Tag Archives: Bordeaux

Book review: Les Lawton

“Les Lawton, une Dynastie Bordelaise du Vin” by Alain Blondy
Published by Le Festin.
189 pages. 17 euros. ISBN 978-2-36062-262-7
I was given this book, published in 2020, as a Christmas present and finally found a moment to read it this summer. “Les Lawton” is definitely for the hard-core Bordeauxphile not only because a good grounding in French required, but also a certain knowledge of the inner workings of the wine trade and Bordeaux society.

Wine lovers know that a majority of châteaux sell their wine through négociants (which can be translated as “shippers”), but are not necessarily aware that courtiers, or brokers form an essential link between the two parties. Although most often overlooked, their role is vital. They make sure that the samples shippers are presented with, and the prices at which they are offered, faithfully correspond to purchase orders.

Three quarters of all purchases by négociants go through the hands of brokers.

In 1739, at the age of 23, Abraham Lawton came from Cork (Ireland) to Bordeaux to establish a négociant firm. However, he soon saw that his true vocation was as a broker. He therefore started a business that exists to this day, having changed its name to Tastet et Lawton in 1830 when his family took on a partner. The Lawtons kept a detailed vintage report as of 1815. This, as well as volume upon volume of transactions, has become an invaluable source for scholars.
The 1835 painting on the book’s cover shows the historic Quai des Chartrons where Tastet et Lawton are located.

The Lawtons were Protestants, as were most of the other Northern Europeans who formed the backbone of the Bordeaux trade. Followers of Luther and Calvin have had a very checkered history in France. Persecution during the wars of religion in the late 16th century and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre came to an end when Henri IV, himself raised a Protestant before converting to Catholicism, issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 granting Protestants religious freedom. This was unfortunately negated by the Edict’s revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV, but restored in 1787. Since then, they have suffered no discrimination.
n any event, the Lawtons’ steadfast devotion to their faith and country of origin is a leitmotif of their presence in the capital of Aquitaine. The book relates a dizzying succession of marriages with other members of the local Protestant community, many connected with the wine trade.
While hardly a rabid feminist, I could, however, not help but notice that the book focuses almost exclusively on Lawton men: women are confined to their role as wives and mothers, period.
The Lawton men were also involved in activities outside their profession: sports, including the mythical Primrose tennis club, and municipal government.

Seeing as the author is a former professor of history at the Sorbonne (with nearly 20 books to his credit), the book focuses a great deal on French history, particularly the war years. The Lawtons’ involvement is described in great detail, particularly Daniel’s heroism in WWI and during the troubled period of the Occupation. Needless to say, trade, particularly with Nazi Germany, was viewed with great suspicion after the Liberation, and Daniel successfully proved to the new regime that he had acted honorably. This was at a time when several négociants were found guilty of collusion with the enemy and heavily fined.

A well-known episode occurred between the wars, when Daniel Lawton accompanied American millionaire Clarence Dillon during his search for a famous wine estate to purchase in a depressed market. Legend has it that Dillon was interested in buying Cheval Blanc, but due to poor weather, Lawton took him instead to nearby Haut Brion, which Dillon acquired in 1935.

I have been privileged to know two members of the Lawton family. I worked with the ebullient Jean Lawton at the maison De Luze and met Daniel Lawton (son of the aforementioned Daniel) on several occasions. He was a strikingly handsome man who opitimized the genuine class of the Bordelais, as opposed to the more stuffy and snobbish among them. His knowledge of the region’s wines was nothing less than extraordinary.

This direct family line came to an end with Daniel’s death in 2015, and his two nephews took over the brokerage firm of Tastet and Lawton. Another nephew, Pierre Lawton, heads a successful négociant firm, Alias Bordeaux.

I must once again point out that this book is not easy going for the English speaker unfamiliar with French history. But it is worth the effort and full of interesting nuggets.

Th

 

Bombshell hits Saint Emilion : Ausone and Cheval Blanc drop out of the classification!

