Tag Archives: wine

Château Fleur Cardinale, an up-and-coming Saint Emilion cru classé

I first became acquainted with Château Fleur Cardinale during a Portes Ouvertes (“Open Cellars”) operation in Saint Emilion several years ago. These events are always wonderful opportunities to visit numerous estates, taste, and buy wines if one so wishes.
Seeing as I had enjoyed the wine at Fleur Cardinale and appreciated the enthusiasm of the young owners, I resolved to go back and take a closer look at a less busy time.

I did well to wait, because the château has undergone a major renovation and is a tremendously different place from the one I had previously visited. Caroline Decoster kindly invited me to come by and take a tour of the new facilities In September 2021. These are truly impressive and it is obvious that no money was spared in giving Fleur Cardinale a new lease on life.

Located in Saint-Etienne-de-Lisse, Fleur Cardinale was originally known as Clos Bel Air. The story goes that, after it was purchased by the Obissier family in 1875, they called the estate Fleur Cardinale after two of their racehorses! Be that as it may, many Right Bank estates in Bordeaux have the name “fleur” (La Fleur Pétrus in Pomerol, La Fleur Perron and La Fleur de Boüard in Lalande de Pomerol, Fleur de Lisse in Saint Emilion, my friend Joseph Sublett’s Fleur de Roques in Puisseguin Saint Emilion, etc.).

The Decoster family came on the scene when they bought Fleur Cardinale in 2001. Previously owners of several firms producing Limoges china, including the famous Haviland brand, Dominique and Florence Decoster decided to sell their businesses and focus on their new estate in Saint Emilion.

They did not waste time in bringing this up to scratch, and were rewarded by its inclusion as a great growth in the 2006 classification of the wines of Saint Emilion, a status confirmed in the 2012 classification.


Their son Ludovic and his wife Caroline also decided to commit to this adventure. With no prior training, Ludovic threw himself into learning about winemaking and took over in this capacity at Fleur Cardinale in 2015.  Caroline, with a master’s degree in management in the wine and spirts Industry is involved with sales, communication, and marketing.

I asked Caroline about the upcoming 2022 classification that has been so controversial since Cheval Blanc and Ausone withdrew, and further to a long and debilitating series of court challenges. Her reply was measured, but she obviously feels very strongly about the subject. She spoke of the hundreds upon hundreds of pages it took to apply, of the colossal efforts that had been made to bring the estate up to its present level, and the fact that the media had seized on very minor aspects of the criteria (presence of a receptionist, car park, foreign languages spoken, etc.) to attempt to denigrate and disqualify it.
She and her family are proud of Fleur Cardinale’s cru classé rank.

The Bordelais are past masters in the art of combining striking architecture with a vineyard estate. Fleur Cardinale’s originality and attractiveness lie more in its interior design than its exterior. There is an exhibit of Limoges china as you enter and then a circuit taking you though child-friendly exhibits telling the story of viticulture. The new vat room is state-of-the-art and the impeccable cellar contains 100% new barrels for the grand vin.

The building’s back deck affords a sweeping view of Fleur Cardinale’s vines (75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet France, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon) in a single block. They grow on gently rolling terrain on the highest part of Saint Emilion’s limestone plateau, surrounded by châteaux Valandraud, Pressac, Rol Valentin, and Faugères. Although Michel Rolland’s team are winemaking consultants, Jean-Luc Thunevin at nearby Valandraud has provided precious advice to the Decosters over the years. When Fleur Cardinale grew from its original 18 hectares to the present 23.5, part of the newly-acquired vines were situated on a cooler north-facing slope. Jean-Luc suggested that it would be more appropriate to plant white wine grapes there, and the Decosters heeded his advice. Their first white wine will be marketed in years to come, when the quality meets the owners’ expectations.

The estate presently produces three wines: the cru classé Fleur Cardinale, a second wine called Intuition (from the 2018 vintage onward), and another wine named Croix Cardinale from a plot that is not in the immediate vicinity.

After visiting the cellars, Caroline took me up to the second floor where there is a world-beating tasting room with plate glass windows everywhere, tasteful modern furniture, bookshelves, a sound system, an automatic wine dispenser, and an intimate feel. The look is reminiscent of a huge suite at a top-notch boutique hotel – but with a view over the vines. Everything is geared up for new generation wine tourism.

