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Discovering Madeira

This post will be as much about tourism and cuisine as it is about wine because these three things are inseparable to me when it comes to Madeira.

I went there with my family at the tail end of December 2018. In fact, this trip to one of the world’s great wine regions had been on my bucket list for quite some time. Fortunately, I was not disappointed with the experience: the island, the people, and the wines.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Madeira is a long way from anywhere – almost 1,000 km from Lisbon and 600 km off the Moroccan coast. The island (in fact, one big island and three little ones) is a popular tourist destination, with about a million visitors a year. Although many of them come on cruise ships, the overall impression I had was of relatively up-market tourism involving people who go out of their way to discover a unique 750 km² sub-tropical paradise. In fact, Madeira is nicknamed the “island of eternal spring” because the weather is never too hot, nor too cold.
We stayed in the capital city, Funchal, population 110,000.

The first evening, we went to a restaurant named “Beef and Wine”, where we ordered the house speciality, espetada. This is usually chunks of beef but, in this case, it was actually a variation, picanah, top sirlon rubbed in garlic and salt, and grilled on skewers. The waiters come around as many times as you wish with their skewers, like the Brazilian churrascaria. The meat was served with a variety of vegetables. I took advantage of the extensive wine list to try a local red table wine, 2013 Xavelha, made from a blend of Portuguese and international grapes. This proved to be a good middle-of-the road effort. I later learned that table wines are quite rare, accounting for just 5% of production. We ended the meal with two glasses of ten-year-old Madeira, a Sercial and a Verdelho from Barbeito. I had heard very good things about this producer, but unfortunately was unable to visit because the firm was closed over the Christmas season. Be that as it may, the two wines we tried were delicious, in a more modern style.

We also enjoyed the unusual Madeiran bread, bolo do caco, usually served with garlic butter.

 

The next morning, I was taken in hand by the IVBAM, or Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira, IP-RAM. I was greeted by Rubina Vieira, who does a wonderful job of presenting a wine that most people have heard of, but few know much about… Rubina started off by putting the wine in a historic context – its more than 500 years of ups and downs, as well as its current market status. A famous story goes that the Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV of England, when sentenced to death for treason in 1478, chose to meet his creator by drowning in a butt of Malmsey. Indeed, Duke of Clarence is the name of a wine sold by Blandy’s, one of the largest producers of Madeira! In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, Falstaff sells his soul to the devil “for a cup of Madeira”. Later on, Madeira found great favor in Europe and especially the United States, where the Founding Fathers used it to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Exports were greatly helped by Madeira’s strategic geographical location, a stopover point on trans-Atlantic voyages. It was soon discovered that the wine benefitted from being stored in the warm holds of ships, and so a practice developed of imitating this effect on the island. This is achieved in two ways. The most common is the estufagem method, consisting of placing the wine in stainless steel vats that are heated with a serpentine or other kind of heating system to a maximum temperature of 50°C for a minimum of three months. The wine is then left to age and cannot be bottled before the 31st of October of the second year following the harvest. The more sophisticated canteiro method calls for maturing in barrels on the top floors of cellars, where the temperature is higher, for a minimum of two years. This leads to slow oxidative ageing accounting for unique, complex aromas. Canteiro wines must age for at least three years and can only be sold after a minimum of three years starting from the 1st of January of the year following the harvest.Madeira has an alcohol content of 17-22% by volume and is fortified with wine spirit of at least 96% (compared to Port’s 77%).

Much Madeira is marketed according to style (dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, and sweet) but the finest usually carry a varietal name:

Sercial is nearly dry (≤ 59 g/l), but seems dry because of the wine’s intrinsic acidity
Medium-dry Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial, and residual sugar content varies from 54-78 g/l
Bual, classified as medium-sweet, has a sugar content of 78-100 g/l
Malmsey is quite sweet, with ≥  100 g/l of sugar

The most widely-planted variety in Madeira is Tinta Negra, accounting for 85% of production, although the name rarely appears on a label. There has been a tendency to consider Tinta Negra a “workhorse” grape rather than one of the finer varieties, but a 1929 Tinta Negra I tasted showed that to be an unfair generalization. And then there is the rare Terrantez, which produces a medium-dry or medium sweet wine of excellent quality that is making somewhat of a comeback.

 

 

Rubina was kind enough to take me through a tutored tasting of the following wines:

CAF Cooperative Agrícola do Funchal five year old (blend)
Barbeito “Rainwater”, medium dry
Henriques & Henriques 10 year old Sercial
Borges 10 year old Verdelho
Barbeito 10 year old Bual
Justino’s 10 year old Malvasia (same as Malmsey)
Henriques & Henriques 20 year old medium dry Terrantez
1973 Madeira Wine Company Verdelho
1964 Justino’s Bual
1937 Pereira Oliveira Sercial
1929 sweet Pereira Oliveira Tinta Negra

This master class was utterly fascinating, and the older wines were gorgeous.The style called “Rainwater” is very popular in the US. It is lighter and similar in sweetness to Verdelho, but usually made with Tinta Negra. Explanations of the origin of the name and how the style developed vary.

There was a time not so long ago when extremely old Madeira could be bought for a song – in fact, for ridiculously low prices, making it one of the wine world’s greatest bargains. Those days may be over, but fine Madeira remains well worth seeking out.