Château Cheval Blanc

It would be an understatement to say that the Bordeaux wine trade was taken by surprise…
By not submitting their application file for the 2022 classification by the June 30th deadline, Saint Emilion’s two leading châteaux have, in effect, withdrawn altogether and will soon be completely outside it.

Classifications were made of the Médoc and Sauternes in 1855, the Graves in 1953, and Saint-Emilion in 1955. As opposed to the other regions, Saint-Emilon’s classification is revised every 10 years, although it has taken longer than that on occasion. The 2012 hierarchy is the sixth since 1955.

The 2006 classification unfortunately gave rise to a certain amount of ill will and even legal action, with several excluded estates (La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cadet Bon, Guadet, and La Marzelle) contesting the grounds of their omission. These châteaux bitterly took issue with some of the criteria such as the presence of a parking lot, a fulltime receptionist, and the – to them – too minor part played by impartial tastings.

In light of this controversy, and the legal annulment of the 2006 classification, a new one was made six years later, in 2012. Special care was taken as to how it was conducted by the Syndicat Viticole and the INAO, a government agency, according to revised parameters. Alas, even more confusion and debate came about with this new ranking! Whereas there were 61 estates in the 2006 classification (15 premier grands crus classes and 46 grand crus classes), this had ballooned to 82 in 2012 (18 premier grands crus classes and 64 grand crus classes), i.e. an increase of 34%…
And, once again, three châteaux (La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cobin Michotte, and Croque Michotte) that were left out challenged the 2012 classification in court.
This has led to an absurd situation. Since their suit is still pending, it is entirely possible that the 2022 classification will come into effect while the previous one has not been officially validated!

In addition, two leading figures in the world of Bordeaux wine (Philippe Castéja, former president of the CIVB and owner of Ch. Trotteveille, as well as Hubert de Boüard, owner of Ch. Angélus, former president of the Syndicat Viticole de Saint Emilion, and member of the INAO) saw their estates either confirmed or promoted. They have been accused of a conflict of interests and weighing unfairly on the results of the classification. Both men are currently facing criminal charges for their alleged involvement in manipulating the outcome. This is an unheard of situation!

Château Ausone

The premier grand cru classés of Saint Emilion are divided into two categories: A and B. The former, included just two estates, Ausone and Cheval Blanc from the very beginning. However, in 2012, two more were added to this exalted position, the very tip of the pyramid: Angélus and Pavie. Above and beyond Hubert de Boüard’s polemical involvement, many traditional lovers of Bordeaux wines find that both Angélus and Pavie are top-heavy, overly-alcoholic heavily-extracted, and too oaky – in short, that they clash with their conception of classic claret.
In a tremendous example of hubris, Château Pavie had “Premier Grand Cru Classé A” engraved on the pediment of their new cellar. How could they do such a thing when the classification is, by definition, not set in stone?

So, in a revolutionary move, both of Saint Emilion’s grands seigneurs have decided to stay out of the classification. This has sent shockwaves throughout the region. Their reasons were that the parameters for inclusion were too far removed from the all-important notion of terroir. Things such as presence on social networks and the number of articles in the press have nothing to do with the quality of their wine, they argue.
In their defense, the Saint Emilion establishment points out that Ausone and Cheval Blanc did not contest the metrics for the 2012 classification, which remain unchanged in 2022, so why do so now?

Be this as it may, the classification is presently on very shaky ground. At stake is not just prestige, but money, lots of it. Not only do the crus classés sell for more than other wines but, above all, the value of the land is significantly increased.

As if things were not chaotic enough, the appellation laws in Saint Emilion suffer from an original sin. Only a small percentage of consumers know the difference between Saint Emilion Grand Cru and Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé. There are seemingly hundreds of the former (the Syndicat cannot say with certainty how many…) selling for as little as 10 euros. These share exactly the same appellation – Saint Emilion Grand cru – as Cheval Blanc and Ausone selling for up to 100 times more! In other words, the grand cru appellation, which encompasses the crus classés, is terribly misleading.
At least Ausone and Cheval Blanc won’t need to change their labels…

There can be little doubt that abandoning the classification will have no adverse effect on their reputation or sales.

