Book review: “From Yquem to Fargues” by Alexandre de Lur Saluces

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At the age of 82, Alexandre de Lur Saluces has written a book telling us of his trials, tribulations, and joys in the many years he has made world class wine in Sauternes.

d’Yquem à Fargues – l’excellence d’un vin, l’histoire d’une famille” was published by Gallimard in November 2016.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/253-1422515-3899335?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=d%E2%80%99Yquem+%C3%A0+Fargues
Gallimard (one of the largest French publishing houses) only distribute the French version.
However, an English version does indeed exist, and can be ordered directly from the château :
www.chateaudefargues.com/librairie
or
https://www.chateaudefargues.com/en/bookstore/

This relatively short (175 pages), but many-faceted book is a very interesting and entertaining read. There’s even a section on “Sauternes in Literature”. It has a handsome royal blue and gold binding, as well as the crown all wine lovers will recognize from the labels of both Yquem and Fargues.

The book is divided into several parts: a forward by Natacha Polony (a French journalist and essayist of Polish origin), a preface by Marguerite Figeac (a professor of history at Bordeaux University), an introduction and a conclusion by the author, a postface by Jean-Paul Kaufmann (a journalist, writer, and noted lover of Bordeaux wines), and a series of appendices on various technical and historical subjects.

One is struck by Alexandre Lur Saluce’s modesty, candor, grounding in his rural environment and, of course, his deep sense of history. Château de Fargues has been in his family since 1472. He represents the 15th generation and has produced 48 vintages there…

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Château d’Yquem

The Lur-Saluces name will, of course, forever be associated with Château d’Yquem. This came into the family when Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces married Joséphine de Suavage in 1785. At one time, the Lur Saluces owned some 700 hectares in Sauternes (over a quarter of the combined present-day area of Sauternes and Barsac), including châteaux de Malle, Filhot, and Coutet.
Alexandre de Lur Saluces was in charge of Yquem for 36 years, from 1968 to 2004. The sale of the estate to LVMH involved a long bitter fight, but this is wisely dealt with dispassionately and in summary fashion. That is not the point of the book.

Château de Fargues

Château de Fargues

What is the point then? In fact, there are several. The book is necessarily autobiographical (for instance, I was unaware that Alexandre was the 8th of 9 children), but also describes the renaissance of Château de Fargues and goes into considerable detail about the making of one of the world’s great wines: Sauternes. That is because Alexandre de Lur Saluces has always been a sterling ambassador for Sauternes as a whole, not just his family estates. He has clearly lost none of his sense of wonder at the transformation by Botrytis cinerea of grapes grown on a unique terroir to produce a wine like no other. And he is very concerned about the appellation’s future. He points out the danger of a proposed TGV high speed train line that would upset the region’s delicate ecosystem, decries the production of dry white wine at the expense of one of the world’s great sweet wines, and criticizes the lack of commercial support from Bordeaux négociants.  He also writes about matching Sauternes and food, a subject that often puzzles wine lovers.

One must admire Alexandre de Lur Saluces’ ability to rebound after leaving Yquem and invest his energy in the renovation and expansion of Château de Fargues, an estate that has gone from strength to strength. This is described in a lively way and illustrated with beautiful photos.

I would recommend this book by one of Bordeaux’s greatest figures to anyone with even a passing interest in Sauternes. It is informative, entertaining, thought-provoking, in easy-to-understand French, and full of anecdotes.

La Tour de Bessan, a Margaux worth discovering

 

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It would not be entirely accurate to say that Marie-Laure Lurton belongs to a well-known wine family… In fact, it would be much more apt to say she’s from a virtual dynasty, with huge landholdings throughout Bordeaux (1,300 hectares at 27 estates). However, Marie-Laure is no figurehead daughter looking after marketing and public relations… She’s a hands-on winemaker with a degree in enology and years of experience working at the family châteaux prior to acquiring two of her own. A measure of the woman’s stamina and character is that she was training for the Marathon du Médoc when I met her this summer.

Marie-Laure owns and manages Château La Tour de Bessan in the Margaux appellation and Villegeorge in the Haut-Médoc appellation. She is the mother of three children.

I asked Marie-Laure a question that fascinates lovers of Bordeaux. Since nothing would legally have prevented it (the 1855 classification is not subject to appellation controlée laws, and has not been changed since 1973, when Mouton Rothschild was promoted from a second to a first growth), why was La Tour de Bessan not purely and simply integrated into Brane Cantenac or Durfort Vivens, both second growths belonging to the Lurtons – and selling at a much higher price? Her answer was very nuanced and had much to do with agreements made within her family taking existing situations into account. Let it suffice to say that Lucien Lurton acquired La Tour de Bessan in the 1970s and preferred to keep the estate separate.

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I was intrigued to discover La Tour de Bessan because I had rarely had the wine. I was not alone in erroneously thinking of it as a second wine of Brane Cantenac. The vineyards are located in three different communes: Soussans, Arsac, and Cantenac. The eponymous tower in Soussans dates back to the 13th century – predating the one at Château Latour in Pauillac, who therefore did not ask the Lurtons to change the name to just “Tour de Bessan”, as they did to other châteaux called “La Tour something or other”.

La Tour de Bessan was acquired by Lucien Lurton in 1972. Marie-Laure worked with her father from 1984 to 1991. He handed over full winemaking responsibility at La Tour de Bessan in 1992. Marie-Laure was not spoiled for her first vintage since the year was extremely difficult and challenging. She has since acquired precious experience running the estate, and her wine was sold on the Place de Bordeaux to négociants for the first time in 2010 (the 2008 and 2009 vintages).

Entrance
The 30 hectares of vines are planted with 39.2% Cabernet Sauvignon, 59.6% Merlot and 1.2% Petit Verdot. The soil consists of Pyrenean gravel and viticultural practices are sustainable, as attested by Terra Vitis certification since 2003. The Cabernet is machine harvested, but the more fragile Merlot is picked by hand. In general, picking is always adapted to the condition and ripeness of the grapes in each plot.