The wine law was recently overhauled, and the broad categories are now as follows:·

Reserve (five years) – This is the minimum amount of ageing for a wine labelled with one of the premium varieties.
Special Reserve (10 years) – At this point, the wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source
Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – This style is richer and relatively rare, with many producers preferring to extend the ageing to 20 years for a vintage, or produce a colheita.
Colheita – This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period than true vintage Madeira. The wine can be labeled with a vintage date, but includes the word colheita on it. Colheita must be a minimum of five years old before being bottled. However, most producers drop the word Colheita once a wine is a minimum of 20 years old, at which point it can be sold as vintage.
Frasqueira (“vintage”)  – This style must be aged at least 20 years in cask and one year in bottle. However, the word “vintage” cannot appear on labels because it is a trademark belonging to the Port producers.

In France, Madeira suffers from an unusual handicap in that it is an ingredient in numerous classic sauces. Like many households and restaurants, I always have an open bottle to use in cooking. However, this overshadows the wine’s qualities in its own right… That having been said, Rubina pointed out what I had heard elsewhere: while Port and Sherry, the other great European fortified wines, are losing ground, exports of Madeira are on the rise.

The sugar content of Madeira, including dry Sercial, is actually quite high. This is because the wines feature such high acidity that sweetness is necessary to provide proper balance.

 

The IVBAM was kind enough to take me on a tour of the wine country, guided by Lionel Vieira, the Institute’s viticultural consultant. This was utterly fascinating and something I could never have done on my own.Rubina stressed that Madeira is by definition a rare wine. The entire vineyard covers just 500 hectares (compared with 650 hectares in Pomerol, practically the smallest of Bordeaux’s 57 appellations). These are scattered around the island in one of seven microclimates and divided among some 2,000 grape growers. The soil is basically the same everywhere: basalt of volcanic origin, which accounts for the high acidity. The island is very mountainous and so the vines frequently grow on terraces located on steep slopes. The grapes are mostly trained according to the latada system, i.e. making use of a pergola 1.5 to 2 meters high. This provides good ventilation and reduces the risk of rot or mold. In times past, vegetables were grown underneath, but this practice is disappearing. I also saw something in Madeira that was quite esoteric: vines trained horizontally, i.e. with the canes spread out on the ground, with no trunk. The key here is to work the soil so as to keep the ground well-aerated and totally devoid of other vegetation.

 

There are just 8 producers of Madeira. The largest, by far, is Justino´s Madeira Wines Company. The most well-known is the Madeira wine company, owners of such brands as Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, and Miles. The historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge, on Funchal’s main street, located practically next door to the Tourist Information Office, is a major attraction. I went on a tour there, which was well done. Unfortunately, tasting more than two entry level wines entailed a charge for each wine, so I contended myself with buying a bottle of Terrantez because this is so difficult to find.

The only other producer I visited was Pereira D’Oliveira. This traditional firm, also in Funchal, is famous for their old wines. Oliveira’s is not geared up to receiving foreign wine enthusiasts. The several young hostesses were not really clued-in and communication in English was not easy. It took some convincing to taste anything other than the basic blends. Their attitude changed completely when I was finally given a rare and expensive wine to taste, and bought a bottle. Evidently, I was not a freeloader, so other wines were poured and a few souvenir items were added free of charge…

 

In terms of dining, allow me to go through the restaurants we frequented. Lionel from the IVBAM invited me to the restaurant at the Four Views hotel in Funchal. This included poached egg soup and the emblematic black scabbard fish with bananas and passion fruit sauce. We had another Madeiran table wine with this, 2016 Barbusano Verdelho, perhaps a bit too tart for me. Lunch the next day was at a seafront restaurant, O Regional, that provided excellent value for money as we ate outside on a warm December afternoon.

That same evening we dined at Chris’s Place, on a par with a one-star Michelin restaurant. The three of us ordered the tasting menu with wines to match and the bill came to 100 euros, representing great value for money. In addition, we enjoyed lunch one day at Cachalote in Porto Moniz on the northern side of the island, which I also recommend. I sampled a dish there revolving around limpets that went well with a white Douro wine.

 

 

The highlight of our trip was nevertheless the New Year’s Eve gala dinner at the Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel in Funchal, an establishment normally out of my price range, but one of those luxurious things one does from time to time… The food was exquisite, as was the setting, and we had a window seat with a gorgeous view over the city and the harbour.

This mattered, because the fireworks display on the 31st of December in Funchal is world famous. There was a blaze of color all over the town and on the water. Spellbindingly beautiful.

Although Madeira is a major tourist destination, I had the impression that wine is very much of a footnote in regional promotion, which is a pity. That having been said, wine tourism is slowly, but surely taking off. Furthermore, Rubina travels all over the world to present the wines and suggest how to enjoy them with food (frequently a question mark with sweet wines). One of the unusual characteristics of Madeira is that it does not budge once the bottle is open. I was repeatedly told that you can go back a year later and it will not have suffered from contact with oxygen.

The challenge for Madeira is to close the gap between a famous name and the realities of today’s market so as to shake off a 19th century image and turn young people on to one of the world’s great wines. I get the feeling that thanks to the intrinsic quality of fine Madeira and people like Rubina to spread the good word, a renaissance is in the making.