And what of the wines? I tasted through the range in the 2018 vintage. This was a hot year, troubled by widespread high alcohol levels. However, this was not the impression I had when tasting the Decoster wines. The grand vin, Fleur Cardinal, was showing very well and, although somewhat oaky at this stage, had a rich, layered, velvety texture and smooth mouth-coating tannins. It was those qualities that attracted me to Fleur Cardinale in the first place. Mercifully, the pricing is definitely on the reasonable side too, retailing in France for 45/50 euros a bottle.

The go-ahead, positive attitude at the château is contagious. Ludovic is conducting various experiments with vinification intégrale and is even considering agroforestry, i.e. planting trees among the vines!  2021 was Fleur Cardinale’s first year of organic viticulture and it would be an understatement to say that this presented a few major challenges… In fact, there was frost in the vineyard for 9 days in a row at the beginning of the growing season, followed by severe attacks of mildew like elsewhere in Bordeaux. The château is expecting only 50% of a normal crop, tops. When explaining this, Caroline smiles philosophically and says that after this terrible introduction to organic farming, things can only get better!

Like everyone else, I like success stories and I’m pleased to say that Fleur Cardinale fits the bill. It’s an estate well worth watching.

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

 

1990 Château La Lagune – a delicious… feminine wine

Can a wine be accurately described as feminine or masculine?

That was one of the subjects under discussion last night with my neighbors, whom I had invited over for dinner. I served a wine from Ludon, where they have family ties: 1990 Château La Lagune. This looked far younger than its years and had a delightfully evanescent nose of ripe Cabernet, humus, and truffle. The wine was suave and seamless, by no means powerful, but very elegant and poised. It was as good as it will ever be, even if I’m sure its plateau will be quite long.
It reminded me of one of the better wines of Margaux.
Anyway, although they’re from the wine country, my neighbors have only an ordinary interest in the stuff and, when I described the La Lagune as feminine, the wife was surprised. She had never heard such a reference, and it puzzled her. “Is this a usual term?” she inquired. I replied in the affirmative.

The question I’ve asked above is whether wine descriptions can be gendered in order to convey a meaningful and comprehensible message – not whether they should or should not be.
In this age of political correctness – including a movement to bowdlerize and rewrite children’s fairy tales! – there are undoubtedly people who object on principle, going on the assumption that it is wrong to ascribe characteristics to either sex (since there are strong women and dainty men, etc.). So, I will leave that issue aside. I have even heard women winemakers say that females leave a discernible feminine imprint on wines, which if I find rather hard to accept (that having been said, La Lagune has been made by a succession of women over the years!).

Getting back to semantics, and the way we speak about wines, I believe that it is both useful and going on universally understandable to describe a Chambolle-Musigny as feminine or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape as virile, a practical sort of shorthand. What is trickier is to extrapolate from those words to find out what they really mean. Would a WSET or MW student be marked down for using them? Does a woman, for example, have a different conception of what a feminine wine is than a man? Do wine lovers in Sydney and Montevideo, with different cultures and languages, agree on the characteristics of a masculine wine?

In my opinion, any wine geek or professional can relate to the description of 1990 La Lagune as feminine. Rather than lacking punch or character, those attributes are very much present, but restrained and under control – or, as Mitterrand liked to market himself, “la force tranquille”.  The French say an aromatic wine is “perfumed”. That, also, can be one of the hallmarks of a feminine wine, where the aromas are subtle, yet distinctive. As for aftertaste, such wines can be long and voluptuous, but not in your face.

I once went to Château Margaux with a visiting group from the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum. I asked the late Paul Pontalier the following question “It is often said that Margaux is the most feminine of wines. Is that true and, if so, how is it true?”. There followed an exceedingly brilliant exposition in impeccable English. I very much regret that I did not record it.

And masculine wines? A big, strapping Australian Shiraz fits the bill very nicely thank you, but that is a caricature. Ch. Latour is one of the most masculine wines in Bordeaux, and yet it is a wine of great depth and nuance. In the same way that feminine wines need not be delicate, neither do masculine wines have to be big thumping ones on steroids. Still, there is the idea of full bodied, straightforward wines with above average alcohol content (although this is not defining).