Annual production varies from 60-110,000 bottles of the grand vin and 20-40,000 bottles of the second wine, Page de la Tour de Bessan, depending on the vintage. A third wine is sold in bulk to négociants

 

Marie-Laure has been assisted by Technical Director Emilie Roulié, an agricultural engineer, since 1999. The vineyard manager is a Habib Achenglil.

 

La Tour de Bessan
A new cellar was built in 1999. The first thing you notice about La Tour de Bessan is its tasteful, striking, resolutely contemporary architecture. Made of reinforced concrete, the original building dates from 1934. In its present state, it looks like nothing so much as a modern art museum and cannot be compared to anything else in the Médoc.

La Tour de Bessan was included in the Cru Bourgeois classification in 2003. However, like several other well-known estates, Marie-Laure decided to withdraw after a series of upheavals within the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois, and for practical reasons.

 

I tasted through the 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages of La Tour de Bessan with Marie-Laure Lurton. Eschewing the clichés often used when referring to wine made by women, I would describe the wines as very traditional in style, similar to the ones I tasted when I first came to Bordeaux in the late 1970s. By that, I mean that they are poised, digestible, on the light side, and with a very lacy texture in each instance. They are on the early-maturing side and what I, as a foreigner, see as in keeping with the French taste in wine – light years away from heavily-extracted oaky ones one finds. There is an ethereal aspect that makes them very drinkable and enjoyable.

La Tour de Bessan is also on the forefront of wine tourism (http://www.marielaurelurton.com/fr/oenotourisme/). The château offers a series of options including tasting wine from each grape variety, making your own blend, and leaving with a bottle of it to take home. Another possibility, “Gourmet Day in Margaux”, includes visits to Prieuré-Lichine and Rauzan Gassies in the morning, lunch at the Savoie restaurant, and tours of Kirwan and (of course) La Tour de Bessan in the afternoon.

 


In addition, Marie-Laure has established a partnership with the Officier de Bouche caterer in Margaux (http://www.lofficier-de-bouche.com/). The chef and owner, Mme Gaëlle Benoiste-Pilloire, is specialized in matching food and wine, and has her own professional kitchen. Participants prepare meals and eat them afterwards with the appropriate wines.

What does the future look like for La Tour de Bessan? Marie-Laure’s children have not, as yet, shown interest in taking over management, but time will tell… There is inevitably a time lag between a château’s renaissance and recognition by the marketplace. Marie-Laure has given herself a decade to turn things around completely and will then see what to do next. In the meantime, I wish her the best of luck, and encourage her to keep up the good work.
 

 

What to do when an expensive wine is corked? Why, ask the château to replace it, of course!

 

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It is always a disappointment when a fabled and/or expensive bottle of wine proves to be undrinkable. Many of my Burgundy-loving friends have stopped buying that region’s white wines altogether because of the number of prematurely oxidized bottles they encounter. Unfortunately, Burgundy has, as yet, found no cure.

Then there are the corked bottles, which bedevils producers everywhere… As we all know, this is caused by trichloroansol, or TCA, a substance found in both cork and wood. Once again, no sure way of avoiding this has been found, other than multi-piece, colmated, agglomerated, or synthetic corks and, of course, screw caps, keeping in mind that none of these have proved to be appropriate for fine wines meant to age for decades.

It is estimated that 7% of all wines with natural cork closures suffer from cork taint.

In the same way that most people will not complain about food or wine at a restaurant if asked by a waiter if everything is fine –  when this is not the case – the majority of wine lovers just shrug their shoulders when confronted by a corked wine at home, considering this as destiny, a necessary risk to take, and a low-level form of Russian roulette. The price to pay.
This is what I have always done.

However, I hosted a wine dinner at my house in November and invited two enologists. One of them works for a Médoc great growth. I had wanted to compare a bottle of 2001 Mouton Rothschild and one of 2001 Pichon Baron. This was impossible since the latter was indisputably corked to high heaven. I was prepared to go tsk, tsk, shake my head and move on. However, my friend said “At the château I work for, when someone reports a corked bottle, we replace it”.

So I thought, why not try? So, I wrote a letter to Château Pichon Baron and enclosed the cork. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from Jean-Marie Matignon, the estate’s technical director, confirming that the cork was indeed infected and that the château would be glad to replace the wine. Of course, I was delighted, and the bottle arrived on my doorstep in due course.

I salute the château’s great sense of fair play in replacing a 15 year-old bottle, and will never again be defeatist when I come across a corked wine. Of course, I’m aware that not every producer will be as conscientious, but Pichon Baron has set a fine standard.

If any of you have similar stories to tell, I’d be glad to hear them.
 

 

 

Vertical tasting of Château La Conseillante at Max Wine Gallery

 

What is Max Wine Wine Gallery and Cellar?

 

Housed in a splendid town house in the center of Bordeaux, a stone’s throw from the Grand Théâtre, (14 Cours de l’Intendance), Max Wine was opened in 2009 by a Norweigan wine merchant, Henning Thoresen.  It features several Enomatic dispensing machines with inert gas to preserve the freshness of the 48 wines available at any one time – up to and including 1st growths – in 2.5, 5, or 7.5 cl pours.

Customers buy a magnetic card credited with the amount of their choice and taste what they want, how much they want, and at their own pace.

Max Wine Gallery also has a boutique and offers tasting workshops. I went to one of these on the 8th of December focusing on Château La Conseillante.

There is no need to do a mini château profile here. That is easy enough to find on the Web. Let it suffice to say that La Conseillante has a proven track record and is unquestionably one of the top ten wines in a very small, prestigious – and expensive – appellation.

