Author Archives: AlexR

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.

Visit to Château Chalon – not in Bordeaux and not a château

Bordeaux Wine Blog went on vacation last month during which I went on a busman’s holiday to visit two other wine regions: the Jura in France and the Valais in Switzerland.
The Jura is one of the smallest French winegrowing areas, with just 2,000 hectares of vines, although there were ten times that before the phylloxera crisis… Roughly three quarters of the wines are white (including sparkling Crémant du Jura), the rest red and rosé.

There is no longer a château in Château Chalon. The one there in medieval times was entirely demolished. However the small medieval town (population: 150) located 15 km. north of Lons-le-Saunier is a major tourist attraction thanks to its dramatic cliff-top location, 10th century church, lovely stone houses, and beautiful vine-covered landscape. The tiny appellation encompasses just 50 hectares of vines in 4 communes varying between 250 and 400 meters in altitude. The terroir consists primarily of blue-gray marl and clay-limestone soil on steep slopes, sometimes as much as 45°. These are south and south-west facing not only for maximum sun exposure, but also to provide protection from cold winds. Drainage is excellent, a decided boon in the rainy climate.

I spent just half a day in Château Chalon, but the weather was perfect and my family and I enjoyed the experience tremendously.
This video will give you a good idea of how beautiful the site is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB2ToTz7fZk&feature=youtu.be

And then, of course, there’s the wine… There are very few producers, and I visited just one, but among the most famous: Domaine Macle. We were welcomed by Christelle Macle who runs the domaine, established in 1850, with her brother Laurent. The wines will be certified organic for the upcoming vintage.
We tasted three wines with Christelle.

The 2016 Côtes de Jura was a medium-deep gold color with a characteristic Jura nose displaying controlled oxidation and a certain smokiness. The wine had a dry very earthy flavor and a mineral aftertaste.
This was followed by a 2011 Château Chalon showing a fine, brilliant color and a complex nose of walnuts, beeswax, and spice. The long aftertaste featured an attractive bitter note. The similarities with a first-rate fino Sherry were obvious, but that would be selling the wine short. It had unique aromatics and personality that well and truly set it apart from every other wine. I very much enjoyed it. Christelle recommends serving her Château Chalon at cool room temperature rather than chilled, and it benefits from aeration. She also insists on the wine’s extraordinary ageing potential, running into many decades. To give you an idea of pricing, this very rare wine, going on ten years old, cost 55 euros.
We ended the tasting with the domaine’s Macvin du Jura, a sweet fortified wine (17.5° alc./vol.) made with 2/3 unfermented Chardonnay grape must and 1/3 aged marc. Technically, Macvin is a mistelle or vin de liqueur, much like Pineau des Charentes in Cognac or ratafia in Champagne.
This unusual drink proved to be a very fruity, refreshing aperitif.

Any of these wines would somewhat destabilize wine buffs because they have a style all their own. A white Bordeaux with the nose of the Côtes du Jura would probably be deemed to have a winemaking flaw. Any yet, this is the way the wines have been made there for centuries, and they kind of grow on you… Which brings me to the subject of how to match them with food. I can’t pretend to have a great deal of experience, but I can tell you that veal sweetbreads in a cream and morel sauce with Château Chalon was an exquisite experience, as I think Côtes du Jura would be with shellfish.

Well, I had wanted to visit the esoteric Château Chalon appellation for many years and was not disappointed. I can now cross it off my bucket list of the world’s great wine regions to see and encourage you to do the same.

New book: “Inside Bordeaux” by Jane Anson

 

Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson, published in 2020 by Berry Brothers & Rudd Press.
Cost: 70 euros.

There is a real need for a book like Englishwoman Jane Anson’s every ten years or so because, although Bordeaux is often considered old hat and traditional – sometimes too much – things change all the time, and information is often outdated…

As a long-time Bordeaux resident and lover of the local wine, I pay homage to this well-researched and fascinating book.

You would expect sections on the great châteaux to be a rehash of things we have read a hundred times before, yet Jane introduces new insight and shows that there are developments even at the most famous estates.