I’ve heard those terms around for as long as I can remember and am confident that they are here to stay. I do feel, though, that caution should be exercised in using them and that they definitely should not be overused.

 

 

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.

A Bordeaux Syrah and a 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou

Bordeaux almost inevitably involves a blend of grape varieties, one of the factors that accounts for its wonderful complexity. Of course, wines made from a single variety do exist, but they are very much in the minority.
As in other regions around the world, Bordeaux is worried about the effects of global warming and is timidly, and on an experimental basis, allowing wines to contain up to 5% of the following new varieties (six out of the fifty-two pre-tested) starting with the 2021 vintage – even if these are not permitted to be mentioned on the label. The purpose here is to adapt to hotter summers without altering Bordeaux’s typicity – so it is only normal to proceed gingerly.

REDS:
Arinarnoa – a hardy cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon first produced by INRA (the  French National Research Institute) in 1956
Castets – a “forgotten” disease-resistant variety from Southwest France
Marselan a frost-resistant and disease-resistant cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache produced by INRA in 1961
Touriga Nacional – one of the main varieties used to make Port wine that is well suited to climate change and especially propitious to producing excellent ageworthy wines

WHITES:
Alvarinho – This variety is called Albarino in the Spanish province of Galicia, and Alvarinho in the Portuguese province of Minho. It is very aromatic and helps compensate for the loss of aromas due to climate change. It is also adaptable to climatic conditions and produces wines with good acidity.
Liliorila – a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, this variety is resistant to gray rot and produces powerful aromatic wines.

That having been said, wines from “non-authorized” grape varieties, sold as “vin de France” rather than Bordeaux, have been around for a long time. I was nevertheless intrigued to see a Syrah for the first time recently in a wine shop, Pied à Terre on rue Judaïque in Bordeaux, and snapped it up. The wine is made by Château Thieuley, which I have often enjoyed through the years. Located in La Sauve Majeure in the Entre-Deux-Mers, Thieuley is a great success story and grew from a tiny vineyard in the 1950s to an impressive 83 hectares today. It is expertly managed by Marie and Sylvie Courselle.

Just 8,000 bottles of 2016 Syrah were produced from deep clay-limestone soil. The wine was fermented in small temperature-controlled cement vats and aged in barrel (50% new) for 18 months.
I served this wine blind at lunch to friends in the trade and, unsurprisingly, they were stumped. I can’t really say that it showed a lot of varietal character and there was nothing here reminiscent of the Northern Rhône, but it was certainly robust and user-friendly. I saw this as the kind of wine best consumed young and am grateful for the experience. For information, the price tag was about 16 euros.

This Syrah was served with my first attempt at making a parmentier de canard, a variation of what the English call a shepherd’s pie made with duck confit instead of ground beef. The hearty, fruity wine went well with the dish.

The best and oldest red wine is traditionally reserved for the cheese course in Bordeaux. A modern revisionist wave criticizes this practice, and I partially agree. On the one hand, a delicious old wine can sometimes by underwhelming after a vigorous young one that precedes it. And, on the other hand, it is true that certain cheeses overpower the subtleties of fine wine. Some people go so far as to ban red wine with cheese, insisting on serving only whites… In any event, my conservative streak comes through on this matter, especially when I have French friends over for a meal, because the best, oldest red wine with the cheese is what they expect.
For the record, we had four cheeses: a Selles-sur-Cher goat’s cheese, Roquefort, a Mont d’Or, and an utterly delicious Italian cheese, Moliterno sheep’s cheese with truffle. As for the Moliterno, it sounds terribly expensive and snobbish, but it was bought for a very reasonable price at the local Auchan hypermarket.

