Tag Archives: VinsdeBordeaux

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.

2000 Château Cantenac Brown

here are no fewer than 10 third growths in Margaux, and a couple of them are, let’s face it, pretty lacklustre. I have had Cantenac-Brown on any number of occasions and have tended to slot it into the “foursquare” category, i.e. reliable, and unquestionably a worthy reprentative of its appellation and its classification, but not on the exciting side.
The château has changed ownership a number of times in recent years. It belonged to Axa Millésimes from 1987 to 2005 and then to a Syrian-born English businessman, Simon Halab, who sold it in turn to the French Le Lous family a year and a half ago.

I also knew Cantenac Brown because it was the site of international seminars for the Axa insurance company and a venue for any number of corporate and special events with memorable banquets.

Anyway, 2000 is a great vintage in Bordeaux and I am starting to open an increasing number of fine Bordeaux from that year – and finding most of them arriving into their drinking window.


So, to accompany a traditional roast beef Sunday dinner, I decanted 2000 Cantenac Brown three hours before serving. There was only a small amount of fine sediment.

I am pleased to say that the wine outperformed my expectations. It was well and truly delightful. The color was fine and looked younger than its age. The nose was absolutely enthralling, with hints of graphite, truffle, and violet to complement sublime ripe Cabernet Sauvignon aromas. So subtle and so seductive! The wine was suave and velvety on the palate too, with attractive acidity. Only a slight weakness on the follow-through (I’m admittedly nit picking here) keeps this from the very pinnacle of Médoc wines. I certainly need to revise my opinion of Cantenac Brown and apparently the new owners are investing heavily in bringing the estate up to its full potential.
Stay tuned to this station for further developments :-).

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.
 

 

 

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

The 1855 classification

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Restaurant Lalique: gastronomy in Sauternes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

2010 Ch. Lesparre: an interesting Graves de Vayres

Can there be any more esoteric Bordeaux appellation than Graves de Vayres? With 700 hectares of vines it is by no means the smallest (that would be Saint Georges Saint Emilion at 192 hectares), but it has, shall we say, a very low profile. The appellation produces dry white, red, and semi-sweet white wines.

Graves de Vayres is located on the left bank of the Dordogne in the communes of Vayres (famous for its château, a listed historical monument) and Arveyres in the northwestern part of the Entre-Deux-Mers region. There are 40 producers and the soil consists of alluvial terraces.

I don’t often drink the wines, but had a bottle of the 2010 Château Lesparre squirreled away in the cellar and figured that it should be showing well at age nine.

The color displayed a very deep, dark core and was just starting to brick on the rim.

The nose was not very profound, but featured attractive aromas of humus, candied cherry, and fennel, as well as a marked oak influence (vanilla, roast coffee beans).

The oak also came through on the palate. The flavor profile may have been somewhat angular and a little hollow, but redeemed itself on the aftertaste, even though this was a tad dry and grippy on the tail end. I came away with the feeling that this is perhaps an example of what happens when a wine of medium potential is somewhat overworked. Still, it is the sort of wine that shows much better at table and I am a sucker for off-beat bottles such as this. It is probably not far from its peak and if my tasting notes may have given the wrong impression, I enjoyed drinking it and furthering my knowledge of Bordeaux.

Château Lesparre belongs to the Gonet family, who also make wine in Champagne and own several estates in the Pessac-Léogan appellation (Haut Bacalan, Haut Brana, d’Eck, Saint Eugène, and Haut l’Evêque).