The estate and wines were presented by Elodie Emonet, in charge of communication and public relations.

 

We started off with two vintages of the second wine, Duo de La Conseillante.
The 2013 had a good color with a purplish rim. The nose was bright, simple, and plummy (damson) with cherry overtones. However, the overall bouquet was one-dimensional. The wine was round and slightly dilute on the palate – a lightish thirst-quenching sort of wine that is ready to drink as of now. There are the rubbery tell-tale Pomerol tannins there and a slight gamey touch, as well as a hint of greenness. Fortunately, the winemaker took vintage character into account and the oak is not overpowering. This reminded me of a sort of luxury version of Saumur-Champigny. A decent enough wine, but the question of value for money comes into play here. 13.5/20
The 2009 Duo was a different kettle of fish. The wine had a lovely color with a deep core, although it was not particularly brilliant. It is just starting to brick on the rim and looked a little older than its age. The nose was very beguiling with fine-tuned oak, as well as earthy, truffle aromas. A lovely feminine bouquet. The wine was rich and fairly round on the palate with a velvety texture and a taste of candied black fruit. Very seductive. Medium-long, sprightly, fresh aftertaste. Superb second wine. 15/20. I believe this retails for about 60 euros and at that price is definitely worth the money.

Next up were three vintages of the grand vin, Château La Conseillante.

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Curiously, we started out with the oldest. I can understand the reasoning, that younger wines might overwhelm a subtle aged vintage. However, I am very conservative here and prefer the opposite order. Be that as it may, we started off with the 1996. At twenty years old this was looking its age, and then some with graduated mahogany overtones. The indescribable (but one tries to describe anyway…) nose featured deep cherry aromas along with leather, forest floor, cherry, and empyreumatic* overtones. It was lovely, understated and sweet, but too indeterminate and not fresh enough. This impression of tiredness carried over to the palate, where the wine was curiously light, but balanced and clearly displayed plenty of class. There was marked acidity here. The tannin will undoubtedly outlive the fruit, which has already started to go. Slightly disappointing for this great wine from a good vintage. 16/20
*empyreumatic: This long, fairly pretentious word is nevertheless very useful to describe certain smells, especially in aged Merlot-based wine. The dictionary defines it as “being or having an odor of burnt organic matter as a result of decomposition at high temperatures <creosote and other empyreumatic oils>” and the word does exist in English. I use it when describing “burnt rubber” aromas, and it is not meant to be negative. If anyone has a better “Anglo-Saxon” word for this, I’d be very grateful to know!

 

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The 2006 was very different, and probably reflects a more modern approach to winemaking as well as its relative youth. The color was a little lackluster with a very deep core and just starting to show some age on the rim. There was definite black truffle on the nose along with subtle floral aromas and sweet fruit. The understated vanilla/almond nuances were very attractive. However, the overall impression is underdeveloped at this stage. The wine was powerful and mouth-coating on the palate, but stops a little short on the aftertaste. The tea-type tannin was velvety – great texture! Fruit paste nuances add a nice touch. Elodie from La Conseillante said this wine is to drink now or to age. I disagree. I think it needs much more time to strut its stuff. 16/20 now, probably more later. I have a bottle in the cellar and will give it another 7 years or so.

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Last up was the 2010. The color was a little dull, but very dark purplish-red and the wine left thick legs on the glass. There was some reduction on the nose with biscuity aromas, a soupçon of mint, and lots of vigorous primary fruit. There were also complex floral and cosmetic hints. Very elegant, but obviously too young. The wine coats the palate on entry and there was some exotic spiciness there, but also a marked alcoholic presence. However, this alcohol is encased in a soft shell. I had the feeling that the wine was not in such a very good place now, but it shows tremendous potential. There was a lovely creamy sensation and a sexy follow-through with enticing blueberry flavors. Superb tannin, with a rubbery quality (once again, this is not meant to be a criticism). There’s definite magic there. 17/20

 

A dozen 2014 red Graves

 

In the same way as there is a basic misunderstanding of what the word “Bordeaux” means in English-speaking countries (where it is often equated with the expensive tip of the pyramid), the name “Graves” makes many people think only of the region’s great growths – all of which are located in a sub-appellation of the Graves, Pessac-Léognan, created in 1987. To confuse matters, these famous châteaux continue to be called crus classés de Graves rather than Pessac-Léognan…

This northern part of the region (1,500 hectares for Pessac-Léognan compared to 3,500 for the rest of the Graves) is also referred to as Les Graves de Bordeaux since it starts just outside the city. In fact, Bordeaux is actually IN the Graves, and until recently there were actually one or two wine producing estates within the city limits!

Many Anglo-Saxon consumers also think of white wine when they think of Graves. However, the 43 communes in the appellation produce 70% red wine…

 

I was invited to an awards ceremony, the Trophée des Grands Crus de Graves, on November 16th at Château de Portets. On this occasion there were about 40 red wines to taste and perhaps 30 white wines. The room was rather crowded and tasting conditions not ideal, but here are my notes for a dozen red wines.

These were all from the 2014 vintage.

The overall level was quite good and none of the wines were expensive. Furthermore, almost all of them were showing well just two years after the vintage and will be drinking well quite young.

IMPORTANT: Please consider the points within the following context. I am a tough grader. For me, acceptable wine is 10/20, 12/20 is OK, 14 is quite good, and 15 on up is special.
Also, obviously, we are also talking about wines that cost only a fraction of the grands crus.