The great pitfall of wine writers is complacency, the inability to be upset the apple cart and call established hierarchies into question. As the home of the 1855 classification, Bordeaux is the granddaddy of all such hierarchies! Jane deals honestly with each and every château in the classification (except Sauternes, oddly enough, where ranking is not noted) and does not mince her words. She bumps some châteaux up a notch or two (for instance, Palmer and Léoville Las Cases are put on an equal footing with the first growths and Grand Puy Lacoste goes from 5th to 1st!), while “demoting” others, such as Talbot or Boyd Cantenac.

Of course, with a minimum of 7,000 châteaux in Bordeaux, there is necessarily a subjective element at play in any book like this and some big holes. How could it be otherwise? The Cocks and Féret (AKA the “Bordeaux Bible”) is over 2,300 pages long, versus about 650 for Inside Bordeaux.  As the author of a blog about Bordeaux, I know how hard it is to avoid focusing on the famous wines, of which there are already a great number, to the detriment of numerous noteworthy and much more affordable wines.  Jane manages to stray off the beaten track, and that, along with updates on the estates everyone knows, constitutes the true value of this book. To many foreign wine lovers, Bordeaux is synonymous with the classified growths although, taken together, these represent only about 5% of production! The precious input of a book like this is to turn readers on to many excellent lesser-known wines. In a just a few years, Jane has been around the block and done her homework to an impressive degree. No lover of Bordeaux could fail to be delighted with reading about her discoveries. I’d say that this is a book one dips into rather than reads.

Burgundy lovers (which, it should be stressed, include many Bordeaux lovers!), sometimes talk about terroir as though this were somehow uniquely Burgundian and just a secondary notion in Bordeaux. Inside Bordeaux includes a series of geological maps that puts paid to this preconceived notion. These maps are displayed in an unprecedented way for a book meant for the general public. I can’t say that I spent a great deal of time pouring over them, nor do I think most readers will, but they are a timely reminder that Bordeaux is about terroir, just like any other great wine producing region.

One can nitpick about minor errors in the book, or regret that so little space is devoted to the largest regions within Bordeaux, but these criticisms are far outweighed by the scholarship and, clearly, the love that went into writing these pages. Special praise should be given to Jane’s engaging style, which keeps the subject matter from becoming too dry or academic.

No matter what your level of wine knowledge is, and especially if you are a fan of Bordeaux, this book is a major contribution to works on the subject. It does not pretend, like Robert Parker’s book, to be “The Definitive Guide”, because Jane has the humility to know that such a thing is impossible. But it’s an excellent overview that is bound to teach us all a thing or two.
 

 

 

2000 Haut Batailley

 

A good, mature Médoc to go with our duck confit. What’s not to like? This 5th growth was bought by the Cazes family of Lynch Bages not long ago and I’m willing to bet it will shift gears from “reliably foursquare” to something else again under their stewardship.This 2000 had a lovely bouquet, but proved to be past its best on the palate, albeit quite enjoyable!

Clos Manou: a Northern Médoc worth knowing


When I first began drinking French wines many years ago, ones from the northern Médoc were sold under the name “Bas Médoc”. However, the French word “bas” means “lower” and has a negative connotation (even though Bas-Armagnac is considered the best part of the appellation…), so the name was changed to simply Médoc, and professionals now refer to the region as Nord Médoc.

The prices for both vineyard land and wine drop somewhat precipitously once you go north of Saint-Estèphe (or, more exactly, the next town up, Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, where Sociando Mallet is located). The market expects wines from the Nord Médoc to be inexpensive, rather early maturing, sturdy, and reliable – not earthshaking. And there are certainly plenty to choose from since there are some 5,800 hectares of vines…

Unfortunately, not many names stand out, partly because there are surprisingly few links here with the famous crus classés further south, notwithstanding exceptions such as Léoville Las Cases and Potensac (which came into the Delon family by marriage) and Cos d’Estournel’s Goulée. This is in contrast to the classified growths of Saint Emilion and their many sister estates in outlying districts (satellites, Castillon, Lalande de Pomerol, etc.).

