Pays de l’Aveyron made with Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Saint Côme, going on to the domaine’s main wine, 2019 Pierres Rouges AOC Marcillac. This had seen no wood and been recently bottled, so was not showing at its best. However, it reflected the tart, fruity, seductive side of Marcillac and I came away with a case, considering it good value for money. But what really endeared me to Domaine Laurens was their range of special cuvées. These went from the pretty 2018 Cuvée des Flars to the refined and agreeably tannic 2017 Cuvée de l’Ecir. One step up were the 2016 Le Dernier Lion (aged in amphorae) and 2015 Clamenç.  These showed precision winemaking and would have totally puzzled even the most gifted blind taster. The latter is a blend of 50% Fer Servadou and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. While not cheap (about 30 euros a bottle) these last two wines showed the sort of excellent quality can be achieved with the right hands in Marcillac – a quality I had not at all expected in this out-of-the-way appellation.

If you are interested in discovering the real France, I strongly recommend a visit to the Averyron and to Marcillac in particular.

20005 Château La Serre, Saint Emilion grand cru classé

Like most English speakers, I am more familiar with the wines of the Médoc (and have tasted every classified growth there) than I am with the wines of the Right Bank. Indeed, my acquaintance with many of the crus classes of Saint-Emilion is limited or non-existent.

I have tried young Château La Serre at tastings, but had never sampled an aged one until this past weekend.

La Serre has 7 hectares of vines on the edge of the limestone plateau, surrounded by Ausone, Bel Air Monange, Pavie Macquin, and Trottevieille. It has been owned by the d’Arfeuille family, with deep roots in the region, since 1956. Former owners of châteaux La Pointe in Pomerol and Toumalin in Canon-Fronsac, they have also been involved in the négociant trade.

The breakdown of grape varieties is 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. The vines are an average 35 years old.

Whereas I would probably go on the assumption that a fine 2005 Médoc was too young to drink, I felt that this Saint-Emilion might just be ready to go.

The color was absolutely beautiful, with a deep reddish-purple hue and gentle bricking on the rim. I would probably have guessed a younger wine if tasted blind.
The nose showed fresh, classy, tremendously ripe fruit reminiscent of red fruit jelly. The oak was under control, but my notes say that the bouquet was half-way to the New World in style, not that this is meant in a pejorative way, simply reflecting its exuberance.
The wine proved to be “sweet”, voluptuous and very rich on the palate, with concentrated cherry flavors. It was mouthfilling and unctuous, but minerality from the limestone showed on the aftertaste to provide a counterpoint and the necessary backbone.

I was greatly pleased with this 2005 La Serre, a sensual, delicious wine, which is still shy of its peak. I would definitely seek this wine out in the future.

1975 and 1966 Léoville Las Cases at lunch

I can remember a time when Léoville Las Cases was hell-bent on bursting from its “super-second” status to attain virtual, if not official, first growth status. And the price hikes were there to prove it. However, this was not to be. Was/is this due to the wine’s intrinsic quality, or rather a deep-seated conservatism with regard to the 1855 classification?

I’ve not had an aged Las Cases up against up, let’s say a Latour from the same vintage, but I am sorely tempted to do so in the near future. If so, I’ll let you know J.

Be this as it may, Léoville Las Cases is unquestionably one of the finest wines of the Médoc. This was confirmed at a friend’s house yesterday. He served the 1966 and 1975 vintages blind at lunch (there are curfews here, so dinner is out of the question). I was off by twenty years for the former, which was served first because my host felt that it is better to go from lighter and/or less tannic to heavier and/or more tannic rather than in the more orthodox reverse chronological order.
I don’t take notes at table, but I recall a wine whose color was more youthful than its 55 years, and a still fresh nose of ethereal blackcurrant and graphite. The wine was also quite vital on the palate, with thoroughly resolved tannin and a soft elegance having little to do with the château’s more muscular style in certain years. The aftertaste was deliciously long and refreshing, exhibiting pure class.

The 1975 was more in that muscular mold and there was still something slightly unforgiving about it, which has often said of the vintage. There was also a touch of TCA, but not enough to ruin the wine by any means. I think that even if there hadn’t been any, it still wouldn’t have been a match for the 1966. You could definitely appreciate this lovely old claret, but on this day the 1966 won our hearts, and it is always comforting when the stalwarts prove that they are up to their reputation.