 

2014 Château Saint Robert
Color: medium light and very purplish
Nose: fresh, natural, not messed-about-with, and showing uncomplicated red fruit aromas with some candied fruit
Palate: fluid to the point of being a little dilute with vanilla and caramel overtones from oak. Already drinking well. A good commercial style, but with a short finish.
14/20

2014 Château de Portets
Color: not very deep, but brilliant and attractive
Nose: black fruit, especially blackberry. Lacking in concentration. Pure and sweet but not confected.
Palate: Starts out round, mouthfilling, and sensual, but then drops before picking up again on the finish, which features round, slick tannin. Juicy, simple, and delicious for early drinking.
14/20

2014 Château de Castres
Color: youthful, not deep, and not perfectly limpid
Nose: off, acetic acid?
Palate: the round, simple, easy-going side damaged by searing acidity. Not rated. Not successful, but would be drinkable with food.

 

2014 Vieux Château Gaubert
Color: deeper than most of the wines, quite nice
Nose: good cherry aromas overlaid, but not overwhelmed by oak. Simple, but classy.
Palate: Big and chewy. Melts in the mouth. A wine that seems more well-made than a vin de terroir, but quite elegant. The only flaw is the short aftertaste.
14/20

2014 Château Chantegrive
Color: good, looking a little older than its age
Nose: strong toasty oak and blackberry fruit. Modern and vital.
Palate: Plenty of volume and quite round, but hollow on the middle-palate and fairly oaky. This oak influence is too great for the wine’s intrinsic structure.
13/20

2014 Grand Enclos du Château de Cérons
Color: medium deep and not very brilliant
Nose: some jammy fruit and brambly aromas. Subtle, but lacking in character.
Palate: Juicy, old-fashioned type of wine. Short and simple.
12/20

 

2014 Château Lassalle
Color: lovely and deep
Nose: delicate balance between fruit and oak.
Palate: suave, fluid, and typical of its appellation. Classic and understated. Maybe a little dry on the aftertaste, but very nice indeed. Suitable for fine cuisine.
14/20

2014 Château d’Uza
Color: deep and fine
Nose: bright upfront berry fruit and attractive oak that is not overdone
Palate: round, delicious, and strangely Pinot-like! Shortish finish and in a non-traditional style, but sexy.
14.5/20

2014 Château Lagrange
Color: medium-deep
Nose: smoky Graves aromas and fresh fruitiness, but not much substance
Palate: sharp, angular, and somewhat bitter. These qualities will not disappear with age. Tough (rather than rustic) tannin.
10/20

2014 Château Jouvente
Color: purplish-red
Nose: ethereal, but too understated.
Palate: very soft cushioned attack, then sinks into a hole, then rebounds with an aftertaste that a bit too hard compared with the wine’s overall feminine profile.
11/20

2014 Château de Landiras
Color: little cloudy and not very deep
Nose: seemed wimpish, but there’s some subtle blackberry fruit lurking there and a faint sweetness that might become more expressive with aeration (the bottles were uncorked and served).
Palate: foursquare but somewhat weak on the middle palate. OK, but lacks depth and length.
11/20

2014 Château de Lionne
Color: good, medium-dark
Nose: musty with camphor and minty notes making this more odd than attractive
Palate: some leather and black fruit, but in minor mode. Honest, but unremarkable and short.
11/20

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Yes, it is possible to visit 16 châteaux in Sauternes in one day!

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My friend, Suzanne Mustacich (journalist for the Wine Spectator and author of “The Thir sty Dragon”, a book about the Chinese market for Bordeaux) and I participated in the Portes Ouvertes on the 11th of November 2016.
Fifty-four châteaux opened their cellars to the general public for three days.
I have made some amazing discoveries on such occasions and met some fine people, so I frequently take advantage of the Portes Ouvertes.
A veteran of these “Open Days”, I know from experience that it is always better to go on the first day when there are fewer people.

So, we set off on a public holiday (Armistice Day) and began our visits shortly after 10 am. Our game plan was simple: to taste at a maximum number of châteaux without going on any tours. Why no tours? Simply because these go over much of the same ground and, to be honest, one cellar tends to look a great deal like another one…

Sadly, Sauternes is a wine that has been losing ground of late. The French market is anemic and people rarely serve it now as an aperitif – a traditional practice that always surprises and/or shocks English speakers. That means that Sauternes is currently considered in far too restrictive a way, as a wine to serve with foie gras during the Christmas season…
Furthermore, sweet foods (and drinks) do not have good press at the moment and many Sauternes are perceived as too thick and weighty. The appellation has an ageing consumer base and most producers do not have other types of wines (dry white, red) to fall back on.
The price of vineyard land has plummeted, and many estates are for sale.
Something has to be done, but what? Some estates are producing a lighter style of Sauternes and a cooperative is being created. The average vineyard holding in Sauternes is less than 3 hectares, so this will lead to improved technological capabilities and economies of scale. More controversially, some producers, such as Clos des Lunes, are making just dry white wines and are seeking to create a new appellation such as Coteaux Sauternais for them.

Anyway, here’s the rundown of our day. Obviously, it is not possible to do any sort of in-depth report with so many estates, so please think of this as a sort of road trip.
The Sauternes appellation covers 5 communes: Sauternes, Preignac, Fargues, Bommes and Barsac.
Barsac has its own separate appellation, but can also be sold under the name Sauternes. The choice is up to the producer.

Our first visit was to second growth Filhot, in the commune of Sauternes – a magnificent château in a beautiful setting. We tried their 2013 Zest, a light easy-drinking wine with zippy packaging and an attractive price. This was followed by 2011 Filhot, which made a good impression. I bought a bottle of each.

Our next stop was at first growth Château Guiraud, also in Sauternes, one of the appellation’s leading producers. While we were not particularly impressed with the 2013 second wine (Le Petit Guiraud), the 2003 grand vin was aromatic, silky, and not as big and fat as one might expect. We had a long chat with Xavier Planty, who is also president of the local winegrowers association. He talked to us about the issues facing Sauternes at the present time as well as Guiraud’s organic winegrowing methods.