A final anecdote: I attended a service at the Anglican church in Funchal and was delighted to see that along with the traditional tea and coffee after the service, worshipers were also given the option of a glass of Rainwater Madeira. Needless to say, that is what I chose… I found this mighty civilized and think that churches in other winegrowing regions – such as Bordeaux – would do well to offer the same!

 

 

 

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.

May 28th 2020: the en primeur campaign begins haltingly

It is so easy to criticize, to come onto the scene after the fact and tell others what they ought to have done – to be, as the French say, un inspecteur de travaux finis… This is very tempting with the 2019 en primeur campaign, which is navigating in uncharted waters and progressing in a way that is not always easy to understand. However, the corina virus pandemic has necessarily imposed a radical departure from past campaigns, and the powers-that-be in Bordeaux are reacting as well as they can.

There are three main dilemmas facing the 2019 vintage today.

The first involves the barrel tastings of the new vintage. For many years, these have taken place in late March/early April and have been a resounding success, like nothing else in the world of wine. Wine professionals from all over the world routinely attend. The problem this year is that the tastings had to be cancelled in extremis.
Château owners have decided to rebound as best they can. For instance, a mammoth tasting of the 2019s will be held in Bordeaux on the 5th of June for some 450 French négociants, brokers, and journalists. In addition, the Union des Grands Crus will host tastings in Paris, Brussels, Zurich, and Hong Kong (none planned so far in London or New York). The famous châteaux will welcome visiting professionals starting in June, but will be taking every precaution: social distancing, gloved staff, disinfection, groups limited to 8 people, etc.
This response is to be admired, and once again proves the resiliency of the Bordeaux wine trade. However, it is not without its problems and challenges.

The networking that is part and parcel of the en primeur tastings will be sorely missed. Foreign buyers travel to Bordeaux not just to taste hundreds of wines like robots. They also come to learn about the state of the market, as well as to meet producers, merchants, competitors, etc.
There is a technical aspect to this as well. What about wines sent abroad and the conditions under which they are tasted? Samples are refreshed every single day at the en primeur tastings in Bordeaux. But what about those in foreign capitals?
As opposed to group tastings organized by the Union des Grands Crus, individual châteaux are also sending a scattering of samples to clients and noted critics. If these arrive very shortly after shipment, there is, of course, no reason they cannot be professionally evaluated. However, the whole point of en primeur tastings is to compare wines! If four châteaux from, let’s say, Saint-Julien send samples, which arrive on different days and are tasted separately, an extremely important frame of reference has been eliminated. Results are biased. And if the four samples are kept back to be tasted together, they will not be in the same condition.
I agree with many of my friends in the wine business that it would have been a better idea to hold the tastings in Bordeaux in September rather than June in light of the many restrictions currently weighing on all events involving groups of people. In fact, it was earnestly hoped in some quarters that the en primeur tastings would “skip a year”, and take place in early 2021 (before bottling), thereby setting a precedent. The advantage here is that the wines would be much further along and therefore a much truer reflection of their ultimate quality.

The argument against this, of course, is that château owners have become used to pocketing payment in the spring following the vintage and that delaying this by months or, worse still, a full year, would constitute a huge handicap. Does this hold water? While many estates have to finance major investments, i.e. repay debts, it must be said that, by and large, the great growths are in a very sound financial situation – in fact, quite a priviliged one considering the plight of modest Bordeaux, in very dire straits indeed.
The second challenge facing the 2019 campaign is timing. If the tastings are being held this summer, when will the wines be marketed? September, before the harvest, seems a logical time, but no one can say for sure, which is understandable in light of the unprecedented circumstances. What is to be feared is a long, drawn-out campaign. Whether it be organizing tastings or putting wines out on the market, the Bordeaux industry has much to gain by joining forces and working together, coherently. Doing things piecemeal would only be harmful.
The third issue is, of course, pricing. We know for a fact that 2019 is a very good vintage. Detractors of Bordeaux mock such statements, and die-hard antagonists predict, for the umpteenth time, that the market will collapse, the bubble will burst, and that the elite wines of Bordeaux will be a thing of the past unless they drastically reduce their prices. We have regularly heard such forecasts through the years… However, the 2019 campaign is well and truly different. The signals from major markets are worrying. Economies around the planet are suffering and the most expensive wines are assuredly luxury i.e. non-essential products.
But let’s not dramatize the situation! If there are no takers for the grands crus at the prices being asked, those prices will come down. It’s as simple as that. President Calvin Coolidge famously said “The business of America is business”. This is true of Bordeaux too, and a realistic response would occur in short order. While it would be humbling to have to go back and bring down prices, the region has seen numerous crises through the centuries and can cope quite well, I am sure.

So, while not exactly sitting on the edge of my seat, I am quite intrigued to see how the campaign will go this year. Care must nevertheless be taken not to misinterpret information and fall prey to fake news. For instance, while such and such a château may “come out” at a given price, that first tranche price may be just to test the water and involve only a small part of production. It could be totally misleading and unrepresentative. By the same token, you may hear, as I have, that the cellars in Bordeaux are bursting at the seams with unsold wine. This, too, must be taken with a grain of salt because the situation varies enormously among hundreds of châteaux. So, no pontification, please.
In any event, few critics’ scores will be trustworthy in my opinion for the reasons outlined above. So the parameters for setting prices may well change. Those rare critics who have travelled to Bordeaux and tasted across the board will undoubtedly have greater influence.