In theory, redefining a classification every 10 years is a great idea, leaving the possibility for newcomers to make headway, and laggards to be eliminated. However, the way this has been done is unfortunately skewed. Like the AOC laws in Saint Emilion, the classification was built on shaky foundations, and the institutions overseeing them now have lots of egg on their face. I sincerely hope that this sorry state of affairs can be corrected in the years to come.
But what if the classification were actually beside the point? Many Bordeaux enthusiasts pay little or no attention to it, relying on critics and market prices to make their choice…

 

 

 

Entre-Deux-Mers soon to be a red wine appellation?

The Entre-Deux-Mers is, of course, not between two seas, but rather two rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne. This is the heartland of Bordeaux, rarely visited by tourists, but of considerable historic interest and home to many “nuts and bolts” wines, some of which represent tremendous value for money.

 

The wines entitled to the appellation, created in the 1930s (and which encompasses the Entre-Deux-Mers Haut-Benauge AOC), are exclusively white. This is paradoxical to the extent that the Entre-Deux-Mers also produces most of the ocean of red wine sold under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations.

There are some 1,600 hectares of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle vines, but far more of Merlot and Cabernet.

The local winegrowers association has just voted to ask the INAO (the National Institute of Origin and Quality) to create a red wine appellation for the Entre-Deux-Mers. This is likely to be approved, and wines sold under this name may arrive on the market as early as 2023.

Considering the poor sales of basic Bordeaux, one might wonder as to the reasons behind a new appellation for entry level red wines. The purpose is to heighten the recognition of a specific area within Bordeaux and give impetus to sales of both red and white wines – in short to bolster a brand badly in need of it. Growers understandably also want to make a distinction between bargain basement generic Bordeaux and wines from a region with its own unique history and a number of beautiful well-run estates. In short, if wine is about a sense of place, then the Entre-Deux-Mers unquestionably qualifies as its own entity.

This also goes hand in hand with efforts to highlight the Entre-Deux-Mers as a tourist destination with beautiful rolling countryside, medieval fortified towns, and a number of Romanesque churches. Since most wine lovers visiting Bordeaux flock to the same prestigious appellations there is much work to be done to attract them off the beaten track.
The same, of course, can be said for the wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers, snubbed by label drinkers and virtually unavailable on some major export markets.

The creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation in 1987 was a secession and really in no way comparable. Red Entre-Deux-Mers is a step up from the somewhat indeterminate Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations (over half of all Bordeaux wines), and this narrowing down of terroir should only be seen as positive. The commercial challenge is, of course great. But by combining both red and white wines under one banner, I believe that this to be a positive move.

Bordeaux at 1.69 euros a bottle…

 

Bordeaux is in a bad way. Oh, I’m not referring to the famous châteaux coveted by wine lovers around the world. I’m talking about the 55% of total production sold under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations. This ad in the local Sud-Ouest newspaper on March 10th by the German supermarket group Lidl promotes so-called “award winning” Bordeaux at 1.69 euros a bottle! If you deduct all the fixed costs from beginning to end, what amount can that possibly leave for winegrowers (seeing as it is forbidden to sell under cost price on the retail end)?

The “gold medal” in question is from two French journalists who, in my opinion, should be ashamed of themselves. Their ratings are widely reputed to be based on payments received… In addition, the same ad was run in France’s largest circulation newspaper, Le Monde, showing that the wine in question must be available throughout the country. Putting aside the notion of quality for a moment, how can a blend of such gigantic proportions be considered homogeneous enough to earn a medal?

The rock bottom sales price and misleading medal do an injustice to Bordeaux.

A statistic I recently saw floored me: some 10% of an average crop of Bordeaux wine – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of hectolitres – were distilled last year to make biofuel, paid for by EU and French government subsidies.
Something is very wrong here.

Beaujolais was in a similarly bad predicament not so long ago, with terrible press. But they picked themselves up by the bootstraps and things are better there now.