 

 

We went on to nearby Château Lafon (commune of Sauternes). While the wines were relatively inexpensive, they did not leave a lasting impression. We went from there to Château Raymond-Lafon (Sauternes) an estate well-known in the US. Although not classified, Raymond-Lafon is frequently considered on a par with the grands crus. We tasted the 1998 and 2009 vintages, starting with the older wine. This was rich, sensual, and long, but perhaps past its best. The 2009 was unsurprisingly more vital. The nose could have been more expressive, but the wine was lovely on the palate with a fine aftertaste.

 

 

Before lunch, we stopped at two premiers crus, both in the commune of Bommes: Sigalas-Rabaud and Rabaud Promis. Once forming a single estate, the wines have a very different flavour profile.

At Sigalas-Rabaud, we tasted the 2014 dry wine, La Demoiselle de Sigalas, as well as the second wine, the 2011 Lieutenant de Sigalas. Both of these were good, if unremarkable. However the 2007 grand vin was very elegant. The owner, Laure de Lambert Compeyrot, seemed pleased when I called her wine “ethereal”. “That’s what we’re aiming for”, she said.
Rabaud-Promis, on the other hand was foursquare, quite rich, and sweet. We tasted their second wine, Raymond-Louis, from 2013, which was rather cloying. The 2010 grand vin once again showed great richness, but had better balance, as well as subtle peach and apricot flavors. I bought a bottle. Just think: a 6 year-old first growth Sauternes from a fine vintage for under 25 euros a bottle. Sauternes can be tremendous value for money, especially when you consider their low yields and how far a bottle goes compared to a dry white or red wine.

Lunch was at the Auberge des Vignes in the heart of the thriving metropolis of Sauternes (population: 762). This traditional small restaurant specializes in meats cooked over vine cuttings. To save time in order to see a maximum number of estates, we had just one dish: entrecôte frites. This was delicious, reasonably priced (18 euros), and served quickly despite the fact that every table was taken.


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We continued our pilgrimage with a stop at first growth Château Rayne Vigneau in Bommes. This was acquired just over a year ago by Franco-American businessman Derek Rémy Smith. We sampled 2010 Madame de Rayne, the second wine, which was a bit simple and syrupy, and then the 2010 grand vin. The latter was much better, with subtle aromas of pineapple, ginger, etc. and a much longer aftertaste.

I have been a follower of Clos Haut-Peyraguey, another first growth in Bommes, for years because it was hugely reliable and not very well-known – and therefore not very expensive. The estate was purchased by Bernard Margrez in 2012 and I have only had the wine once since then. We started off tasting the second wine, 2013 Sypmphonie. This was balanced and soft, but lacked oomph. It reminded me more of a Sainte-Croix-du-Mont or a Loupiac.  We went on to try the 2014 grand vin. This had an interesting tropical fruit bouquet and good acidity on the palate. Unfortunately the sweet, luscious attack retreated into a shortish finish not up to first growth level.

 

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We next had a brief interlude at Domaine de Carbonnieux (Bommes). The wines there were very inexpensive, but unfortunately unworthy of special attention. It was a different story at the next estate, one of my favorite Sauternes, Château Haut Bergeron in Preignac. The Lamothe family have been making delicious wines there for many years. These are also good quite young and the second wine, Château Fontbride is nearly as flavorsome. We tasted the 2013 and 2011 vintages of the grand vin. I came away with 2 bottles of the 2010 and even bought 6 half-bottles of the 2015 en primeur.

 

We went from Haut Bergeron to Château Laville, also in Preignac. We enjoyed the 2011, but this estate also makes ones of the most weird and wonderful wines in Bordeaux, a late-harvest botrtyized blend of Riesling and Gewurtztraminer grown in the Sauternes appellation! I had picked up a few bottles last year and was anxious to come back for more. There can be no better wine for blind tastings. Who could ever guess its origin? Of course, it is sold as “vin de France” instead of Sautenes, but it’s a very fun and fascinating wine.

Stepping back in time, we went to Château d’Armajan des Ormes, located practically in the center of Preignac. The imposing and ancient château was largely rebuilt in the late 17th century. It belongs to the Perromat family, who also have large vineyard holdings elsewhere in Bordeaux. We compared the 2013 second wine (Ch. Le Juge) and the grand vin from the same year. These were old-fashioned in style and not especially noteworthy.

The next visit was to Château d’Anna in Barsac, a tiny 2-hectare estate with a correspondingly tiny cellar located. When I say tiny, the room where the barrels are kept and bottles stored must be all of 16 square meters! The wine is made by Xavier Dauba, cellarmaster at the Grand Enclos du Château de Cérons. 2011 Ch. d’Anna had a noticeably amber, coppery color and a rich ripe bouquet. The wine melts in the mouth with a strong botrytis character. An interesting, rare wine somewhat on the heavy side.

Resembling Château d’Armajan des Ormes architecturally, Château de Myrat in Barsac is an impressive structure. Second growth Myrat belongs to the venerable De Pontac family, who once owned Haut-Brion. We had a chat with Xavier de Pontac and admired his collection of pheasants and peacocks. We also tasted three vintages of his wine: 2012, 2010, and 2001. These were very Barsac in style: not as heavy as many of the Sauternes and with marked minerality on the finish. The 2010 featured fresh cutting acidity and the 2001 was interesting, but too old.

We then drove to second growth Doisy-Daënes, also in Barsac. This is the fief of the Dubourdieu family. Denis Dubourdieu, Dean of the Faculty of Enology and one of the great figures in Bordeaux, passed away this year and is greatly missed. The family’s complete range of wines was on show, but we focused on the Barsacs, enjoying the 2013 Doisy-Daëne (a good wine from a challenging year) and the surprisingly successful and youthful 1991 (Robert Parker gives one of his all-time low vintage ratings for 91 Sauternes: 70/100). The latter had a bouquet of crème brûlée and was also reminiscent of a Tokaj. It had a lovely long finish.