I wrote this text on the 27th of May in the morning and by late afternoon I had received my first offer to buy wines from the 2019 vintage: Arsac, Beaumot, Lannessan, and Tertre Roteboeuf.
When will the big guns come out? Your guess is as good as mine…
2020 is decidedly a very atypical year for Bordeaux – as it is for the rest of the world.

 

May 2020: end of lockdown in Bordeaux

 

We definitely suffered from media overkill during this coronavirus pandemic, with journalists announcing daily fatalities here and there in a bored sing-song voice and repeating scientific explanations ad nauseam.

So, how about a breath of fresh air?

What are things like in Bordeaux these days? Well, for most of us, life during lockdown was pretty similar to everywhere else. However, not everyone stayed at home. Above and beyond those involved in vital services, there were jobs to be done in the vineyards and cellars.
No distance working here!

Like all of French agriculture, it has been difficult to find people to prune and do other necessary vineyard operations. The army of foreign workers that usually shows up has not come this year, and the French are often loathe to accept such physically-demanding low-paid work. Furthermore, opportunities for people to do so (for some much-needed exercise and to earn pin money) were poorly publicized…

And then there was the en primeur week debacle. Planning such a large-scale operation calls for months of effort and considerable expense. The primary organizers, the Union des Grands Crus, was convinced everything would go forward as planned until very late in the game. The cancellation was unprecedented and leaves many questions unanswered. When will tastings of the new vintage take place – and will the traditional March/April dates be maintained for the following vintage? Will the great wines be sold on a futures basis before, during, or after the tastings? Will the wines come out as usual, more or less at the same time, or will offers be spread out over months?
I am not alone in thinking that late March is not the ideal time to evaluate wines. My earnest wish is that the 2019 wines will be tasted by the trade in September, and that this will set a precedent for future campaigns. Failing that, “skipping a year”, and introducing the 2019 vintage in the spring of 2021, the 2020 vintage in spring 2022, and so forth would also be a welcome change.

Of course, this sort of timing means that château owners will be paid much later than usual. While this will be a hardship for some, many can tide themselves over without difficulty since they are (figuratively) sitting on a gold mine. Let’s be honest: no one is going to shed crocodile tears over estates that will, come what may, be selling their wine for a considerable amount.
That having been said, the market is challenging, even for the great growths, and catastrophic for the rest of Bordeaux.

At the bottom end (half of all wines in Bordeaux are from the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations), there are huge volumes of unsold stock and a storage problem for the upcoming vintage. A recent article in the local newspaper, Sud-Ouest, expressed the dilemma succinctly: Bordeaux currently produces 5 million hectoliters of wine a year, but sells only 4 million. Something has to give, and distillation seems inevitable. A shakeout is on the horizon, and basic Bordeaux will be profoundly affected for years to come. One can play the blame game here (the fault of: the négociants, dumping by foreign producers, disappointing quality, lack of government support, etc., etc.), but this gets no one anywhere. People with vision need to attack the problem at the roots and reinvent basic Bordeaux. This is not a pious wish, more like an imperious necessity.

Meanwhile, at the upper end, traditional markets (post-Brexit Britain, protectionist Trumpian America, economically-challenged China, etc.) are going through hard times. With massive unemployment and depressed economies, fine wines will surely take a hit. The collapse of the market for great growth wines has been oft-predicted over the past decades, but the system has held firm. I only saw this happen once, in the mid-1970s. Something is going to have to give this time though, probably what is euphemistically termed “price adjustments”. I am sure that Bordeaux is resilient enough to roll with the punches.
Compared to other French regions, Aquitaine was relatively spared by the corona virus. However, the tourism sector has been devastated, as has the aerospace industry. I nevertheless remain optimistic about Bordeaux’s ability to rebound and adapt.
As I write, all the cafés and restaurants in France have been closed for two months. They will not open for at least another month. I am earnestly looking forward to frequenting some of my favorite haunts, and sharing good times with people who aren’t wearing masks or feeling worried.
Interacting via Zoom, WhatsApp, or Skype just isn’t the same…

My family and I had the time to enjoy a number of fine meals and good bottles during the 55-day enforced lockdown. Curiously, a number of the wines I opened were from outside Bordeaux. One of the reasons for this is that many of my friends expect to drink Bordeaux when they come to my house, as do all of my visitors from abroad. So, we enjoyed an onslaught of Burgundy, Rhone, Loire, etc.
However, I could never neglect my first love, Bordeaux. And so a word about the wine that illustrates this post: 2001 Lynch Bages. Coming after the much-hyped 2000 vintage, 2001 was relatively overlooked. And yet… there are some lovely wines, from this vintage the Bordelais call “Atlantic”, meaning affected by cool temperatures and moderate rainfall so typical of the region – Bordeaux-lovers Bordeaux. Not a big, blowsy year, but an elegant one with fresh acidity. This Lynch Bages was squarely in its drinking window with lovely aromatics of pencil shavings and blackcurrnt, along with a great texture and long lingering aftertaste. It is always a pleasure to reunite with an old friend.

 

Reports of the en primeur system’s demise are greatly exaggerated

The 1855 classification

 

To paraphrase a quote by Mark Twain, upon seeing his obituary in the newspaper “Reports of the en primeur system’s demise are greatly exaggerated

Here’s a well-written and thoughtful article:
https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2020/03/a-modest-proposal-for-bordeaux-release-the-2019s-next-spring/

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the Bordeaux’s en primeur system, like so many sectors of the globalized economy, has taken a bad hit due to the corona virus. I have seen predictions for decades that the system would crumble or implode. And yet, it has survived through thick and thin – copied, but never equalled J.

