Bordeaux , a whistle stop tour

As I discussed in my Bordeaux, a History piece the region I chose for my second NEWTS tasting isn’t one where I’ve had any personal knowledge of experience of. The main reason I ended up standing in front of August’s audience trying to look knowledgeable was thanks to a French colleague of mine that keeps me supplied with Château St. Georges, the main producer of the St. Émilion St. Georges satellite appellation. This meant I already had a mini-vertical as the core of the tasting, making it relatively easy to add contrasting wines from other left- and right-bank estates to cover a representative range of styles that Bordeaux has to offer.

First up was Le Sec de Rayne Vigneau 2010 Bordeaux Blanc (13% abv) from Château de Rayne Vigneu, which is in the Sauternes commune of Bommes. The estate covers 80 hectares (ha) of sandy gravel and clay on a ridge close to the river Ciron with adjacent vineyards to the most famous of the Sauternais, Château d’Yquem, less than a kilometre  away.

As an AOC Sauternes is only applicable to the famous sweet wines of the region, but most of the estates also produce a dry white wine from grapes which don’t succumb to the Botrytis cinerea needed to produce the Noble rot. These whites must use Bordeaux Blanc on the label and examples includes Y (Ygrec) from d’Yquem, G de Guiraud, R de Rieussec and S de Suduiraut. Rather than following the theme Rayne Vigneau instead prefers “Le Sec” which it has been making in one form or another since the 1980s.

Founded in the early 17th century the name Gabriel de Vigneau appears on the 1635 title deeds and his son, Etienne, married Jeanne Sauvage, daughter of the owner of Château d’Yquem. The estate was bought in 1834 by Madame de Rayne, née Catherine de Pontac (of the same Pontac dynasty as Château Haut Brion) and it was her great nephew, Albert de Pontac, who gave the property its current name. The famous 1855 classification placed Vigenau as a Premiers Cru and for a time it was even rated as number one of the (then 9, now 11) other “first growths”, just below Premiers Cru Supérieur’s sole occupant (Y’know who) but standards had fallen by 1971 when it was bought by Bordeaux negociant Mestrezat, then by CA Grands Crus (Credit Agricole) in 2004, joining their holdings which also include Pauillac 5th Growth Château Grand-Puy Ducasse, St. Estèphe’s Château Meyney and Château Blaignan in the Médoc.

Recent investment has improved its quality and reputation with the estate following “Agriculture Raisonnée” or (Reasoned) “Sustainable agriculture”; a sometimes criticised French initiative which is not quite organic, a sort of environmentally-friendly grape-growing without the complete proscription of organic/biodynamic disciplines. The Technical Director is winemaker Anne Le Naour with Denis Dubourdieu, Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux and white wine specialist, as consultant to the company.

The estate vineyards are 74% Semillon, 24% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Muscadelle with an average age of 30 years, but for the dry white only younger Sauvignon Blanc is used as it ripens earlier and is less susceptible to Noble rot. Grapes are handpicked and tank fermented with lees stirring to enhance flavour & texture.

Tasting: In the glass this had a strong New World style with a pungent aroma with some lemon. There was good weight and acidity on the palate, very citrusy and refreshing. Quite a popular wine, purchased from Costco for £9.58 in March 2012.

A more traditional wine was next from the Graves, or more precisely Pessac-Léognan, which is a relatively recent appellation created in 1987. As a sub-regions of the Graves it has an ancient history and includes the only red Premier Cru outside the Haut-Médoc from the 1855 Classification, Haut-Brion, and also all of the Châteaux from the 1953 & 59 classification of Graves. With 1600 ha of vines the area produces 80,000hl a year (10.5M bottles), over 70% of which is red.

Château de Rochemorin is in Martillac, 2 miles south east of the town of Leognan and their 2007 Pessac-Leognan Blanc (12%) is made from 18 ha of white grapes, predominantly Sauvignon Blanc, on the estate’s Pyrenean Gravel – a further 92 ha is dedicated to reds.