Our sixteenth (!) and last stop was just across the road at Château Gravas. I can hardly be objective here because I have known Florence and Michel Bernard for a couple of decades. This last visit was more of a social one, with a tasting of the light, but attractive 2013. The Bernards have a long tradition of welcoming visitors and they were thronged. There was a joyous atmosphere and this was a great way to end a busy, but fun and enlightening day.

 

A tasting of 17 wines from the Côtes de Castillon

 

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I was invited to a tasting on the 9th of November by the Castillon Winegrowers Association.

I have a soft spot for Castillon. It’s one of those under-rated Bordeaux appellations that’s a treasure trove of good value wines.

There were about 20 of us at the tasting that started off with a short presentation by Maïwenn Brabant. She outlined some of the appellation’s marketing efforts including one that I found particularly interesting: Castillon winegrowers will go to people’s houses free of charge for groups of at least 10 people to share their wines and talk about them. Winegrowers have even done this in Paris, all at their own expense.
With that kind of motivation and effort, they can help but succeed!

Here are my notes.

IMPORTANT: Please consider the points within the following context. I am a tough grader. For me, acceptable wine is 10/20, 12/20 is OK, 14 is quite good, and 15 on up is special.
Also, obviously, we are talking about wines that cost only a fraction of the grands crus.

 

 

2012 Château Peyrou
Medium deep color. Not very expressive red fruit nose. Round, fruity, and juicy on the palate. Nice to drink at the present time. Uncomplicated and immediately appealing. Very Merlot: soft, with a rubbery finish. Good mid-range Bordeaux.
14/20

2011 Domaine La Tuque Bel-Air
Fine even color. Nose of candied fruit, liquorice, celery, and cocoa. Plush and round on the palate, but with a good tannic backbone. Plenty of black cherry fruit and a medium-long aftertaste. Great value. On retasting, I found a rustic aspect, but this is a good sign to me – that this is a vin de terroir.
15/20

2011 Château Pillebois
Nice color with a deep core. Suave bouquet. The oak overwhelms the fruit, but not in an unacceptably heavy-handed way. The wine has a brawny framework, but a hollow middle palate. Oak ageing dominates the flavor profile, but there is also brambly fruit. Finishes slightly dry.
13/20

 


2012 Château La Brande
Medium-deep color with youthful purple rim. Subtly perfumed nose but ash aromas in the background. Round attack becoming sharpish and appetizing on the palate. An essentially one-dimensional wine that lacks richness. It seems more serious on the aftertaste, but there is also a certain hard, unyielding quality.
13/20

2011 Château Pitray (premier vin)
Brilliant, deep red color with attractive purplish overtones. A nose of deep berry fruity. Big and chewy on the palate. Melts in the mouth, seguing into an attractive easy-going juiciness with oak to back it up. A successful modern style.
14/20

2010 Château Moulin de la Clotte, vieilles vignes
Lovely dark color with violet rim. Understated nose of black fruit. Textbook Merlot on the palate. Tremendously round and easy-going, but tends to drop after the attack and dries out somewhat on the finish. Out of balance because of too much oak, but in a commercial style.
12.5/20

2012 Château Bellevue vieilles vignes
Medium-light color with purplish tinges. Bit old fashioned and secretive on the nose. Closed-in, but shows nice ripeness and freshness. Good tension on the palate. Fluid attack, then dips. Thirst-quenching wine, but with proper tannins to give it substance. Weakness on the middle palate detracts, but the tannin gives character. Best with strongly-flavored dishes. Oak ageing makes this conducive to further cellaring.
13.5/20

2012 Ch. De Laussac, Cuvée Sacha
Fine youthful color. Oaky, minty, and reminiscent of New World wines on the nose. Big and round on the palate, but the promise of the (fairly fluid) attack is not sustained thereafter. Fairly confected and oaky. Will appeal to people who like flashy wines, but this does not seem very much like a vin de terroir to me. Dry and grippy on the finish.
12.5/20

2010 Château des Demoiselles
Relatively light in color. Some ash aromas. Sweet but not remarkable or particularly well-focused. Big and mouth filling on the palate. Sensually soft. Very seductive and follows through nicely, neither overdone nor weak. Lovely Merlot fruitiness. As much as the bouquet is on the nondescript side, the wine is surprisingly attractive on the palate. Not serious, but sexy. Good acidity. A Merlot for self-professed Merlot haters.
14/20

2012 Château Bréhat
Bright cherry-red color with purplish rim. Fresh blueberry nose. Sweet and simple. Very easy-going, as well as fat and juicy on the palate. Quite soft with little structure. Some liquorice flavors on the aftertaste. The wine has virtually no tannic structure and is too rough after the soft start.
11.5/20

2011 Château Grand Tuillac
Nice, medium-deep color with a good youthful tone on the rim. Very ripe nose with black fruit and throat lozenge aromas. Sweet and powerful. Starts out quite soft on the palate, then struts its stuff with fine fresh acidity. Not a classis sort of Bordeaux, but definitely moreish and appetizing. Not tiring or topheavy.
14.5/20

2011 Clos Puy Arnaud
Deep, youthful, and not entirely brilliant color. Lovely up-front black cherry nose. Very sweet and enticing. Rich and enveloping on the palate. Develops well. Quite charming and perhaps too facile, but this would unquestionably create a few surprises if included in a blind tasting of Saint-Emilions… The best wine of the tasting.
16/20

2012 Domaine de l’A
Medium-deep color. Creamy, complex, but odd nose with weird and wonderful overtones, including dill! Too simplistic and supple on the palate, going into a hot, dry aftertaste. Overdone. Disappointing in light of good wines I’ve had from this estate in other vintages.
11.5/20