So, I had opened my bottle of 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou about 3 hours beforehand and decanted it just prior to serving it blind. My guests immediately said “Left Bank Bordeaux”, and such is the classicism of this wine that this was, in fact, pretty obvious. It was thought to be a more northerly Médoc, possibly a Saint-Estèphe, from the late 80s/early 90s. Its pedigree (i.e. cru classé status) was never doubted and, in light of its quality, my guests were not really surprised when it was revealed to be a “super-second”. 1983 Ducru exemplified the elegance and restraint of the finest Bordeaux. The color was a little more youthful than its age would suggest and the nose was a sublime mix of anise, tar, humus, cassis, and a myriad of undefinable aromas to form a very special bouquet. The wine was fresh on the palate, with the unmistakable stamp of fine Cabernet and a surprising amount of tannin on the aftertaste. This was largely resolved and fit in beautifully. The notion of peak is highly subjective, but I would say that this was slightly past it, but still very much alive and kicking!
1983 is the year my daughter was born, so this held special significance for me. It was also what the Bordelais call an “Atlantic vintage” i.e. more typical of the region’s climate, which is fairly rainy and temperate, than a hot, dry year accounting for richer more alcoholic wines. To many Bordeaux lovers, the former are more authentic, digestible, and loveable wines than ones from much-heralded great years. This 83 had 12.5% alc./vol., which would seem pretty lily-livered by today’s standards…
I was a bit worried because there was a period in the late 80s/early 90s when Ducru had a serious TCA problem and many bottles had to be poured down the drain. However, this 83 was from before that period, which is long since past.

We ended the meal with a half bottle of 2010 Château Guiraud, a premier cru from Sauternes that was perhaps too young, and perhaps did not receive quite the attention it deserved, but was a fine accompaniment to a lemon meringue pie.

Marcillac: a different kind of fine wine from Southwest France

Although a 4 hour drive from Bordeaux – the capital of Southwest France – Marcillac in the Averyron department is classified a “vin du sud-ouest” along with some 20 other appellations: Bergerac, Cahors, Gaillac, Buzet, Madiran, etc .

My wife and I enjoyed a vacation in the Averyron in September 2020, making sure to visit the Roquefort cheese cellars and admire the amazing Viaduc de Millau. Naturally, we also also visited the area’s best wine-producing region, Marcillac, about 20 km from the city of Rodez.

They have been making wine in Marcillac for a thousand years and it acquired appellation controlee status in 1990. The main grape variety, Fer Servadou (known locally as Mansois) accounts for at least 80% of the blend, the rest consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Prunelard. The area under vine was approximately 1,500 hectares in the 16th century, but fell to just 10 fifty years ago. Today,
with 180 hectares, Marcillac is one of the smallest appellations in France.  The local cooperative, Les Vignerons du Vallon, accounts for over 50% of production.

The terroir consists of rolling hills (some of which are terraced) with red clay soil overlooking a plain with limestone soil. Marcillac is in a valley (in fact, the town’s full name is Marcillac-Vallon) and the surrounding mountains account for a temperate microclimate providing protection from strong winds.

I tend to have a soft spot for esoteric, inexpensive, under the radar appellations – and Marcillac definitely fits that description.  The Fer Servadou is a rare grape variety, and no other wine features it as prominently. Related to the family that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, it is what makes Marcillac unique. The first part of the name, Fer, comes from the fact that the vine branches are quite hard, like iron. The latter part, Servadou, means “that which keeps well” in Occitan.

We visited the appellation’s two main producers, starting off with Domaine du Cros, who have 28 hectares of vines. The first wine we tasted there was a pleasant 2019 Marcillac Rosé somewhat reminiscent of a Tavel with minerality showing on the aftertaste. The second wine, Cuvée n° 25, comes from a specific small plot of young vines and is made without sulphur. This was quite interesting, with an inky reddish-purple color, very pure primary aromas, and a rich, long aftertaste. We had had the third wine the previous night in a restaurant: the 2016 Vieilles Vignes. This showed good character and grip, and will benefit from further ageing. The last wine, 2015 Les Rougiers, was made from 70-year-old vines and aged in oak, which comes through strongly on the palate at this time. Although closed, I am convinced that this will provide much pleasure in ten years’ time.