Still, the current threat is like no other and the timing of the upcoming campaign has been completely thrown off course. Wine merchants obviously cannot be expected to buy wines that no one has sampled, even though, if one is honest, the Union des Grands Crus tastings in late March/early April can hardly be seen as essential to buying… Wholesalers and importers are far more inclined to purchase based on a château’s reputation or what leading critics say rather than their own impressions. En primeur week comes across predominantly as a networking and information gathering exercise (plus the occasion to enjoy a lot of good meals!). It is nevertheless a brilliant and unique way of coordinating the whole region and arousing interest from all over the world.

I take exception to so much that is written about the en primeur system because pinning down figures – to be specific – is very elusive, and it is nearly impossible to generalize since the situation varies from estate to estate. Only the brokers based in Bordeaux are qualified to have a valid overview because they are in touch with all the negociants and thus alone feel the pulse of all international markets with any degree of accuracy. People living in London or Tokyo or wherever extrapolate from their (possibly entirely correct) analysis of the situation in their country, thinking that what they’re seeing is the same around the globe when, in fact, it is not.
Two Bordeaux châteaux in the same appellation with the same classification can have very different commercial strategies. By the same token, two adjacent European countries can have very different markets. And you cannot lump Wuhan and Edmonton together.

Furthermore, there is not just one way of selling en primeur, which is why so many commentaries cannot be trusted. When one reads that château such-and-such “came out” at such-and-such a price, that information can paint a totally wrong picture. Some of the top châteaux release in “tranches” and the first one can cover just a very small quantity and at a particularly attractive price just to “test the water”. The first tranche offerings of famous classified growths are immediately snapped up as soon as they are put on the market because everyone knows that further tranches will be more expensive. Therefore to say that this is the base price is extremely misleading.
The proportion of wine sold per tranche and, indeed, that which is kept back for sale at a later date varies tremendously.

It seems to defy logic when en primeur prices exceed those of the same wines from a better-reputed year with some bottle age.. This can only compute if seen as part of a very long, complicated distribution chain and the allocation system that functions all down the line to the consumer. This entails a sort of threat: “If you don’t buy this year, you won’t get any next year, or from now on”. The result of this is that so-called off vintages are often dumped, and the loss is accepted more or less philosophically. Voices are raised to say that this is wrong and cannot go on because it defies the laws of economics. Certainly, a series of lacklustre vintages – not to mention a worldwide recession/depression – would force estates to lower their prices, even dramatically. But that would in no way threaten the en primeur system. Adjustments, perhaps even painful ones, would be made. Period.
President Calvin Coolidge famously said that “The business of America is business”. The same attitude prevails in Bordeaux. While the supposed greediness of the Bordelais is frequently denounced, the châteaux are also willing to react quickly, and to pay the piper, should things work against them. It’s as simple as the law of supply and demand…
It is interesting to see the comparatively little whinging about price increases in Burgundy.

Is any other wine region as vintage-conscious as Bordeaux? It is not at all rare to see wines from the same château double (or halve) in price from one year to the next. The market for Bordeaux great growths is indeed volatile! Their price is quoted daily and, in some instances hourly, on the internal market, the “place de Bordeaux” accessible only to négociants. This is a complex reality and it takes a brave man, or a fool, to make across-the-board statements about it.
The article cited at the beginning of this post touches on a number of worthwhile points. I would only take issue with the timing of the proposed 2019 campaign. I think it would be better in September 2020 than the spring of 2021. I agree that March is not the ideal time to taste the great wines. September would make a more realistic evaluation possible as well as give buyers an idea of the volume of the future crop and, to a certain extent, its quality. The author of the article says that September is not good because great wines from other regions are released then. If that is true, I would appreciate knowing more about this. I do not agree that there would be a lack of interest because of lead-up to the Christmas season. Early September would be fine in my opinion since the harvest would only theoretically have just begun for dry white wines, accounting for only a fraction of Bordeaux’s production. If September were chosen, it would be wonderful if the tastings and campaign stayed in that time frame from now on.

Whatever is decided, I fully agree with the author that convergence is very important. Piecemeal releases by the big guns would hurt Bordeaux. Commercial efforts need to be coordinated.

 

 

Restaurant Lalique: gastronomy in Sauternes

Bordeaux has been a magnet for enterprising foreigners for centuries, and one of the leading lights in recent years is Silvio Denz, a Swiss-German with a finger in many pies.
The former owner of a chain of perfume shops in his native country, he also created several successful perfume brands, took over Glenturret distillery in Scotland with a Swiss partner, invested in vineyards in Spain (Clos Agon in Catalonia) and Italy (Montepeloso in Tuscany), established a leading wine auction house, etc. etc.

In France, he acquired the prestigious firm of Lalique (glass art) – https://www.lalique.com/fr/la-maison-lalique – as well as three wine estates on Bordeaux’s Right Bank: Château Faugères and Péby Faugères in Saint Emilion (crus classés) and Cap de Faugères in the Côtes de Castillon. And as if that were not enough, he also purchased Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, a first growth Sauternes in Bommes dating back to the 17th century… and created a luxury hotel-restaurant there in June 2018, receiving a Michelin star for the latter just six months later!