The French have always been wary of free markets, especially in areas as politically sensitive as agriculture. And city dwellers, who make up most of the population, have a nostalgic, protective attitude towards farmers and winegrowers. It has therefore been expedient for successive governments to avoid the root problem and placate the wine industry. Of course, this cannot go on forever because the situation is clearly unsustainable.

The causes of this sad state of affairs are multiple, but playing the blame game gets no one anywhere. I hope the powers-that-be react intelligently and effectively to find a way to bring supply and demand closer together. No one says that this will be easy, but the present impasse can only last for so long… There is much at stake, but particularly the future of entire swathes of the Bordeaux region’s agricultural land and the families who earn their livelihood from it. The name Bordeaux can bring to mind images of impressive châteaux and self-satisfied négociants, but the truth is that most of the wines are made at modest estates run by hardworking men and women who barely earn a living wage. And their children are increasingly disinclined to take over the family estate…

There are many, many fine examples of entry level Bordeaux. It is therefore heartbreaking to see the whole category rejected by so many opinion leaders, buyers, and consumers. The Bordeaux establishment must face up to the fact that there are simply too many sub-standard wines out there – and do something about it. While timid efforts have been made in the past, these need to be seriously stepped up. Likewise, marketing and promotional budgets should be significantly increased. Alas, there are no quick fixes here… On the commercial end, brand building and the promotion of quality wines from petits châteaux, cooperatives, and négociants needs to be encouraged by every possible means – and thin, weedy wines refused the right to be called Bordeaux.

Of course, there is no easy answer to a problem with such deep roots. I champion Bordeaux at all levels and sincerely hope that things will improve. The potential to do so is unquestionably there.

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.

 

 

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.
 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Château Clinet: a first division Pomerol


How many of us really know the wines of Pomerol? One of Bordeaux’s smallest appellations (about 800 hectares) produces wines that have risen dramatically in reputation – and price – over the years. They correspond completely to what modern consumers are looking for in Bordeaux. At their best they are voluptuous, elegant wines that are pleasurable to both neophytes and connoisseurs, as well as enjoyable both young and old. What’s not to like?

As opposed to the Médoc, Saint Emilion, Sauternes, and Pessac-Léognan, there is no classification in Pomerol. Of course, a sort of de facto classification exists based on price and critics’ scores, but there are more possibilities here to rise through the ranks. Such wines as Lafleur and Le Pin had a very low profile not so long ago and went on, of course, to become darlings of the wine world.

Consumers, wine writers, and critics have, as to be expected, latched onto a few names that are endlessly repeated, in no small part because these tend to be largish estates in an appellation that does not count many i.e. the wines are more widely distributed worldwide. But relative newcomers can rise to the join the elite, which is precisely what Château Clinet has done.

Pomerol’s fairly undramatic history is that of a winegrowing town whose ups and downs generally revolved around the inheritance and changing hands of estates. Unlike other parts of Bordeaux, there are few noteworthy château buildings to bear witness to this history. Clinet’s can be traced back to the late 16th century and the place name appears on Belleyme’s famous 1785 map (a facsimile is hung on the wall at Clinet). A document dating from 1837 shows that Clinet and Pétrus had the same owner. Over time, Eglise Clinet, Clos l’Eglise, and Feytit Clinet were spun off from the original estate. Château Clinet’s wine was always well-regarded and sold well, but it did not really start to stand out until the 1980s when Jean-Michel Arcaute, advised at one time by Michel Rolland, took things in hand to progress by a quantum leap. Clinet, a more-or-less second tier Pomerol, joined the first tier.

Impressively high Parker scores helped catapult Clinet to center stage, where it has stayed ever since.

The estate was sold to the GAN insurance group in 1991 and then acquired by Jean-Louis Laborde from the nearby Lot-et-Garonne department in 1999. He handed over management to his son, Ronan, in 2004. Today just shy of 40 years old, Ronan is still in charge.