2011 Château Cap de Faugères
Average color in all respects, pretty much what it should be. The nose hesitates between neutral and off-putting. The wine is angular and not altogether pleasant on the palate, which is surprising in light of the estate’s reputation.
11/20

2014 Château du Roc
Good, vital color with purplish rim. Uplifting, fresh, seductive, and classy bouquet that is curiously Pinot-like (!). Starts out round and attractive and then melts into an unpleasant hardness. There is ageing potential there, but the wine at this stage appears over-extracted and unbalanced.
11/20

 

2011 Château Claud-Bellevue
Good medium-deep color. The nose is muted and hard to define, but there are some meaty overtones there. The wine is quite big on the palate and New World in style. Unfortunately it is altogether too obvious, fat, and oaky.
10/20

2014 Ch. Beynat
Medium-light color. The nose is not terribly expressive, but features some interesting spicy notes. The wine goes from soft to harsh, and is a little dilute. There’s definite dryness on the finish, but this wine will taste better in a couple of years.
13/20.

2007 Haut Brion / 2007 La Mission Haut Brion

I am fortunate to have friends with close ties to both Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion and so have more than a passing acquaintance with these two great wines.

The difference between these two estates, just across the road from one another is amazing.

La Mission’s rise in the past two decades is remarkable. However, it would be more accurate to say that this rise is more in reputation than an actual improvement in quality, which has always been superlative. The price has moved up accordingly and, in many ways, La Mission Haut Brion is a first growth in everything but name.

On a number of occasions I have spent a leisurely meal comparing Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion side by side. I almost always prefer the former because of its finesse. A week ago, I was invited to dinner at which the 2007 vintage of both wines were served. I did not take notes, because I consider it rude at table. So here are my impressions from memory.

The two wines were different in color. Haut Brion was already starting to show mahogany tinges, while La Mission was deeper and more youthful.

Haut Brion had, as one would expect, a beautiful bouquet: elegant and subtle. Everything was understated, including the oak. We did not taste blind but, if we had, it would have been obvious that this was a wine of great class. It was fluid and slick on the palate, relatively light in body and with a medium-long aftertaste. 2007 was a difficult year, but such years often have the advantage of coming around earlier. Was this great wine ready to drink? It was certainly most of the way there, but ideally a few more years will do it good and it will undoubtedly stay on its plateau for a very long time.

 

La Mission had a somewhat deeper bouquet with roasted, brambly aromas and hints of leather and prune. It seemed more substantial on the palate, fuller in body, more vigorous and assertive with a decided mineral (dare I say gravelly quality). The aftertaste was longer than the Haut Brion.

So, on this evening, Haut Brion won by a nose. For now. However, for the first time I can remember, I preferred La Mission because of its potential. A rematch down the line would be wonderful

The 2016 vintage at Château Montrose

 

 

I was invited to Château Montrose on the 12th of October to see how the new vintage was going. I was glad to accept, because 2016 has been a very unusual year weatherwise and I curious to see what effect this had on the grapes. In fact, the harvest finished today (14th of October).

Château Montrose has 95 hectares of vines (90 in production). The estate is dramatically situated on a rise overlooking the Gironde Estuary. The vines go down the relatively steep slope almost to the river, which unquestionably has a positive influence on the microclimate, helping to avoid extremes of temperature. A soil survey defined Montrose’s gravelly terroir in the “terrace 4” category, not unlike Château Latour’s. Grape varieties are 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 6 % Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot.
A relatively recent estate in Médocain terms, Montrose was nevertheless classified a second growth in the 1855 classification. It belonged to the Charmolüe family from 1896 until 2006, when it was acquired by Martin and Olivier Bouygues, among the wealthiest people in France. Although they live in Paris, the Bouygues come frequently to Saint-Estèphe and are intimately involved with their estate.

The changes in Montrose in the past 10 years have been breathtaking. The 1,000 m² barrel cellar, completed in 2014, is a veritable temple of Bacchus, one of the most classical and beautiful in Bordeaux, which is saying something… All existing buildings were renovated and new ones built. Careful attention was paid to ecological concerns. The château has 3,000 m² of solar panels and draws on geothermal energy from a well dug some 100 meters deep…

 

In this same spirit, experiments are being made with organic viticulture. Fifteen hectares are being farmed in this way and, what’s more, expressly in the part of the vineyard considered to be the most vulnerable to vine diseases. The results are very encouraging and it is hoped that the vineyard will be entirely organic within the next 5 years.
The 2016 harvest started on the 23rd of September. Like elsewhere in Bordeaux this year, the growing season got off to poor start due to a cool, wet spring. Bud burst at Montrose took place around the 4th of April for Merlot, the 11th of that month for the Cabernets, and the 14th for Petit Verdot. Flowering occurred on the same day for Merlot and the Cabernets (the 10th of June) and on the 14th for Petit Verdot.

 

A heat wave in August changed things radically. Véraison took place on the 19th of August for Merlot, the 25th for the Cabernets, and the 29th for Petit Verdot.
Yes, there was some scattered scorching of grapes and vegetative growth was blocked for a time. But an important distinction must be made with 2003. The average highs in August of that year were 32°C, whereas they were 28°C in 2016. The vineyard manager, Mme Patricia Teynac, and the winemaker, M. Vincent Ducup, thought that this would spell high sugar levels. However, this was not the case. For instance, both Merlot and the Cabernets came at 13-13.5° potential alcohol, which is quite reasonable in a good vintage. All in all, this was a slightly early-ripening year.
The average yield was 41 hl/ha.

One of the hallmarks of 2016 is what can only be described as drought conditions. Precipitation from June until the present time has been abnormally low, and may well set a new record.
Montrose’s new (ten years already, even so…) owners have brought about two important changes in the wine. First of all, the selection process has been taken to great lengths. The second wine, La Dame de Montrose, has existed for years. However, a third wine was introduced in 2010, Le Saint-Estèphe de Montrose, and there is even a fourth wine now (!), which is sold in bulk to négociants. The grand vin now accounts for just one quarter to one third of the total crop depending on the vintage.