Originally known as the Manor of Beaubois it was bought in 1520 by Jean de Amelin, Lord of Rochemorin in the Perigord. Over a century the estate was planted and developed until the de Pesnel family took over in the 17th Century, absorbing it into the neighbouring Château La Brède. The last de Pesnel, Françoise Marie, was mother of Charles Louis de Secondat, the French philosopher “Montesquieu”, whose descendants remained at Rochemorin until 1919, selling the estates to a logging company who neglected the vineyards. It wasn’t until 1973 that they were redeveloped by new owner André Lurton, grandson of a wine-grower in the Entre-deux-Mers and one of the people instrumental in getting the region AOC accreditation.
In March 2012 CA Grands Crus (Credit Agricole)  took an 18% stake in the company and Denis Dubourdieu is also consultant here.

The wine itself is 100% hand harvested Sauvignon Blanc from 15-18 year old vines, barrel-fermented and matured in 35% new oak for 10 months on the lees with bâtonnage (lees stirring) and no malolactic fermentation.

Tasting: The wine had an oaky nose with crisp acidity and quite an oily texture. It received a mixed reception (I’m sure someone likened it to Retsina) although I found it pleasant enough. This was bought in France earlier this year for the equivalent of £14, although Bibendum have sold it in the UK for a little more.

The last white, Château Charron 2005 Acacia (13%), was almost dropped from the tasting over doubts on its vitality (which proved correct) but was kept it in as it was the only example of a classic Sémillon dominated white Bordeaux.

Château Charron is in the Côtes de Blaye on the right-bank of the Gironde Estuary, north of the Bordeaux and opposite the Médoc. The area has 6,700 ha of vines producing 310,000 hectolitres (hl) a year (41M bottles) but, along with neighbouring Côtes de Bourg, is usually ignored and neglected by the media. Although 90% of Blaye vines are now red the area was historically white with the best vineyards known as the Premières Côtes de Blaye until 2009, when it joined the new federative appellation of the Côtes de Bordeaux (along with Côtes de Castillon, Cotes de Francs and Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux).

The estate has been producing  wine since it was rebuilt in 1731 but little is known of its surrounding history. Valerie Germain now oversees 26ha (6ha white) on a hill of clay and limestone, producing 150,000 bottles a year. The Germains are an old Bordeaux winemaking family headed by Valerie’s father Bernard who, up until recently, owned Loire estate Château de Fesles in Bonnezeaux. Brothers Thierry (Domaine des Roches Neuves in Varrains, Loire) and Philippe (Château de la Roulerie in Saint-Aubin, Burgundy) continue family tradition outside of Bordeaux.

The Acacia cuvée is 70% Semillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc from 30 year old vines, barrel fermented and aged in oak. It is one of the more respected Blaye whites, getting a mention from Clive Coates MW in his book “Wines of Bordeaux, 1952-2003”.

Tasting: The wine lacked structure and had a strong oxidised aspect, finishing short. Remnant flavours hinted at what may have been 2-3 years earlier, but it was branded as a “typical old white Bordeaux” past its peak. This was £11.10 and one of two wines purchased earlier in the year from Makro, part of their venerable “minefield” range – a selection of suspiciously old and under-priced wines which always give surprise when opened….just not always in a good way!

We moved onto the reds and to the wines that led to the tasting in the first place, Château St. Georges in the satellite appellation of Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion, 2 miles north of St. Émilion itself. This is the smallest AOC in Bordeaux, at just under 200 ha producing 11,500 hl a year (1.5M bottles). Merlot dominates with 75% of plantings on limestone and clay and to qualify for the Appellation Controlée wines must contain a minimum of 11% alcohol from vineyards planted to a density of fewer than 5,500 vines per hectare (which is not necessarily a good thing). The St. Georges commune is located so close to the neighbouring village of Montagne that its wines can also be labelled as Montagne-Saint-Émilion.
The Barbanne river, which runs just north of the Dordogne, marks the southern boundary of the appellation and this is also the historical Western boundary between the ‘Langue d’oïl’ and the ‘Langue d’oc’ – the northern and southern parts of old France named for their way of saying yes derived from the Latin hoc (this).