Ronan Laborde is somewhat of an anomaly in the world of great growth Bordeaux, to which Clinet is obviously assimilated. That he is young and has a business degree is not so uncommon. Neither is the fact that his experience in the wine trade spans several continents, despite his age. But Ronan has a fresh go-ahead attitude that has led him to do things differently. Take his creation of a branded Bordeaux called, appropriately enough, “Ronan”. It takes a brave man to do such a thing! He built a new cellar for his négociant activity a stone’s throw from Clinet and now sells going on 300,000 bottles a year of his (largely red) Bordeaux AOC.
Ronan Laborde also manages the family estates in Tokaj, Hungary: Châteaux Megyer and Pajzos.

In March of this year, Ronan was elected president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the promotional association that brings together the cream of Bordeaux producers (134 members) and is responsible for organizing tastings around the world, including en primeur week in March/April every year in Bordeaux.

The style and the feeling at Clinet reflect that of the man running the show: professional, but relaxed.

I met Ronan at the unprepossessing country house with red shutters built in 1820 that is Château Clinet. However, appearances can be deceiving… The winery is state-of-the-art, including a system with 400-kg. hoppers (cuvons) on rails that gently deposit freshly-picked grapes into temperature-controlled stainless steel vats to avoid bruising. The wine undergoes pigeage (punching down the cap) and gentle pumping over. It is aged in 60% new oak, a proportion that is down from a few vintages ago. The 8-10% press wine is blended in as needed.

When the Laborde family took over, the Clinet vineyard consisted of 8.64 hectares in three separate parts: one around the château, another north of the town church, and a third between Trotanoy and Feytit Clinet. This was increased by 3 hectares when 4 tiny plots within the appellation were acquired in 2011. Grape varieties are 85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc. A second wine, Fleur de Clinet, is also made.

Ronan had arranged a small vertical tasting:

2015 Ronan by Clinet:
Color: Showing a little brown on the rim already.
Nose: Reflecting its 100% Merlot composition with ethereal red fruit.
Palate: Soft, but with decent backbone. Aftertaste maybe a little short, but unmistakably fine Bordeaux with a pleasant thirst-quenching side. Touch austere, but this does not detract from the overall balance.

2016: “By Clinet’
Color: Medium-deep and vigorous with some purple highlights.
Nose: Almond and vanilla aromas one associates with certain of the best Pomerols. Subtly rich.
Palate: Powerful attack. Silky texture with fine-grained tannin. Smooth and already approachable. Good value because it has all the hallmarks of its appellation.

2014 Château Clinet:
Color: Medium intensity, just starting to show a little age.
Nose: Very attractive, classy, assertive bouquet with berry notes and a nuance I can only describe as blood, which I also find in some Syrah wines.
Palate: Iron and mineral flavors with a touch of greenness balanced by black and some red fruit overtones.

2015 Château Clinet:
Color: Brilliant, with a deep core.
Nose: Penetrating black cherry fruit with oaky notes.
Palate: Rich, with licorice flavours and a long, delicate aftertaste. Very fine tannin in the finish. Decidedly elegant and not top-heavy.

2016 Château Clinet:
Color: Lovely, very deep hue, even more so than the 2010 says Ronan.
Nose: Fresh, but with musky hints in the background and some menthol to complement the exuberant fruit.
Palate: Round, big, and lip-smackingly good! Fresh aftertaste with some empyreumatic nuances. Firm, slightly smoky, and with great potential.

Ronan invited me to share lunch with him at the cellar after the tasting, during which we enjoyed a 2008 Clinet. This had taken on wonderful aromatics of game and incense with age.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, Pomerol is a hard region to get to know. I therefore thank Ronan for giving me with a better handle on the appellation by providing me with an insight into one of its best wines.

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurant Quanjude – Chinese cuisine and Bordeaux wines

Even though I’m not very skilled at preparing it myself, I love Chinese food. My interest was therefore piqued in 2015, when a Chinese entrepreneur purchased Dubern, a Bordeaux restaurant and institution dating back to 1894.

