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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!

 

 

 

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.

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.