I first heard about Clos Manou from French friends, who are often aware of good wines that are little-known in English-speaking countries. I tasted and very much enjoyed the wine, so thought it would be worthwhile to make the hour and a half trek from Bordeaux to Saint-Christoly to visit the estate and chat with the owner, Stéphane Dief.

Stéphane and Françoise Dief

The French use the English expression “un self-made man”, which pretty much describes Stéphane Dief. He is a local son whose father sold wine for the Marquis de Saint-Estèphe cooperative. Stéphane worked a while for a wine broker, then decided to quit and produce his own wine. The original vineyard was handkerchief-size. Although not actually a “clos”, or walled vineyard, the name was chosen because it reflected the tiny scale, and Manou is the nickname given to Stéphane by his sister.

Stéphane’s first vintage – 600 bottles – was in 1998. He has since painstakingly built up vineyard holdings to 18 hectares comprising 55 separate plots. He does not wish to expand much further. The estate has three different sorts of terroir: gravel and clay, sand, and clay-limestone. The nearby Gironde estuary has a tempering influence and there is never frost. The breakdown of grape varieties is 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 53% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. The vines are farmed virtually organically (no pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides), but Stéphane is not interested in certification. By the same token, he has never sought cru bourgeois classification. His vines are trained rather low and density is high (10,000 vines per hectare). He does not believe in green harvesting, nor is he afraid of largish yields seeing as the quality of the wine proves that they are in no way detrimental. The grapes are picked into small crates and sorted three times before crushing. Stéphane is a firm believer in pigeage and, unusually, practices bâtonnage to give the wine more volume. Very little sulphur is used in winemaking.
The cellars at Clos Manou are in several parts and seem extremely well-kept. There is even a room devoted to housing amphora and 16 concrete “eggs”. Stéphane feels that the latter add unique freshness and richness. About 70 to 75% of the grand vin (Clos Manous) is barrel aged, and between 60 and 70% of barrels are new, with a light toast. The Clos Manou vineyard and winemaking team also looks after three other estates.

 


One day, a neighboring winegrower offered to sell Clos Manou a small plot with very old vines the owner felt sure would need to be uprooted and replaced. As it turns out, these were ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines (80% Merlot) and when Stéphane bought the plot, he decided to make a special cuvée from them named 1850. This wine receives very high praise from Jane Anson in her recently-published book, “Inside Bordeaux”. Stéphane was kind enough to give me a bottle of this rare wine which I will drink at a later date.
Clos Manou is distributed via the Place de Bordeaux (available to major négociants). About 60% is now exported and 20% is sold directly to private customers in France. While costing more than wine from nearby estates, Clos Manou is still a bargain and one of the brightest stars in its appellation – the sort of wine to serve to your friends blind and surprise them.
The 2016 Clos Manou received a Coup de Cœur (“Special Favorite”) rating in the 2020 Guide Hachette des Vins.

No description of Clos Manou would be complete without mentioning their unusual label. This depicts an elephant bending down and sticking its tusks between a stack of wooden wine cases. The story here is that Stéphane saw the original painting by a Breton artist at a local exhibition and purchased it. It now hangs on the tasting room wall of and has been reproduced on the label since 2009.

I tasted several wines while at Clos Manou:

2017 Petit Manou (second wine) had a simple, but attractive bouquet and a fresh, crunchy, raspberry flavor. Nice easy drinking. 2015 Clos Manou had elegant oak and quintessential Médoc aromas. It showed plenty of volume and lovely texture on the palate, as well as a long aftertaste. It is already showing well, though will obviously benefit from further ageing. 2016 Clos Manou had a sophisticated bouquet along with great structure, a sensual mouthfeel, and lively acidity. Something truly special. I ended the tasting with 2018 Clos Manou, which had just been bottled. I quite liked this despite its rather massive structure and 15% alc./vol. There was something rich, chewy, and meaty here with marked Merlot characteristics. Although a touch hot, I could see this going beautifully with hearty food on a cold day.