This was not Mr. Denz’s first venture into the restaurant business. In 2014, he became the owner of Château Hochberg (https://chateauhochberg.com/en/) opposite the Lalique Museum in Wingen-sur-Moder (Alsace) and, in the same town, he transformed the house of René Lalique into a five-star hotel and restaurant with two Michelin stars: https://villarenelalique.com/en/

The 200 m² cellar at Villa Lalique was designed by the noted Swiss architect Mario Botta. Cases of wine are stored behind large plate glass windows where visitors can view an outstanding collection of 12,000 bottles.

This rather long, but necessary introduction brings us to Lalique.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, Sauternes has unfortunately lost traction over the past few years. The value of vineyard land has stagnated, sweet wines have lost their allure in many quarters, and the younger generation seems not to know the wine.

However, things are looking up. Many producers are now making wines that are slightly less sweet and full-bodied, while retaining the unique character of their terroir. In addition, seeing as land prices had pretty much hit rock bottom, some major investments have been made in the past several years. Furthermore, the potential for wine tourism is beginning to be exploited because Sauternes is a beautiful region with many impressive châteaux.

Silvio Denz had a vision. Above and beyond making wine worthy of Lafaurie-Peyraguey’s first growth status, he was determined to open a successful luxury hotel-restaurant. It looks as though no expense was spared. The richly-furnished hotel houses 10 rooms and 3 suites. The restaurant’s interior design is also very attractive and the Lalique imprint is everywhere, down to the taps in the washrooms!
The château gift shop sells all the Denz wines in their specially engraved bottles as well as the beautiful glass sculptures for which Lalique is famous. Furthermore, the shop will etch a personal message on bottles if requested.

As befits a premium restaurant, prices are not cheap, but there is a luncheon menu at 65 euros. The seven-course tasting menu with a wine to match each one costs 245 menus. My wife and I enjoyed the “Lalique Premier Cru” menu – see photo – with four wines: the 2015 dry Lafaurie Peyraguey, the 2016 grand vin (Sauternes), the ’99 grand vin, and a rare 2016 cuvée made from all the first growths of Bommes except Clos Haut Peyraguey (i.e. Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Rabaud Promis, Sigalas Rabaud, Latour Blanche, and Rayne Vigneau). The Lafaurie wines showed that the new owner has no need to turn everything upside down to produce great wine because the estate has a long history of this, and never underwent an eclipse.

Lalique created a tempest in a wine glass when they started serving and promoting a Sauternes-based aperitif (mixed drink) they call SweetZ. Traditionalists howled and I was not particularly enthusiastic about the idea myself. But I did try it, and found it light and refreshing. If this helps to sell Sauternes, so much the better, but I still prefer my wine on its own…

The food was very elegant and subtle, as well as attractively presented. I have only once before had a meal where only Sauternes was served and, contrary to what you might think, we did not leave the table feeling bloated or that the wines were cloying. In fact, the whole art of Lalique is to match dishes especially with Sauternes, and they succeed brilliantly. It is an uphill battle to convince English speakers that Sauternes is anything other than a dessert wine, but I’m convinced they would be won over with a meal at Lalique :-).

Service was attentive and my wife’s gluten intolerance was handled very professionally. For instance, one dish we both were served had croutons and, when this was pointed out, the waitress informed us that my wife’s were made with gluten-free bread.

 

Desserts are unquestionably a challenge with Sauternes, but Lalique handles this intelligently, avoiding the trap of sweet on sweet, in our case offering fruit and a sauce that offset the sugar.

Before leaving, I enjoyed a coffee in the tastefully-decorated bar (absolutely lovely, one of the nicest I know) with the young head sommelier Adrien Cascio. We took a look at his cellar book together. At 112 pages, it is one of the most comprehensive in France. Many of the wines come from Silvio Denz’s personal cellar. Two particularities here: the in-depth representation of the greatest châteaux, with 20 or 30 vintages each, as well as a collection of the greatest wines of California.

The bottom line is that Lalique is a huge pleasure for the lover of food and wine, and a rare opportunity to see how Sauternes can shine at table.
If, like me, you abhor the idea of drinking and driving, there are two solutions: either staying at the hotel, or else taking the train from Bordeaux to Langon and then a 10-minute taxi ride from the train station to the château.

New Cru Bourgeois classification – Feb. 2020

The crus bourgeois are a much-loved category of Médoc wines slotted between the crus artisans and the crus classés. Their classification dates back to 1932 and has gone through a number of ups and downs since then. For instance, the 2003 classification was challenged in the courts and cancelled.

Great care was thus taken with the new classification, published in February 2020, which re-introduced the cru bourgeois exceptionnel category that had disappeared.
There are now altogether 249 crus bourgeois versus 247 in 2003. That includes 56 crus bourgeois Supérieurs (87 in 2003), and 14 crus bourgeois exceptionnels.
The complete list can be found here: https://www.crus-bourgeois.com/app/uploads/2020/02/Classement-2020-des-Crus-Bourgeois-du-Me%CC%81doc-1.pdf

The following are now crus brougeois exceptionnels:

Haut-Médoc:
Château d’Agassac
Château Arnauld
Château Belle-Vue
Château Cambon la Pelouse
Château Charmail
Château Malescasse
Château de Malleret
Château du Taillan

Listrac-Médoc:
Château Lestage

Margaux:
Château d’Arsac
Château Paveil de Luze

Saint-Estèphe:
Château le Boscq
Château le Crock
Château Lilian Ladouys

 

It is worth noting that, for whatever reason, none of the wines listed as exceptionnels in the cancelled 2003 classifcation (Chasse-Spleen, Poujeaux, Siran Ormes-de-Pez, Phélan-Ségur, Haut-Marbuzet, etc.) resurfaced in 2020.
The crus bourgeois account for a quarter of all vineyard land in the Médoc, with a production of some 30 million bottles.