Fifty-five-year-old James Zhou made a fortune by turning his small family firm into a powerhouse specialized in packaging, including the production of cans for Red Bull and Coca Cola in China. Francophile Mr. Zhou bought a wine estate in Tabanac (Château Renon in the Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux appellation – http://www.chateau-renon.fr/ ) in 2014, as well as the Auxerre football club in 2016.

In much the same spirit as he totally renovated Château Renon, Mr. Zhou successfully reinvented Dubern as Quanjude, which opened in November 2018. There are more than 50 Quanjude restaurants around the world, operated on a franchise basis. Some of them take up five floors and can seat up to 500 diners.

Three things make the one in Bordeaux unique.

For starters, it is the first to open in Europe, although several others are planned, starting with Paris.

The second reason is the restaurant’s hybrid Franco-Chinese style. Much effort was put into the decor, a very attractive blend of the Louis XIV style and Chinese chic, with tastefully-painted wall panels and beautiful furniture. The dining rooms are small and intimate. As might be expected, the porcelain is gorgeous. The staff are mostly French, including chef Olivier Peyronnet, and the cuisine is a delightful synthesis of French and Chinese influences.


I have a soft spot for restaurants such as Quanjude with a rather short menu. It shows that they have chosen to concentrate on what they do best. Normally speaking, I would have chosen the Peking duck, a dish on which Quanjude’s reputation was built, but this needs to be ordered by at least two people. Seeing as I was dining with my wife, who is allergic to gluten, this was not an option.

The series of dishes we sampled was visually enticing, delicious, and very refined. I will come back again for the Peking duck. To give you an idea of pricing, a seven course dinner revolving around this dish costs 100 euros. The regular evening menu is 60 euros. More information, of course, can be found on their web site: https://quanjude-bordeaux.com/

I came away totally enchanted with Quanjude. The setting is both luxurious and relaxed, and the food is exquisite. Just the day before, I had been invited to lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant I will not name. It was pretty much of a disaster. So the class act at Quanjude was doubly appreciated. I would best describe a meal there as a gracious gastronomic experience light years away from the typical Chinese restaurant (egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, fried rice, etc.).

And as much as I love typical dishes from Southwest France – and I’m sure that is what visitors to Bordeaux are mainly seeking – I would warmly recommend Quanjude to anyone staying a few days who is looking for a refreshing departure from the usual litany of oysters, duck breast, entrecote, etc.


Then, of course, the third reason Quanjude Bordeaux is unique is wine. Reflecting the food menu, the wine list is on the short side, but with some very interesting bottles of various origins. Mark-ups are usual for this sort of establishment. I was delighted to see they offered a rare Palo Cortado sherry from the house of Lustau, so my wife and I enjoyed a glass as an aperitif. This was a medium-deep amber color and had a beautiful nutty, caramel nose. It was full-bodied with a soft, mineral, lingering finish. What a treat! It showed how much Bordeaux has changed over the years. Finding a unicorn wine like this would have been impossible not so long ago…

Seeing as I had chosen pigeon and my wife monkfish, we opted for a white wine, a 2014 Château Brown from Pessac-Léognan. I had discussed the choice with sommelière Thao Vo and she said that this was the one she would have recommended had I not mentioned it… I have appreciated white Château Brown (no, not a contradiction in terms!) for years and, in fact, prefer it to the red. The 2014 was a pale golden-yellow color with a complex bouquet of gooseberry, lemon, lanolin, and vanilla. The wine was luscious on the palate – very typical of its appellation – with a marked, but not obtrusive oak influence.

Chef Olivier Peyronnet

There is much discussion in France about matching wine and food. Frankly, I find much of it affected and superfluous. The same goes for wine with Chinese cuisine. I asked several people at Quanjude about this, and they agreed that other than a few very basic “rules”, most wines go very well with Chinese dishes. It’s as simple as that. I tend to favor white wines as a rule, but I’m determined to give the reds a go soon. Obviously, very spicy dishes do not partner well with many wines, but sweet white Bordeaux accompanies them surprisingly well.


As you might expect, Quanjude takes tea seriously. After the meal, my wife had red tea which was served with the appropriate decorum.