Château St. Georges is the largest estate with 45 ha producing about 250,000 bottles. It dates back to Gallo-Roman times when a luxurious villa overlooked the vineyards, giving its name to a parish and later a medieval castle. In 1602, a barony was created when Henri IV sold the lands and title to a Saint-Émilion family. It was passed down through the family as dowry for the eldest daughter until the last Baron of Saint-Georges hired celebrated architect Victor Louis, who also designed the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, in 1772. Retaining only the four medieval towers the new building, park and gardens were all surrounded by vineyards until they succumbed to phylloxera in the late 1800s, when it was bought by Pétrus Desbois in 1891 to be used as his summer residence. After replanting the vineyards the estate has remained family owned ever since, with Pétrus Desbois II taking over in 1945 and now the next generation is in charge under Georges Desbois. There is also local connection in the form of Ian Cobham, head sommelier at the Hotel du Vin in Newcastle, Plumpton College graduate and Cellarmaster at Château St. Georges until 2003.

Like all of Bordeaux, St. Georges does not irrigate its vineyards, a mix of 60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet Franc of approx. 30 years of age. Unusually for the area the grapes are machine picked, but then hand-sorted before the crush. After fermentation they go into 50% new oak with 15-18 months of barrel ageing.

Tasting: We started the vertical with the 2007 (12.5%) which came across as much too young and a little hard, unexpected for a Merlot dominated wine. A sweet, smoky nose led into juicy, lean acidity with some chocolate, but overall it was felt as thin with no real complexity. The 2006 (13%) showed a more vegetal, savoury nose with black fruit and a lifted aspect. On the palate was some tar, smooth fruit and edgy, grainy tannins, a good wine. Finally the 2004 (13.5%) gave some polish on the nose (Germolene was also suggested) and a little eucalyptus. Lean, with a soft palate there was some mushroom and the complexity definitely improved in the glass – for both the 2006 and 2004 some extra decanting may have helped. All of these wines were sourced in France for just under €20 a bottle, although the ’06 was available from the Oxford Wine Co. for £29.95.

We switched briefly to the left-bank and the commune of Listrac-Médoc with the 2004 Château Fonréaud (13%). Along with the neighbouring Moulis-Médoc these are the smallest (and least appreciated) of the left bank Appellations, with Listrac covering 650 ha (Moulis 550 ha) and produces 37,500 hl a year (5M bottles). Listrac boasts the highest point of the Médoc at 43m on the hills of the Puy de Menjon – where the Fonréad vines grow.

The land dates back to the 12th Century where legend has it that Henry II (Plantagenet, husband of Aliénor) drank from a cool spring which became known as the “Royal Spring” – “Font-Réaux”. Whether true or not, the spring still exists on the estate’s 35 ha of Pyrenean gravel on a clay-limestone subsoil which produces 140,000 bottles. Winemaking took hold following the draining of the marshland in the 17th Century when Bordeaux councillor Leblanc de Mauvesin set out to create a prestigious wine estate on his family lands in Moulis and Listrac, which included Château Mauvesin. Vines were planted over almost all the Font-Réaux land, a cellar was built and by 1776 Leblanc de Mauvesin wines were the best in Listrac, equivalent to what would later become Pauillac & St. Julien 4th Growths. How the quality fared afterwards is not known but by 1855, when the modern Château was built by Henri Le Blanc de Mauvesin, replacing the original farm buildings, neither commune was recognised in the famous Bordeaux Classification. An side effect of this history is that the vineyard continues uninterrupted another 10 ha into neighbouring Moulis which, although historically part of the same estate, produces the AOC Moulis-Médoc Château Chemin Royal (Royal road).

At the end of the 19th Century vine disease ended the dynasty and it wasn’t until 1962 that Léo Chanfreau, a winemaker in Algeria, returned to France and took over Fonréaud’s remaining 17 ha of unkempt vines. He replanted and started renovations but died in an accident in 1970, his work continued by his father Marcel (owner of neighbouring Château Lestage) and, when they were old enough, his children Jean and Caroline. Jean became estate manager in 1978, at the age of 23.