Charming village of Clairevaux d’Aveyron

Driving a short distance down the hill from Domaine du Cros, through a vista of vines thick with nearly-ripe grapes, we happened upon the closest village, Clairevaux d’Aveyron. This proved to be absolutely serendipitous for two reasons. First of all, the town is an architectural gem, a collection of fascinating medieval buildings built of red brick. Then, totally by chance, we came upon the cellars of the other major producer of Marcillac, Domaine Laurens, with 25 hectares of vines.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover this producer and their selection of innovative products. We started off with a pleasant white Vin de Pays de l’Aveyron made with Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Saint Côme, going on to the domaine’s main wine, 2019 Pierres Rouges AOC Marcillac. This had seen no wood and been recently bottled, so was not showing at its best. However, it reflected the tart, fruity, seductive side of Marcillac and I came away with a case, considering it good value for money. But what really endeared me to Domaine Laurens was their range of special cuvées. These went from the pretty 2018 Cuvée des Flars to the refined and agreeably tannic 2017 Cuvée de l’Ecir. One step up were the 2016 Le Dernier Lion (aged in amphorae) and 2015 Clamenç.  These showed precision winemaking and would have totally puzzled even the most gifted blind taster. The latter is a blend of 50% Fer Servadou and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. While not cheap (about 30 euros a bottle) these last two wines showed the sort of excellent quality can be achieved with the right hands in Marcillac – a quality I had not at all expected in this out-of-the-way appellation.

If you are interested in discovering the real France, I strongly recommend a visit to the Averyron and to Marcillac in particular.

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.
 

 

 

Australians buy Médoc château

 

Château Cambon la Pelouse, a much-respected cru bourgeois in Macau has just been purchased by Treasury Wine Estaes (Penfolds), the 8th largest wine producer in the world. To give you an idea of their size, they have a two-billion euro turnover – more than the leading French merchant, Castel – two thirds of which is on export markets, and employ some 3,000 people.
In addition, TWE has concluded a distribution agreement with the Champagne-based Thienot group, owners of CVBG (Dourthe-Kressmann), and are also setting up their own export business of a range of French wines under the Maison de Grand Esprit brand.
The purchase of Cambon la Pelouse marks the first time a major Australian firm has invested in Bordeaux. The château has 65 hectares of vines in the Haut-Médoc appellation with an annual production of approximately 400,000 bottles under several different labels. The wines retail in French supermarkets for 15-17 euros a bottle.
The previous owner, Pierre Marie, is over 70 years old and his children were not interested in taking over the estate, so the sale was inevitable.
The château will be managed by Frenchman Sébastien Long, who has 10 years in the Australian wine industry under his belt.

2017 EN PRIMEUR TASTING: PESSAC-LEOGNAN

PESSAC-LEOGNAN

 

Bouscaut
N: Lots of toasty oak with smoky nuances.
P: Fortunately, the oak is not overwhelming on the palate. Tasty, well-balanced, and typical of its appellation. Lipsmacking bright fruit. Natural with lovely aromatics (redcurrant, etc.). Good to very good.

Carbonnieux
N: Oak dominates the fruit at present, but not by a great deal. Red fruit (candied cherries) and smoky nuances.
P: Medium rich with sweet fruit, going on to show fine acidity. Light on its feet. Also cushioned and velvety. 2017 Carbonnieux reaffirms the improvement of the estate’s red wines (the whites were always good). Good.

Carmes Haut Brion
N: Exuberant cherry fruit aromas, almost Pinot Noir-like. Lovely, sexy, and deep.
P: Wonderful mouthful of wine. Sweet and hedonistic. Despite the considerable softness, the tannin says Bordeaux. Fine flavors, mineral freshness, and just the right amount of oak. Very good.

Chevalier
N: High-quality oak with glossy, impeccable black fruit (blackberry) aromas.
P: Concentrated and pure, with great development on the palate, continuing into a sensual aftertaste showing sweet fruit as well as minerality very typical of Pessac-Léognan. Fine acidity at the core of a delicious softness. Very Good.

de France
N: Liquorice and roasted aromas. Some smoky overtones, as well as interesting violet ones.
P: Quite sweet on the palate with flavors reminiscent of black fruit jam. Seems a little flabby, then weak, then comes back with a perfectly creditable aftertaste. Lots of black fruit here. Typical Pessac-Léognan. Good.