Day out in Pessac-Léognan – 13 châteaux

 

 

To give you an idea of how old I am, I can remember a time when the Pessac-Léognan appellation did not even exist. All the wines on the left bank of the Garonne southeast of Bordeaux were Graves. Period. The new appellation was created in 1987 after a sort of “civil war” between north and south. The northern part of the Graves, bordering on the city of Bordeaux, encompassed all the great growths (seven reds, three whites, and six both white and red) in ten different communes. There was some disagreement as to where to draw the borders of the new entity and even what to call it. After much discussion and negotiation, the hyphenated names of Pessac and Léognan were retained.

Interestingly, the great growths continue to call themselves crus classés de Graves, even though they are all in Pessac-Léognan…

The late André Lurton of Châteaux La Louvière,  Couhins Lurton, Rochemorin, de Cruzeau, etc. was a prime mover in creating the new AOC.It must be said that other than recognizing an élite within the Graves, the establishing of Pessac-Léognan also helped the region to fight urban sprawl seriously threatening prime vineyard land. The area under vine had dwindled to just 500 hectares by 1975, but now stands at 1,600.While many English-speaking wine lovers tend to associate the Graves with white wines, Pessac-Léognan produces 75% reds.

The Bordelais have a special fondness for Pessac-Léognan. The vineyards start at the outskirts of the city. Indeed, the postal address of Château Les Carmes Haut Brion, for instance, is 20 rue des Carmes, Bordeaux. However, the wines are also popular because they frequently represent better value for money than ones from the Médoc or Saint Emilion, and because they have the faculty of showing well both young and old. Pessac-Léognan wines are frequently found in local restaurants at an affordable price.

As those of you who follow this blog know, I am a great fan of the Portes Ouvertes (Open Days) in Bordeaux, when châteaux welcome the general public. This is a wonderful opportunity to visit little-known estates and make discoveries.

So I set out on a Saturday with two friends in early December to visit thirteen estates in one day – a wonderfully intense, relatively frenetic, and very pleasurable learning experience.We started with Château Luchey Halde in the town of Mérignac, a suburb of Bordeaux where the airport is located. This 23-hectare estate had altogether disappeared, but was miraculously brought back to life and replanted in 1999.  It is now owned and managed by an agricultural engineering school, Bordeaux Science Agro (ex-ENITA). The winemaking facilities are, as to be expected, very modern and well-maintained. There was some discussion at the beginning of the tasting whether we should try the whites before the reds or vice versa. It is usual in Bordeaux to begin with reds, a practice to which I subscribe. So we went through the 2018 (grand vin), 2015 (second wine, Les Haldes de Luchey), 2012 (grand vin), and 2011 (grand vin) reds, with a preference for the 2018 and 2012. The other two vintages seemed pleasantly fruity, but somewhat weak. Next up were the whites, 2014 (second wine) and 2012 (grand vin) which were aromatic and angular.

Owned by the Calvet family, who gave their name to a famous Bordeaux négociant firm, Château Pique-Caillou is a stone’s throw from Luchey Halde. It is quite something to visit a château dating from the late 18th century in the middle of 20 hectares of vines completely surrounded by suburban houses – not unlike Haut Brion. We sampled three red wines: 2018, 2016, and 2015. The 2016 stood out and all three showed a lean, classic style on the early-maturing side. The 2017 white Pique Caillou was practically transparent with some lanolin and vanilla nuances on the nose. The wine was light and mineral on the palate.

The third estate we went to was Château Haut Bacalan in Pessac (8 hectares), a first for me. This is owned by the Gonet family from Champagne, along with several other Bordeaux vineyards, including Château Lesparre in the rather esoteric Graves de Vayres appellation. All of the Gonet wines were being poured, including their Champagnes, but I focused on just two of their five Pessac-Léognan estates. The red 2015 Haut Bacalan showed lovely sweet briary fruit on the nose. It was powerful, full-bodied, and rich, with textured tannin on the palate – one of the nicest wines we tasted all day. The 2014 red was not quite in the same league, but nothing to sniff at either. This was followed by the 2018 white wine from Château d’Ek. Anyone who has travelled from Bordeaux to Toulouse has noticed this beautiful medieval (12th century) château quite close to the motorway. I had very much enjoyed their 2010 red wine recently (it was the Cuvée Prestige), so was anxious to try the white wine, made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This had a subtle bouquet of peach and talc, and lacked only a little richness on the palate.

Château Brown in Léogan takes its name from John Lewis Brown, a Scottish wine merchant who owned the property in the late 18th century. It now belongs jointly to the local Mau family and Dutch businessman Cees Dirkzwager (also co-owners of cru bourgeois Château Preuillac in the Médoc). Brown is managed by the dynamic Jean-Christophe Mau, whose family have been négociants for five generations. His wines are expertly made and a joy to drink. As much as I like the red wine (the 2015 we tasted is no exception), produced on 26 hectares of vines, my heart has always gone out to the exuberant, rich, white wine (5 hectares), everything a fine white Graves should be. I bought a bottle of the latter for the cellar.