The second change involves winemaking. Montrose, renowned for its longevity, is now more open in its youth, but without compromising ageing potential. A neat trick, that seems to be working!
Montrose acquired part of Phélan Ségur, a large 21 hectare plot called Fonpetite in 2010. Wine from here has been integrated into the estate started with the 2010 vintage. It is nevertheless important to point out that this parcel was once part of Montrose, so the magical transformation of cru bourgeois land into great growth terroir from one minute to the next is inaccurate.
Be this as it may, much of Fonpetite’s production goes into the second wine.

At a time when 85% of all grapes in Bordeaux are machine harvested, there are 90 pickers at Montrose in 2016. As in years past, all of them come from the village of Pruna, near Seville. Fortunately, the winemaker speaks Spanish!

Among other innovations, Montrose is relying on drones that take infrared photos of the vines. These show different levels of maturity, even within the estate’s 90 separate plots. Montrose has also introduced the dividing of grapes from the premières grappes (bunches on the top of the vine) and deuxièmes grappes (ones from the bottom). The latter are riper and so are fermented separately.

The replanting program, begun in 2006, will take forty years to complete! Montrose is also experimenting with propagating the best vines rather than buying ones from a vine nursery.

Furthermore, Montrose has made an effort over the past 3 years to reduce sufur levels, going from 140 to 100 mg., with an aim to reach just 70 mg.

 


A visit to the vatroom revealed 65 stainless steel vats of varying capacity to keep wines from each plot separate in order to fine tune the final blend.
The ph of the new wine is about 3.5 for both of the main varieties. The anthocyanin content is greater than 2,000 for the Merlot and 3,000 for the Cabernets (measured according to the ApH1 Glories method)
I have a decent backlog of experience tasting young wines from barrel, but it is unfortunately beyond me to taste freshly pressed juice and appraise it. But going on Montrose’s track record, and based on the genuine enthusiasm of the winemaking team, I think something special is in store, and I look forward to tasting 2016 Montrose in March or April of next year.

CHATEAU MERCIER: A GO-TO CÔTES WINE

I am a great fan of the excellent affordable wines of Bordeaux. The Côtes de Bordeaux (especially Bourg, Blaye, and Castillon) are a treasure trove of relatively inexpensive wines with the class and distinction Bordeaux is famous for.

Case in point: Château Mercier in Saint-Trojan in the Côtes de Bourg.

 


I have known this estate for years and never been disappointed. The Chéty family have been making wine at Mercier since… 1698! Philippe Chéty, a former mayor of Saint-Trojan and figure in the Côtes de Bourg, handed over management to his children Christophe and Isabelle – the 16th generation – in 1999. I visited Mercier in May during the Côtes de Bourg Portes Ouvertes, at which time they had some twenty different vintages to taste, not to mention the other wines produced by the château (white, rosé, clairet, crémant, etc.).


I wanted to go back at the end of August for two reasons.

 
First of all, I had developed a strong affinity for Mercier’s white Côtes de Bourg – a relative rarity – called “Graines Blanches” and wanted to buy some more. This wine comes in a 3-litre bag-in-box as well as in bottle.
I find bag-in-box wine highly convenient if you just want a glass or two, or if you only need a little wine for cooking. It is rare for good estate wine to be packaged like this, so when three liters of a perfectly good, aromatic, nippy, dry white wine sell for just over 15 euros at the estate, that seemed like a no-brainer! I used the first box up in no time, so picked up two more.

The other reason for returning to Mercier was to find out more about Atmosphère, their new unsulfured wine.


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There is a lot of media attention and a fair deal of controversy about “natural wine”. In fact, the very definition of natural wine is open to discussion… I admit to having a prejudice against such wines because I have had some poor examples, because they seem more like a marketing gimmick than anything else, and because their “naturalness” is considered by some more important than the way they actually taste…

I was nevertheless intrigued that an estate as solid as Mercier should introduce a wine without sulfur (or, more exactly, with zero added sulfur, because there is always some intrinsic sulfur). I therefore bought a bottle in May to try, not expecting very much.

I might add that the natural wine ayatollahs would exclude Mercier’s wine because they use cultured rather than indigenous yeast (go figure…).

Anyway, I am pleased to say that my prejudice was overcome when I tasted Mercier’s 2015 “Atmosphères”. This 100% Merlot is a vibrant purplish red with a pure upfront nose of cassis leaves and black fruit – not deep, but fragrant, as well as simple, but seductive. Although soft and gulpable, the wine shows Bordeaux’s tannic reserve on the aftertaste making what might, at first, seem like a very good nouveau-type wine more serious and traditional. The wine displays lively acidity that is not at odds with the softness, as well as what I can only describe as a tealike flavor.

Bordeaux doesn’t do primeur wines, but Merlot made this way is a delight to drink quite young when it’s user-friendly and uncomplicatedly fruity. Atmosphères costs 10.50 euros a bottle at the estate. While unquestionably a very fun, anytime wine, it is much more than a diversion for bobos and health food nuts. It’s also an authentic Bordeaux that deserves attention.
Obviously, it takes special care to avoid adding sulfur. The trick is to keep the wine away from oxygen as much as possible throughout the winemaking process. Carbon dioxide (including dry ice) and nitrogen play a key role here. Furthermore, Mercier is also innovating by experimenting with Vinification Intégrale®, a patented method of red grape barrel fermentation.

 

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The Chéty family have a total of 50 hectares of vines, half of which comprise Château Mercier, with the rest taken up by Clos Piat and Château La Cottière, also in the Côtes de Bourg. Château Mercier also has a gîte (bed and breakfast) and if you are every in the region, you are sure to receive a warm welcome should you decide to visit.