Larrivet Haut Brion
N: Subtle forest fruit aromas along with roast coffee and candied black cherry. Harmonious nose with a strong personality.
P: Great attack bursting with concentrated fruit. Pure, with nice acidity and high-quality tannin. Appetizing. Only flaw is a slight diluteness on the middle palate. Good to very good.

Malartic Lagravière
N: Pure fruit and a perfumed quality I often find in this château. The oak is under control.
P: Sweet, luscious, elegant cherry notes. Classy and neither big, nor dainty. Good to very good.

Olivier
N: Soft and polished, but not tremendously expressive.
P: A little syrupy at first, but then shows marked acidity and good fruit. Sturdy rather than exciting.
Good.

Pape Clément
N: Toasty oak (hardly surprising for this estate), but also sweet fruit to go with it. Multi-faceted.
P: Thick, with resonating tannin. Mercifully, no oak overkill. In fact, the wine’s intrinsic smokiness goes well with it. Great balance. Aristocratic. The tart finish is also somewhat dry. The only thing missing is a little more oomph. Very good.

 

La Tour Martillac
N: Classic cherry aromas. Clear-cut, sweet bouquet of medium intensity.
P: Starts off with a plush, round texture, then reveals sharp, but fresh tannin that will probably even out over time. Attractive red fruit flavors. Good.

The subtleties of the 1855 classification

Most people tend to think of the famous 1855 classification of the Médoc and Sauternes (plus 1 Graves) as set in stone, but there have been important changes along the way. The promotion of Mouton Rothschild to first growth is the most famous, but far from the only one.

Take for instance the recent purchase of Château Lieujean, a 54-hectare cru bourgeois in Saint-Sauveur (AOC Haut-Médoc) by Bernard Magrez. This was sold by the AdVini group (Antoine Moueix, Rigal, Champy, Laroche, Jeanjean, etc.).

Along with several other crus classés, Magrez owns the huge (122 hectares, 560,000 bottles a year) fourth growth La Tour Carnet in Saint-Laurent, the next town over from Saint-Sauveur. Seeing as both Lieujean and La Tour Carnet are in the same Haut-Médoc appellation, there would be no legal impediment whatsoever for La Tour Carnet to simply absorb Lieujean wholesale and incorporate it into the grand vin, in effect rebaptizing it a full-fledged great growth. Magrez has said from the get-go that he intends to use Lieujean’s vineyards to produce La Tour Carnet’s second wine, Les Douves. But one of course wonders: why stop at the second wine?

There is much obfuscation here, as when château managers go through all sorts of Jesuitical explanations as to why their second wine really isn’t a second wine at all, but “something else”… So it goes with vineyards that have been recently acquired. Visitors ask what will become (or has become) of wine made from the new vines, but the answer is rarely specific..

The classification is, to a certain extent, outside the appellation contrôlée system. So long as a grand cru’s vines are within the same appellation, they are entitled to great growth status

Before anyone considers this an indictment of the 1855 classification (what could be more tiresome and futile?), it should be noted that the 21st century reality is quite complex compared to the 19th century one. The terroirs of some classified growth vineyards are radically different from what they were in 1855, but others are virtually identical. It is difficult to generalize. Certain vineyards have grown, others shrunk, and a great many plots have been swapped as well…

 

There are few precise statistics on the great growths, which means that much nonsense is written about them. In the example cited above, one definitely needs to factor in the notion of quality. If La Tour Carnet were to simply label most of Lieujan’s production as their grand vin, not only would they be unsure of finding a commercial outlet for the increased production, but they would also run the risk of lowering their standards, garnering lower scores from critics, and harming the wine’s reputation – in short, be shooting themselves in the foot.

No one lifted an eyebrow when, for example, second growth Château Montrose bought 22 hectares of vines from cru bourgeois Château Phélan Ségur in 2010. What would be unthinkable in Burgundy is considered normal in Bordeaux… In the last analysis, what counts is the quality of the wine, and if this can be maintained or even improved when new vineyard plots are added, who really has the right to complain

What this also goes to show is that far from being a staid place, where everything was defined a couple of centuries ago, things are in constant state of flux in Bordeaux, even among the top estates. Keeping up with the changes is both challenging and fascinating.