Domaine de Grandmaison (19 hectares) is close to the Centre Leclerc supermarket – with one of the finest wine selections in the region – as well as Château Carbonnieux. I have been here on several occasions and find the wines excellent value for money. Although the 2014 red was slightly rustic and disappointing, the white has never let me down. 2018 Domaine de Grandmaison white, selling at 16 euros a bottle is a vibrant, fresh, pure wine that would grace any table. While not quite as “serious” a wine as Château Brown or some others, it is nevertheless the perfect illustration of how good affordable Bordeaux can be. Especially when one thinks of the cost of white Burgundy…

Number six on our day out was Château Haut Plantade in Léognan (9 hectares), a worthwhile discovery for me. This ten-hectare estate produces mostly red wine. We tasted the 2017 red, not the greatest vintage, during which they lost half the crop due to poor weather conditions. That having been said, apart from a slight greenness, this was a very creditable effort. The 2018 white wine (50% Sémillon, 50% Sauvignon Blanc) was very suave and subtle with a long aftertaste. It was definitely one of the best wines tasted all day. Winemaker Vincent Plantade is switched-on and funny.  So, I would definitely put this château into the category of “little-known gems I would like to get to know better”. I stopped and looked at the vines upon leaving. The fine gravel topsoil seemed the perfect illustration of Graves terroir…

Our next visit was to Château de Léognan (6.5 hectares) in the town of the same name, not far from Domaine de Chevalier. Going here served two purposes since there is also a good bistro-type restaurant there called Le Manège. After a very enjoyable lunch, we went to taste the wines. I wish I could be more positive about them…  We sampled two reds, 2015 La Chapelle de Léognan (the second wine) and the 2011 grand vin. The former was somewhat herbaceous and prematurely old, and I’m sorry to say that the latter did not leave much of a better impression. A 2018 white wine (AOC Graves) called simply “Le Blanc” (AOC Graves) was also poured. This was sound, but not noteworthy.

Château Haut Lagrange (8.5 hectares), likewise in Léognan, provided a better experience. We tasted four wines here. The 2016 red had an intriguing bouquet and a promising profile while the 2015 red featured a floral nose with a certain smokiness, accompanied by richness and sweet fruit on the palate. The 2006 red looked considerably older than its age with tertiary gamey notes and finished a tad dry. The 2018 white was fresh and classic, but lacked personality.

Our ninth visit of the day was to Domaine de la Solitude in Martillac. This is owned by nuns belonging to the order of the Holy Family and managed by Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier. The 32-hectare estate has quite a reputation for good reasonably-priced wines, which explains why the tasting room was thronged and people were walking away with full cartons. We tasted four wines. The 2016 red was in a seductive commercial style with upfront fruit. The 2015 displayed elegant understated aromatics accompanied by a soft mouth feel backed up by good tannin. Both of these wines are probably best enjoyed relatively young. The 2016 white had a classic bouquet with good oak, and was perhaps better on the nose than the palate. The 2010 had aged well, with floral and beeswax nuances and only a touch of oxidation.

We went from there to Château Mirebeau, a small (5 hectare) estate in the town of Martillac. Sometimes you just have to be honest. I am not reproducing my notes because they are extremely critical. We tried the 2016 and 2015 reds and they seemed flawed. The wine is made organically which is obviously a plus, but not enough. Organic wines need to be good as well.

Our next stop was at Château Ferran, also in Martillac. I’ve rarely seen the wine, which is surprising since the estate is by no means small (19 hectares). It has been in the same family for five generations and boasts an attractive château. We tried three wines. The 2016 red was very promising with good acidity and an attractive mineral austerity. The 2015 red had a rich bouquet of candied red fruit even if it was somewhat one-dimensional on the palate. The 2018 white had a nose that screamed Sauvignon Blanc, and proved to be rounder than expected. I came away with a fine memory of our visit.

The next to last château was Bouscaut in Cadaujac, a large (47 hectare) classified growth owned by Sophie Lurton and her husband Laurent Cogombles. The 2016 red Bouscaut was unquestionably of cru classé quality: smooth and assertive, with tight tannins, violet overtones, and good length. The 2015 red was unfortunately not in the same mold. It showed more toasty oak on the nose than fruit. It was brawny, big, and hot on the palate, lacking the elegance of the 2016. Then it was on to the whites. The 2017 Les Chênes de Bouscaut (a much better year for Bordeaux whites than reds) had a spicy component and was quite classy, whereas the 2016 had unusual vanilla and matchstick aromas reminiscent of white Burgundy! It was in a modern, commercial style on the palate and I will be interested to see how it ages.

The final stop of a very full day was at Château Baret in Villenave d’Ornon (24 hectares), which has been in the Ballande family since 1867. Once again, we tried both the red and white wines. The 2015 red was a good middle of the road Pessac-Léognan with a tangy flavor. It was unexpectedly tannic on the finish, but time will surely soften the rough edges. The 2011 had minty old library aromas. It was fully evolved on the palate with a somewhat hard finish. Time to drink up.

And thus ended our excursion.