Vineyards are managed using the Cousinié method a ‘homeopathic’ approach of more nutritional balance with fewer treatments to “increase natural resistance of vines to disease”. The estate was Cru Bourgeois Superieur in the defunct 2003 classification and the blend is 52 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 45 %Merlot and 3 % Petit Verdot  aged in 1/3 new oak barrels for around 12 months before bottling..

Tasting: This was a refreshing change after the austerity of the previous wines with a lifted black fruit nose. Fresh on the palate with soft, straightforward fruit, there was an enjoyable simplicity of flavours but a short finish. It was very popular in the room, even more so when the £10.99 price tag was revealed (reduced from £15.99 from the Co-operative, Dec. 2011).

We moved onto the older wines with the Château Larmande 2001 St. Émilion Grand Cru (13.5%). The St. Émilion appellation is centred around Libourne on the right bank of the Dordogne, although it is the Medieval town of St. Émilion itself that gives its name to the vineyards, which together are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area was first classified a Century after the left-bank, in 1955, and is updated regularly (although usually with controversy and challenge). Saint-Émilion and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AOCs cover 5,600 ha and produce 235,000 hl per year of red wine (30M bottles) on four main types of land in the AOC: 2 limestone plateaux centred on (St. Martin) and east (St. Christophe) of the town itself; limestone and clay on the plateau slopes west & east; gravely soils to the northwest neighbouring on Pomerol; and sandy soils to the north (aeolian) and south (alluvian).

The old cellar stones of Château Larmande, about a mile north of St Émilion, bear the date 1640, although records show wine being produced on the land back to 1585. The estate changed hands numerous times until a partnership of the Meneret and Capdemourlin families took over at the start of the 1900s, running it together (with the help of a inter-family marriage) and increasing the vineyard to 22.5 ha until 1990, when it was sold to Insurance Group La Mondiale, now common in Bordeaux as the costs of running a quality winemaking venture soar. With investment for restoration and expansion available the vines now cover 25 ha (6 ha up to 6km away from the estate) producing 1000 hl (110,000 bottles) in modernised winery and cellar.

Château Larmande is a Grand Cru Classé (Great Classified Growth) below the 2-tier Premières Grands Crus Classés (A and B) although may have laid claim for promotion in the past. In recent years reviews have been more sober so it was no surprise when the 2012 classification left its ranking unchanged. The wines are made in the traditional style from 30 year old vines; a blend of 65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 60% new oak with 15-18 month barrel ageing.

Tasting: The 2001 showed the estate at its finest with a fresh, fruity nose, delicately floral and so soft on the palate, before moving into a long finish with still firm tannins. This was a wine with good complexity, no failings and oh-so-good to drink, a truly delicious 4 star wine.

The last red was intended to show the left-bank with some bottle-age, a role filled by the 1998 Château Potensac Médoc (12.5%). Although the term Médoc is commonly used to refer to the entire peninsula north of Bordeaux as an appellation it is specific to the northern tip, the lower- or Bas-Médoc (as opposed to the Haut-Médoc which holds the famous Premier Crus). This AOC extends over 5,800 ha and produces 285,000 hl (38M bottles) of red wine per year.

Potensac is in the commune of Ordonnac, close to the Gironde and 5 miles from St. Estèphe. Owned by the Liquard family, who arrived in the Médoc in the 18th Century from Holland, it uses the motto of Louis XIV (the Sun King) Nec Pluribus Impar “Not unequal to many”. In the early 20th Century Georges Liquard expanded the estate during the war by purchasing abandoned neighbouring vineyards. His daughter married Paul Delon – of the St. Julien Second Growth Château Leoville Las Cases – who ran the estate until 1976, succeeded by his son Michel and then, in 2000, his son Jean-Hubert. Quality steadily improved in this period and Clive Coates MW wrote in “Wines of Bordeaux” that Potensac is “probably the best wine in the Médoc”, regularly turning out wines of classed growth quality and highlighting the inequalities of the 1855 classification in the 21st Century.

Nevertheless it could only boast a Cru Bourgeois designation until the classification of 2003 when it was accorded Exceptionnel status, the only Médoc estate to do so. After the failure of the 2003 Classification (which collapsed following legal challenges) 6 of the former 9 Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (Château Chasse Spleen, Château Les Ormes de Pez, Château de Pez, Château Potensac, Château Poujeaux and Château Siran) abandoned the Cru Bourgeois completely, setting up a joint marketing campaign as Les Exceptionnels.

Château Potensac has 67 ha on 33m high alluvial gravel and red clay producing about 2300 hl (300,000 bottles). In past years (including the ’98) the blend was 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc with 2% Carmenère, with an average vine age of 35 years planted at a density of 8000 vines/ha. Yields are restricted to approximately 35 hl/ha. More recently Merlot plantings have increased (the 2005 was 41% Merlot to 40% Cabernet Sauvignon). Potensac is made by the same winemaking team as Leoville Las Cases with (hand) pickers arriving a few days after the Las Cases harvest ends, so grapes are usually riper than its neighbours. Once fermented the wine is matured in small oak barrels for 14-16 months, 20-30% of the barrels are new and the rest are from Léoville-Las Cases after seeing out one vintage there.

Tasting: The wine showed well compared to some of the younger ones, the nose was initially closed but there was a little perfume coming through. Light bodied with smooth, soft tannins, some liquorice and eucalyptus, this was a savoury wine with texture, although a touch acidic and in need of a joint of beef! Although in the twilight years of its life the overheard comment on necrophilia was unduly harsh!
This was £28.50 from Makro, the second of the “minefield” range and an example of the gems that can be found with perseverance! Majestic had the ‘06 for £20 and BBR had several of the recent vintages in the low-mid £20s.

As will become traditional for my tastings I brought the evening to a close with something sweet, and for Bordeaux what else could there be but something from Sauternes & Barsac? The Château Filhot 2001 (14%) duly obliged.

On left bank of the Garonne, 40 kilometers south-east of Bordeaux, the Appellation includes the 5 communes of Sauternes, Fargues, Preignac, Bommes and Barsac. As with other classic sweet wine regions Sauternes has a legend of an old owner returning too late for harvest but carrying on with the winemaking and making a delicious discovery on the flavours that the noble rot grapes bring! The rest is expensive history…. for more information on the factors that lead to such superb sweet wines read my recent piece on the ultimate of the Sauternais, Château d’Yquem.

Château Filhot  is from the 416 ha of Sauternes itself and was founded in 1709 by Romain de Filhot – although the vineyards were in place between 1630 and 1650. By the 1780s it was of equal reputation to Château d’Yquem (owned by the Lur-Saluces family) but the French Revolution saw the Guillotine almost end the line. The Lur Saluces joined by marriage and maintained the Château, although it became neglected such that it was only given 2nd Growth status in the 1855 classification. The current owner, Count Henri de Vaucelles, is a descendant of the Lur-Saluces/Filhot family and has been managing the estate since 1974, assisted by his son Gabriel since 1996.

The estate has 62 ha of prime land, south of the village of Sauternes on south-west facing slopes but has been criticised for not returning to oak maturation as quickly as others in the region (it used only fibre-glass tanks for maturation until mid 2000s) and for a style lacking in botrytis so that it often comes across as “merely sweet”. The wine is a classic Sauternes; Sémillon 60%, Sauvignon 36%, Muscadelle 4%. Grapes are handpicked in successive “tries” – passes through the vines looking for the ripest and noblest grapes – before fermentation in stainless steel, followed by a 2 year maturation in tank (although since the 2005 vintage 1/3 also see new oak).

Tasting: As befits 2001, one of the best vintages in recent memory the wine showed very well with a perfumed nose, good complexity and just enough acidity to keep going with the balanced sweetness. This was a split buy, the first bottle for £12 from Costco in 2011, the second £16.80 from Richard Granger in 2012 – what a difference a year makes!

So there we are, my second NEWTS tasting complete and, I think, well received. I enjoyed finding and researching the wines, although to be honest the evening was a bit of a blur and I can’t recall every detail. I certainly know a lot more about Bordeaux, although whether I will increase my spending in the area I still can’t say. I would definitely have another try of the Château Larmande, which was the best wine of the night by far, but sadly when I next returned to Costco they’d sold out!

C’est la vie, Salut!

 

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